Interview with Professor David Chandler

This post is part of New Mandala’s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field. The seventh in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Emeritus Professor David Chandler

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Chandler, it is a great pleasure to have you involved in the New Mandala interview series. I hope you find this an interesting opportunity to tell us more about Cambodian history and your career as one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Southeast Asia. Most New Mandala readers will probably not know that in June 2006 the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh inaugurated a conference room named in your honour in their new building. You were, of course, posted to Phnom Penh from 1960 to 1962 as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. You left the Foreign Service a few years later. Can you tell us some more about your first experiences in Southeast Asia? What was it like to work in the Embassy in Cambodia? When did you decide that life, as a diplomat was not for you?

Professor David Chandler: Over the years, people have often asked me how I became interested in Cambodia. Like many things in my life so far, my decision to work there was a combination of desire and luck.

In early 1959, after a few months in the US Foreign Service, I was asked like other newcomers to set out my preferences for overseas postings. Where was I to go? I was twenty-six years old and single. I had just completed eight months as a college lecturer in Puerto Rico. Behind that lay two years marking time as a typist in the Army in Washington DC, a year of graduate work and four years of college, where I had majored in English. I had come into the Foreign Service without precise, long-term ambitions. I saw myself less as a potential diplomat than as a writer, and more specifically as a poet. I hoped that a diplomatic career would feed and support my writing habit. I compared myself (while talking to myself) to the French poet-diplomats Paul Claudel and St-Jean Perse. Claudel, incidentally, when he visited Angkor in the 1920s had found it “one of the most accursed…evil places that I know”.

So where was I to go? Southeast Asia beckoned, although I forget exactly why. I began asking people about the region. A cousin whom I liked had just come back from a couple of years in Bangkok. He suggested that I go to Cambodia, about which I knew nothing. I think he said it was “more authentic” than Thailand. I was an Orientalist without knowing it, I guess, and the word “authentic” settled the issue. I volunteered for a Cambodian posting, to be preceded by Khmer language training at the Foreign Service Institute.

When classes ended in September 1960 I drove to San Francisco to put my second hand convertible onto a ship. After a couple of days relishing my first encounter with California, I flew to Hong Kong where I was measured for the white suit with two pairs of trousers that was the required diplomatic costume for a tropical posting in those days. In late October, I landed in Phnom Penh. As I’ve said many times, the sight of cows being chased off the runway by determined women with sticks foreshadowed some of the rackety charm and “otherness” of Cambodia that has nourished my affection for the country and its people ever since.

Over the next two years, I slowly assembled what the novelist Louis Auchincloss, quoting Henry James, has called a writer’s capital – the fund of memories, friendships, insights and encounters that continue to sustain me after four decades of thinking, writing and talking about Cambodia.

I left the Foreign Service in July 1966, after an uninteresting tour of duty in Colombia and a more interesting stint in Washington as the training officer for junior diplomats headed for Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thanks for that.  New Mandala readers looking to learn more about your early years in Cambodia can check out this forthcoming publication (from which the previous is only a brief extract). ((Professor Chandler’s memoir “Coming to Cambodia” will appear in Anne Hansen and Judy  Ledgerwood, (eds)  At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia in Honor of David Chandler. Ithaca NY Cornell University Southeast  Asia Program, 2008)) It’s a fascinating read. 

Since that time, you have gone on to enjoy a long and very productive career as an academic historian. In recent years you have been described as “a world-renowned Cambodia expert”, “the leading English-language historian of Cambodia” and “arguably the West’s foremost authority on Cambodia”. The University of Washington’s Professor Charles Keyes has written that your “knowledge of Cambodian history…is unparalleled”. Why did you first decide to become an historian of Southeast Asia? Did you ever think that, one day, you would become so well-known or well-respected in the field?

Professor Chandler: I decided to become an historian of Southeast Asia when I enrolled in graduate school at Yale in 1966. When I was there (I moved to the University of Michigan in 1968) I fell under the spell of the great French savant of Indo-China, Paul Mus. As for your second question, I had no idea where I would “stand” 41 years later. I’m delighted nowadays to have so many talented younger colleagues in the field.

