Lowy Institute

Elliot Brennan's comparison between the Khmer Rouge and ISIS raises a number of questions.

No one is more aware than I of the terrible cost of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. It was a period that devastated a country I knew well, and which led to the death, as Elliot rightly notes, of at least 1.7 million people, including several of my close friends.

But there are several reasons for offering a more nuanced view of what occurred under the Pol Pot regime than Elliot suggests, and reasons for wondering whether the Cambodian experience has all that much to tell us about what is happening in the Middle East. There are also some factual points that need adjustment.

The fact that the US bombing campaign had a terrible cost is beyond dispute. However, the revelations that bombing began in 1964 under President Johnson, before Nixon's authorisation of Operation Menu, which lasted from 1969 to 1973, needs to be put against the fact that little of this bombing, however damaging it may have been, was in populated areas. During the more than six months I traveled around Cambodia in 1966 (including in the northeast of the country), there was simply no general awareness that bombing was taking place.

There is another problem in relation to the bombing. While it is quite clear that the Khmer Rouge made the bombing a successful basis for propaganda and recruitment, we simply cannot say with any certainty just how much this contributed to its recruitment campaigns. Interviews with former Khmer Rouge cadres can only tell part of the story. For the record, I have acknowledged the importance of the bombing for recruitment in my book Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy.

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More to the point, and on an issue of fact, the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk was not the result of the American bombing campaign, as Elliot suggests. The coup was mounted by men of the Cambodian right who had been Sihanouk's close associates. It is not correct to link the bombing and the March 1970 coup. The best account of the coup is provided by David Chandler in his book The Tragedy of Cambodian Historywhere he describes the anti-Vietnamese feeling and resentment of Sihanouk's consort's family as prime factors in his overthrow.

As to the extent to which the bombing explains later Khmer Rouge actions, I think this is far from clear.

Philip Short's excellent biography of Pol Pot presents a picture of a man and his close associates who were ready to transform Cambodia well before the US bombing took place. As for the phrase 'Year Zero', now so routinely associated with the Khmer Rouge, David Chandler, whose judgment I accept, maintains that this was never used by them. The term was originally associated, it is suggested, with Lenin. But it seems to have gained currency in relation to Cambodia because of its use as a book title by Francois Ponchaud, Cambodge Année Zéro.

What were the Khmer leaders' views of Cambodia's past?

As Elliot notes, Pol Pot referred to Cambodia's Angkorian past as a symbol of what the nation he now ruled over could achieve. So it is not all that surprising that the physical symbols of the past were not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge regime. While looting on a major scale took place in the Angkor region after the Khmer Rouge was defeated in 1979, there is no evidence of the Khmer Rouge setting out to damage the Angkor temples while it was in power. Indeed, the one serious instance of damage at Angkor Wat appears to have been the result of a missile launched by Lon Nol forces.

The priceless treasures in Phnom Penh's National Museum remained untouched while Pol Pot was in power. And despite claims made in some editions of the Lonely Planet Guide to Cambodia that the Silver Pagoda was looted, my own judgment is that the collection of Buddha images that can be seen there today is very much the same as could be seen before 1975. The one notable loss from the royal palace in the 1975-79 period was the royal regalia. The sacred sword, known as the Preah Khan or 'Lightening of Indra', has never been recovered. 

Action against genocidal groups is indeed a necessity. But one cannot readily equate one genocidal group with another. The lack of a religious element in the Cambodian genocide (or 'auto-genocide', to use Jean Lacouture's term) is surely vitally important given the central role religion plays in the beliefs of ISIS.

In short, one genocide may have some similarity with another, but it is just as important to give due weight to the differences between them.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Over the past couple of weeks Phnom Penh has been abuzz with discussion of the visit to Cambodia by Michelle Obama (now completed), with comparisons being drawn with the visit in 1967 of Jacqueline Kennedy. The coverage in the Phnom Penh Post is reflective of the interest shown in the lead-up to the visit, and of the comparisons drawn with Kennedy (disclosure: I am quoted on a number of points in the Post's article).

With the visit announced as long ago as November, it is difficult to judge the extent to which Hun Sen's government will benefit from having the First Lady make such a visit or, conversely, the degree to which Michelle Obama's visit has significance for the the Obama Administration's 'pivot to Asia'. The fact that Michelle Obama has placed great emphasis on the education of young women during her visit has been seen by some commentators as a less-than-coded criticism of the Hun Sen Government's failings more generally, particularly with her reference to education of women making it possible for their participation 'in the political life of their country', which allows them to 'hold their leaders accountable'.

While there could scarcely be a greater contrast between the circumstances in which Jacqueline Kennedy visited and the visit just made by Michelle Obama, there is one underlying similarity: the sense that both the US and Cambodia are concerned not to let their differences overshadow the desirability of a finding a middle path accommodation that suits both their interests. That said, there is no reason to think Hun Sen will change his government's view that China is and will remain Cambodia's most important foreign friend.

Image courtesy of @FLOTUS.


