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Ethnicity and the Reformulation of Political Community in Khmer Chronicles of the Nineteenth Century

By Matt Reeder, PhD candidate in the Department of History, Cornell University
Date: 09 th June 2016.

When did Cambodia begin to see itself as a Khmer kingdom? When did it start to consistently portray Ayutthaya and Bangkok as Thai kingdoms? Did it see Vietnam as Vietnamese? In this presentation of ongoing research, the appearances of ethnonyms such as “Khmer,” “Thai,” “Yuan,” and “Cham” are analyzed in a selection of Khmer chronicle texts dating from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Looking at chronicles in both Khmer as well as contemporary Thai translation (of Khmer originals that are now lost), even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, references to the ethnicity of individuals or village-communities can be distinguished from references to “political ethnicity,” which gloss all the diverse subjects of a king as a single ethnic group. In short, we can see a transition from late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century chronicle compositions away from understandings of political relationships based mainly on personalized patron-client ties, and towards the use of ethnic categories to name kingdoms and narrate their historical and contemporary relations. This development only strengthened under the French protectorate and the influence of European-style nationalism. By paying close attention to the shifting patterns and implications of ethnic identifications in a range of nineteenth-century chronicle texts, this research offers some tentative answers to questions about changing conceptions of ethnicity and political community in pre-colonial and early colonial Cambodia.

Matt Reeder is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Cornell University. His dissertation will trace innovations in the formulation and deployment of social categories, especially conceptions of ethnicity, in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Ayutthaya, Bangkok, Cambodia, and Chiang Mai. He completed his bachelor’s degree in history at Bowdoin College and his master’s in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. He has spent the last two years conducting research in Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Chiang Mai.

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