Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 December 2012
A narrative sponsored by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen posits the prime minister as the reincarnation of sixteenth-century king Sdech Kân, a commoner who toppled the king at the time and ascended the throne. Whilst reincarnation narratives have wider Southeast Asian resonances, the reinvention of Sdech Kân is central to the redrawing of boundaries of power between a politically weakened monarchy and the Cambodian People's Party-led government. This article traces the meanings of reincarnating Sdech Kân in the contemporary Cambodian context, and what consequences this has for contemporary bids for political legitimacy.
1 The ‘second kingdom’ refers to the post-1993 Kingdom of Cambodia, the state with a reinstated monarchy after a hiatus of 23 years.
2 Monychenda, Heng, ‘In search of the Dhammika ruler’, in People of virtue: Reconfiguring religion, power and moral order in Cambodia today, ed. Kent, Alexandra and Chandler, David P. (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008), p. 310Google Scholar.
3 See, for example, on Burma, ‘Burma: The end of an era or a dynasty's beginning?’, Irrawaddy, 26 Jan. 2011; on Laos, Grabowsky, Volker and Tappe, Oliver, ‘“Important kings of Laos”: Translation and analysis of a Lao cartoon pamphlet’, Journal of Lao Studies, 2, 1 (2011): 1–44Google Scholar, and on Thailand, Stengs, Irene, Worshipping the great moderniser: King Chulalongkorn, patron saint of the Thai middle class (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009)Google Scholar, and Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, ‘The spirits, the stars and Thai politics’, lecture, The Siam Society, Bangkok, 2 Dec. 2008.
4 Ledgerwood, Judy, ‘Ritual in 1990 Cambodian political theatre: New songs at the edge of the forest’, in At the edge of the forest: Essays on Cambodia, history, and narrative in honor of David Chandler, ed. Hansen, Anne R. and Ledgerwood, Judy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2008), p. 213Google Scholar.
5 Steve Heder identifies three ‘claims of qualification to rule’ in postcolonial Cambodia: being sdech, ‘king’ or ‘prince’, a title associated with the royal family; neak cheh doeng, a person with higher education; and neak tâsou, a person who has taken part in armed struggle. Hun Sen routinely portrays himself as a military figure, neak tâsou. His claims to being a neak cheh doeng are epitomised by his election into the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) on 28 April 2010. Performing Sdech Kân can be seen as his ultimate claim to being sdech. See Heder, Steve, ‘Cambodia's democratic transition to neoauthoritarianism’, Current History, 94, 596 (Dec. 1995): 425–9Google Scholar.
6 Heder, Steve, ‘Political theatre in the 2003 Cambodian elections: State, democracy and conciliation in historical perspective’, in Staging politics: Power and performance in Asia and Africa, ed. Strauss, Julia C. and Cruise O'Brien, Donal B. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), p. 162Google Scholar, suggests that Hun Sen has ‘occasionally attempted to present himself as a neak mean boun’, and quotes a 1993 United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) report. The reinvention of Sdech Kân is a first more or less coherent form of narrativisation to frame such claims.
7 Harris, Ian C., Cambodian Buddhism: History and practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), p. 50Google Scholar; for a discussion of the historical Sdech Kân as a neak mean bon see Hoc Dy, Khing, ‘Neak mean boun, “Être de mérites”, dans la culture et la littérature du Cambodge’, Péninsule, 56, 1 (2008): 6Google Scholar; see also Thompson, Ashley, ‘The future of Cambodia's past: A messianic Middle-period Cambodian royal cult’, in History, Buddhism, and new religious movements in Cambodia, ed. Marston, John and Guthrie, Elizabeth (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004)Google Scholar on the neak mean bon during Cambodia's Middle Period (i.e., after the fall of Angkor and before the French protectorate, c. 1450–1863).
8 Khing, ‘Neak mean boun’, p. 1.
11 See Kantorowicz's classical study of the king's two bodies as a political theology of early-modern Western monarchies. Kantorowicz, Ernst H., The king's two bodies: A study in mediaeval political theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957)Google Scholar.