Nicholas Farrelly: Of course, not everybody sings your praises. Dr Naranhkiri Tith, for example, has said that “Most Cambodians know of Mr. Chandler. But, what they may not know is the fact that he is a left-leaning ideologue who was one of the early defenders of Pot Pot revolution. When Vietnam turned against Pol Pot, Chandler, like other pro-Vietnamese academics, turned allegiance against Pol Pot to support Hun Sen”. How do you respond to this kind of criticism?

Professor Chandler: I know Kiri quite well. He can be very bitter, and very nice. I am not left leaning, and I never supported the Cambodian revolution. When it began I tried to understand it and understand why people were joining it. I felt then and I feel now that merely condemning it was an insufficient response for a scholar. In 1979 I believed that the collapse of the Pol Pot regime was a welcome development. I have never “supported” Hun Sen or the Vietnamese-backed PRK.

Nicholas Farrelly: At Monash University you were a Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor (from 1972), the Director of the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (from 1979 to 1997), and Professor of History (1993 to 1997). Since then you have held positions at major Universities around the world. Based on all that you have seen over these years, do you envision a strong future for Southeast Asian Studies in Australia? In your opinion, what could Australian Universities with large Asian Studies programs be doing better?

Professor Chandler: These days, I’m out of touch wiuth what is going on in Asian Studies, aside from developments at Monash. There certainly seems to be a future for Asian studies in Australa, widening out of Southeast Asia perhaps to an extent. South Asia, for instance, is drawing increased attention. Indonesian studies will always remain strong, and the fields of Vietnamese and Thai studies, primarily at the ANU, are also vigorous. The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) does excellent work.  I think Asian Studies would benefit from greater government support, of the sort that the subject received under the Hawke and Keating governments.

Nicholas Farrelly: On to the focus of much of your academic work: Cambodia. Many New Mandala readers will know that you wrote what is, I expect, the most widely read book about Pol Pot, 1992’s Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot. What was your experience of writing that book? I imagine it was, at times, a difficult and frustrating process. It would be good if you could tell us something of your personal journey as the biographer of one of last century’s most notorious personalities.

Professor Chandler: It was great fun. I have always liked reading biographies, and being asked to write one was a pleasing challenge. I did the research for Brother Number One at the same time I was working on The Tragedy of Cambodian History, which appeared in 1991, because the time-span covered by the two books overlapped. I was only able to get a visa for Cambodia toward the end of 1990, when I was able to see some previously unstudied Democratic Kampuchea documents, and also to talk to Pol Pot’s brother.I wrote most of Brother in Australia in 1991, finishing it in Paris in March 1992. Between 1987 and finishing the book, I had carried out over a hundred interviews with over a hundred people in Australia, Cambodia , Canada, France, Thailand and the United States. It was fascinating to track the secretive and enigmatic Pol Pot through whatever sources I could find, some discovered serendipitously, or it seemed almost by accident. Philip Short’s later biography, which I admire, drew on a wider range of oral sources because he spent moire time in Cambodia than I was able to do and because people were more willing to talk about Pol Pot once he was dead.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a 1976 article in Pacific Affairs you wrote about the new Constitution of Democratic Kampuchea and discussed its “intrinsic radicalism…[which] poses interesting questions about the semantics of revolutionary change”. You concluded that “The Constitution certainly gives no hints of the forms that flexibility might take, and the price of inflexibility, in human lives, as so often in Cambodian history, will certainly be high. This is partly because it may prove difficult to channel such widely targeted forms of hatred as the Constitution contains, and because the Constitution itself provides no mechanisms to protect the Cambodian people from themselves, now that they have been liberated from outsiders”. This is an eerily good analysis of the “hatred” and “inflexibility” that was to come in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea. Does that worry you? Reading this extract over 30 years later, what is your reaction to your own analysis?

Professor Chandler: Odd questions.  As an academic, I guess I’m glad that my analysis held up, but I’d be happier if it had been off the mark and Cambodia had not descended, soon after the article appeared, into such a deep abyss.

