Yale scholar of Cambodia uncovers rare 19th-century Khmer-language documents

A Cambodian official’s secret order, a document from 1883-84 recently discovered by Yale scholar Ben Kiernan.
A Cambodian official’s secret order to inform “the safety official in Kook Ta Nop base and all [local] Vietnamese and Chinese officials and all Vietnamese people” of the order “to round up all the Vietnamese people to be soldiers, to build the base to fight the enemies, to capture the land” for the Cambodian king. Letter written on the 1st day of the waning moon of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, “the year of the Rooster, 26,” probably Buddhist Year 2426 (1883-84).

April 2018 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, the regime that is responsible for the genocide that in four years took the lives of over 1.5 million people. The genocide is today known as one of the worst human tragedies of the last century.

This year, Pol Pot’s deputy, along with his regime’s head of state, will be judged by a UN-backed tribunal for genocide against Cambodia’s Vietnamese and Muslim ethnic minorities. The perpetrators have been tried using archives of the Santebal, the Khmer Rouge secret police. These archives were discovered in 1996 by Yale’s Cambodian Genocide Program, led by historian Ben Kiernan and his team of researchers.

The archives found in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, says Kiernan, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History, comprise about 100,000 pages of documents produced by the Khmer Rouge secret police from 1975 to 1979.

Yale played an important part in accumulating the evidence we found in the archives of the Khmer Rouge security ministry,” says Kiernan, who came to Yale in 1990 to teach Southeast Asian history. In 1995-97, Kiernan won $1.5 million in grants from the U.S. State Department to run a historical investigation of the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. The grant funded the establishment of large databases that are still available online at Yale.

Kiernan had founded the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale in 1994 to study these acts of genocide and to help determine who was responsible. In 1996 Yale University Press published his book, “The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.”

Yale has been very supportive of all of my work, and I’m very grateful for that. It has been terrific to have this base of academic and institutional support from the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies as well as the Department of History,” says Kiernan.

Kiernan is also the author of the award-winning book “Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur,” and, most recently, “Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present.”

The Yale scholar, who likens his work as a historian to that of a detective, recently travelled to the south of France to research his forthcoming book on the history of Cambodia from the Ice Age to the present. There he uncovered rare 19th-century Cambodian-language texts while working in the French colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence. Found in a police file, the documents are captured anti-French rebel communications from the mid-1880s. “Their significance,” says Kiernan, “lies mainly in the fact that so few 19th-century Cambodian-language texts survive.”

For the whole of the 19th century, apart from several well-known chronicles and long poems,  only about 30 documents in Cambodian survive, explains Kiernan. Each of them is handwritten; there was no printing during that time in Cambodia. “So far I’ve found about 10 in archives in Paris and 15 in Aix en Provence. Altogether about 25 documents for the whole of the 19th century in the Cambodian language,” says Kiernan. Many others held in Cambodian libraries were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Some of the documents that Kiernan uncovered are dated 1883-1884, the Buddhist year 2426 or, the year of the Rooster “26,” explains Kiernan. They were written on palm leaf or rice paper, following a Convention held in 1884 when the French had forced Cambodia’s reigning king to give up some of his power. The documents foretold of a rebellion that was being planned against the French Protectorate over Cambodia. Of this discovery, says Kiernan, one of the things that intrigued him most is that the rebellion that took place in 1885 and 1886 was organized in the shadows, undercover, behind the scenes, and not only by the king. “I think that this means there was a lot more grass roots organizing that took place during the 19th century in Cambodia,” says the Yale scholar.

Kiernan suspects that these documents raise new questions for scholars about the nature of government in traditional Cambodia.

Further research on the entire series of documents will entail arranging them in chronological order by the Buddhist dating system that Cambodians used during that period, ascertaining if the authors are the same, and tracking the progress of rebel planning. Mr Thavro Phim, a former Research Associate at the Cambodian Genocide Program, is collaborating with Kiernan in studying the documents.

Kiernan says the next steps in writing his book include returning to Cambodia’s early history. “I’ve written a chapter on the emergence of agriculture after the Ice Age: the earliest signs of human activity, and the beginnings of farming and the agricultural civilization in Cambodia. I now need to take that story from the prehistory to the history,” he said.

Because so few historical documents survived the Khmer Rouge’s reign in Cambodia, Kiernan plans to upload all these rare documents to a Yale website and make them available to other researchers for further study.

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