Photo by James Wheeler on

During yesterday’s post on monkey hate, I mentioned that many of the videos involved are made and uploaded to YouTube in Cambodia. However, merely accusing some people in that country of cruelty to monkeys without looking at it in a bit more detail is unfair. After all, England and Scotland are responsible for much of the state of the world today, invented the concentration camp and did all sorts of outrageous stuff, and still are, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to these countries or the people in them. It’s also simplistic and racist to think in terms of “those monkey-torturing Khmer bastards”. What actually led to this situation arising? What’s its history?

Nonetheless I am going to start from monkey hate and look at links to the state of affairs in the country, although I also want to talk about Pol Pot’s régime and the Khmer language and script. Apparently many people associate Cambodia with the Angkor Wat temple complex, but for whatever reason that isn’t what comes to mind first for me. As such, it’s easy for this to become quite negative, so I’m going to tak pains to avoid that.

Two aspects of the monkey hate situation seem to interact to make Cambodia the centre of this activity. One is the ecology of the country. Cambodia is particularly biodiverse, although it isn’t one of the seventeen megadiverse countries declared in 1988. Then again, neither is Italy and that’s a biodiversity hot spot. Tonlé Sap is a large freshwater lake which floods the surrounding area every wet season and has an associated river, a tributary of the Mekong. It has a maximum area of about 16 000 km2 and a minimum of 2 500. The name simply means “large freshwater river”.

© WWF / Zeb HOGAN, will be removed on request

It’s the home of the largest species of freshwater bony fish in the world, and in fact the Mekong has four out of ten of the largest such species, including the giant freshwater stingray, a cartilaginous fish, unusual for fresh water environments although there are a freshwater sharks in Australia.

By User:Lerdsuwa – Own photo (400D + 50/1.4), CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Giant Barb, up to three metres long and almost a third of a tonne in weight, is exceeded in size by the seven metre long Chinese paddlefish, a swordfish-like animal who may be extinct (and didn’t live in the Mekong):

The dog-eating catfish, however, does. Then again, these are also kept in a Staffordshire lake where they’ve eaten all the mink. The critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin also lives in the Mekong:

By Foto: Stefan Brending, Lizenz: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

As well as humans, Cambodian primates include the prosimian slow loris (three species), seven species of Old World monkey and two species of lesser ape (gibbons). Colugos and three species of tupaia are also found, all of whom are euarchonta and the colugo, or flying “lemur”, is even more closely related to primates:

By Lip Kee Yap. – Flickr: Colugo., CC BY-SA 2.0,

There are also pitcher plants, insectivorous plants which are also detritovores and used by tupaias as toilets. Gymnures, furry hedgehogs, are found there too:

Not to mention dugongs, Asian elephants, pangolins, rhinos and a total of 162 species of mammal, along with even more reptiles. Many species are also found in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and there are also likely to be many species of plant and animal still unknown to science.

Gambodge, which is also the French word for “Cambodia”, is a yellow pigment used to dye robes saffron taken from latex found in trees in the same order, but not family, as St John’s Wort and Rose of Sharon. It has been used medically but is a stimulating laxative, so it belongs in the heroic rather than the physiomedical tradition. It occurs in Cambodia but not uniquely so, and also produces a fruit which is used as a dangerous weight loss supplement. In that context the word “dangerous” is redundant. Show me even a relatively safe weight loss supplement and I will be very surprised!

The country is undergoing a period of very rapid economic growth, which has led to threats to these organisms’ habitats such as deforestation, overfishing and threats to mangrove swamps. As is usual in rainforest areas, the soil is of poor quality for growing crops and unsustainable agriculture leads to soil erosion. In spite of the availability of copious fresh water, there is actually a water shortage there, and it shares with Laos the presence of a very large number of land mines. There are more amputees per capita in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world and the number is rapidly growing due to the land mines.

Getting back to the ecology, the opportunity exists for exploitation of wildlife by individuals, and there’s also a motive in the form of the economic situation. There is very little regulation of industry in Cambodia. I know I own many garments which were made there, as clothing is one of the major business sectors along with footwear, and nowadays there’s also tourism. It’s common to see people set up petrol stations on street corners consisting of little more than a pump and a barrel of petrol, and there’s a culture of entepreneurship and innovation there of necessity. Unfortunately the lack of regulation also makes the country rife with child trafficking for illegal adoption. Poor parents often sell their children for a few hundred US dollars to gangs who then forge orphan certificates, and I imagine there are also a lot of orphans in Cambodia owing to all the land mines, and the children are often adopted by wealthy Westerners, and possibly become sex slaves. In view of this practice, it’s unsurprising that monkey hate has found Cambodia a fertile source of videos.

The impression I’m left with here is of a fairly desperate and poor population which is looking for opportunities to make enough money to live on, and presumably has a low degree of empathy for monkeys, and this is the result. I don’t think they are themselves sadistic. They simply know what appeals and gets views on YouTube, so this is what they do.

There are about five dozen macaques living in Angkor Wat who are famous for taking food from human tourists. They also bite and are a rabies risk, and they’re aggressive. Therefore it is possible that human attitudes towards monkeys among the Khmer themselves are quite negative.

Angkor Wat itself used to be the centre of the largest Asian city of pre-industrial times, the capital of the Khmer Empire, also known as  យសោធរបុរៈ or Yasodharapura, which may have had a population of a million, which is the same as Imperial Rome. Almost the whole population of the country is Theravada Buddhist, at least nominally. This is also referred to as Hinayana – the lesser vehicle. I presume you’re familiar enough with Buddhism not to need further exposition, although the practice and lifestyle of people following a particular faith may not adhere particularly close to the principles involved. Not a criticism of the Khmer, just an observation about the human condition.

Anyone who has memories of the 1970s will be aware of the reputation of Pol Pot. As I’ve said before, it is important not just to be negative about a far-away country, but his era can’t really be passed over without comment. Pol Pot was the nickname of the dictator whose birth name was Saloth Sar. Born in 1925 into wealthy conditions, Saloth Sar gained a scholarship to study engineering in Paris as a student, where he met up with other Khmer radicals and attempted to read Marx but couldn’t understand him, so he read Stalin instead and found him considerably more inspiring. He failed his exams and returned to Cambodia. I think it’s fair to claim that he was not truly communist because he didn’t understand Marx. However, he was an ally of nominally Marxist régimes, mainly because Mao Zedong regarded him as a useful tool against Soviet dominance in Southeast Asia. The French Indochinese era ended under the Vichy régime during World War II, when they allowed Japan to take control in order that Japan have easier access to China. In 1945, Japan ratified the King Norom Sihanouk’s (នរោត្តម សីហនុ – the order of the words is inverted like many other personal names which don’t use the “standard” Western order) independent kingdom. He abdicated after ten years and formed a political party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (សង្គមរាស្ត្រនិយម), whose ideology was conservative Theravada Buddhism, monarchism, nationalism and conservatism. It claimed to be socialist but this was completely groundless by any estimation. The party won the election, all opposition party having been imprisoned. I mention this to put it in context. Pol Pot’s régime didn’t just appear on its own out of a liberal democratic social order. A policy of neutrality was adopted but during the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese troops moved supplies and weapons through the north, resulting in Richard Nixon secretly bombing Cambodia, as Laos had been a few years earlier. When this became publicly known in the States, it turned opinion decisively against the war and Pol Pot’s guerilla movement referred to as the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the anti-American outrage this generated to recruit the Khmer to their cause. This is roughly the point at which he started to refer to himself as Pol Pot, which seems to be short for “Political Potential”. Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol while abroad and Pol Pot entered into an alliance with the king, with the result that many of the Khmer Rouge recruits saw themselves as fighting for the King rather than for the apparent communism of the movement.

Over the next few years, the Khmer Rouge managed to take control of large areas of territory, where the farms were collectivised, very much against the will of the peasants, many of whom slaughtered the animals rather than allowing them to be shared. The movement attempted to cast the whole population in the image of the peasantry, having them wear shoes made from car tyres and dress in black with a red krama, which is a multipurpose scarf eventually used by many Khmer to hang themselves when they found the social order unbearable. Rather than seeking to equalise by levelling up, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge chose to equalise down, executing many of the more educated and the clergy and emptying the cities to have the populace work on the collective farms. Many artifacts of modern technology and Western life were destroyed or abandoned as capitalist, and there were piles of banknotes blowing around on the streets of the deserted Phnom Penh because money had been abolished. Two and a half million people are said to have been killed by the new government in the second half of the 1970s, although to Cambodia the calendar was reset to Year Zero in 1975 as part of the rejection of all culture and traditions so that a new revolutionary culture be formed. The famous Killing Fields (វាលពិឃាត – veal pikheat) were mass graves of more than a million people, and about a third of the country’s population were killed by the government. The country was also de-industrialised. Pol Pot had studied the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution thoroughly and seems to have attempted to emulate it. Life expectancy in Cambodia in 1977 was just eighteen years. Many of them were also killed through forced labour. Even the hospitals were emptied of their patients, and they were forced to march out of Phnom Penh in the sweltering conditions, and of course many of them died too. There was no intermediate stage where former bosses played a part in constructing the society, even though the Chinese had warned them not to attempt this. Thousands of teachers were executed, as were medical staff, and anyone wearing glasses or a wristwatch.