Nicholas Farrelly: Anybody who is interested in Cambodia can’t help but envy the insights that your long-term perspective can offer. You once wrote, “After the Khmer Rouge had emptied the city in 1975, Phnom Penh had remained the country’s capital, but it never regained its status as an urban center. The bureaucrats, soldiers, and factory workers quartered there probably never numbered more than fifty thousand. During the [Democratic Kampuchea] era, the country had no stores, markets, schools, temples, or public facilities, except for a warehouse in the capital serving the diplomatic community”. The most surprising thing is that this all happened only thirty years ago. Phnom Penh today is a very different city. Do you sometimes pinch yourself when you recognise just how much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s when you were first exposed to the country?

Professor Chandler: Plus ca change, in some ways, but yes, the city has become a teeming metropolis, which it never was before. Much of Phnom Penh north of the Independence Monument and south of Wat Phnom looks and feels roughly the same as it did in the 1960s, but of course the city is much, much larger, and a great deal of it is much uglier and dirtier than it was. Phnom Penh is prettier along the riverbank than it was. The restaurants are better (for expats, anyway) Traffic is ghastly. Crime is worse. I miss the almost somnambulistic Provencal quality that the town had in the 1960s, when Phnom Penh was probably the prettiest city in Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Farrelly: Turning to more contemporary matters: in an article published in the Phnom Penh Post at the turn of the millennium you noted that “Hun Sen is Cambodia’s first ruler who seems indifferent to history, in the sense that he makes no connection between his government and Cambodia’s past, or between his style of rule and the style of previous rulers. It is hard to imagine Sihanouk, Lon Nol, or even Pol Pot telling an audience as Hun Sen did in 1998, that it was time to ‘dig a hole and bury the past’ even when we consider that ‘the past’ is for thousands of Cambodians an unbearable burden”. Is this still the case? If you had an opportunity to help educate Hun Sen about the country’s history, what would you want to tell him? Would his government be different if it had a more nuanced historical perspective?

Professor Chandler: Modern Khmer history is still untaught in Cambodian schools, because it’s considered to be “controversial”. As for my educating Hun Sen, I know he has read at least parts of my History of Cambodia (the Khmer version, published in 2006) and has said that it’s “80 percent accurate.” This remark sent people scurrying off to buy the book, to look for the (unspecified) 20%. Hun Sen is an intelligent, well-read person. I think he’s aware of many of the nuances of history. He just doesn’t see how they should alter his behaviour.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a scholarly article from 2000 titled “Will There Be a Trial for the Khmer Rouge?” you wrote that “The scale of what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is difficult to deal with (over one million Cambodians lost their lives), but efforts are now underway to bring at least some of the surviving leaders of the regime to justice”. From your perspective as an historian, why are these trials important?

Professor Chandler: They just might have a knock-on effect on the corrosive culture of impunity, which exists in Cambodia today, especially affecting those in power. Also, I think it important that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, for the first time in their lives, face some of the accusations that they merit, in an open, judicial forum. Finally, I think it would be a bad mistake for the induced amnesia about this period, encouraged by those in power, to become a permanent feature of Cambodian life.

Nicholas Farrelly: After countless delays, some trials are now, as I understand it, expected to begin in early 2008. Kaing Guek Eav (who headed the torture centre that you wrote about in your book Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison) and Nuon Chea (a chief ideologue and close associate of Pol Pot) are both set to stand trial. Have you played any role in the U.N.-backed genocide tribunal process? Do you expect to have any involvement in the future?

Professor Chandler: I haven’t played a role on the process and don’t expect to play one, although I may be called upon to comment on developments in an unofficial way. I support the tribunal whole-heartedly.

Nicholas Farrelly: In Voices from S-21 you argue that under Pol Pot’s Communist Party of Kampuchea “the country was administered by a handful of politically obsessive men and women, many of them former schoolteachers, who saw it as their long-term duty to oversee, punish, and transform the people under their control”. What resulted from this “administration” was one of the 20th century’s most brutal episodes and, of course, the crimes for which some of the leadership will soon stand trial. You saw Cambodia before the bloody period and you have, on many occasions, seen it afterwards. From your perspective, can great tragedies of this sort be avoided? Could anything have been done to change the course of Cambodia’s recent history? From where you sit, what can the rest of Southeast Asia learn from Cambodia’s story?

