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Khmer Surin and their losing Identity

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

By Sarah Oliveira
Unofficial translation from French by Tola Ek

They are called “Khmer Surin” from the name of the province where they live, but for the majority of Cambodian people, they are exactly the same as their compatriots living in the northeast of Thailand. Nevertheless, Khmer people living north of the Dangrek mountain chain are borne out of the Khmer culture. They were separated from the motherland following the shrinking of the Khmer territory to the benefit of the neighboring Siam, and these Khmer people nowadays have Thai citizenship. Between them and Cambodian people, the border is nothing but a delineation on the maps, and one that is also ingrained in their heads.

“These are Siamese kramas (scarfs)!” a tailor in Phnom Penh burst at the sight of fabrics from Surin. When she is informed that they were woven by “Khmer Surin,” she continues to get mixed up: “Khmer Surin, they are Siamese,” she muttered. It is difficult to conceive that on the other side of the Thai border, those whom people call “Khmer Surin” constitute the same people, the same language … And even, according to the Cambodian ethnologist and historian Michel Tranet, there is no doubt that they are Khmer people.

A foremost geographical isolation

To understand the history of the people in the area, Michel Tranet suggested to completely forget about the concept of border. According to him, the presence of Khmer people in the province of Surin, Buriram, Sa Keo, Ubon, Sisaket, Trat and other provinces [currently in Thailand] took place since the Funan and Chenla eras, and even before those eras. “They have preserved a particular archaism in the Khmer language and culture because, living on high plateau, they were geographically isolated,” Michel Tranet explained.

The [Khmer] culture is preserved even though Cambodia lost the sovereignty on these territories since the 16 and 17th centuries (1). Nowadays, Khmer Surin are gradually tipping towards the Thai culture, the youths in particular. Other Khmer people in Thailand, especially in the province of Nakhon Ratchasima (Nokor Reach Seima in Khmer), taken over by Thailand in 1374, are completed blended with the Thai people. Currently, what is left of the Khmer culture are some temples, the most famous of which is the Phimaï temple. As for the Khmer culture, it has disappeared and the Khmer people living in this region do not speak their native language anymore. This phenomenon is not unique to Thailand: “In summary, one can consider that this is also taking place in the same manner for the Phnong people in Cambodia,” Michel Tranet underscored.

A political rift

Nowadays, contacts between Khmer Surin and the Cambodian people remain limited. Cambodian workers mainly cross the border through the Poipet border gate to look for work in Thailand, much to the south of Surin. Cambodian tourists visiting Surin are very rare even though there are a lot of sights that would impress them there: dozens of pre-Angkorian and Angkorian temples, as well as several Baray (water reservoirs) with imposing area extent. “One day, some Cambodians living in the border refugee camps, obtained the authorization to attend a conference in Surin. When they realized that we spoke Khmer also, they were so moved that they embraced us,” Thong Luang, an old villager from Phum Ponn, Surin, recalled.

It would be easily conceivable that Khmer Surin and the Cambodian people would have maintained strong links among themselves, even with a dividing border, the latter is not completely shut. According to Thong Luang, the main reason of the rift is political,” to hear him speak about it, this remnants of this rift still remain, in particular due to Norodom Sihanouk’s hostility towards Thailand.

To this political rift, there are other minor incidents and preconceived ill hardships which do not favor the warm up of the relationships between the two camps. “As soon as I cross the border, even just to buy fish, I am conned even if I speak Khmer with the sellers,” Thong Luang complained. As for Tim, a young Khmer Surin woman, she confessed that she does not actually understand what the meaning of “bombs excuse” she uses is, for her not to travel to Cambodia.

Chaimongkol, a fervent defender of the Khmer language in Surin, is concerned about the generalized state of corruption which exists in Cambodia – while recognizing that Thailand suffers from corruption as well, “but, to a lesser extent”. “There’s no need to eliminate corruption at 100%! A drop of 20% would be sufficient for now. Why not set a day where there is no corruption at all, a day in which everybody promises not to accept bribes?” Chaimongkol suggested with irony. Then, turning to a more serious tone, he confided: “If corruption does not back down in Cambodia, I believe that we will meet with catastrophe.”

Preab Sovath in Surin?

Lack of relationships, mutual misunderstanding, prejudice … If Cambodia is not tempting for young Tim, it was with emotion that she pronounced the name “Angkor.” Thong Luang had the opportunity to visit Cambodia already, the “Khmer from below” as he called it. He has photos showing him and his wife posing religiously in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, in front of Angkor Wat. While turning the pages of his photo album, Thong Luang said: “You know, this is not like traveling overseas. This is like going back to your own country, because, over there, everybody speaks Khmer…”

“Staking on cultural exchanges would be an effective mean to create a rapprochement with the Khmer from below,” said Thong Luang. On this subject, Chaimongkol is filled with ideas: “Why not inviting a ‘chapey’ player from Cambodia or even Preab Sovath [a Cambodian pop star singer] to give a show in our Phum Ponn village during the next New Year celebration?” Lum Leut, the Sino-Lao commune chief who also speaks some Khmer, said that he does not see any problem to this idea. “However, the commune cannot fund the event by itself,” he indicated. This year, during the New Year evening celebration organized by the commune, several Khmer Surin songs were added to Thai songs.

Would Preab Sovath – some of whose songs feature Khmer Suring ‘kamtreum’-style music – know that this Khmer Surin music was originally used for spirit possession ceremony? “It’s better off that the Cambodian people do not know about this, they could be scare of it, and they would stop listening to kantreum!” Chaimongkol said with a bursting laugh.

Researches end at the border

Among all the Cambodian historians, Michel Tranet is the exception, he is the only one closely interested in Khmer Surin. “Numerous Thais are conducting research on Khmer from northeast Thailand. But their views are biased because they have no choice. The Thais being a young people, their speeches are filled with politics and nationalist rhetoric,” he said. Nevertheless, Michel Tranet believes that his researches will not upset the Thais. It is not about taking back the territory, but to help them understand better the people living in their land.

Michel Tranet is sorry to see the lack of interest among Cambodians to research. And for the very few who dedicate their time to them, he deplored that their interest more often than not, stops at the border, or is limited to the Angkor period. He suggested a non-politic and not-cloistered approach closer to historic reality by studying the larger outreach of the Mon-Khmer culture.

Conducting research on the Khmer Surin culture allows a better knowledge of the Chenla history and the evolution of the Khmer language, Michel Tranet insisted. “Not to study the history of a people on all their territorial extent, and limiting it to a single era, it’s crippling it. The Angkorian period is only one tree, whereas the Mon-Khmer culture, it’s the forest. The goal of my research is to preserve the collective memory of an ancient people. By knowing where we came form, then we find our identity, our pride, our spirit.” As a historian, one must place oneself above the crowd, above the political disputes, in order to contribute to the building of a culture of peace, Michel Tranet concluded.
(1) Michel Tranet (2005). “History of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Alliance between the Khmer and Thai people from the 13th Century,” in Khmer.



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