Unemployment fell to zero although with the abolition of money, and incidentally therefore banks, this doesn’t mean paid work. A democratic assembly was elected, which would’ve been for a five-year term, representing only peasants, workers and members of the armed forces. Those deemed to be “New People” did not participate. Workers’ Coöperatives had administrative control in some locations. They maintained a close relationship with China and North Korea.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this time, although it was clearly notorious and can’t be ignored. I first learned of the situation in Cambodia through the ‘Readers’ Digest’ in 1977 and of course there was a famous ‘Blue Peter’ appeal in 1979 which achieved its target in less than a week. The appeal was possible because at the beginning of 1979, Vietnamese troops had taken control of Phnom Penh and imposed a more moderate government. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the forests and holed up in Thailand. After that, something complicated happened that I didn’t understand, involving a coalition government and government in exile, linked to Chinese disquiet at Vietnamese influence over the country, until 1993 when it became a kingdom again and appeared to have a democratic government with wider suffrage than previously. There was then a coup in 1997 and an election the following year which was probably marred by violence and intimidation. Today’s situation is described as “a competitive authoritarian régime”. This kind of governmental situation arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and consists of apparently democratic structures agreed to be the means of gaining power but the party in power abuses that power to undermine democracy. However, opposition groups are not subject to imprisonment or the need to operate in exile. They lack at least one of the three characteristics of a level playing field, free elections or civil liberties. Clearly Trump was trying to push the US further in this direction and the situation in this country also has elements of this, although it’s hard to assess to what extent.

One of the consequences of this seems to have been the current degree of corruption and laissez-faire, hands-off approach which has allowed the child trafficking to thrive, along with the monkey hate. Hence I think there’s now a fairly clear picture of how this has happened.

The Khmer Rouge have influenced the demographics of the country considerably. Half the population is now under twenty, mainly because of the murder of a third of the country. Technically, however, this mass murder was not genocide because it wasn’t based on ethnicity or religion. Although religion was persecuted, and the Christian and Muslim minorities in the country were killed on the basis of being a Western influence (which seems strange for someone living in Western Europe as Islam seems eastern for many non-Islamic White people here and is similarly the basis for persecution), the majority of the people killed were simply Khmer and nominally Theravada Buddhists like their killers and most of the rest of the country. The killing is therefore atypical in some ways. There is a potential legal problem here because it means that definitions of the crime of genocide miss out such events and provide a defence, so it may be quite important to recognise this crime for what it is or extend the scope in order to deter the chances of this happening again. It was, in a way, a different kind of phenomenon with different causes.

I want to turn now to the Khmer language. This is in the Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic language family, a group of languages found in Eastern India and Indochina. Although it’s in the same family as Vietnamese, the two are far from mutually comprehensible but there is some mutual intelligibility with Thai and Lao due, I imagine, to shared vocabulary, suggesting that there’s a Southeast Asian Sprachbund, where languages in close proximity acquire each others’ characteristics. Khmer is unusual in the area for not being tonal. During the French occupation, there was an attempt to romanise the language, which was, however, abandoned and therefore the script now used is the traditional Khmer script, which is a Brahmi-based abugida related to the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit and Hindi. An abugida is an alphabet-like script but with an assumed inherent vowel following each consonant which is only omitted by using a cancellation symbol or a vowel diacritic or other addition to the consonant. It looks a bit like Thai and Lao but is more “crenellated”, like it has turrets at the top. The Khmer script came to my attention in 1977 when it was mentioned in the Guinness Book Of Records as being the “longest alphabet”, with six dozen letters, although more recent claims say that it has two more and others that it has fewer. This seems to be due to the probability that some of the letters are only used to write foreign loanwords but are pronounced identically to other sounds in Khmer. In its case, the inherent vowel is the long /ɑ/ found in all spoken languages (or something very close to it is), meaning that the script may be adaptable to other tongues but it is in fact only used for Khmer itself and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Some consonants have an inherent “o” instead. Every consonant but one has a subscript form used in consonant clusters. In addition, there are ten consonants used in loanwords from French and Thai.

Cambodia is unsurprisingly the only country in which Khmer is the majority language. The other languages spoken there are also Mon-Khmer, but French and English are used in education. Transliteration of Khmer into Latin script is very inaccurate, so for example “Khmer” is pronounced something like “kumai”. Unlike some other related languages, Khmer has borrowed extensively from Sanskrit and Pali and is therefore not as unfamiliar to an Indo-European language speaker than might be expected from its Austroasiatic origin. Despite considerable attempts to do so, I’ve been unable to penetrate Mon-Khmer languages and get any kind of feel for them, which is unusual for a language family originating in the Old World or Oceania, but this may be due to the absence of Mon-Khmer languages from a global stage since none of them are internationally prominent beyond the immediate region around Indochina and east India. Like many Far Eastern languages, it has levels of respect, using kinship terms to refer to non-relatives. During Pol Pot’s time, this respect language was abandoned but has now returned. It’s an analytical language, that is, there are no inflections, so in that respect it’s very easy.

Cambodian food is quite well-known and eating insects deliberately is the norm in the country. Freshwater fish is commonly eaten, and is along with insects the main source of protein in the diet. The nutritional quality of the fruit and vegetables is particularly high compared to some other parts of the world. The fruits are conceptually organised into a royal court, with queen, king, princess and so forth, which are mangosteen, durian and milkfruit respectively. There’s also a lot of rice and noodles.

That, then, goes some way towards painting a rather more complete picture of the Kingdom of Cambodia than yesterday’s post managed to do. I just didn’t want to leave it looking like I had an irredeemably stereotypical and negative view of the country. Obviously the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot had a devastatingly negative impact on it, and this is probably what most of us know about the nation, so although this can’t be ignored, it isn’t all there is to it.