As a nation, Cambodia appears to be less receptive to social changes, especially those imposed by outsiders. The greatest forces to resist social changes were and are the Cambodian people themselves. Though easygoing and placid, the Cambodians appear to be very reactive when their traditional way of life is threatened by the imposition of outsiders’ ideas. Over the course of its history, we have seen attempts to bring about social changes in Cambodia quite a few times, the latest being the worldly beloved concepts and principles of democracy which the United Nations and the international community try to instill within the Cambodian psyches since the 1990s.
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Among all the cultural and social changes ever to shape Cambodian lives, only Hinduism, which arrived in Cambodia during the early part of its history, appeared to be met with better success—at least for a thousand years or so. As a religious concept vis-à-vis culture, Hinduism seemed to fit and intertwine very well with the Cambodian system of belief in the supernatural being, namely the Neak Ta. In all likelihood, it was probably the marriages between Hinduism and the belief in supernatural beings that propelled the Cambodians to achieve and build one of the most admirable civilizations at Angkor. Though, artistically, we don’t precisely know as to how much
Indian influences upon the Cambodian creativity when their civilization at Angkor was founded, most experts agreed that Angkor was mainly the creation of Cambodians with the assistance of Indian concepts.
After the honeymoon at Angkor, the marriages between Indian and Cambodian cultures turned sour when another religion, Buddhism, entered into the relationship. The arrival of Buddhism coincided with the decline of Cambodia as an empire and a dominant kingdom. The devaraja monarchy, as an institution which had driven the placid Cambodians to conquer and build their empire for hundreds of years, began to fall apart. After being exposed to the teaching of Buddhism which emphasizes compassion and pacifism, the once assertive and, maybe, aggressive Cambodians, who, for many years, had been spurred on by the concepts of conquest and nation building, mellowed down and returned to a life of simplicity.
From the closing of the 14th century onward, the Cambodian rendezvous with destiny has been an arduous journey. The once mighty Cambodian Empire has now been reduced to a feeble and pariah state where palace intrigues and royal feuds were the regular features of the affairs of the kingdom. The internal conflicts amongst its rulers for the next four centuries, or so, were so pervasive that the Cambodian political, social, cultural, and economic infrastructures were in tatters. The kingdom grew weaker by the day. There were no able leaders to revitalize the kingdom and stop it from falling further into a state of disarray. Furthermore, the Cambodian population appeared to be utterly alienated with the reality of their lives.
They seemed to be withdrawn from any ambition to rebuild their kingdom beyond that of their own basic domains. As a result, Angkor, as a city and center of the Cambodian political and cultural organizations, was abandoned and neglected. In addition, invasions and encroachments from rivaling states such as Thailand and Vietnam dealt even further blows to the weakening Cambodian kingdom. At times, the survival of the kingdom itself was in question when the once mighty Cambodia became an alternate vassal state of its neighbors, namely Vietnam and Thailand.
During this period of decline, two attempts to bring about social changes to the Cambodian kingdom were made. The first attempt to bring about social changes to Cambodia was made during the first quarter of the 19th century by the Vietnamese who had briefly occupied Cambodia. After receiving reports about the ways in which Cambodians conducted their daily lives from his general named Truong Minh Giang who was in charge of administering Cambodia at the time, Emperor Minh Mang of Vietnam, in 1839, wrote a detailed instruction to Truong Minh Giang to institute a reform and change the habits of the “barbarian” Cambodians. Perhaps unaware of the existence of the civilization and achievements accomplished by Cambodians in the past, Emperor Minh Mang embarked on what could be called a civilizing mission to lift Cambodia from its barbarian state. The mission included changing the ways they work the fields, how they should organize and govern themselves, and, most important of all, the dress codes for Cambodian officials should be modeled after those of the Vietnamese’s. These infringements on the Cambodian identity and their way of life triggered a massive backlash. A general uprising against the Vietnamese overlords was ensued. Needless to say, the mission was a disaster and an utter failure. Every cultural icon associated with Vietnamese was hated and the rift between the two cultures has forever widened. After the failure of the civilizing mission in Cambodia, General Truong Minh Giang committed suicide by poisoning himself upon returning to Vietnam. As for the Cambodians, they were left to pursue their interests according to what they saw fit for their lives, namely a relaxed, easygoing lifestyle which was the trademark of their society since time immemorial.
Toward the end of the 19th century, another attempt to bring about social changes to Cambodia was made. At this time, France which had just established colonial rule over the peninsula of Indochina, namely Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, saw a need to civilize the seemingly primitive people it governed. After successfully convincing the Vietnamese to adapt the Roman alphabets for the writing of their language, France turned its attention to civilize the Cambodians. The first step the French took was to reform the administrative infrastructure in Cambodia by limiting the King’s role in the affairs of the state. Furthermore, the French introduced a more “effective” collection of taxes from the Cambodian people payable in the form of either, cash, kind, or labor forces, which they thought could be used to support both the needs of the colonists and the improvement of Cambodia’s administrative infrastructures. Finally, toward the end of its colonization over Cambodia, the French made the Cambodians adapt the Roman alphabets for the writing of their language just as what the Vietnamese had done.
Needless to say, the French civilizing mission in Cambodia was invariably met with failure for the most part, for it touched on one of the most sensitive issues for Cambodians—that is the changing of their way of life and their identities. Led mostly by Buddhist monks or former Buddhist monks (the Achar), rebellions and protests were to become a regular occurrence every time the French pushed the Cambodians to accept reforms.
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