12 Thompson, ‘The suffering of kings’, p. 92.
14 Heng, ‘In search of the Dhammika ruler’, p. 310.
15 Ibid., p. 313. The ‘tenfold virtues of a righteous king’ (dasavidha-rājadhamma) are dāna (charity), sīla (morality), pariccāga (self-sacrifice), ājjava (honesty), maddava (kindness), tapa (self-control), akkoda (non-anger), avihimsa (non-violence), khanti (tolerance), and avirodhana (conformity to the law). See Heng, ‘In search of the Dhammika ruler’, pp. 317–18.
17 Khing, ‘Neak mean boun’, p. 22, suggests a complete overlap between the Preah Bat Thommik and neak mean bon through the conceptual link ‘dhammik = bodhisatta = neak mean boun’. According to de Bernon, Olivier, ‘Le Buddh Daṃnāy: Note sur un texte apocalyptique khmer’, Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient, 81 (1994): 91CrossRefGoogle Scholar, the word ‘dhammik’ [thommik], part of the Cambodian royal title, designates in Putth Tumneay not only a just monarch, but also the warriors who submit only reluctantly to the sovereign Bodhisattva.
18 Khing, ‘Neak mean boun’, p. 21; Olivier de Bernon, ‘Le Buddh Daṃnāy’, p. 91.
19 On the association of the upheavals described in Putth Tumneay with the Khmer Rouge, see Mortland, Carol A., ‘Khmer Buddhists in the United States: Ultimate questions’, in Cambodian culture since 1975: Homeland and exile, ed. Ebihara, May, Mortland, Carol Anne and Ledgerwood, Judy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 82Google Scholar; Smith, Frank, Interpretive accounts of the Khmer Rouge years: Personal experience in Cambodian peasant world view (Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1989), pp. 18–23Google Scholar; Ledgerwood, ‘Ritual in 1990 Cambodian political theatre’, p. 216.
20 See Heng, ‘In search of the Dhammika ruler’, p. 313.
21 Some Cambodians consider Sihanouk as the Preah Bat Thommik or as a Bodhisattva, which would make him a neak mean bon. See De Bernon, ‘Le Buddh Daṃnāy’, p. 93; Khing, ‘Neak mean boun’, p. 22.
22 Ledgerwood, ‘Ritual in 1990 Cambodian political theatre’, p. 216.
24 Hun Sen released a press statement denying that he was a reincarnation of Jayavarman VII; this was prompted, he stated, by how many people believed this to be the case. Ledgerwood, ‘Ritual in 1990 Cambodian political theatre’, p. 219.
25 Pou, Saveros, ‘Dieux et rois dans la pensée khmère ancienne’, Journal Asiatique, 286, 2 (1998): 656CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Pou, Saveros, Dictionnaire vieux Khmer-Français-Anglais (Paris: CEDORECK, 1992), p. 508Google Scholar, defines the Old Khmer meaning as ‘To be aloof, above all. The supreme one. Sacred beings, espec. Princes. (Of these) To be, stand, move.’
26 Harris, Ian, ‘The monk and the king: Khieu Chum and regime change in Cambodia’, Udaya: Journal of Khmer Studies, 9 (2008): 81–112Google Scholar. Anti-colonial Buddhist nationalism was non-monarchist and sometimes anti-monarchist, and several people at its heart later rose to prominence in the Khmer Republic. Their thinking was informed by larger debates within Buddhist thinking on kingship. Harris (pp. 82–8) identifies both Theravada canonical sources and Cambodian chbaps, post-canonical sources, which justify insurrection as a consequence of misrule.
27 Norodom Sihanouk, ‘Pour mieux comprendre le Cambodge actuel’, Le Sangkum: Revue politique illustrée, 1 (Aug. 1965): 14.
