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 did the 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 Khmer.

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 uplift Cambodia 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.

© 2003 Khmer Institute. All rights reserved.