Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Khmer Peasants and Land Access in Kompong Thom Province in the 1930s

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Khmer Peasants and Land Access in Kompong Thom Province in the 1930s

Article excerpt

It is commonly accepted that issues of land access in Cambodia are recent and that before the 1970-93 wars, Cambodian farmers could easily obtain the land they needed by clearing a patch of forest; land was plentiful and free. Fabienne Lucos, an anthropologist well known for her research on rural Cambodia, writes in the seminal Cambodge contemporain that access to land and forests 'had never been a problem in Cambodia'. (1) In the social sciences, this view is largely based on the work of Jean Delvert (geographer), despite certain dissenting voices, such as Lucien Tichit (agronomist), Serge Thion or Ben Kiernan (historians), and more recently Anne Guillou (anthropologist). (2) Delvert wrote the first comprehensive, multi-scalar analysis of Cambodian peasantry, which was conducted between 1949 and 1960. He stated that we can assume that there were few landless peasants. (3) Delvert considered the problem unimportant. While generating a typology of Cambodian farmers, he emphasised their commonality and in particular the fact that the majority possessed small- to mid-sized farms. He even spoke of 'a rural democracy, rare in Asia'. (4) The importance of Delvert's research explains why a half century after its publication, his work is still authoritative, even though readers accept his conclusions too quickly without necessarily rereading his entire line of reasoning.

This position is reinforced by the collective memory of Cambodian farmers as it appears in interviews with the elderly. The war years between 1970 and 1993, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and the widespread land-grabbing that has accompanied Cambodia's entry into the market economy since the beginning of the 1990s, are all contributing factors to the idea of a pre-war golden age of Khmer peasantry. For example, ta Khang Heng and mephum Cheung, interviewed in April 2010 in the village of Thnot Chum, believe that apart from shopkeepers, everyone possessed land before the war. (5)

I will apply the methods of quantitative history to available sources in order to reassess access to and ownership of land in Cambodia in the 1930s, at the apotheosis of French colonial rule. This survey studies three groups of villages in the province of Kompong Thorn, which lies east of the Angkor temples, northeast of the Tonle Sap, and extends out to the Thai border. It is both at the heart of Khmer country, as defined by Delvert, and on the fringes of the Phnom Penh-Saigon axis around which was constructed the internal geopolitics of southern French Indochina. The very punctilious colonial administration established numerous archives partly based on the reports of Cambodian officials; the Kompong Thorn series are relatively well preserved. These administrative, fiscal and judicial archives of Cambodia under the French protectorate call into question the image of widespread and easy access to land for all.

Sources

Administrative reports

Cambodia was a protectorate, which means that the royal Cambodian administration continued to function even as it was gradually placed under the authority and the dependency of the French colonial administration in Indochina. In the early years, the clauses of the Protectorate Treaty between France and Cambodia were broadly observed; the French intervened only marginally in the kingdom's internal affairs, except for security issues that directly concerned them. After Charles Thomson's 1884 coup, and that of Huyn de Verneville in 1897, colonial administration took over the country. (6) France sent Residents to the provinces to advise the Khmer governors, then to monitor them, before finally supplanting them. The reform of administrative jurisdictions in 1921 definitively established the Cambodian provincial administration under the authority of French Residents. Large provinces called khet were created, whose boundaries were perfectly aligned with the limits of the Residents' jurisdiction. (7) The chaufaikhet (provincial governors) became, ipso facto, the Residents' native deputies. …

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