Development in Rural Cambodia


A review of Tides of Empire: Merit, Morality, and Development in Rural Cambodia, by Courtney Work.

The ebb and flow of empire has washed over Cambodia for centuries, leaving with it the debris of civilizations from the East and West. In Tides of Empire, Courtney Work explores the contemporary issues facing Cambodia in its slow march through history and the competing ideologies—and powers—which have laid claim to its land at one time or another. It is an ethnography which provides the reader with a window into the lives of Cambodians struggling for survival at the edge of the forest and frontier of empire. Work argues that the boundaries created through the interstitial zones of religion, politics, and the natural world are nullified through the communal actions of residents of Sambok Dung village in western Cambodia; actions that have accumulated and persisted throughout the country’s history. She draws on materialist, structural, phenomenological, and ontological interpretations of her experiences in Sambok Dung to provide an intimate critique of current government policies and intimations of Empire, and the choices Cambodians make in deploying the traces of the imperial past in the ongoing present.

The anthropology of modern Cambodia has largely focused on issues related to the country’s re-emergence from the nightmare years of the Democratic Kampuchea regime of the Khmer Rouge. Work draws on the experiences of villagers who survived the regime but also brings to light a new and increasingly influential neo-imperialistic actor into the Cambodian drama: The Chinese company. This amorphous and at times menacing moniker is pinned to corporations moving into the region through the concession of land grants by the government to companies involved in forest-clearing and large-scale plantations. The Chinese company has engendered another factor to be feared in the forest along with wild animals and spirits such as local soldiers and police hired to protect their interests. Work’s writing diagrams the ever-present “contact zone” the forest represents: At one time a source of subsistence and primal fear, and at another the representation of corporate investment. But this and other contact zones, and specifically Sambok Dung village, produce multiple boundaries, alternating and disintegrating into one another as modernity collides with the needs of survival.

Chapter 2 brings these boundaries into greater clarity with a discussion of roads and the actors and bodies that move along and at times away from them. Roads symbolize that march towards modernity, such as the well maintained road of the Chinese company and the armed soldiers working for the company that control it. Work rightly points out that while the road, and even more so the “iron road” (railroad), represent a source of imperial power, the trail does not. Indeed, the trail exists with or without a state. To this we are introduced to another aspect of imperial debris in the form of international donor organizations and NGOs which tie the government with khsae (strings) to the colonial past. Through international development projects the government can project political and economic power. “Progress” is marked by these projects, progressing along the roads into a futuristic stability that is ultimately only as stable as the continuation of donor money into an otherwise fragile state.

Chapter 3 expands upon an important aspect of Cambodian studies, that of the tutelary spirit neak ta, or `anak tā and mcâs dẏk mcâs ṭī. Work explores a new avenue in this growing body of literature, defining engagements with the spirit as neither religion or religious but a representation of the Other emerging through the suppression of the violence inherent in imperial appropriation. Her exploration of this issue is of particular importance in the analysis of the reconstruction of Buddhism in the country following the demise of the Khmer Rouge, and the social, political, and economic aspects of the spirits’ relationship with Cambodians. She further demonstrates how belief in local spirits acts as a means of resistance against powerful governmental forces which more often than not have similarly appropriated the spirits’ power for their defense.

The strength of Work’s dissertation lies in its totalizing narrative, covering many aspects of Cambodian society often left to subspecialists. Thus, her inclusion of local Cham families and their experiences within the broader Buddhist state is a refreshing addition to what are often more narrowly defined dissertations. The study of Muslim Cham relationships with Buddhist Khmers is too often overlooked and readers interested in the global Islamic movement and the creation of identity will find this analysis very helpful, as will those unfamiliar with the role Cham play economically and socially throughout the Cambodian countryside. As Work notes, the “smoothness” of global, historical narratives all too often negates those “messy contact zones” at empire’s edge. Yet, far from being disconnected, Cham have been and continue to be a part of Cambodian imperial narrative.

Chapter 5 focuses on the mainstay of the Cambodian countryside: The local Buddhist wat. The study of merit-making practices in Southeast Asian Buddhist countries has a long history and Work’s contribution to the field reinforces the notion that local temples act not only as nodes for merit-making and community bonding, but also for domination and power. She continues the theme of khsae connecting people and temples with the broader world. Yet, she also accurately describes the fact that khsae do not necessarily connect everyone in villages as those who do not engage in merit-making activities are also not privy to the strings which connect temples with powerful monks and political patrons. To this Work adds the notion that merit is an effect of empire. That is, the fact that acquiring the status of patron is more readily accessible today than in generations past. The rising wealth of the few provide greater access to those khsae running from the capital to the countryside, but only so far as one is able to position oneself as member of a temple association or other privileged position.

Tides of Empire is a solid addition to the growing literature on a society that has seen its share of turbulent change. The fieldwork is commendable—particularly for its breadth—while researchers of Southeast Asia and post-conflict societies will find the ethnographic material useful in wider narratives regarding globalization. It also contributes to the needed dialogue regarding the rising clout of international corporations such as the “Chinese company” and their increasingly strong command of the Cambodian landscape.

Matthew O’Lemmon
Center for International Arts and Humanities
Harbin Institute of Technology, Shenzhen Graduate School

Primary Sources

Participant observation
Life histories
Cultural mapping
Semi-structured interviews with Khmers and Cham residents of Sambok Dung village in western Cambodia

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2014. 294 pp. Advisor: Magnus Fiskesjoe.

Image: Spirit offering in advance of house building (photograph by the author).

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