Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Apr 18, 2010 in Books, The Vietnam Project | 7 comments

Michael Vickery on The Evolution of the Cambodian State




The Centre For east Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco,

the Toyo Bunko, 1998

Michael Vickery is foremost an historian of ancient Cambodia. But he has also written about modern Cambodia. He is a Marxist, and his writing has a strong polemical current running throughout it. Even when he is agreeing with another historian it sounds like he is disagreeing. He is not afraid to take on the titans of his field. Thus, he has few good words for Oliver Wolters and is generally disdainful of Wolters’ mandala theory of Southeast Asian politics or his Big Man theory. Wolters, after writing on early Indonesian commerce, that is work as an economic historian, became increasingly interested first in sociology and later in literary criticism. Vickery shares these passions and concerns but as an avowed historical materialist he is distrustful of anything that smacks of idealist history. (“The reader will find nothing here about ‘mandalas’, ‘galactic polities’, ‘discourses’, or ‘resonating’). Moreover, while retaining a general theoretical orientation that is Marxist, he seeks for evidence in the actual epigraphic record of Cambodia, particularly those inscriptions written in Khmer, as opposed to Sanskrit. Thus he is critical of any effort to tie Cambodian historical development to India. He not only rejects strong versions of Indianization, but weaker ones too. It is his thesis that Cambodians adopted Indian titles, deities and culture as a way to establish new patterns of power and domination. His book covers the period of transition from traditional, dispersed, discreet Khmer polities to a unified state, with an inherited kingship passed down from father to son (as opposed to uncle to nephew).

Vickery has alienated a lot of people with his forays into contemporary Cambodian politics and society. This is where his Marxism has gotten him into trouble. His book Cambodia, 1975-1982 has been denounced as a denial of the Cambodian genocide. Partly this has to do with tone. Vickery is tone deaf. He seems almost gleeful in his debunking of the 2 million deaths and opts instead, based on a very close reading of diverse data, for a figure of 700,000. In his defense, he is clearly horrified by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. What he is out to debunk is not the assertion that they were a viscous and mutant form of leftist regime, but rather the distortions about what actually happened there. For Vickery, history should be based on an interpretation of verifiable fact. Hence, he counts the number of doctors in the country before Pol Pot came to power, estimates how many left the country, and then disputes the claim that Pol Pot murdered all of the doctors. What he does is contextualize the events of Pol Pot’s reign with ancient and contemporary Cambodian history. It is an unsettling picture, quite at odds with the image of Cambodia as a sleepy, peaceful, pastoral country destroyed by steely-eyed Communist sociopaths. Unfortunately, he was wrong about the death count. By he is not and was not a genocide denier, in the same sense that Gareth Porter and Noam Chomsky were. There is a fine book that was written to refute Vickery but which, in the end, recalculating the same data, came to similar conclusions. This is R.A. Burglar’s The Eyes of the Pineapple, a much more ‘pleasant’ book to read, in that the author is less combative and more humane in his treatment of the material. Both works are, apparently, dated. Those interested in the Cambodian Genocide should read widely if they wish to understand what really happened, and they will not come away with a rehabilitated Pol Pot, just a feeling of disgust for the United States, China, Lon Nol, Sihanouk and the other actors who made Pol Pot possible, going back to the 1950s. Ben Kiernan, Burglar and Vickery are all good, but there is more recent stuff out there.

Don’t let his tone or his work on Democratic Kampuchea put you off. Once you have waded through the tedious theoretical arguments about the Asiatic Mode of Production, Asiatic Despotism (and I wonder why Wittfogel and Marx and Engels, at this late date, need such a thorough washing). What he is doing is clearing the air for his detailed, close reading of the Khmer inscriptions, which he says have been misinterpreted or even ignored in favor of the Sanskrit. His engagement throughout is primarily with Coedes, who published the first translations of the corpus, and Claude Jacques, a French historian.

To give the flavour of the work as well as its intentions and some conclusions, here are some quotes:

“In the following chapters I shall study pore-Angkor Cambodia within the temporal limits of its contemporary records, the inscriptions—in particular, those in Khmer—from the early 7th to late 8th century. My preconceptions are consciously historical-materialist, and I seek to derive inferences useful for a study of modes of production, in particular the ‘Asiatic’, early state formation, and comparative social structure of ancient societies.

“I intend to explain how textbook pre-Angkor Cambodia came about, the preconceptions behind it, the sources on which it was based, what is wrong with it, and what a more satisfactory history should be.”

“This study is not a history of pre-Angkor Cambodia in the sense which most students of Southeast Asia have understood history. There is no narrative, and it is certainly not histoire evenementielle, history of events, or king-and-battle history, for there are hardly any events recorded in the contemporary record.  We do not know what any particular individual did at any particular time. There is not even a dated installation a ruler, nor a dated construction of an edifice. In the 7th-8th century inscriptions no battles are recorded nor decisions about justice, nor foreign relations. What is recorded are assignments of land, animals, and categories of people at specific times and places, or interactions between persons of rank and foundations, and these records taken together and studied in sequence reveal not events, but processes. They lend themselves to macro-history; in fact, that is all they are suitable for.”

“During the last millennium B.C supravillage communities, with populations of 500-2,000, had developed in areas of modern Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam’ and social stratification had occurred to the extent that there were at least chiefs and ordinary people. Among the inland communities there was overland trade in valuable and rare commodities, and the ships of coastal communities sailed at least as far as India.

