Khmer Sociology by Sar Sarun

The First root: MATRIARCHY
The Major root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer people valued and are valuing the practice of "MATRIARCHY". This is the acceptance of female person as leader or decision maker at all level of human organization within Khmer society ranging from family life to the governing of the whole society.

This regime have started long back, the beginning of Khmer history, which tells us that we once had as ruling monarch, a queen called "Soma" or "Liev Yi" or "Neang Neak". We were then at a period called "Funan". Khmer history also says that after an Indian prince named "Kaodinhya" or "Hun Tien" or "Preah Thong" {respectively Indian, Chinese and legendary names}, had conquered the country of Funan and eventually got married to the Queen, the prince followed behind her all the way, during the wedding ceremony, holding her scarf's edge, daring no way to distract himself with the surrounding.

Khmer ancestors also carved this legend on the walls of Angkor in order to remind us of the origin of our Matriarchy. On the other hand, nowadays, at any royal wedding, the groom prince is required by common practice, to hold the bride princess's scarf edge.

As for ordinary people, we also adopt "Matriarchy" as one of the basic principles of social life. This is manifested in coining the terminology for calling many important social positions, in the formulation of many popular educational maxims as well as in the birth of some common social beliefs nowadays, as follows.

A) In the family, Khmer people prefer to place female title before male's:
- Mother and father, grandma and grandpa, mum and dad, aunty and uncle

B) In the armed forces:
- Mother of the army (=chief of the army)
- Mother of the command  (=commander)
- Deputy Mother of the command (= deputy commander)

C) In administrative systems:
- Mother of the county (commune? =county governor)
- Mother of the town (=mayor),
- Mother of the district (=district councilor)
- Mother of the block (of ten households = representative of the block)

D) In educational maxims:
- It is better to have the father died rather than to loose the mother, as it is better to face shipwreck rather than having the house burned.(This implies that the father is less important than the mother)

E) In daily practices:
Clean husband + Corrupted wife = Corrupted
Bribe-free husband + Bribe-wife = Bribe
Husband's disapproval + Wife's approval= Approval  (The wife is the chief of the family, while the husband is a worker who keeps   looking to work outside in order to get money back to the wife.
If the sum   is less than what is expected, he may even be blamed by his wife. Khmer   wives do possess this personality's characteristic of” Mother-wife", while their Chinese counterparts have the opposite one of "Slave-wife”, as in Chinese family practice, it is the husband who controls the family's finance.)

The Second root: HIDDEN STRENGHT

According to the history currently under our investigation, which is related to the destiny of our nation, the Second root of Khmer mentality resides in a hidden strength that keeps Khmer country from perishing despite repetitive attempts from outside to destroy us. We are now asking ourselves what is that hidden strength of Khmer people?

Many academics as well as some ordinary citizens who are concerned with the integrity of our nation in the future, are in the process of looking for the source of this defensive power.  For it is believed in historical researches finding that Khmer country was perpetually invaded, and Khmer people used to been slaved by Thai people for many years. During those periods, Khmer successive capitals Angkor and Longvek were subjected to terrible devastations.
All great sages and scholars were taken prisoner and sent to serve in the invaders country. Why Khmer land and Khmer country still subsist until now?

These case studies have proved that Khmer people have got some hidden persisting factor, which constantly gives rise to a defensive power, which in turn keeps Khmer land and Khmer country from perishing. That is why our ancestors had the reason to state in a popular proverb  "Khmer territories will never perish". This indicates that Khmer people have got that potential strength deep inside Khmer spirit or mentality, and that had been so clear to Khmer ancestors that they got enough confidence to createthis proverb.

However, nowadays we don't know exactly what that hidden strenght, which constitutes an essential part of Khmer spirit, really is, nor do we know clearly where it resides in Khmer identity.

For it is only when we have found this hidden part of Khmer spirit that we are able to continue to preserve our land and our nation from dangers. Otherwise, we will have no more reason just to believe the above-mentioned optimistic proverb, for as have been argued so far, Khmer spirit and identity are all about our culture and our civilization.



The Third root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer people have a fairly high pride and an intrinsic preference for Self-Praise. This is because Khmer people originally belonged to an ethnic family called” Khmer-Mon". And that "Khmer-Mon" ethnic family had long back dwelled in the Indochina’s peninsula. But, at that time this region was called "Sovanna Phum (= Golden Country)" and had its area extended to the common boundary with China.