Contrary to media reports of two more 'indictments' of former Khmer Rouge figures by the Cambodian-UN Khmer Rouge Tribunal, what has actually happened is that Meas Muth (the former Khmer Rouge navy commander) and Im Chaem (a former regional detention centre director) have been charged in absentia with crimes against humanity by one of the tribunal's international judges, Mark Harmon.

Judge Harmon has a long record of association with international tribunals and with law enforcement in the US. He joined the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in 2012.

In taking this action, Judge Harmon is acting in accordance with the tribunal's procedures, which permit a judge to charge individuals without having the agreement of a fellow Cambodian judge — this is why the term 'charged' is correct, rather than 'indicted'. For an indictment to be entered, additional approval is required. And according to the Phnom Penh Post report cited above, Harmon's Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, considers the cases against Meas Muth and Im Chaem (listed in court documents as Cases 003 and 004) as already closed.

It appears Prime Minister Hun Sen had at least an inkling that Judge Harmon was about to act, since he delivered a familiar warning against further cases being heard at the ECCC last week. He claimed that if further cases went before the tribunal there was a risk of war breaking out.

So, not for the first time, Hun Sen has shown his deep displeasure at the role played by international elements within the ECCC. For Judge You to now go ahead and endorse his international colleague's decision against the Prime Minister's wishes seems unlikely. If, contrary to all expectations, he were to do so, it would be a striking example of Hun Sen's power being on the wane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.


Recent reporting linked to China's Jinghong dam in the far south of Yunnan province raises questions about the extent to which China's dam-building program on the Mekong River will affect mainland Southeast Asian countries downstream.

Jinghong Dam on the Mekong River in China

The Jinghong dam is the most southerly of the 'cascade' of dams China has built, or is building, on the upper reaches of the Mekong River to generate hydroelectricity. Although I observed preliminary work taking place at the dam site upstream from the town of Jinghong as long ago as 2004, official authorisation for construction of the dam was not given until 2008. Since then, rapid construction has  led to the dam's completion; it has been in operation for at least two years now.

Given its geographic proximity to its downstream neighbours Laos and Thailand, and more distantly to Cambodia and Vietnam, there has been ongoing concern in those countries about the extent to which the dam's operations — either the release or the holding back of water from the dam — could affect the use of the river for navigation and fishing. Indeed, concerns about these matters have been raised from the moment construction began, with repeated reports of rapidly fluctuating water levels affecting fishing catches particularly in the region around Chiang Saen in northern Thailand.

During the wet season in September of last year, concern was expressed by many observers in Thailand that increased water flow down the Mekong could result from Chinese authorities discharging large amounts of water from the Jinghong dam at a time when monsoon rainfall meant that the river's level was already very high.

But on this occasion the Mekong River Commission, which monitors water levels, reported that, contrary to fears about possible Chinese actions, there was was no reason to judge that water released from Jinghong would cause flooding downstream.

Now the question of Chinese control over water releases from the Jinghong dam has moved to the opposite concern.

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There have been several reports that the Mekong River is currently at such a low level that cargo boats traveling between Chiang Saen and Guan Lei, the large river port in the far south of Yunnan province, have run aground. The Mekong's water level is always low in February, with the of snow melt from the Himalayas into the river diminishing and the southwestern monsoon yet to raise the river's water height. At this time of year, the river's water level falls below the 1 to 1.2 metres of depth required by the shallow-drafted boats using the river, and reports of boats becoming stranded have been fairly common in recent years. What is interesting about the current situation is the reported readiness of Chinese authorities to give an account of their actions in releasing water from the Jinghong dam on the Mekong to rectify the situation.

The attention now being focused on the Jinghong dam raises broader questions about the long-term consequences of China's dam-building program. If action, or inaction, at Jinghong can have the effects ascribed to it, what will be the effect of water control at China's other dams? Will China's operation of the dams be for the greater benefit of all Mekong countries or simply for its own interests linked to the generation of hydroelectricity? And what will be the ultimate effect of the fact that China's dams on the Mekong are holding back sediment from flowing down the river? This is an issue being studied by a University of Hull research team, as reported on a recent BBC program 'Science in Action'.

Concerns about China's operation of its Mekong dams are directly linked to the future well-being of the more than 60 million people who live downstream in the Lower Mekong Basin. The populations of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are deeply dependent on the river functioning as it has for centuries: as a rich source of food and a key to productive agriculture.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user International Rivers.


Nicole George's perceptive pointer to 'La Haine' on The Interpreter as a way into the fraught world of the contemporary France's banlieues is a reminder of the fact that a sizeable section of French society is alienated from the social mainstream by a combustible mix of religion, ethnic origin and the historical experience of colonialism.

This has been the case for many years.

A more recent, if flawed, examination of what this means for France and the French is David Hussey's The French Intifada: The Long War between France and the Arabs, published last year. I say flawed because Hussey's book, although full of useful insights, suffers from a number of problems, many of which are noted in The Guardian.

But there is much that is worthwhile in this book, not least the opening section, 'State of Denial', with its dramatic account of a riot Hussey observed at the Gare du Nord in 2007 involving 'mainly black and African youths' and 'a level of violence that would have shaken most European governments, but here in France the incident seemed unremarkable, even banal.' The rest of his book is an attempt to analyse what it is that makes young men such as the rioters he observed 'soldiers in a "long war" against France and Europe'.

