The Prince, The Borderline Temple & The Khmer-Islam Pilgrims

This past week has been quite important for Cambodia and Thailand. Of course both calendars highlighted a long holiday of celebrations to kick off the new year. But some Thais and Cambodians were getting busy a the very same time, arguing their case in front of The Hague International Court of Justice. The ‘final’ discussions over the long disputed case of 11th century Preah Vihear temple and moreover its surrounding area, are supposed to be coming to an end… a solution for the borderline between the two neighbours. Well, if you are a regular of this blog, you know that if I mention this… there must be some Chams behind the scene somewhere… And indeed, there are! This little forgotten archive I recently found while doing a little ‘new year cleaning’ just cried out to be on stage today.


So what do we have here? A page of one good old Sangkum Reastr Niyum Souvenirs Album (a.k.a. the ”Souvenirs SRN 1962-1963” hand-noted by the King Father at the top) relating a ”National Pilgrimage to Preah Vihear” lead by the – then – Prince Norodom Sihanouk in January 1962*. The report comes as a clear statement of Cambodia’s concern over the dispute, which bloomed that year. It reached its height with the awarding of the temple to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice, June 15th 1962. The speech made by the prince at the mount’s feet ”highlights the signification given by Cambodia to Preah Vihear” as a ”sacred principle” of ”a country’s territorial unity‘s indivisibility”.

In 1962 the prince is fully absorbed by his chief of state’s functions, creating a brand new independent Cambodia. In the making of the new-born nation unity and indivisibility are not words solely reserved to a physical territory. They are more than words – they are perspectives. And in order for those to be applied, the people – all of them – need to take them in. Norodom Sihanouk doesn’t only use his ”verbe”1 to reach out to the crowds in the up and coming cities, in the villages, in the households. He doesn’t only use it to lead the whole Cambodian nation into his ambitious visions of a modern non-aligned nation. He also uses the magic of language to create new words that will be embodied by the Cambodians usually at the margins: the ”ethnic minorities”. Suddenly new words are all around – the speeches, the press, the radio. All need to be called upon in the nation building. Here come the Khmer Krom – Khmers from former Cochinchine in Vietnam; the Khmer Leu – ”Khmers” from the highlands. And in similar manners, here come the Khmer Islam, those Cambodians who very unlike the vast majority are not Buddhists but Muslims. By calling them Khmer Islam and not Cham anymore, the prince attempts to reintegrate the minority in the majority without denying its differences2.

Back to the Preah Vihear visit: why would a ”Khmer Islam” delegation matter so much, so far away from the main centres of Cham concentration? Well it is no coincidence if the speech delivered by the head of state in front of the whole delegation is about unity and indivisibility. Preah Vihear is the symbol of this new Cambodia entity: whole, entire, complete, undivided… And the ”Khmer Islam” are showing up-front as pilgrims embodying this unity.

The message is double. It is sent to the Thais as a warning: strength through unity. ”We will never give up” says the prince speaking for the whole nation as one. But more than to its neighbour, this message is actually directed to the Cambodians and their Khmer Islam. Not as a warning but as a reiterated invitation to take part in Cambodia’s making. Preah Vihear is just a symbol to display the country’s unity beyond heritage, beyond territory concerns, beyond borders.

And here goes our little unassuming gazette of a ”Khmer Islam” pilgrimage to Preah Vihear. Well now, what about today? I actually thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect, when – as I was writing those lines – a note came in from the emailing list of DC-CAM (The Documentation Center of Cambodia). Fellow researchers Nhean Socheat and Sa Fatily combined a summary of feedbacks and positions from Chams on the current Preah Vihear situation. I am reproducing the note here.


So there would be a lot to say about those. A lot. There could a whole discussion about Chams in the Nation and in its symbols, about their relation or apprehension of the conflict as Cambodians, and yet not as the Preah Vihear heritage descendants. But for now let’s keep it short and sweet…3

Back to the DC-CAM note: all Cham quotes show a clear and absolute support to Cambodia in the Preah Vihear debate. No surprise there, Chams are Cambodians and have been for the past centuries right? Yet, the use of those notes by DC-CAM at this very moment is interesting. It is displaying unity right in the midst of the dispute. It is displaying unity in continuity with the one showed by all Cambodians paying respect to the King Father’s departure, the unity creator himself. It is displaying unity on the eve of national elections. Coincidences? Maybe. Yet, once again, ”Khmer Islam”, Chams, are the key element in a crucial display of Cambodian unity, since history has placed them on the chessboard of the Khmer Rouge trial. While the genocide charges have shown to be quite tricky in a legal demonstration to be applied to the whole Cambodian population, it could be pursued if proven for one minority. In other words: if Chams, Muslims, Khmer Islam are found victims of a targeted genocide, then Cambodian history will be legally be able to write about its genocide. Needless to say that getting Chams in line to testify puts at stakes more than the actual (hi)stories and remembrances of the ”Cham genocide” per se. As in that case, remembering the facts will be re-membering the Chams in the whole Cambodian History. More than 50 years after the non-incidental picture, ”Khmer Islam” are again called upon to illustrate Cambodia’s unity and indivisibility. The question still in suspense is whether this will not instead create dis-unity and indeed divisibility with the Khmers who would have been therefore juridically stripped of their genocide history.

Phnom Penh, April 21, 2013, Emiko Stock.

* A note on this archive: while it was part of a bundle of archives and notes posted by the King Father on his website ( during the 2008 dispute over Preah Vihear, it was impossible to access it – along all other Preah Vihear related archives – in the past few days. I have therefore scanned it from the May 2008, Chatomukh, No 198 issue as the paper used it as a cover. Chatomukh (‘’Journal Indépendant d’Information et d’opinion sur le Cambodge’’) is an independent opinion monthly on Cambodia published in France for the past 20 years.
1 I am borrowing the expression from the articles of Nasir Abdoul Carime : 2012 ‘’Le pouvoir en scène dans le processus du Verbe sihanoukien’’, AEFEK website (Association d’Echanges et de Formation pour les Etudes Khmeres), January 2012 and 1995 ‘’Réflexion sur le régime sihanoukien: la monopolisation du Verbe par le pouvoir royal’’, Péninsule, n° 31 (2), p 77-97.

2 I wrote more on the emergence and use of the term ‘’Khmer Islam’’ in my 2012 article ‘’Au-delà des ethnonymes. À propos de quelques exonymes et endonymes chez les musulmans du Cambodge’’, Moussons 20, Recherche en Sciences Humaines sur l’Asie du Sud Est, p 141-160. For those who can not read French the IRASEC Atlas chapter and its English translation glance through some of those issues.

3 Especially since one of my estimated colleague and friend is soon going to go further into those issues with more materials and insights than I would. Looking forward to it!

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2 thoughts on “The Prince, The Borderline Temple & The Khmer-Islam Pilgrims

  1. Your report of the past events and their link with the present ones is highly interesting. It has always been common, all through the world, that country rulers associate minorities in some creation of national unity (and pride) when some struggle with other nations appear. Not a bad idea in itself, in my view, only thing is that the consequences are not always taken in account … just as you underline it.

    • Thanks dear faithful and favourite reader :).

      I also think this is not a entirely passive thing (a.k.a: the state using the minority), or at least in the case of Chams, as the minority can also use the state – or rather its diverse components – and therefore ‘buy in’ such terminologies with a certain agenda…

      But that would be another story and another post!

      Merci & Bisous Daddy!

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