For "Sovann" is a Pali word, which means "Gold", and "Phum" is also a Pali word which means "Land" or "Country".

In general, people living in this golden country Sovanna Phum, naturally lead a joyful life blessed by their natural richness, which slowly developed in their unconscious mind a fairly high pride and a preference for boasting. These people consist of three ethnic groups: the Mon, the Cham and the Khmer. But at that time they did not have clear land boundary between their groups. They lived in tribal communities and mainly practiced the trade of gold with people from Portugal who traveled by sailboat mostly to trade in the China Sea. People in this Golden Country did not have other businesses to worry about than gold trading. This gave birth to the development of an attitude of boasting and unconsciously to the development of a high pride. Amongst them, the Mon ranked first along this line, the Cham the second and the Khmer were the last run-up. Khmer people have been the most humble amongst the three, but they were also trapped by the same upbringing so convincingly that Khmer ancestors tried to make this common attitude explicit in a parable as follows.


According to this saying, Khmer self-praise attitude was as high as the level of the cloud but still lower than the sky or the heaven. Also, they usually came back to the earth quickly. This means that in general they boasted but then came down to the reality. When Khmer people talk between themselves, they did not realize that they were boasting, because they had the same level of boasting attitude and pride. But when Khmer people talked with the Cham who had higher level of boasting attitude, by then they started to get the idea that the Cham liked boasting. Likewise, when the Cham talked amongst them, they did not perceive the fact that they were boasting people, because they were all at the same level. But when they talked to the Mon, only by then that they started to notice that the Mon extremely liked boasting.
- The Mon kept on boasting more than anyone else until they lost all land
- The Cham second to the Mon with respect to boasting also lost all land- The Khmer boasted moderately and thus retained parts of their land

However, we can by no means have this sort of optimism that Khmer can retain for ever these remaining parts of Khmer land, because at present Khmer country is heading towards a catastrophic situation.

So why these three ethnic groups lost their land completely or partially via boasting? The answer is somewhat like this.

While they kept on boasting and enjoying their natural resources, they forgot that surrounding ethnic groups tried to take over their land.

The Thai who have the same root as the Chinese, as they originally dwelled in a China's southern province of Yunnan, came to be known at the Eight century as they started to move southwards. They used the chaos, which  happened after the Mongolian invaded China at the Thirteen century, to  attack the city of Sokhotey and took over all the areas initially owned by  the Mon. They also conquered some Khmer northern provinces beyond Danrek  mountain chain along the river Semoun, such as Nokoreach, Surin, Sangkeas, Kouk-khan, Sisaket, Burirum, etc., and in addition extended their domination  over south-west areas down to Malaysia, which all had been under the possession of the Golden Country or Sovanna Phum peninsula.

During 1794-95, there were three aristocrats Khmer who competed each other aiming to monopolies the state power. Each one perceived himself as being superior to the rest of them, because the were all the descendent of a self-praising and unconditionally proud ethnic race. One aristocrat named Ben  played trick to have another one named Sous assassinate the third one named Mou. Afterwards, he himself tried to kill the assassinator Sous, but failed  because the latter had strong allies. Ben, then asked for help from the Thai  authority by facilitating Thai army to invade Cambodia, and in return for  that help, Ben agreed to leave some of Khmer provinces such as Battambang,  Mongkolburi and Serisophan to be annexed to Thailand.
So, what pushed Khmer aristocrats to go out of the way fighting for power ?
At that time, the race for power based mainly on self-proclaimed superiority  had been extremely active, due to the commonly accepted tactic of relying on foreign armed forces as support. Those aristocrats deliberately placed on the  Throne a six-year-old prince named Ang Eng who was the son of the prince Otey  II and who was then a young boy with no ruling ability. This was a maneuver  aimed at gripping the state power by the aristocrats themselves.

We have come to understand via the above-mentioned history, that in the past, foreign invasions into Khmer country were made possible only because Khmer leading state workers were so stubborn at their self-conceived supremacy that  made them ignorant of the ountry's fate heading towards disasters.