Hussey's book is as much an account of French colonialism in North Africa as a record of the contemporary world and one wishes that his discussion of the Muslims who make up so many of France's prison population went beyond its sketchy characterisation. But in present terms it is well worth reading, as other reviewers in the Financial Times and the New York Times attest.


For the past twelve months I have highlighted statements by Lao officials indicating the Vientiane government's determination to build its controversial dam at Don Sahong in the far south of the county (most recently in my Interpreter post of 10 November 2014). In a 19 January Voice of America interview, Director-General of the Lao Department of Energy Policy and Planning Daovong Phonekeo bluntly rejects environmental criticisms of the dam, saying: 'We are now very sure that (with) the mitigation measures we are going to do, (the dam) would have a very small impact to the downstream, or even the upstream, about fish migration.'

Davong Phonekeo is also frank in outlining the Lao construction program:

We expect to start this dry season (author note: the dry season has already begun, but many areas around the dam site will only be fully dry by the end of January), after the prior consultation (with representatives of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) has been completed. The prior consultation will be completed by 25 January, 2015. After that the company (Mega First) will sign some contract agreements with the contractors...There will be some mobilisations within the (construction) camp, which takes maybe to more months. After that, they can start with the excavation and construction work. The project will be completed by 2018.

Ominously, Daovong Phonekeo also says that, in conjunction with Thailand, Vientiane has 'seven projects that are feasible to develop.'

This strikes to the heart of environmental concerns about the Mekong's future. As Phil Hirsch of the University of Sydney's Mekong Resource Centre has pointed out, once one dam has been built on the Mekong's mainstream below China, the likelihood is that others will follow.

These concerns underline the extent to which the Mekong has already been dramatically altered in character in the space of a mere thirty years.

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Before the 1980s there were no dams on the river, neither in China nor in Southeast Asia after the Mekong flows out of Yunnan province. But since that time China has constructed no fewer than five dams on the upper reaches of the river and is building of a further two dams with the possibility of two more to come.  And Chinese clearing of the river from northeastern Thailand to Yunnan province at the beginning of the century has opened that section of the river to navigation, which previously was very limited.

Construction of the Xayaburi dam in Laos — the first dam to be built on the Mekong below China — is already well under way.

All this is taking place at a time when there is growing concern about Chinese control of the major river systems with their origins in Tibet: the Yangtze, the Salween, the Mekong and the Brahmaputra. Brahma Chellaney discusses this in strategic terms, particularly in relation to the Indian subcontinent, in his 2012 book, Water: Asia's New Battleground, while recently Michael Buckley has focused on the environmental issues in his Meltdown in Tibet: China's Reckless Destruction of Ecosystems from the Highlands of Tibet to the Deltas of Asia.

It is hard to overstate the likely damage being done to the Mekong. The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion argues that the long-term effects of the Chinese dams will be negative for the countries downstream of China, though it may be decades before their full effects are obvious. With the dams Laos is planning and those which China is already constructing, the damage could be more immediate. More than 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin below China and they are heavily dependent on the river for food and agriculture. One striking figure makes the point: almost 80% of the Cambodian population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries. Just as importantly Vietnam's Mekong delta region relies heavily on the Mekong for its agricultural production.

Dam building that trades future fish stocks and agricultural production against more immediate returns from the sale of electricity from hydro dams is a poor bargain.

Photo by Flickr user US Mission to the UN Rome.


Amid the range of articles marking Hun Sen's 30 years as Cambodia's prime minister, including Elliot Brennan's in The Interpreter and a similarly thoughtful piece by Mark Dodd in the Financial Review of 19 January drawing on personal experience in Cambodia, there has been very little reflection on why the West has tolerated Hun Sen.

After all, the criticisms being aired of him today have applied over most if not the whole of his domination of Cambodian politics since 1993. There have been an almost endless number of occasions when he has demonstrated his readiness to preside over corruption, brutality and a readiness to subvert popular will.

The most notable of the latter was his refusal to cede power to the opposition FUNCINPEC party in the UN-sponsored elections of 1993. Four years later, in 1997, he sanctioned the use of force in a putsch that ended any possibility of Prince Ranariddh's playing an effective role in Cambodia's politics, while Hun Sen's forces carried out a large number of extra-judicial killings. This all took place after men undoubtedly linked to Hun Sen's regime mounted a fatal grenade attack against a march led by political rival Sam Rainsy.

The extent to which Hun Sen, his extended family and  long-time cronies have been associated with corrupt activity in relation to the illegal exploitation of timber reserves has been revealed in detail by Global Witness, an NGO now banned from Cambodia. A broader pattern of land grabbing for favoured associates of the regime has become so common that it receives almost no external commentary.

So far as foreign aid to Cambodia is concerned, Sebastian Strangio in his new and excellent book Hun Sen's Cambodia has observed that, 'since the first donor meeting (of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum) was held in Tokyo in 1992' Cambodia has shown 'a more or less complete lack of progress on various reform "benchmarks" formulated by its Western "partners"'. The result, as Strangio summarises, is that very little money has reached those it was supposed to help. Western governments continue to give aid to Cambodia almost regardless of the regime's behaviour.