28 Edwards, Penny, Cambodge: The cultivation of a nation, 1860–1945 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), p. 250Google Scholar.
29 Harris, Cambodian Buddhism, p. 146.
30 Sihanouk was granted the title of dhammik mahārāj [thommik mohareach] (great righteous king) in the 1947 Constitution, but renounced it by abdicating. He occasionally referred to himself as king-monk (Harris, Cambodian Buddhism, p. 144). In contrast, legend has it that after Trâsâk Ph'aem ascends the throne, the title Preah Bat Thommik is added to his royal title, underlining the overlap between the neak mean bon and the Preah Bat Thommik. See De Bernon, ‘Le Buddh Damnāy’, p. 91.
31 Kent, ‘The recovery of the king’.
32 Strauss, Julia C. and Cruise O'Brien, Donal B., ‘Introduction’, in Staging politics, pp. 2–3Google Scholar.
33 Steve Heder, ‘Political theatre’, p. 162.
34 Strauss and Cruise O'Brien, ‘Introduction’, p. 3.
36 Leclère, Adhémard, Histoire du Cambodge depuis le 1er siècle de notre ère, d'après les inscriptions lapidaires: les annales chinoises et annamites et les documents européens des six derniers siècles (Paris: Paul Guethner, 1914), pp. 235–78Google Scholar. The account given in Leclère, Adhémard, ‘Le Sdech Kân’, Bulletin de la Société des études Indochinoises (BSEI), 59 (1910): 17–55Google Scholar, is largely identical, but omits king Srey Sokonthor Bât's dream. Leclère does not provide a reference for the chronicle on which he based his account. But see Soth's, EngAekâsar Mohaboros Khmer [Documents on the great Khmer heroes] (Paris: Association Culturelle Pierres d'Angkor, 1985 ), vol. 1, episodes 7–10; vol. 2, episodes 11–19, of which pp. 8–19Google Scholar, largely mirrors Leclère's account as retold above, whilst providing a lengthier account of events. Leclère's BSEI article was reprinted in the volume edited by Tranet, Michel, Le Sdach Kan (Phnom Penh: Atelier d'Impression Khmère, 2002)Google Scholar. Chroniques Royales du Cambodge: De Bañā yāt à la prise de Laṅvaek: de 1417 a 1595, ed. and trans. Sok, Khin (Paris: École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1988)Google Scholar discusses Sdech Kân's reign, but does not retell the legend recounted above, for which Khin instead references Leclère's 1910 account (p. 258).
37 Tranet, Le Sdach Kan, preface.
38 Ranariddh was appointed President of the National Assembly in 1998, and again in 2003.
39 Hun Sen, ‘Visit of Samdech Hun Sen and Bun Rany to the former Royal City of Sanlob Prey Nokor in Kompong Cham’, Cambodia New Vision (CNV), 97, 28 Feb. 2006.
40 Ibid. This account of the Sdech Kân story as typically referred to by Hun Sen evidently picks the parts of the legend that serve to deliver his message whilst omitting other parts, such as how Sdech Kân was ultimately killed and replaced by another monarch.
42 Hun Sen, ‘Inaugurating Buddhist temple in Serei Suosdei Pagoda’, CNV, 99, 27 Apr. 2006.
43 Author's interviews with senior royal family members suggest that they generally perceive of Hun Sen's references to Sdech Kân as a pledge to take revenge on the monarchy, by means of invoking their wrongdoings against Sdech Kân.
44 Author's interview with Prime Minister Hun Sen, 29 Sept. 2011.
45 With the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic in 1975, Souvanna Phouma became ‘Counsellor to the Government’, King Savang Vatthana abdicated and was appointed ‘Counsellor to the President’, former Crown Prince Vong Savang was appointed member of the Supreme People's Assembly, and Prince Souphanouvong was made President of the new republic. Fox, Martin Stuart, A history of Laos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 170Google Scholar.
