An Illustrated History of Cambodia- Interview With Philip Coggan

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Australian author and historian Philip Coggan has a new book out. “An Illustrated Cambodian History” covers the story of  Cambodia from the stone age right up to the first months of 2018 in a fact-packed, but reader-friendly style.

CNE were lucky enough to get a copy and managed to catch up with Philip in Australia to ask him about the book and his thoughts on the subject of Cambodian history in general.

CNE: Philip, you’ve written a book about Cambodian history which spans a thousand years, what is your history with the kingdom, and what inspired you to take on this task?

Philip Coggan: About ten thousand years: it starts with the stone age. The reader will be glad to hear that it doesn’t spend long there – a little discussion of cave men discovering increasingly ingenious ways to murder each other, and we’re on to civilised times.

As for my personal history, my CV includes a fairly long stint in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (Bangladesh, Burma, Iraq, coup, uprising, war – it seems every time they sent me some place it blew up under my feet), then the UN, then Cambodia with an NGO doing mine victim coordination, and finally free-lance journalism for Southeast Asia Globe.

I started writing out of a wish to share what I’ve learned about Cambodia. My first book was on Cambodian religion – the full gamut, not just Buddhism, but folk religion and how it holds society together. I found a publisher, and he liked it, and he asked me to do this second book on Cambodia’s history.

CNE: The book is illustrated and not as heavy going as others on my shelf, who is the intended audience?

PC: It’s a book for the layman (and woman). I’ve aimed to be readable, not too detailed, but accurate and up to date. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right for the period up to the end of Angkor, because I had good feedback from the experts including Professor Damian Evans, an archaeologist specialising on Angkor with the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient.

After Angkor there’s a dark period where little is known. When the mists begin to clear Cambodian history is pretty dismal – princes overthrowing each other, foreign invasions, general misery if you’re an ordinary villager.

CNE: Was the research difficult?

PC: I have the Australian National Library and the library of the Australian National University, so access to the latest books and journals. And I had help from the experts –Damian Evans, was very helpful, as was Professor Anthony Reid, who’s written a major work on Southeast Asia. And others.

CNE: And what was the most ‘enjoyable’ era to write about? I personally like the chapter Dawn of the Modern, with the swashbuckling Europeans. Did you find some chapters easier to write than others?

PC: Each chapter/period had its own problems. The swashbuckling Portuguese and Spanish are very colourful, and Alfons van der Kraan has published a wonderfully readable book on them, “Murder and Mayhem in Seventeenth Century Cambodia”.

CNE: Well, that leads me to another point… so much of Khmer contemporary sources are stuff of myth and legend, how confident are you about the facts, or will there always be a mix of myth and legend?

PC: Good question. But all history is an exercise in myth-making. Myths are the shared stories that tie a society together. There’d be no Khmer people without those stories.

CNE: Do you have a particular favourite character from any of the old histories? A hero or a villain who really stands out?

PC: I’d love to know more about Sdech Kan, who overthrew the monarchy and ruled as a usurper in the early 16th century. Hun Sen has taken him as his personal avatar, so to speak – I think the Prime Minister has even said he believes himself to be Sdech Kan reincarnated.

CNE: Yes, this has been documented before. For those who don’t know the story, how did things end for this ruler?

PC: Not well. The brother of the king he deposed invaded with a Thai army and he was killed.

CNE: There have been many theories on how the Khmer empire came to rise to such a force, and how it faded away in a fairly short time, but no definitive answers. Do you hold any particular explanation to the reasons behind the rise and fall?

PC: There seem to have been a whole lot of factors behind the rise. The motive power behind the Khmer expansion was probably the way the kingdom was organised – the king had to provide booty and positions to his followers. Michael Vickery has argued that it was to do with a wish to join in the opportunities offered by trade with China. No doubt it was both these and more.

CNE: How about society and religion, were these a big factor?

PC: Definitely. What I described above is the economic and social basis to expansion. Religion too – there was the concept of the “chakravartin”, the holy world-ruling Buddhist king. The king’s wars were just because he was a chakravartin, and to demonstrate this he waged war.

The kings of Burma and Siam were still doing this into the early 19th century, and in the Silver Pagoda next to the Royal Palace you can see a statue of King Norodom, the first king under the French Protectorate, dressed as a chakravartin.

CNE: And how about the fall? There are ideas that over-expansion caused a collapse, others blame socio-economic factors, along with climate change.

PC: For the fall, I think the current thinking is that there wasn’t one, more of a gradual decline.

Climate change certainly, as it became increasingly unstable, mixing decades of drought with heavy monsoon storms. The Angkorian irrigation system couldn’t cope – introduce changes aimed at dealing with drought, and you increase the damage caused by storms.

Then there was the fact that at this time Cambodia was changing from an inland agrarian empire to a trading empire. Kings and the elite were increasingly basing wealth and power on access to trade, first with China, then with the Portuguese and Japanese Dutch. Angkor was just less attractive as a power-base than it had been.

CNE: Moving past Angkor and on to the middle period, what changes were there then?

PC: The middle period was when foreign trade displaced land as the source of wealth. First the Chinese – the huge treasure fleets of the early 1400s – then Japanese and Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and Malays.