So what explains this state of affairs? It is hard to go past two old fashioned words: 'shame' and 'guilt'. 

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Cambodia's involvement in the Vietnam War led to a widespread view in the West that accepted, and in many cases welcomed, the overthrow of the Lon Nol regime in 1975. Anything had to be better than what had gone before, particularly in view of Nixon's 'secret bombing' of Cambodia. Indeed, among 'progressive' opinion the Khmer Rouge regime that took power in April 1975 was lavishly praised. Those of us who took a publicly contrary view were very much in the minority. This was despite the fact that Henry Kamm of the New York Times documented what was happening within Cambodia in detail from July 1975 onwards. When other observers such as Francois Ponchaud wrote of what he had seen when Pol Pot took power in his Cambodia: Year Zero, his views were sharply discounted by such French luminaries as Jean Lacouture. When the full awfulness of the regime became apparent to even the most biased observer after the Vietnamese overthrew Pol Pot in January 1979, the result was a widespread feeling of shame and guilt.

This sense of guilt has persisted to the extent that there is still a reluctance by Western governments, Australia included, to talk about and deal with Cambodia in a frank fashion. Cambodia is treated as if it is just another Southeast Asian country. But it is not. No other ASEAN country has a leadership closely associated with an earlier genocidal regime. While no one has ever proved that Hun Sen, when he was an army officer during the Khmer Rouge regime, committed atrocities, little public discussion has taken place of the fact that he and many of his associates in high positions worked for two years or more while Pol Pot was in power, before defecting to Vietnam.

In the light of the most recent elections when his party suffered a major loss of votes, Hun Sen's survival as Cambodia's leader is facing the prospect of real challenge, not as the result of any action by the West but because of domestic reaction to his style of government. Some might argue that this is the best way for change to occur. Whether this is so, the West's failures in relation to Cambodia will be a reason for reflection for many years to come.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


What is happening with Cambodia's Lower Se San 2 dam?

Elliot Brennan's citation of a Bangkok Post report of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's speech at the opening of the Stung Russey Chrum Krom hydroelectric dam in Koh Kong province in Tuesday's Southeast Asia links is interesting for a number of reasons.

First, because Hun Sen announced his firm commitment to the construction of hydroelectric dams, built with Chinese support, even if environmental damage is involved. Second, and more importantly, because of Hun Sen's reported intention to participate in a ceremony to mark the opening of the Lower Se Sam 2 dam on a Mekong tributary near Stung Treng in northeastern Cambodia in 2018. This has not been reported in Cambodian media.

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The projected Lower Se San dam has been a focus for environmental opposition over many years because of the high risk to fish stocks its construction could cause. One highly regarded analysis of its effects (reported in The Interpreter in 2013) argues that it could lead to a diminution of nearly 10% of fish stocks in the Mekong River system.

But beyond reports that clearance work has taken place at the dam site, with some displacement of population, there has been remarkably little information made available by Phnom Penh on progress towards the construction of the dam. This has led to a variety of calls that information should be provided.

Hun Sen's reference to presiding over a 2018 ceremony appears to be the first clear statement that construction of the dam will go ahead.

It might also be argued that Hun Sen has embraced a tactic already used by Laos in relation to the construction of its own controversial dam projects: say little about your intentions and then act preemptively. In the case of the Lower Se San 2 dam, Phnom Penh is under no compulsion to do more than notify its Mekong River Commission partners of its intentions. There is no basis for those partners to prevent construction of the dam.

Finally, although it is probably unwise to read too much into Hun Sen's reference to a 2018 ceremony, his statement may be taken as a reference to his expectation of still being in power at that date. It is the sort of statement he has made on many occasions and should be seen as a piece of political 'boilerplate' rather than a calculated assessment of the political odds.

Photo (showing Nam Gnouang Dam, on a tributary of the Nam Theun River in Laos) courtesy of Flickr user WorldFish.


The sudden announcement, reported by Elliot Brennan on The Interpreter on Tuesday, that relatives of the Thai Crown Prince's third wife have been stripped of their royally-conferred honorific titles because of links to a corruption scandal raises yet again the problem for outsiders of commenting on a vital aspect of contemporary Thai politics: the role of the Thai monarch and the royal family.

Despite the fact that this development will be hotly discussed at all levels of Thai society, local press coverage has essentially been limited to factual reporting, as Elliot  indicated.

King Bhumibol (L) with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (obscured). (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha.)

So while it may possible, both in Thailand and elsewhere, to suggest that this development has significance for the the issue of succession to King Bhumibol, even this is to risk prosecution under Thailand's draconian lese-majeste legal provisions, which have been applied to foreigners as well as to Thai citizens, including Australian Harry Nicolaides for his alleged criticism of Prince Vajiralongkorn in a self-published novel.

So what options are open to any interested but non-specialist observer who would like to know more about the significance of these developments?

