Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Freeman: Cambodia

Michael Freeman (2004) Cambodia Reaktion Books, London; 224 pp.; ISBN 978-1-86189186-0

This is very much an idiosyncratic view of Cambodia by a photographer and journalist who has visited the country several times since 1989 and who has a particular interest in Khmer fine arts. If you are looking to understand what drives Cambodian society and the themes that underlie the culture, this is not the book for you. But it does provide many insights into aspects of the country and is a well written and informed personal account of Michael Freeman’s encounters with a place that remains off the radar for many visitors to south-east Asia.

The opening chapter gives a quick overview of Cambodian history. Like other countries in the region Cambodia was defined by royal and religious centres until the British and French colonial powers arrived on the scene in the nineteenth century and demarcated borders supported by international treaties. The compactness and distinctive geography of Cambodia today determine the sites of major towns and the population’s reliance on rice and fish as staples, but from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries the Khmer empire dominated the region, ruling over much of present day Thailand, southern Vietnam and southern Laos, its supremacy only rivalled by the Cham empire situated in what is now central Vietnam. The Thais and Vietnamese arrived in this region later than the Khmers but the rise of those two groups and the rivalry between them have plagued Cambodia for over four hundred years right up to the present.

Cambodia is probably best known internationally because of the Khmer Rouge period, a national trauma from which the country has yet to fully recover. Freeman mentions it throughout the book but gives it detailed attention in chapter four. Unfortunately he tends to focus on the sensational – soldiers eating the livers of dead enemies – more than the causes of the conflict and the ignominious and cynical roles of the United States, China and Thailand, countries that actively allowed the Cambodian people to suffer for many years in order to pursue their selfish geopolitical interests.

Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia that is most recognised by outsiders and certainly it is one of the world’s great monuments, though only one part of a complex of temples that stretches over a wide area that is still not fully mapped or understood. In chapters two and three Freeman gives a personal account of visits to the complex and the history of interest in it from artists, archaeologists and the inevitable treasure hunters. He briefly recounts the role of AndrĂ© Malraux in the last category, a story which is covered in detail in Axel Madsen’s Silk Roads. Freeman also gives an insightful account of the industry in Thailand that produces high quality fakes of ancient Khmer art, fed by insatiable demand on the world art market and corruption and collusion in both Cambodia and Thailand.

In the final chapter, Freeman turns his attention to Cambodian arts and their revival since the Khmer Rouge period. At the time he wrote this book there was only one cinema in Phnom Penh despite there having been a thriving industry in the 1960s. It is a sign of Phnom Penh’s rapid economic growth that there are now several film houses, including modern multiplex cinemas operated by foreign companies. Cambodians are avid filmgoers, though don’t expect audiences to sit in silent appreciation! Classical dance and theatre forms have been revived but oddly there is no mention of the thriving painting and sculpture scene that has grown up in Cambodia since the 1990s and spawned dozens of shops and galleries in Phnom Penh and other cities.

There are some, largely negative, references to politics in the book but no description of the political system and the poor quality of governance in the country. Cambodia has an extraordinarily young population which is bright and enthusiastic but there are few jobs and a startling discrepancy between wealth in the cities and abject poverty in the countryside. While other ASEAN countries are generally thriving, Cambodia still struggles to provide basic utilities and services for its population despite the enormous wealth being extracted by the elite – the Khmers Riches as they are known. Large investors are absent, their place filled by small companies from Vietnam, China and increasingly South Korea that have little regard for quality of production or human resource development. All of these trends were present when Freeman visited Cambodia and wrote this book, but all are absent from his story.

Having raised the spectre of the Khmer Rouge period, Freeman ignores its continuing impact on Khmer society – worryingly high rates of mental illness and domestic and sexual violence, thuggery as the political tool of choice, and a chronic weakness in governing skills – and the attempts of ordinary Cambodians to try and cope with this. The book instead follows Freeman’s personal interests: the journalist’s love of attention grabbing scenes and the artist’s love of fine art forms. It is clear that he has a great affection for the country but there is much more about Cambodia that could have been said. This book provides an interesting introduction to some elements of Cambodian society and Freeman has an easy style and an eye for telling detail, but you will need to read more widely to get a better grasp of this sad but inspiring country and his bibliography is a good place to start.

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