Who is Khmer?
by Visna Sann
Santa Ana, CA
I learned a great deal about Khmer mentality in a book by Mr. Bun Chanmol
entitled Charet Khmer (“Khmer Attitude”). Bun Chanmol was a
founder of the Khmer Issarak - a group of Khmer freedom fighters
organized to fight against French colonialism in Cambodia. In reflecting upon
Khmer history, he saw that Khmer leaders were always
looking to their neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam,
for help in battling one another for power. Each
warring faction was jealous of the other. Each
believed that the other was like a small tree
that continuously grew in strength and power and had to be cut down
before it grew too large. As such, its leaves had to be plucked,
its branches had to be severed. Ultimately, this meant Khmers had to kill Khmers.
Cambodia grew weaker and weaker
because of this kind of Charet Khmer and could
not defend herself from foreign invaders. Bun Chanmol insisted that we must change our
behaviors and attitudes if we are to make our country and
people strong again. He believed and preached that Khmer should not
fight against Khmer. Some Khmer Issarak did not heed Bun Chanmol’s words and
betrayed his teachings, however. To his distress, they used
violence against other Khmer whom they suspected
of working for the French authority.
Although I agree with Bun Chanmol’s philosophy that Khmer should not fight against
Khmer, I believe he overlooks the question “Who is Khmer?” Some Cambodians adhere
to a policy of exclusion in which only 100% ethnic Khmers may be considered Khmer.
In my opinion, this policy of exclusion has contributed to our
country's decline in the same way as Khmer fighting against Khmer.
I will attempt to illustrate what I mean by “the policy of exclusion”
through an incident in my life that took place when I was living
in Palm Springs, California. In 1990, an old
Chinese-Khmer man walked into the donut shop
where I was working. He approached me and asked, “Are
you Khmer?” I answered, “Yes, I am Khmer.” As we continued our
conversation he told me of
prejudices he had encountered in the Cambodian
community because he is a Khmer of Chinese
heritage. Although he was working in the
community to help new refugees who had just come
to the United States, he was not seen as Khmer
but rather as Chinese. He explained that this
rejection by his people saddened him. He thinks of
himself as a Khmer. He was born in Cambodia and
his heart is Khmer. The old Sino-Khmer man then told me about Thailand.
He said that the Thai government’s policy is to
consider all ethnic Chinese as Thai even though some
ethnic Chinese refuse to be called Thai. The
old man noted that their policy is one of
inclusion. He believes that this is one reason
why Thailand is strong and proposed that
Khmer should learn from the Thai and adopt a similar policy.
In contrast to this inclusion policy, Cambodia has a policy of exclusion.
In 1984, when I was living in Phnom Penh, the
Vietnamese-backed communist regime led by Heng
Samrin conducted a census. The census taker came
to my uncle’s house and proceeded to register him
as Chinese. His Chinese-sounding first name and
his having a Sino-Khmer wife were the grounds for
labeling him ethnic Chinese. My uncle felt
betrayed and insulted.
My uncle’s last name is Khmer, his mind is Khmer,
and his heart is Khmer. And ethnically he is Khmer. Only after great protest
census taker agree to classify him as Khmer. I
remember my uncle telling me of similar incidences
that had also happened to his friends. The census
taker wanted to label them as Chinese simply because
they had light skin. Their reaction was to challenge the census taker to take a
test to see who knew more about Khmer
literature, culture and history in order to prove
that they were
I observed discrimination again when I was
fleeing the Vietnamese-backed communist regime.
The so-called non-communist freedom fighters at
the Cambodian-Thai border labeled everyone with
light skin as Chinese or chrook (pig). They
extorted a lot of money
from light-skinned Khmer trying to escape the regime against whom the freedom
fighters were fighting. Here in America, a Long Beach-based Khmer newspaper
posthumously insulted Dr. Haing Ngor, a Cambodian
Oscar winner who starred in the movie “The Killing Fields,” by claiming he
was Chinese or Vietnamese rather than Khmer. I believe the newspaper
made these assertions because the writer did not like Dr. Ngor
personally, did not like his politics, or simply
because his name sounds Chinese or Vietnamese.
I am disturbed by these examples of exclusion, and believe
we need to change this aspect of Charet Khmer.
We should not label and name-call one
another. We cannot afford to exclude our own
people, whether they are of Chinese or Khmer
descent. Besides, who is Khmer? And who decides
who is Khmer and who is not?
I believe that you
are Khmer if you are born in Cambodia. I believe
that you are Khmer if your heart and mind is Khmer. I believe that those who help
and her people are Khmer.
The old man in my donut shop was not ashamed of being Khmer of
Chinese descent. In fact, many
of us are of mixed heritage. My maternal
grandfather is Chinese. He married my grandmother
who is Sino-Khmer. My dad’s parents were probably
Khmer or Sino-Khmer. I think of myself simply as
a Khmer because I was born in Srok Khmer (“Land of the Khmer”),
grew up there, and am familiar with her
culture, history, landscape, and people. I
love everything about Khmer but the negative mentality.
Someone once said, “respect is a two-way street.”
There are some Khmer of Chinese origin who look
down on the native Khmer. Those people
improperly think that the native Khmer are lazy or
not smart. Those who think that way also
need to abandon their destructive mentality.
Since the Khmer Rouge genocide, Cambodia has
been a country in need of many things. In order
to rebuild her, all Khmer need to
work together. Bun Chanmol was right to say that
Khmer should not fight Khmer, but we need to
include in the definition of who is Khmer those non-ethnic Khmer who also live in and love Cambodia.
We need unity between and among all
Cambodians, because all those who live in the Land of the Khmer share one destiny.
Note: The term "Khmer" in the Khmer language denotes
ethnicity as well as nationality. Hence, the designation Khmer would not require a renunciation of ones ethnic background.