“The first supravillage socio-political organization attested in the Cambodian area is known as ‘Funan’, the center of which appears to have been near the southern coast in what is now Cambodia or in adjacent areas of Vietnam. Most of this coastal region, except the Mekong and Bassac valleys in its eastern sector, and extending around the coast to what is now southeastern Thailand, is cut off from the Cambodian central plains by mountains, without any river channels to the coast. Level land suitable for agriculture is also sparse, and in its geography this coastal area bears much resemblance to Champa—a long, narrow coastal plain with scattered small areas of fertility.

“Funan controlled the coast and riverine outlets from the plains of southern and central Cambodia; and it was a maritime society along a trade route lining China, Southeast Asia, and India. Funan was probably not a unified polity, let alone an empire, but a group of allied ports, like Srivijaya, of which the most important was on the Cambodian or adjacent Vietnamese coast. It was a stratified society whose population practiced advanced techniques of water control and rice agriculture….

“A…hypothetical model…is that Funan and Chenla were never separate states. They may have represented different centers, even congeries of centers, within Cambodia, linked in loose political relationships, and at times rivals. The Chinese view of them as separate states, one vassal of the other, and ultimately conquering its suzerain, is inaccurate, a result of imposing Chinese political theory on an alien polity.

“With that assumption, of course, an explanation must be sought for the impetus to the Funan > Chenla shift….

“As the maritime trade of the coastal areas (Funan) had developed and declined in the 5th-6th centuries, they lost whatever political hegemony had prevailed to inland centers….The most powerful lineages [of ruling families or clans]and the kings whom they served and may have been family members, merely shifted the focus of their economic and political activity from the seacoast to agricultural areas inland. Class and state development which had begun in international and maritime trade continued in the exploitation of land and labor and the extraction of surplus from the agrarian heartland.”

“Whatever the Cambodian interests in the Mekong delta may have been, they were thwarted in the mid-8th century, when the political centre of Champa shifted to the south, to Panduranga near modern Nha Trang….

“The shift in Champa to the south, which apparently meant Cham neglect of their old northern capital, facilitated Cambodian expansion into that area through Cambodia’s Northeast, …a region rich in products important fin the international trade of the time…..

“Jayavarman II…migrated with his followers into the Northwest, where there was apparently no strong political center…while the Northeast was secured by allies….Then the capital of the new, much larger polity was established at Angkor, midway between [the two regions] and in a key location at the apex of the Tonle Sap, permitting control of the Tonle Sap, the Mekong, and the Northwestern riverine system linking Cambodia’s Northwest with the Gulf of Siam.

“Further expansion toward the Northeast was probably blocked when northern Champa became once again the Cham, political center in the 870s, just at the time when inscriptions begin to appear at Angkor in the reign of Indravarman. Thereafter, the dispersal of inscriptions indicates almost total disinterest in southern Cambodia and its coast, and concentration on exploitation of land and labor.”

Perhaps in the next post I will try to indicate what was happening in Vietnam, Champa and Srivijaya at this time. Vietnam was of course still under Chinese rule, and this is the height of the Srivijaya trading ‘empire’, the rise of which marginalized both Funan and Champa, as ships could sail directly between Sumatra and southern China without landing in Malaysia or coastal Southeast Asia. The Cham shift to the south was the result of being routed by the Vietnamese and Chinese, but the details of this will have to wait another day.
NOTE: 1/3/2013: a dissertation has crossed my desk that discusses all of this. I haven’t had time to read it, but since this is a heavily read post, here is the bibliographical info (the highlighted title is a link to Worldcat for the holdings):
Visnu and Harihara in the Art and Politics of Early Historic Southeast Asia
By Paul Andrew Lavy
University of California at Los Angeles


  1. I am a Japanese economic historian, retired professor of Kobe University. I published a book titled “The History of Srivijaya”2012,Mekong Publishing Co.,Tokyo. I have my HP in which I uproaded some English articles. I donated my book to UCLA library. If you are interested I will send you one copy.

  2. Dear Paul Andrew Lavy
    M. Vickery is a great historian. I especailly appreciate his criticism on Coedes.

  3. Professor Suzuki, Thank you for visiting my site. I have access to your book through Cornell University Library–I think I may actually already have it checked out, waiting to be read. I agree about Vickery, warts and all.Best to you! Jon

  4. very nice article….is there any chance to find out more personal details on Mr. Vickery?

  5. Hi Thor. Vickery has never contacted me. I don’t know anything about him really, other than his work. Thank you for reading!

  6. Dear Sir,
    I am a Retired Professor of I.I.T., Kanpur, India.My basic field was Metallurgy. I am also interested in the Southeast Asia, in particular its richness in gold. I am looking for the email id of Prof Takashi Suzuki, who authored the book- “The History of Srivijay under the tributary trade system of China”, 2012, Mekong Pub Co. I wish to communicate with him. I wonder if any one can help me.
    Thanking you,

  7. Dear R. K. Dube,
    I am not familiar with that book, though I have heard of the author. I wish i could help you. I certainly plan to read it. thank you so much for reading and commenting.
    Thank You,

    Jon Frankel


  1. លោក Michael Vickery (1931-2017) | តាម៉ាប់ យាយម៉ាប់ - […] Last Bender: Michael Vickery on The Evolution of the Cambodian State […]

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *