Performance as (Re)incarnation: The Sdech Kan Narrative

By Noren-Nilsson, Astrid | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Performance as (Re)incarnation: The Sdech Kan Narrative


Noren-Nilsson, Astrid, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


On 5-6 July 1997, Cambodia's First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh was overthrown by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, ending their co-premiership and the coalition government between royalist party Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Independant, Neutre, Pacifique Et Cooperatif (FUNCINPEC) and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) which had been instated in 1993. A few years thereafter, a narrative started spreading in Cambodia. This centred on the idea that the life of Prime Minister Hun Sen was somehow intimately connected with that of sixteenth-century king Sdech Kan, a man of the people who rose through his own prowess to topple the king at the time. Although this was always suggested implicitly, the idea conveyed was that the prime minister was the reincarnation of the legendary king.

Since the 1993 reinstatement of the monarchy and of a multi-party system, following on from more than a decade of one-party rule under the CPP and its predecessor, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), a rickety relationship had developed between the royalists and the CPP. With the reinstated monarchy, Nation, Religion and King (Cheat, Sasana, Mohaksatr) became the national motto of the new, second Kingdom of Cambodia. (1) These three notions and their historical precursors stand at the centre of historical Cambodian imaginations of power and moral order. (2) The reinvention of the Sdech Kan narrative can be understood as Prime Minister Hun Sen's bid to remould the relationship between the nation, religion, and the monarchy in his favour, using a potent cultural legend which invokes a deeply engrained tension between inherited and non-inherited leadership within Khmer Buddhist kingship. The reinvention of the narrative is in this way central to the reworking of boundaries of power in the second kingdom between the monarchy and the royalist faction on one hand, and the CPP, and, primarily, Hun Sen on the other.

The narrative has wider Southeast Asian resonances, with similar goings-on in, for example, Burma, Thailand and Laos, (3) where historical kings have been used to bolster political legitimacy, at the same time as the idea of reincarnation has spread. As examples of 'performative politics', each of these interacts with the fabric of political, historiographical and moral imaginations of their polities in different ways. In looking at the Sdech Kan narrative, I seek to trace the meanings and consequences of reincarnating this particular king in the contemporary Cambodian context. This article examines what the Prime Minister's claim to incarnation entails, and how this attempts to remodel the 'ideal' configuration of political power in contemporary Cambodia.

In the period leading up to the second kingdom, the then State of Cambodia (SOC) leaders had tried to assert their legitimacy as rulers of Cambodia ahead of the reinstatement of the constitutional monarchy by means of seizing control of the right to define the concepts nation, religion, and king to their own advantage. (4) In offering a further redefinition, the Sdech Kan narrative makes new claims that go beyond those of the SOC period when the triumvirate of Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Chea Sim acted as kings ceremonially and politically. By engaging with historical ideas of kingship, the Sdech Kan narrative posits Hun Sen himself as the legitimate national leader. (5) The narrative is part of the increasing symbolic and political power tied to the person of the Prime Minister.

Changing conceptualisations of kingship

Sdech Kan is known in Khmer historiography as the quintessential neak mean bon (man of merit). He is a famous and controversial figure who, after killing a supposedly unjust king, ascended the throne himself. By invoking him, the narrative engaged with ideas of kingship itself. (6) These ideas are enmeshed in historical Cambodian Buddhist conceptualisations of authority and moral order, linking power to karmic laws of rebirth based on merit accrued in previous existences. …

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