An understanding of Khmer characteristics

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The bas-reliefs at Bayon temple show how strong and heroic Khmer warriors fought against foreign forces. Reuters

There are several qualities of ‘Khmer characteristics’ that Cambodia can aspire to when one observes the Angkor period and it is high time they be revived, argues Sim Vireak.

Now that Cambodia is enjoying sustained peace, at least for the last twenty years, the majority of Cambodian people have had the chance to embrace education. The Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2015 report shows that the adult literacy rate has increased to 80.5 percent.

The state budget for education reached $850 million last year, a record quarter of the overall government budget. The state also aims to equip every district with a high school, every commune a junior high school and every village a primary school.

While access to primary education level was 93.5 percent for the 2016-2017 school year, only 55.7 percent and 25.1 percent have enrolled in lower and upper secondary level. The figures also show that 20.7 percent have no education, 36 percent have some education and only 22 percent with primary level completion. And only 16.7 percent have completed secondary education.

Even Cambodia is still at its early stage of institutional building. With this figure, Cambodia has reasons to hope that “Khmer characteristics” will never be the same as the war-time period.

So then, what should we call “Khmer characteristics” – the qualities that Cambodians should aspire to? What are the qualities that all Khmers can draw as a common line of identity and kinship? What are the Khmer qualities that future generations should proudly learn to shape themselves?

Indeed, there are several qualities of “Khmer characteristics” that Cambodia can aspire to when one observes the Angkor period – the period when the Khmer empire reached its height of civilization. Here I would like to raise four qualities that I think can identify the high value of “Khmer characteristics”. These are mercy, tolerance and kindness; respect for ancestors and seniors; diligence, teamwork and unity; and strong fighting spirit.

I call these qualities as the qualities of “Khmer-Angkor builders” and “Khmer-Angkor warriors.”

Mercy, tolerance and kindness

Mercy, tolerance and kindness was one of the Brahma-Viharas or four sublime states of mind which are Loving-kindness (metta); Compassion (karuna); Sympathetic Joy (mudita); Equanimity (upekkha) in Pali. Among many explanations, the four-faces of Bayon temple were said to symbolise these four qualities of leadership of Khmer revered kings.

Examples still abound today. Even after nearly a century of French colonisation and heavy bombing by the US, it is hard to say that Cambodian people hold any grudge against the French and the Americans.

The ways that Khmer people can live side by side putting behind all past atrocities and internal fighting with the Khmer Rouge guerilla forces, represents a high level of tolerance of the Khmer people. Such peaceful co-existence was the key to the current peace and is often unthinkable for any society in the world with a long history of communal violence.

Respect for ancestors and seniors

A Western friend wept when he joined our family in paying respect to our grandparents’ graves. He said that Khmer people still respected their parents even if they had passed away which was not the case for him when he has to live all by himself without his children’s care.

Strong family bonds and respect for seniors, parents and ancestors are still strongly rooted in Khmer culture and tradition despite the country’s current economic advancement and social modernization.

Without this quality, knowledge, tradition and art mastership cannot be passed down through generations. And the accumulation of expertise cannot be realized either. Before the beginning of most Khmer cultural shows, there is always a small ceremony that involves paying respect to ancestors.

Perfectionism and refinement of the Banteay Srey temple, the beautiful Khmer Royal Ballet and Unesco heritage sites of Khmer origin are not something that can be formulated within a generation.

This quality is how Khmer people protect and respect their past achievements while they further pursue continued national construction and endless perfection.

Diligence, teamwork and unity

This is interconnected with the previous quality. The continuation of expertise is linked with diligence and strong teamwork that the Khmer people can achieve.

One wrong carving stroke can ruin the already accumulated stones. The deep carvings of the Banteay Srey bas-reliefs are nothing but perfection with intense diligence. A temple that was built over the course of 20 to 30 years means that teamwork and unity is an absolute requirement to sustain the long construction of each masterpiece as well as consistency of architectural styles and structures.

Fighting spirit

When one discusses about Khmer fighting spirit, there is always a negative connotation about it. People often remark that this genetic trait is the root cause of endless Khmer internal fights.

This is incorrect because the spirit of the “Angkor Warrior” was founded on how the Khmer people resisted against foreign invasions. This spirit is not the cause of inter-Khmer fights. The bas-reliefs at Bayon temple show how strong and heroic Khmer warriors fought against foreign forces.

Later heroes such as the legend of Oknha Khleang Moeang also symbolises the fighting spirit of the Khmer people. Instead of accepting surrender, this legendary army commander killed himself to gather the army of ghosts to support Khmer soldiers, in their battle fight against foreign invaders. This was the strong fighting spirit in ancient times, which is somewhat similar to Japan’s Samurai spirit that opts for honorable death instead of defeat.

The fighting spirit to protect sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity remains the same even today.

In modern times, fighting is not about wars but about competition in knowledge advancement and economic modernization. The Khmer fighting spirit should further encompass Cambodians and spur them to drive themselves to compete in the region and the world – in all competitive areas of positive development.

This is my humble attempt to draw out discussion on the role models of “Khmer characteristics” for future generations. Let the Cambodian people re-ignite the spirit of “Khmer-Angkor builders” and “Khmer-Angkor warriors” for a future of sustained peace and prosperity for all Khmer peoples.

Sim Vireak is strategic advisor to Asian Vision Institute (AVI), which will be officially launched this month.


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