First stop, not least for Australians, is New Mandala, the online publication established in 2006 by Professor Andrew Walker and Dr Nicholas Farrelly and hosted by the ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific. Both Andrew and Nicholas have long-established credentials as Thai studies specialists.

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Providing regular coverage of Thai politics, New Mandela is host to courageous commentators who are prepared to risk their access to Thailand by offering frank and fearless analysis. Nowhere is this more true than in two contributions that bear directly on the latest developments in Thailand: these extended commentaries by Patrick Jory and Lee Jones on Andrew MacGregor Marshall's new book, A Kingdom in Crisis.

It goes without saying that A Kingdom in Crisis will never be on sale in Thailand, as the author has long been identified by Thai authorities as an unacceptable critic of the Thai establishment. Also guaranteed not to be available in Thailand's bookshops is Paul Handley's 2006 The King Never Smiles. Citing these two books is not necessarily an endorsement of all they say. For instance, the distinguished Australian scholar Grant Evans, who died recently, offered a  critical view of much that was in Handley's book.

Alongside these important contributions, mention must also be made of British academic Duncan McCargo's article, 'Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand,' published in 2005, seen by many as a template for understanding Thai politics.

More generally, the background against which contemporary Thai politics are unfolding is helpfully covered in Good Coup Gone Bad: Thailand's Political Developments since Thaksin's Downfall, edited by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. It is notable that the editor has had his Thai passport withdrawn by the military regime that took power in May for his critical views on this development. The product of a symposium held under the auspices of the Singapore Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in 2012, the book has immediate relevance to the current Thai political scene.

In his foreword to Good Coup Gone Bad, the noted ANU-based historian of Thailand, Craig Reynolds, writes: 'Even at the best of times Thai politics has not been easy to understand, and now, late in the reign of a revered and activist monarch, it is even more difficult to comprehend.' So the suggested sources offered here are only a start towards understanding an extraordinarily complex subject.


As reported in The Interpreter in June (Mekong: Laos Makes an Empty Concession), Laos' agreement to review its planned 32-metre high Don Sahong dam in the far south of the country was in no sense a sign that the Government in Vientiane intended to abandon this much criticised project. A recent op-ed in Bangkok's Nation newspaper by Viraphonh Viravong, the Australian-educated vice minister of Energy and Mines, provides a firm indication of Vientiane's intention to bring the project to completion.

Viraphonh Viravong's reputation for blunt talking and a determined pursuit of the goal of making Laos a 'battery' for the production and sale of electricity to its neighbours was apparent in relation to the Xayaburi dam, now well under construction. The complex story of this dam was covered over many months in The Interpreter with the final decision to proceed blindsiding the dam's critics. 

Now in his 24 October op-ed Viraphonh Viravong is talking tough again.

Taking aim at critics of the Don Sahong dam he notes, accurately, that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) cannot stop the building of dams on the Mekong no matter how much activists might want it. 'The MRC is not a building permits office', he writes.

Moreover, he claims that the Lao Government and the dam's developers are addressing issues such as dry season fish migration. Critics of the dam are concerned that it will block migration as a result of the fact that it is to be built on the one channel through which fish migrate throughout the year.

There can be no clearer sign of Laos' intentions than the final sentence of Viraphonh Viravong's op-ed: 'By now, they (activists opposing the dam) should realise that the Lao government will not be deterred from its commitment to develop clean, renewable hydropower, a source of national pride for the Lao people and a sustainable source of electricity for the region.'

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.


The suggestion that members of Cambodia's Islamic minority have joined ISIS —a claim vigorously denied by leaders of this community — has briefly focused attention on a religious group in mainland Southeast Asia that is little understood by other than a few specialists.

The last time there was a similar flurry of media attention directed towards Cambodia's Islamic community was when it was revealed that Hambali (Riduan Isamuddin), the claimed mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing, had been living in Cambodia for six months in late 2002 and early 2003 before his arrest in August 2003 in Thailand. While details remain obscure, it appears that Hambali received assistance while in Cambodia from foreign Islamists—one Egyptian and two Thai. The extent to which he dealt with the Cambodian Islamic community beyond living in a small mosque in suburban Phnom Penh has never been established.

Even to write in terms of the Cambodian Islamic 'community' is misleading, or at very least inadequate. In the 1950s, King Sihanouk, in an effort to find a way to emphasise that followers of Islam were just as much part of the Cambodian nation as the majority Buddhists, coined the term 'Khmers Islam' or 'Islamic Cambodians'. Recently, I was told in Phnom Penh that this term is no longer in favour among the followers of Islam themselves.

Moreover, its use, like the readiness to describe the followers of Islam in Cambodia by their ethic identity as 'Chams', is itself unsatisfactory (as an example, this misleading catch-all use of the term Chams occurs in a 2010 Phnom Penh US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks). Not all followers of Islam in Cambodia are, in fact, Chams, an ethnic group originally from central Vietnam whose ancestors migrated to Cambodia over many centuries. There are still a significant number of Chams living in Vietnam itself.