46 In a further parallel to contemporary Cambodia, the use of traditional notions of legitimacy became even more pronounced following the collapse of communist ideology in the late 1980s, when the Lao regime turned to employ a Buddhist discourse centred on righteous kings. Today, historical kings have increasingly been integrated into what Grabowsky and Tappe refer to as an ‘official national hero pantheon’. See Evans, Grant, The politics of ritual and remembrance: Lao since 1975 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1998), p. 70Google Scholar; Grabowsky and Tappe, ‘Important kings of Laos’, pp. 1–44; Evans, Grant, ‘Revolution and royal style: Problems of post-socialist legitimacy in Laos’, in Elite cultures: Anthropological perspectives, ed. Shore, Chris and Nugent, Stephen (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 189–206Google Scholar.
47 This is even more paradoxical given that the Laotian transition is believed to have entailed putting the king to death. Ex-king Savang Vatthana, his wife and two sons are believed to have died under arrest in Houaphan. Evans, The politics of ritual, pp. 99–100.
48 See Hun Sen's speech at the twentieth anniversary of the return of Sihanouk from exile and Sihanouk's ninetieth birthday, CNV, 164, 30 Oct. 2011, in which Hun Sen, whilst still referring to Sihanouk as the ‘father of peace’, stops at emphasising ‘the brilliant reflection’ of Sihanouk and Monineath in ‘the creation of [the] policy of national reconciliation and healing’.
49 See, for example, Hun Sen, ‘Speech at Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jakarta, 16 Mar. 1999’, cited in Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen: Neayok Rothmontrey brosaut chenh pi trokaul kâsekâr [Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen: Prime minister born in a farmer's family], ed. Yiheang, Chhay (Phnom Penh: Ponleu Pech, 2007), p. 79Google Scholar.
50 In yet other speeches, Sdech Kân brings peace in a straightforward parallel to Hun Sen more than three hundred years later. See Hun Sen, ‘Inaugurating Buddhist temple in Serei Suosdei Pagoda’.
51 For speeches in which Sdech Kân's killing of Srey Sokonthor Bât is linked to the win-win policy, as the start and end-point of civil war respectively, see, for example, ‘Address to the closing session of the national conference: “Peace, national reconciliation and democracy building: Ten years after the Paris Peace Agreement”’, CNV, 45, 22 Oct. 2001; ‘Address on the occasion of the acceptance of the Honorary Doctorate Degree of Political Science from the University of Ramkhamhaeng, Kingdom of Thailand’, CNV, 46, 15 Nov. 2001; for a speech in which 1998 as the end-point of national division since the time of Sdech Kân is put explicitly in relation to the 1997 events, see ‘Inaugurating Bayon TV/Radio broadcast station’, CNV, 110, 11 Mar. 2007.
52 The RAC, the nation's highest academic body, falls directly under the Office of the Council of Ministers and its Minister DPM Sok An, Hun Sen's close associate. In April 2010, Hun Sen and Sok An were appointed as full members of the RAC, and in April 2011 Hun Sen was appointed its Honorary President.
53 Leclère, Histoire du Cambodge, p. 252, situates Srolop at the border of the historical provinces Tboung Khmom and Ba Phnom.
55 Hun Sen, ‘Visit of Samdech Hun Sen and Bun Rany to the former Royal City’.
56 These episodes from Hun Sen's and Bun Rany's life during the time of revolutionary struggle have been made famous through songs such as Tukkh srey bdey proat (The sorrow of a woman separated from her husband), authored by the PM himself. It is included in Samdech Hun Sen: Tossanah noyobay aphirok selobah aphivoddh sangkom neung chomrieng 115 bot [Samdech Hun Sen: Political thought, arts conservation, social development and 115 songs], ed. (Phnom Penh: Im Savoan, 2005)Google Scholar.
57 Sen, Hun, ‘Opening Junior High School Bun Rany — Hun Sen Memot’, CNV, 108, 5 Jan. 2007Google Scholar.
58 Although Hun Sen now claims to have joined the maquis in 1970 responding to Sihanouk's call to arms, during the PRK, he claimed to have joined the resistance in 1967, long before the anti-Sihanouk coup of 1970. For the former, see, for example, Chhay, Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, p. 32. On his claims during the PRK, see Kiernan, Ben, How Pol Pot came to power: A history of communism in Kampuchea, 1930–1975 (London: Verso, 1985), p. 254Google Scholar.
59 The consequence of aligning the neak tâsou narrative with that of Sdech Kân, is, evidently, how this shifts the enemy from the monarchy to the Khmer Rouge; and further serves to conceptually link the monarchy to the Khmer Rouge, as suggested above. This could also be read to indict Sihanouk, whose call to arms Hun Sen now claims to have motivated him to join the revolution which would go so frightfully wrong that he had to overturn it; emphasising Sihanouk's alleged complicity in the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea.
60 Ros, Preah Sdech Kân, p. 1; all citations from this book are the author's own translations.
61 Leang Delux, ‘History: Hun Sen finances a book about Sdach Korn’, Cambodge Soir, 29 Mar. 2007. A second edition was released in 2007. See Bo Proeuk, ‘Hun Sen-sponsored ‘Preah Sdach Korn’ book needs 2d edition to meet demand', Reaksmey Kampuchea, 25 Sep. 2007.
62 Ros, Preah Sdech Kân, pp. 3–4.
63 The seriousness with which Hun Sen takes allegations of being a traitor to the nation was highlighted by how he warned critics of the 7 January ceremony that anyone accusing him or senior government officials of being a ‘national traitor’ would be arrested. See Cheang Sokha and Rebecca Puddy, ‘Don't call me a traitor: PM’, Phnom Penh Post, 10 Jan. 2011.
67 Ros, Preah Sdech Kân, p. 271.
68 Hun Sen, ‘Preface’, pp. ii–iii.
70 In some of the PM's speeches, it is the very death of Srey Sokonthor Bât that marks the national democratic revolution. See Hun Sen, ‘Educational achievements in Kompong Thom's Santuk District’, CNV, 121, 11 Feb. 2008.
71 Sen, Hun, 13 tosâvot nei domnaoer Kampuchea [13 decades of Cambodia's evolution] (Phnom Penh: Pracheachon, 1991), pp. 76, 280Google Scholar.
72 Reflecting the transformation of regime identity with the transition to a free market economy, Kân is credited not only with having invented the Marxist term class struggle, but also commemorated for having introduced Cambodia's first monetary unit, the sleung. The National Bank of Cambodia has reproduced the sleung coin. See National Bank of Cambodia, ‘Cambodia ancient naga coin nordic-gold proof-like coin’, http://www.nbc.org.kh/english/nbc_gallery/more_info.php?id=4 (last accessed 1 July 2012).
73 Sihanouk stated that ‘we must go back to the past to find the veritable origins of a socialism that did not yet have this name. The installers of this socialism were our Kings of Angkor.’ Norodom Sihanouk, ‘Pour mieux comprendre le Cambodge actuel’, p. 18.
74 Statues of Sdech Kân's four closest aides, namely Oknhas Vieng, Veang, Lompeang and Sral (see Eng, Aekâsar Mohaboros Khmer, pp. 242–3), are being crafted at the time of writing, to accompany the statue in Srolop. Whilst it is unclear whether these are being made in the likeness of particular individuals, this possibility cannot be excluded.
75 One is equestrian and the other standing; one of these was commissioned by Hing Bun Heang, and the other by Bayon TV, owned by Hun Sen's daughter Hun Mana. A section of the Prime Minister's Bodyguard Unit is stationed at Preah Vihear.
76 The statues in Kep and at the Ministry of Commerce, both erected in 2010, were commissioned by Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh; the statue in Preah Vihear, erected in 2011, was reportedly commissioned by the son of four-star general Kun Kim, Deputy-Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) and chairman of Hun Sen's advisers; and the statue in Banteay Meanchey, yet to be erected, reportedly by governor of Banteay Meanchey province Ung Oeun and DPM Yim Chhay Ly.
