Sketching an Institutional History of Academic Knowledge Production in Cambodia (1863-2009)-Part 2

By Peycam, Philippe M. F. | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Sketching an Institutional History of Academic Knowledge Production in Cambodia (1863-2009)-Part 2


Peycam, Philippe M. F., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


In the first part of the article, we saw how the process of modern knowledge production in the case of Cambodia was closely tied to the policies of the colonial orientalist institution, Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO). EFEO's original interest in antiquities led to the development of a founding narrative of the nation state of Cambodia, itself part of French Indochina, with the "classical" Angkor period as its golden age. EFEO's parallel effort to study and codify Cambodian Buddhism, thanks particularly to the creation of the Buddhist Institute, contributed to the emergence of a modern vernacular literary trend with Buddhism as its initial vector. By contrast, the EFEO's relative neglect of ethnographic-based research meant that a new discipline, later called "Khmer Studies" or khmerologie, taking the local social fabricas its active subject of study was to develop outside official knowledge production circles--with independent "amateur" scholars like Aymonier or Leclere as its initiators. By the end of World War II, political and institutional changes within the French academic system, especially with the establishment of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the new influence of the social sciences, led to a renewal of area studies scholarship with Cambodian society and its vernacular culture as new centres of investigation. Completing a process of emancipation of the field initiated both outside and within EFEO, this trend saw the first Cambodian scholars emerging in the academic sphere.

Cambodian Initiatives

The bustling academic renewal that characterized the field of Khmer Studies in the post-war period must be appreciated in the light of the new political situation in Cambodia, with the irreversible process of decolonization unravelling--a trend that followed the Japanese-supported proclamation of Cambodian independence by King Norodom Sihanouk in March 1945. It took another eight years for the French to formally recognize the country's independence, under Sihanouk's helm; this against the background of a protracted war in neighbouring Vietnam and the ultimate defeat of France in 1954.

The first generation of scholarly-accredited Cambodian intellectuals emerged within this transitional context and in the years following the country's independence. (2) These men and women studied in France in the late 1940s, the 1950s, and the early 1960s; some remained there, while others returned to Cambodia, where they contributed to shape the academic institutions of the newly independent country. A notable example of such an institution is the Royal University of Fine Arts (1965-75). Their influence on the following generations was crucial for they inaugurated a continuing flow of Cambodian scholars in spite of the dramatic situation unravelling in the country. Their legacy should not be limited to their publications but also to their institution-building achievements. In order to appreciate the revolution in the field that took place in those early years of independent Cambodia, I have chosen to underscore the profile and role played by those first Cambodian scholars, as they were the real precursors of a development with lasting consequences. (3)

Cambodian Precursors

The first "modern" Cambodian scholar of repute was Au Chhieng. Of a bourgeois family background, Chhieng was educated in France. He studied Sanskrit under Georges Coedes and Louis Renou, and later held the position of librarian responsible for cataloguing the rich Khmer collection at the French National Librar),. He also taught classes at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Throughout his long career, Chhieng kept a low profile in the academic world. His articles published in the Journal Asiatique dealt with post-Angkorian Khmer literature and linguistics. He is better known for his renowned Catalog of the Khmer Collection of the Bibliotheque Nadonale de France, still an essential reference for any scholars of Khmer studies. …

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