Rebuilding Khmer after the Rouge

June 22, 2001

The Pol Pot regime tore apart Cambodia's education system, but with hard work and international aid, the Centre for Khmer Studies is helping to put it back together. Sarah Murray reports.

"Dear director, I am so happy that you have established the Centre for Khmer Studies," writes 22-year-old Haun So Pheap. "It's the best idea in order to departing the population of Cambodia from ignorance."

The English may need some work, but the sentiment behind it is sharp as a knife. For, as this cash-strapped country emerges from the devastation wreaked by the Khmer Rouge - under whose brutal 1975-79 regime nearly 2 million people died - Cambodians are hungry for education.

The Centre for Khmer Studies, which opened its doors earlier this year in the northern town of Siem Reap, has attracted the attention of international donors, but its location near Angkor - the extraordinary temple complex built under the Khmer empire between the 9th and 14th centuries - has also made it a focus for international archaeologists and scholars.

Khmer academic Socheat Beng Hong Khemro, who helped set up the CKS, says:

"It is a new facility, a new building and money for education that the state does not spend. And the scholarship programme is very important because the government has no ability to establish anything similar."

The centre's director, an energetic Frenchman called Philippe Peycam, is passionate about the project. When he arrived in Cambodia in autumn 1999, he began to investigate how to establish an educational institution in a country lacking in resources.

The location was a priority and a site was found at Wat Damnak, a monastery in Siem Reap. "We were struck by the symbolism of the place," Peycam says. "Not only was it one of the area's most important monasteries but it also had a strong tradition of education - and it had been badly damaged by the Khmer Rouge. It was the natural choice."

While Cambodia has a number of higher educational institutions, little was available for scholars beyond the postgraduate level. The country's policies on education lacked coherence and there was little cooperation among the various educational institutions.

The centre hopes to link these institutions by establishing an international consortium of universities whose partners will include Cambodia's leading universities - the Royal University of Fine Arts and the University of Phnom Penh. While it will not award degrees, the CKS will organise programmes in conjunction with these universities covering any aspect of Khmer studies, from religion, philosophy and literature to urban studies and anthropology.

The centre was originally conceived to support the World Monuments Fund's Preah Khan restoration project at Angkor. "The emphasis was on training Cambodian architects and historians so that a small restoration team could work on the site indefinitely," says Bonnie Burnham, president of the WMF, "but the agenda has been significantly expanded."

For while Angkor is a site of phenomenal importance, there is much more to Khmer culture. Angkor attracts foreign scholars, international restoration teams and millions of dollars, and overseas support for education in Cambodia tends to reflect this. At the Royal University of Fine Arts, for example, grants from Unesco support the faculties of architecture and archaeology, but not the plastic arts, dance or music.

"Many of the foreign-funded projects on higher education are oriented towards the preservation of Angkor," Peycam says. "And many people felt that the participation and resources of these foreign institutions should not be limited to supporting another purely Angkor-based project."

The extraordinary power Angkor wields over the country is hard to underestimate. The French, who established a colony in "Cambodge" in 1863, were passionate about Angkor, which they "discovered" in the 1860s. In the years that followed, teams of French scholars busied themselves with documenting the country's past and researching the history of the great stones.

But while the French fostered the development of arts and crafts in Cambodia, little effort was made to establish a sustainable education system for Khmers. "The French did some important things," Peycam says. "They built roads, restored temples and initiated a revival of Buddhism. But their contribution to the development of an emerging Khmer intelligentsia was limited."

David Chandler, a leading authority on modern Cambodian history and the CKS's senior advisor, agrees. "The French were never very serious about education in Indo-China," he says. "I think they felt that high-school graduates, when and if they occurred, would be overqualified for the jobs available to local people and therefore - and here they were correct - susceptible to politics and nationalism. When Cambodia's first high school, Lycee Sisowath, opened in the 1930s, it quickly became the focus of the Cambodian nationalist movement."

The French left Cambodia in 1953 and in the wake of independence, money flooded into the country, largely thanks to King Norodom Sihanouk's ability to charm the world's leaders. In the 1960s, he set about building universities and schools across the country with funds from foreign friends, the Russians being particular favourites.

But the 1970s were black years for Cambodia. Intellectuals were the first to be targeted by Pol Pot's brutal regime and by the end of the decade, the country's educational infrastructure had been largely destroyed.

Thankfully those days are over, so the creation of the CKS is well timed. For, as years of isolation and internal conflict make way for peace and a new mood of internationalism, Cambodians are again thinking about education. Posters advertising foreign-language classes, computer training and business courses can be seen all over Phnom Penh. Between 1985 and 1996, higher education enrolment jumped from 2,357 to 13,465, according to research conducted for the Cambodian government and the World Bank.

But despite the progress, Khemro believes obstacles remain to the emergence of the kind of lively intellectual debate the centre wants to foster. "In Cambodia there's a tradition of respect," Khemro says. "In meetings you rarely see someone who's in a lower position or of a lower educational level argue with their senior. It is not good, but that is how Cambodia operates."

He believes that contact between foreign and Khmer students will help change such attitudes. Through its newsletter and a website, the CKS wants to put those interested in Khmer studies outside the country in touch with their counterparts at home and abroad and help establish scholarships to enable Khmer academics to study overseas.

With the WMF as the founding donor, organisations such as the Luce and Rockefeller foundations and private donors are supporting some programmes. "Thanks to WMF support, the centre has emerged as a visibly independent institution, enabling foundations to get involved," Peycam says.

The CKS's directors have high ambitions for its future. It is hoped that the centre - registered as a non-governmental organisation in Cambodia and as a non-profit organisation in the United States - will eventually become a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centres, making it eligible for US federal financial support. And by retaining an international structure, it wants to encourage cooperation with, for example, the European Union and the Japanese government.

A community for learning
Denise Heywood

Wat Damnak's Centre for Khmer Studies, in its peaceful, palm-filled grounds, is an appropriate place for study becausepagodas are traditionally centres of learning.

With permission from the Wat authorities, the CKS has restored two Buddhist monastic buildings - the library and conference centre. The library building, the only public library outside the capital of Phnom Penh, was originally built in the 1940s as a prayer hall.

Texts in Khmer, Pali, French and English, including religious tomes and works by French archaeologist Georges Coed s, occupy its shelves. Many more are needed, but donations such as the British Embassy's recent gift of 150 Buddhist texts, are helping to build the collection.

The conference centre, a 1920s art deco building used until recently as a primary school, was also once a prayer hall and contains the ashes of monks and the elaborate tombs of wealthy citizens.

"The compound was badly damaged during the war," the centre's director Philippe Peycam says, indicating a painted Buddhist mural full of bullet-holes. "It was used as target practice by the Khmer Rouge."

Renovation has been sensitively carried out by architect Chhim Phet, who previously worked at Angkor. Phet has been careful to retain a distinctive Khmer character.

As well as architects Phet and Cheam Phally, and librarian Cheng Pharin, the centre's staff includes scholars such as David Chandler, a historian from Cornell University.

In addition to work in partnership with Cambodian institutions, the CKS will coordinate with Cornell and the University of California in the United States, Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities in Thailand and the National University of Singapore.

Among the projects already attracted to the centre are Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen's Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields.

Keng Sen, artistic director at TheatreWorks in Singapore, came to CKS to work with four Cambodian dancers, among them septuagenarian Em Thea, Cambodia's leading dance teacher. Keng Sen says he prefers Wat Damnak to Phnom Penh. "It is a creative place close to the temples - a space for reflection."

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