King Norodom’s Capital 2

General des Essars’s absence of confidence in the ability of Cambodia to stand on its own feet was certainly not shared by its Prime Minister, S. E. Yem Sambaur, whom I visited next. Since the accumulation of wealth is considered rather ill-bred in post-Khmer Cambodia, there are few large fortunes and little ostentation among the Cambodians. The head of the State, beneath the King, lived in what looked like a six-roomed villa, furnished in European style with a sober good taste rarely seen in Western imitations in the Far East. I was surprised to find that although said to be about forty, His Excellency looked rather like a not too serious- minded undergraduate of about twenty-three. This extraordinary youthfulness was a thing I continually noticed about the people of Cambodia and Laos, my impression entirely contradicting that of the thirteenth-century Chinese traveller Chou Ta-Kouan, who wrote a unique account of the Khmers at the height of their power. Ta-Kouan found that the Cambodians of his day – and the race has suffered not the slightest change – aged very quickly. A Cambodian lady of twenty or thirty looked as old as a Chinese of forty or fifty. This is so far from being the case today that one wonders whether that heavy burden of glory the Khmers carried, the constant warrings and the exactions of taskmasters and divine kings, may not have been wearisome to the flesh as well as a vexation of spirit. Their descendants are without a care in the world and wear wonderfully well.
Yem Sambaur had the face of a dusky fawn. He laughed continually, especially when describing the atrocities committed by the French Foreign Legion in Cambodian villages. I found it surprising that the Prime Minister should express himself with such complete lack of restraint in political matters to a foreigner and an utter stranger. It was even odder that a French official of the Information Bureau should have arranged the visit. It was all very Cambodian; the unquenchable good humour of Sambaur, and that of the Frenchman too. He had been several years in Cambodia, he said, and would never leave it, if he could help it. He was literally turning into a Cambodian before one’s eyes and could have mingled quite easily with that serene group of functionaries I saw later at the Palace, and have avoided detection.
His Excellency, addressing me continually as Monsieur le directeur, spoke very seriously about relations with the French, although the sharpness of remarks never ruffled his seraphic expression. The Cam¬bodians had refused to sign the agreement by which Cambodia became ‘independent within the framework of the French Union’ because of several quite unacceptable provisions. The fact that Bao-Dai, the Emperor of Vietnam, had signed, did not influence them in the least. The first serious obstacle was that the minorities in Cambodia, in¬cluding the French, and of course the Chinese, could not be brought before Cambodian courts – an insult to a legal code recognised as one of the most humane in the world. The second objection was that French troops were to be allowed to operate on Cambodian soil. ‘We can take care of the Issarak, without French help,’ the Prime Minister said. ‘If the country were really independent there would be no Issarak. There would be no reason for them.’ As it was the French air force on the mere report that Issarak had been seen in them, bombed Cambodian villages off the face of the earth, or the Foreign Legion went into them and massacred the villagers; men, women and children. I asked if His Excellency were referring to isolated incidents, and still smiling broadly he told me that cases were reported to him every day.
And as a result, he said, the country people were turning to commu¬nism. Communism, Yem Sambaur thought, was singularly unsuited to the people of Cambodia; a country without industries and an urban proletariat, and with few rich landowners. But now it was being pre¬sented to the people as a way of salvation. That was why you had the phenomenon of Cambodian Issarak chiefs coming to terms with the hitherto detested Vietnamese – a totally unprecedented state of affairs. The best way to convert a villager to communism was to burn his house down and kill one or more members of his family. In this way you abolished a man’s inducements to lead a quiet, respectable existence. When you cut the bonds that tied a man to the existing order, he naturally became a bandit, and if you could persuade him that the communists would fight his enemies more ruthlessly than the others, well, he would be a communist too. And that was how the Issarak bands grew, and that was also why they were quite ready to provide themselves, if the Viet-Minh suggested it, with political commissars. ‘But then, of course,’ said His Excellency, still smiling, ‘the transition to communism is less difficult for an Asiatic, even for members of the upper classes. Perhaps we have less to lose. In any case, the prospect does not alarm us. There are times when one feels that perhaps it would be even better to be a little poorer, if at the same time one could be a little freer.’
Western architecture has always been impressed with the kolossal. Cities are dominated by dome, tower or turret; the acts of faith or monuments to fear. The spires of gothic cathedrals rising cliff-like above the roofs of a medieval town, are visible in some cases from such a distance that the surrounding buildings are concealed by the curvature of the earth’s surface.
In South-East Asia the motives that found their expression in this kind of building are absent, and it is only to be found in the ruined temples and mausolea of Angkor. Apart from the houses in European quarters, all buildings must be of a single storey, since there is an ancient and universal prohibition against standing directly above another’s head. This is so scrupulously observed that in Cambodia it is even illegal for a manacled prisoner to be lodged temporarily under the raised floor of the typical Cambodian house.

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