CNE: As the states which later became modern day Thailand and Vietnam became more aggressive, why was the kingdom not crushed and the Mekong become the natural border between the larger, more powerful states?

PC: It very nearly was. In the late 18th century and the first three decades of the 19thhere was just about incessant war in eastern Cambodia between Siam and Vietnam.

Neither could quite defeat the other and then the Vietnamese began to be harried by the French, and agreed to a sort of cooperative rule with Siam.

King Ang Doung came to the throne as a compromise candidate. He’s held in very high regard in Cambodia today as the king who saved Cambodia. Foreigners have never heard of him, but he’s extremely important. He ruled from the late 1840s until 1860, and his capital was at Oudong, just outside PP. Well worth a visit.

The French signed the Protectorate treaty with Ang Duong’s successor, Norodom, in 1863. Norodom’s reign was not peaceful. He had a brother, Sivotha, who was in pretty continual rebellion.

At one point it seemed the French would be thrown out. They were reduced to PP and a few isolated police posts – as Lon Nol would be a century later.

But the rebels were defeated and Norodom stayed on the throne, despite many in France who wanted to send him into early retirement and replace him with another brother, Sisowath, who has Sisowath Quay named after him. In a famous incident in 1884, the French put three gunboats in the river outside the royal palace and entered it with troops. They got Norodom out and demanded he sign away all his powers.

CNE: Modern times have been equally tumultuous and it does seem to be that the transfer of power is always a messy affair throughout Cambodian history.  Are there any reoccurring themes that 21st century Cambodians should pay attention to?

PC: The smooth transfer of power is something the Cambodian court never quite mastered, and Cambodian history is a dismal parade of murders and rebellions and foreign interventions.

What has changed today is the emergence of the post of prime minister as the locus of power. A sort of Cambodian Shogun. I’m not aware that this has ever happened before. So perhaps a mould has been broken. Certainly there’s no chance now of armed intervention by the Thais or Vietnamese, and equally certainly the state today is much stronger than it ever was in the past, even the recent past.

CNE: Foreign intervention has been a constant in the latter parts of the book, how has this shaped the modern state?

PC: I think it’s produced a feeling of being beleaguered. And by the same token, a willingness to seek out foreign backers if you want to throw out the incumbent. This is exactly what’s happening with Sam Rainsy and the CNRP, seeking foreign support in the US and Europe. The pressure, however, is now economic sanctions, not armed intervention.

CNE: Do you think history in local schools has become more politicized?

PC: I’m not aware of that enough to give a proper comment. I wouldn’t be surprised, though. One thing that has happened in the 21st century is that the state has extended its reach, and education is part of that. It’s all about controlling the narrative, the myth of national identity.

The Pol Pot period has become a hot-button issue between the government and its opponents, so it’s to be expected that one side would present itself as the country’s saviour and the other would attack that idea.

CNE: Would you like to see more history promoted as an academic subject among Cambodian students? It seems the ‘experts’ are all westerners.

PC:I think Cambodia’s own experts are perhaps unfairly overlooked by the foreign community. Cambodia does have Khmer historians and political scientists. The real problem is, do ordinary Khmers have access to this rather esoteric level of debate?

Cambodian high schools aren’t very impressive, and nor are the universities. It’s a country with a very small elite class, unfortunately.

And we foreigners act as if we know everything – that can’t be helpful.

CNE: Will there be updated editions coming out in the future? There has been a great deal of possibly game changing events  happening since the book was finished.

PC: I finish at a point just before this year’s elections. It would have been better to have finished just after, but there are publishing timelines that can’t be stretched. No updates from me, though. I leave it to others.

But getting back to your point about recent events, yes, it does seem that the country has turned a corner. Since 1997 Hun Sen has overseen a period of peace and prosperity the country has never experienced before, ever. That’s perhaps too often overlooked.

And yet, what we see is Cambodia reverting to type. It’s always been run by patronage networks, it’s always had a single strong individual in charge, it’s never had a tradition that separates the State from government.

It’s a political system in which the country is the personal property of the individual who runs it. To break that mindset you need a solid middle class. The French never fostered a middle class, nor did Sihanouk, and nor does Hun Sen.

Not only is there no middle class, there’s no working class either. Peasants (rice farmers) are not a working class. A working class is a group of people brought together by the wage nexus and feeling the reality of their relationship to those who employ them. Perhaps the garment industry will produce this working class. Who knows.

But the country isn’t static. The economy is changing. The villages are emptying into the cities, wage labour is increasing, and there’s an intelligentsia, not much, but some.

My point is that the old rice-farming village economy/society is on the way out, and something, God knows what, will replace it.

CNE: So, how can we get a copy of the book?

PC: The book’s available at Monument in SR and PP and on Amazon, or ask your local bookstore to order it.

Not Kindle, though – the publisher doesn’t believe in Kindle!

I’m thinking of coming over to Cambodia in December for a Christmas book launch. I’ll let you know.

CNE: Well I could sit here all day discussing the book Philip, but wish you good luck with the sales and hope to catch up next month.

PC: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

An Illustrated History of Cambodia, by Philip Coggan, published by John Beaufoy Publishing can be ordered through Amazon here

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