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Of the total number of members of the Islamic community, which may be as many as 500,000 in a total population of 15 million, an uncertain proportion, perhaps 10-15%, are Malays, the descendants of settlers from sections of modern Malaysia and Sumatra. Moreover, there is an important division within the Cham community between those who pray only once a week and who regard themselves as the preservers of traditional Cham culture, and those whose observance of Islam is more orthodox.

As already noted, detailed academic study of the Islamic community in Cambodia in modern times has been limited, with the work by William Collins of particular importance, though the reference I drew on for my 2004 Lowy Issues Brief, The 'Khmer Islam' Community in Cambodia and its Foreign Patrons no longer appears to be available on the web. Other more recent contributions include publications by Agnes de Feo and Alberto Perez.

The Legacy of the Khmer Rouge

The Islamic community suffered grievously during the Pol Pot regime, with an estimated 95,000 dying from executions, overwork, hunger and disease out of what was then a total population of 250,000. Mosques were destroyed, with some being used (with the deliberate intention of causing grave offence) as pigsties, while members of the community were forced to eat pork.

At the time the Pol Pot regime was overthrown, the followers of Islam in Cambodia were in a shattered state. Their plight was recognised, at first slowly, but later on a widespread basis, by fellow Muslims in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and funds began to pour in to Cambodia to assist them. It is not an overstatement to note that domestic and international reaction to the suffering the community endured during the Khmer Rouge period has had a transformative effect on Islam in Cambodia

The contemporary scene

The true scale of external aid to the Islamic community is almost impossible to quantify. Individual donations are often reported in the Cambodian press, with funds coming from the government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, for instance, as well as from private individuals including in Dubai. But in the case of Malaysia, there has been some reluctance to specify the size of the largesse.  

Equally, it is difficult to place precise numbers on the Islamic 'missionaries' who have come to Cambodia to preach a more orthodox observance of Islam, in particular Dakwah Tabligh and Wahhabi Islam. What is apparent is that there are now many more mosques, with new mosques often built in a Middle Eastern architectural style, than was the case before 1970. A range of reports refer to the adoption in many Cambodian Muslim villages of stricter separation of the sexes in communal gatherings and the wearing of Middle Eastern dress, including women going fully veiled.

Equally uncertain is the precise number of Cambodian followers of Islam studying abroad in southern Thailand, Malaysia and the Middle East. The links with southern Thailand and Malaysia go back as far as the nineteenth century, if not before. While some foreign observers have questioned whether Cambodian Muslims have participated in the endemic violence of southern Thailand, no convincing evidence of such action has ever been presented.

Hun Sen's CPP government has repeatedly claimed that it is both comfortable in its dealings with the Islamic community and alert to any suggestions that members of the community might be vulnerable to extremist teachings. The mufti of Cambodia's Islamic community operates with government approval, but more importantly leading members of the community have held important offices during the CPP's long tenure in office (eg. figures such as Mat Ly and Ahmad Yahya, the first after a period of working with the Khmer Rouge, the latter as secretary for social affairs and as a translator of the Koran into the Cham language).

As a long-time observer of Cambodia, I have been struck during recent visits to Phnom Penh by the extent to which, in the eyes of my ethnic Cambodian interlocutors, the Islamic community is seen as firmly apart from the Buddhist majority, however much the Government seeks to present a picture of 'Khmers Islam' as an integral part of the nation. These views come from a limited and admittedly elite sample of local observers. But one theme was pervasive: the belief that the Islamic community in Cambodia is more rather than less integrated into the national community than once was the case.

It has long been the case that many Muslim villages have existed as separate entities, and the suggestion is that this separation has been reinforced in villages located along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers as a result of the growth of orthodox Islam. The tendency for followers of Islam in Cambodia living in distinctly separate villages is, according to some observers, less marked among Malay members of the community.

On one point there seemed to be general agreement among those I have spoken to over recent years: the extent to which the majority of the Islamic community remains poor and lacking in modern education. Whether this makes members of the community more vulnerable to extremist blandishments is an open question.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user Edwin Lee.


In Cambodia, a country of remarkable ethnic unity (close to 95% of the population is ethnically Khmer) and with the religion of Buddhism dominant, religious extremism has been absent. What is new and notable is the emergence of political activism among some Buddhist monks. 

Over the past year there have been frequent reports of Cambodian Buddhist monks taking part in anti-government demonstrations.

Some of these demonstrations are linked directly to protests mounted by supporters of the Cambodian National Rescue Party headed by Sam Rainsy, and others to such issues as garment workers' wages and calls for the protection of environmentally threatened forests. Very recently, Buddhist monks have been among those protesting against the agreement reached between Australia and Cambodia for the transfer of asylum seekers to Cambodia.

By comparison with the role of monks in Sihanouk's Cambodia during the 1950s and 1960s, when the Buddhist sangha was largely passive, or to a limited extent supportive of the ruling regime, such contemporary political activism offers a marked contrast with the past.

