Culture and Thought -- Personal Journey:

God as a Beer Can --- Cambodia's Sad History Trudges on

By Salil Tripathi


The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

It is the misfortune of the world's largest complex of temples, Angkor Wat, that the popular Cambodian beer is called Angkor. Temples are holy places; you don't treat them lightly. Even a mass murderer like Pol Pot understood that. Not only did he place the outline of Angkor's temples in the national flag of his short-lived Republic of Kampuchea, his soldiers were warned not to loot those temples.

And yet, the closest a visitor might come to the Siem Reap province where the temples are located is when he sips his can of Angkor beer by the poolside of a Phnom Penh hotel. The reduction of Cambodia's supreme glory into consumerist kitsch is something Cambodians resent. This is on top of the humiliation that the country is seen by foreign investors and tourists mostly as a place to get cheap timber, cheap gemstones and cheap sex.

It wasn't supposed to be like that. After the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia organized elections in 1993, Cambodia was supposed to take firm steps towards normalcy. Instead a decade of lawlessness followed, giving Cambodia the reputation of the Wild East. When I first went to Angkor Wat in 1995, my guide instructed me to follow each of his footsteps precisely. One misstep could be disastrous, as I might stumble onto a landmine.

I was one of two visitors to the temples that day; the other, a retired American Vietnam-era veteran was in the process of setting up a clinic providing artificial limbs for victims of the mines. At each temple, I saw little boys carrying machine guns, smiling, ostensibly protecting me. As we left the temples, I saw three trucks pass by, each of them filled with ripe watermelons. Our guide froze, then he broke down; he hesitantly told me how as a little boy he had been on a similar road and had seen similar trucks carrying dead bodies. That was in the late 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge terrorized Cambodia.

Roland Paringaux, a French writer who has written extensively about Indochina, says: "Angkor is at the heart of Cambodian people's identity. It is the core of their beliefs and myths." That is why, in late January, Cambodians went berserk when it was whispered that Thai actress Suwanna Konying, playing a fictional character in a Thai soap opera, suggested that Thailand should take over Angkor Wat. It did not matter that the remark was two years old. The damage was done, and Cambodian politicians exploited the situation.

Myths are important for all nations, and every culture has its lore of good and evil. Cambodians derive theirs from Hindu epics. In the room where I write every morning, there is a framed charcoal drawing of amritamanthan ("the churning of nectar"), made on rice paper, which I had bought on that visit to Angkor Wat. It depicts the relief of one of the temples.

In the story, the devas, or gods, and asuras, or demons, worked together to churn the milky ocean to secure nectar. Poison spurted out first, followed by mythical animals and heavenly flowers. Finally, the nectar emerged, but the asuras ran away with it, reneging their deal of sharing it with the devas. God punished the asuras, and the devas got their nectar. Cambodians feel they are still waiting for their nectar.

In the 12th century, Suryavarman II expanded the city of Angkor and built many temples, including Angkor Wat. The empire weakened with successive invasions from Chams in modern Vietnam and later from what's now Thailand, and by the 15th century forests devoured the temples and thick vegetation hid them from view.

It was only in 1860s when perplexed French colonialists, following the legends told by peasants, came to Angkor Wat and were stunned by what they saw. After Henri Mouhot's rediscovery of Angkor, a steady stream of fortune seekers, engravers, scholars, explorers, archaeologists and historians made their way to Angkor. Some perpetuated the myth that Cambodians could not have built such sophisticated temples, and argued that only an invading army could have constructed them. Others helped themselves to its treasures, including the famous French writer Andre Malraux, later to become a minister of culture in France, who was arrested in Cambodia in the 1920s for trafficking antiques.

Cambodia was a French colony, and French administrators and Thai rulers drew up a series of agreements early in the 20th century to mark the vague frontier between Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Under the 1907 delimitation protocol Thailand ceded the territories of Battambang, Siem Reap (which incidentally means "Thai defeat") and Sisophon to Cambodia in exchange for Dan Sai and Krat. France tried to secure these pacts in late 1930s, but World War II broke out before the agreements could be signed.

Thais took advantage of this, and offered the Japanese access through its territory in return for vast parts of Cambodia and Laos. When the war ended, Thai agreements with Japan were disregarded, and the 1907 agreement came back in force. In 1962, the International Court of Justice granted sovereignty over Angkor Wat to Cambodia. The nectar, it seemed, was at hand.

But the Vietnam War intensified, increasing the strategic importance of Thailand. Cambodia emerged from Pol Pot's bloody communist rule only in 1979. Ten years later, Thai Prime Minister Chatchai Chunhawan talked of turning old battlefields into a prosperous marketplace, as part of his policy of transforming Southeast Asian nations into a suwannaphume ("golden land"). Wary of Thais, however, Cambodians encouraged Malaysians to invest in Cambodia instead. "Malaysians are welcome here because they are not Thais," I remember the late Southeast Asia scholar Michael Leifer telling me one evening in Phnom Penh.

The Thais didn't have to wait for long. Thai banks came first, followed by airlines. Now many tourists come to Angkor Wat directly from Bangkok, bypassing the rest of Cambodia altogether. Thailand is among the biggest foreign investors in Cambodia, and Cambodian markets are full of consumer products made in Thailand. Resentment flourishes.

Cambodia is still looking for its own identity. After centuries of resentment, colonialism and then a decade of genocide, the churning continues. It's good those trucks are filled with watermelons, not dead bodies, but Cambodia deserves its nectar, its peace. But with elections scheduled this summer, peace doesn't promise to be near.

Mr Tripathi writes from London.