77 Author's interview, Aug. 2011.
78 Chun Sakada, ‘Hun Sen statue removed after dust-up’, Voice of America (Khmer), 18 Jun. 2010.
79 Thompson, Ashley, ‘Angkor revisited: The state of statuary’, in What's the use of art: Asian visual and material culture in context, ed. Mrázek, Jan and Pitelka, Morgan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), p. 187Google Scholar.
81 Sophea, Hang Chan, ‘Stec Gaṃlaṅ’ and Yāy Deb: Worshipping kings and queens in Cambodia today', in History, Buddhism, and new religious movements in Cambodia, pp. 113, 125Google Scholar.
82 Hang, ‘Stec Gaṃlaṅ’ and Yāy Deb', p. 113.
83 A cement replica of Stec Gaṃlaṅ' was erected at Wat Unnalom in Phnom Penh by CPP officials ahead of the 1993 national elections, seemingly to compete with the royal cult — yet its cult turned out to be, in the words of Hang, a ‘discreet’ one. Ibid., pp. 122–3.
84 That association with royal statuary is an association primarily with national leadership rather than with kingship as such is clearly evidenced by an incident during the Khmer Republic, when the statue of Braḥ Aṅg Saṅkh Cakr, the Leper King, at the Phnom Penh riverfront was beheaded in an attack on Lon Nol, who as the national, Republican, leader at the time the statue was imagined to substitute for. See Marston, John and Guthrie, Elizabeth, ‘The icon of the Leper King’, in History, Buddhism, and new religious movements in Cambodia, pp. 87–8Google Scholar.
85 Hang, ‘Stec Gaṃlaṅ’ and Yāy Deb', pp. 113–14. Classical Cambodian portrait-statues typically represented kings, princes or high dignitaries after their death in their divine aspect. See Coedès, George, ‘Le portrait dans l'art khmer’, Arts Asiatiques, 7 (1960): 179–98Google Scholar; Saveros Pou, ‘Dieux et rois dans la pensée khmère ancienne’: 653–69; Thompson, ‘Angkor revisited’, explores the conceptual complexities of the portrait-statue in terms of the relationship between king and the god it represented, suggesting that the old Khmer portrait-statue ‘was and is conceived as the posthumous abode of the person/god embodied within, and as an embodiment of the reign of successive kings’ (p. 203).
86 The notion of invulnerability is well documented as central to social and political imaginations across Southeast Asia as a core of imaginings of the foundation of political power. See, for example, Turton, Andrew, ‘Invulnerability and local knowledge’, in Thai constructions of knowledge, ed. Manas, Chitakasem and Turton, Andrew (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1991), pp. 155–82Google Scholar; and Day, Tony, Fluid iron: State formation in Southeast Asia (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002)Google Scholar. Invulnerability is an important characteristic of both the neak mean bon and the Preah Bat Thommik. Turton, ‘Invulnerability’, p. 171; Khing, ‘Neak mean boun’, p. 10; Heng, ‘In search of’, p. 313.
87 Hang, ‘Stec Gaṃlaṅ’ and Yāy Deb', pp. 124–5.
88 Sihanouk phrased his return to Angkor after the 1997 events to ‘pay his respects to the statues’ as a metaphor for reestablishing peace and reconciliation in their wake. Thompson, ‘Angkor revisited’, p. 181. In 1998, Sihanouk and Queen Monineath sponsored a pavilion for Yāy Deb shortly before a summit to resolve conflict in the wake of the first national elections after the 1997 events. Hang, ‘Stec Gaṃlaṅ’ and Yāy Deb', p. 116.
89 See further Ashley Thompson (‘Angkor revisited’, pp. 203–6), who traces how the struggle for central authority through identification with monuments was bound up with the representation of the nation and borders at the time of the 2003 anti-Thai riots.