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Some qualification is nevertheless required. During the worst years of Vietnamese control of Cambodia in the early decades of the 19th century it is clear that Buddhist monks played an important part in sustaining a shared sense of Cambodian identity. And in the period of French colonialism the sangha was involved in resisting, if only passively, efforts by the French to interfere in what it saw as fundamental elements of the country's culture, for instance, the French attempt to introduce a romanticised written form of the Cambodia language. Moreover, Buddhist monks were at the forefront of the one major protest against French rule during the Second World War, the so-called 'Revolt of the Parasols' in 1942, which took its name from the fact that monks were carrying their saffron-coloured umbrellas as they protested. All this noted, it is correct to say that before the victory of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 Cambodian Buddhism at no stage played the overt political role seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as in Burma both before and after independence or, in very different circumstances, in South Vietnam in the 1960s.

Under the Khmer Rouge Buddhist observance was abolished and all monks forced to defrock, though as the most authoritative Western observer of Cambodian Buddhism, Ian Harris, has noted in his important book, Buddhism Under Pol Pot, there have been two instances of monks continuing to live out their role despite general regime opposition. The Vietnamese invasion and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime at the beginning of 1979 saw the slow re-emergence of Buddhist practices and a sangha closely linked to and controlled by the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government. While the degree of government control has now been loosened since the early 1990s, there is good reason to endorse Ian Harris' view expressed in his book published that the 'problems affecting the sangha remain deep and seemingly intractable.' Noting the presence of 'corruption and stagnation', Harris aptly observes that the 'Buddhist order is, in fact, the mirror of a wider society'. In this regard, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Tep Vong, is widely recognised as having been, and still remaining, a firm supporter of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.

It is against this background that some Buddhist monks have become more active in playing overtly political roles, taking advantage of the right they now have to vote and increasingly turning to the use of social media. It is difficult to provide a precise figure for those who are involved in this activism. The Independent Monk's Network for Social Justice (IMNSJ) established in 2013 claims a membership of 5000. This figure needs to be placed against a total membership of the sangha between 5-7000. It appears that political activism is mostly found among monks based in Phnom Penh.

It is unlikely that there will ever be a return to the pattern of the past in which Buddhist monks played little active part in the political life of Cambodia. At the same time, and just as Ian Harris has reflected on the sangha mirroring society at large, the evidence of the past two years suggests that a sea change has occurred in Cambodian politics. This change is a reflection of a sharp demographic shift so that over 50% of the population are now under 30 and the staggeringly rapid rise of new social media. Human rights groups are now more active and outspoken, so that it should not be a surprise that change has also taken place among the Buddhist clergy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Luc Forsyth.


The death of Grant Evans at the age of 66 is a notable loss for Australian scholarship on Southeast Asia and a sad event for his many friends. As one of a few academic specialists on Lao society and history anywhere in the world, his death at such an early age leaves a gap that will not be easily filled. And the fact that he will no longer be present to welcome visitors to Vientiane robs us of a host who was always generous in sharing knowledge and wise advice as well as a drink and a meal in his house beside the Mekong River.

I was privileged to know Grant for more than twenty years, but I knew of his writing long before we met. In a frank interview published in 2009, Grant was typically forthcoming in charting his scholarly and political experience, which led him from being, in his own words, on the 'New Left' to being an observer for whom empirical observation and research were the essentials of his work. Describing the genesis of his 1984 book, Red Brotherhood at War, written with Kelvin Rowley, he noted that he and Rowley had 'the theory but the one thing we did not have was, of course, the experience of being here (in Indochina). Because to experience full-on communism is a kind of shock actually.'

The need to sift fact from ideology was to be one of Grant's continuing concerns, whether in his book on the controversial 'Yellow Rain' allegations of the 1980s, which he wrote about in The Yellow Rainmakers (1983), to the book that made his academic reputation, Lao Peasants Under Socialism (1990). His firm conclusion in this latter publication was that there was no point in collectivisation, the policy pursued by the Lao communist government, because 'Without all kinds of accompanying changes, collectivisation just leads back to a sort of feudalism...Why should you even get together? And the answer is there is no point, because peasant agriculture is just about as efficient as it can be.'

My own connection with Grant came as the result of being asked to act as the general editor of a series of short histories of the countries of Southeast Asia. Finding someone to write a short history of Laos posed a problem, but it seemed to me that Grant, despite being trained in anthropology and sociology, could do the job, as indeed he did. His Short History of Laos: The Land In Between, published in 2002, is a definitive reason for concluding that the writing of history does not always have to be left to historians. What is more, Grant ensured that this readable and remarkably comprehensive book would later be published in Lao, an effort in which he was assisted by his long-term publisher in Thailand, Khun Trasvin Jittidecharak, the dynamic head of Silkworm Books.

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Following the publication of his short history and the important The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975, Grant embarked on what at first glance seemed like a doomed, or at very least controversial, project, a book on Lao royalty. This at a time when the government was doing all it could to diminish the importance of the country's monarchy. The result, published in 2008, again by Silkworm Books, The Last Century of Lao Royalty: A Documentary History, is both a treasure trove of information and a wonderful collection of images garnered by Grant over many years to document a once vital part of Lao history. And it can be purchased in Laos.

After many years of teaching at the University of Hong Kong as Professor of Anthropology, Grant chose to move to Laos permanently and to live in Vientiane, where he was formally associated with the Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient as a senior research fellow. He leaves a wife and young daughter.