Professor Chandler: Hard questions. Great tragedies repeat themselves in different forms, and are always prisoners of their time and place, which means that they occur in bunches, sometimes, I think people learn very little from other peoples’ history. Some tragedies, like Rwanda’s, might have been muted or postponed by prompt international action.

To alter the course of Cambodian history, you need to make major changes in what happened in other places. You would have to remove the Vietnam War. This might only have happened had the French granted independence to Vietnam long before they did, and that would only have happened had France been victorious in World War 2. Of course, taking the Cold War out of our calculations might also have helped Cambodia, which, without the intervention of France in the 1860s, would probably have ceased to exist as a sovereign nation. I don’t think the Cambodian story can teach anything to the rest of Southeast Asia.

Nicholas Farrelly: Inevitably, your writings about this recent history have been forced to engage with the issue of torture. And you have, in fact, lamented the impossibility of capturing torture in words and have warned against efforts to simplify it. You have also written that “In spite of or perhaps because of such warnings, writers and readers alike are drawn inexorably toward a subject that is ugly, frightening, seductive, and ultimately inexpressible”. This is accentuated by the fact that the brutal reality of Cambodian history is still so raw for so many people. Why have you felt so compelled to try to give voice to Cambodia’s “ugly, frightening, seductive, and ultimately inexpressible” personal and collective tragedies? Through your years of research, what have you learned about torture and torturers that you think the world should know?

Professor Chandler: Re torture, I guess I was “drawn to it” as people are. In any case, I felt when I was writing the book that that a chapter documenting torture was needed and would be of interest. I don’t plan to revisit the topic.

As for your second question, I have learned perhaps (a) that its effects on victims seem to be permanent, but its effects on perpetrators varies; similarities arise here (in the literature) between torture and rape and (b) that torturers, unlike rapists, almost always operate with permission or encouragement from higher up.  This aspect seems to be true of genocides, also, as opposed to massacres.

Nicholas Farrelly: Before we finish, and on a less sombre note, I would like to ask about your current projects and activities. Can we expect to see any more of your output on bookshop shelves in the near future? Are there scholarly projects that you still hope to tackle?

Professor Chandler: I am working on revising and perhaps slightly expanding the 4th edition of my History for a French translation, but I don’t envisage writing any further books of history. I’m enjoying what younger scholars are doing, especially in the fields of archaeology, colonial history and anthropological studies of religion. Over the last few years, I have published some poetry, and I may have accumulated enough poems for a shortish book by 2009.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, finally, as something of a personal indulgence I was wondering if you could say something about the time you spent as a graduate student at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1954-1955.  Back then, what did you study and how did you find life in Oxford? Do you ever get back to Broad Street to reminisce about the old days?

Professor Chandler: I loved my year in Balliol. I was enrolled for a B Litt. and studied with F.W. Bateson (Henry Fielding’s novels were my subject).  I have returned to Oxford very briefly since then–in 1971, 1986 and 1992.

My father, also an American, had been at Balliol as a post-graduate in 1921-1923, and had loved his time there. In 1954 I made friends with Maurice Keen and Robert Oakeshott, whose fathers had been at Balliol with him, Through Maurice I met Tom Bingham, since very famous, who was probably my closest friend (occasional games of tennis, pints of Guinness every night at 9:30 in the spring). With Peter Ferguson, on my stairway, I helped to “found” a literary magazine that never appeared, but meetings about it acquainted me casually with people from other colleges who later became better known, including Alan Bennett, Liam Hudson and Peter Levi. I rowed in the 3rd torpid, which made 5 bumps, and belonged to the Brakenbury Society. What was fun for me about these formal associations (rowing, the literary magazine, and the Brakenbury) was that my friends in each of them couldn’t understand what I was doing in the other two.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Chandler, thank you, again, for taking the time to answer these questions.  It has been wonderful to have you involved.