The view from Phnom Penh

With opposition deputies having taken their places in the National Assembly after a prolonged boycott, calm pervades Cambodia's domestic politics, at least for the moment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's ambition to lead the country is undiminished.

On the other hand, in the perceptive observation made to me earlier this week by the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was lucky not to have won last year's elections. If it had done so, the problems of implementing its populist economic and financial measures would have been exposed; there is simply no way the country can afford the CNRP's age-pension plan, while the proposals for a greatly increased minimum wage would have been firmly resisted by the owners of the garment factories on which the country relies for the bulk of its export earnings.

Yet none of the present (and probably temporary) calm means that endemic major problems have been addressed. Land grabbing by powerfully linked commercial interests continues. Illegal logging is rampant with no evidence the Government is prepared to address the environmental degradation that accompanies clear felling, and the loss of state revenue. Corruption on a massive scale also continues as a leitmotif of contemporary Cambodia.

A striking feature of the contemporary scene is the way which delegations of provincial protesters come to the capital on a regular basis to lay their complaints before the Government. This echoes a form of protest that existed in both pre-colonial and colonial times. But the protests seldom if ever have an effect, as the protesters against the Lower Se San 2 dam have found. This dam, now under construction in Stung Treng province in northeastern Cambodia, is slated to produce 400MW of electricity when completed. It is already resulting in displacement of villagers from the dam site and is expected to have a serious effect on fish stocks in the Mekong River. Although the Government rejects the assessment, there are good reasons to accept modelling that indicates the loss to annual fish catches as the result of the dam could be in excess of 9%, serious indeed in a country in which 80% of the population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries.

Against this domestic background, Hun Sen's government is showing more skill in managing its foreign relations than many observers recognise.

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Relations with China, Cambodia's largest aid donor and foreign investor, continue to be at the heart of policy. Yet the Government must find a way to balance this relationship with its continuing concern for good relations with Vietnam, a concern made more complicated by Sam Rainsy's attacks against the Vietnamese for alleged illegal immigration into Cambodia and his readiness to play the irredentist card in relation to Cambodia's lost sovereignty over territory in southern Vietnam. (Despite the claims of some leading local politicians, Cambodia lost control of this territory before the onset of French colonialism in the 1860s.)

The Government has proved capable of maintaining good relations with both China and Vietnam. One reason this has been possible is the presence in the Vietnamese politburo of a pro-China faction, which means Cambodia's balancing act is understood rather than being a cause for criticism.

Developments in Thailand since the May coup had a short-term effect, as many thousands of Cambodian migrant workers flooded back home, fearful that their jobs might be lost in a military crackdown. When this fear proved unfounded most of them returned and both governments worked together to make sure that there was no major disruption of an arrangement that is beneficial to both countries: Thailand is assured of cheap labour and Cambodia benefits from the remittances.

The heat has gone out of the Preah Vihear dispute for the moment and a well-placed source told me that the Cambodian commander at the temple is under strict instructions not to engage in any activity that could provoke a Thai military reaction. From the Thai side, there appears to be a similar concern to prevent this long-standing issue from once again causing dangerous exchanges between the two countries.

Although deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is said to maintain a residence in Phnom Penh, there has been no evidence that Hun Sen is anxious to make his previous association with Thaksin a feature of contemporary policy. His assessment appears to be that the new military government in Bangkok is there to stay for the immediate future, and that it is in Cambodia's interest to work with it.

Photo by Flickr user Karen.


Cambodians with copies of a Khmer Rouge Tribunal verdict. (Flickr/ECCC.)

Interpreter readers will be aware that I have frequent criticised the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, ECCC) for problems of corruption, lack of cooperation from the government, the sometimes dubious results stemming from the tribunal's character as a body with both Cambodian and international participation, and the glacial slowness of its procedures.

So it was salutary to sit down with Youk Chhang, the head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh last week to hear his views on the tribunal.

Youk Chhang and his family suffered under the Khmer Rouge and he has made it his task to assemble the widest possible archive of evidence for the events that occurred under Pol Pot's regime. The Documentation Center has also worked to ensure that knowledge of the Khmer Rouge period is taught in Cambodian schools and that the general population has the opportunity to understand what the tribunal has been trying to achieve.

Youk Chhang has no illusions about the problems of the tribunal, making many of the same points that have formed the basis of my criticisms. But overall he argues that the tribunal has been a worthwhile exercise. He offered an analogy. Think, he said, of the tribunal as being like a house. It is buffeted by storms, rained on, even struck by lightning, but if it is still standing after all those problems it has justified its existence.

Because of the tribunal, many hundreds, even thousands of Cambodians have been able to share their experiences in testimony before the tribunal or by attending the tribunal's sessions to see the court processes in action and the defendants having to appear for judgment. In outreach programs undertaken by the Documentation Center, Youk Chhang and his co-workers have found that their compatriots are concerned about 'justice' and do believe that despite its slowness, the ECCC has been able to deliver justice, even if defining the term is difficult for many with whom they talked.