The fact that Khmer people like boasting can be found in lots of document elsewhere, for instance, in our ethical poems such as "Father's Testament","Rules for Children and randchildren”,” Fable for Children and Grand-Children", "Conduct Rules for Men", etc.  All these writings were aimed at awakening Khmer people from the dream of Self-Praise and irrational pride. The following are some examples:

"Fable for Children and Grand-Children" A FROG BOASTS THAT IT CAN FIGHT WITH THE ELEPHANT...
"Rules for Children and Grand-Children" DO NOT BOAST ABOUT YOUR RANK...

At a conference of research on Letters which took place in Chakdhumuk Hall  at the 9th November 1970, a Buddhist monk argued that Khmer language has excellent linguistic rules that are superior to those of any human language  in the world". (Sic)

Also, in a book entitled "Khmer's character" written by Mr. Bun Chanth Mol which  has just been published, there are discussions about our people's preference for boasting".

The Fourth root: AGRICULTURE
The Fourth root of Khmer mentality has been developed based on Agriculture. This is because from the origin of Khmer ethnic race, the whole life of  Khmer society has been relying almost exclusively on agriculture.
Eventually,  Khmer people took agriculture as an important source of their cultural  identity. This means that all aspects of education have their root in agriculture. For in order to educate anybody, Khmer people are inclined  to use agriculture-related things and/or events as metaphorical ground for their argument.

A) In the family domain

"WHEN YOU FARM, LOOK AT THE GRASS, (likewise) when you marry your children look at their partner's root"

"START NOW TO FARM WHILE THE SOIL IS STILL WARM (likewise) start now to court the girl while your heart is burning"

"TRANSPLANTED RICE-PLANTS BRING ALONG THEIR (INITIAL) SOIL(likewise) women can bring up their man"

B) In the military domain

"YOU FARM A FIELD WITH WATER (likewise) you fight a war with food"

C) In the domain of country development


D) In education in general

"THINK OF AND WORK ON   ALL SEASONS (dry-season and rainy-season) RICE GROWING RICE-FIELD SHOULD HAVE SIGN WHILE FRUIT-FARM SHOULD HAVE FENCE" (from "Inherited Conduct Rules” verse in Bhramngit rhyme)

The Fifth root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that, due to geographical  conditions, Khmer people are less sensitive towards legal rules. So, what is  the reason ? Khmer country is a place which is rarely threaten by natural disasters that usually occurs in other places, for example, in Japan or in European countries, such as:
- Freezing winter                     - Panic earthquake                   - Savage tempest
- Volcanic explosion               - Large scale typhoon - Large scale flood

Khmer country seldom faces such natural disasters, almost never, except some small scale floods which happen once upon decades. Furthermore, those floods are not so savage. As for climate, it is so warm that Khmer people can stay alive without clothes. Regarding the earthquake, Khmer country never meet any significant one other than soil trembling caused by the bombing of B-52 bombers days and nights, which destroyed many villages, inhabitants and farms.

Because Khmer country is rarely subjected to natural catastrophe, Khmer people are less aware about the nature and have little need to adjust themselves to natural constraints. This exemption from natural constraints has shaped Khmer mentality to be insensitive to social and legal rules, unless there is coercion. This happens in contrast to countries in cold region whose people cannot  survive without appropriate clothing.

However, people from that region that migrate into Khmer country, will become mentally similar to Khmer people after a sufficient period of time. Likewise, Khmer people who go to live in  cold region, will also change their mentality to become similar to the local people in that region. This is the explanation of the Fifth element of Khmer  Soul, based on geographical conditions.

The Sixth root: BEING INACTIVE

The Sixth root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer people are inactive. Because Khmer people live in a tropical country, they tend to have few activities. Khmer artistic spirit dwells in a soft, fanciful and romantic state, which is less energetic.
Khmer music tends to be sentimental and make people sleepy. Khmer people move slowly.

They set off to the work place in a relaxed pace as slow as to wander around during vacation. These factors  have shaped Khmer mentality to value inactive people more than active ones, and to like conservative people more than progressive ones.
Khmer admire people who work less but earn much rather than people who work hard but earn little. Khmer people admire a government official who just signs a document and earns millions of riels at once, rather than another one who works from morning till evening and hardly earns what is needed to survive. In fact, they should appreciate the latter that makes a sacrifice and saves  national budget. Should a personnel in education and an official in the custom office simultaneously ask to marry the daughter of a family, the former would  end with despair. Where does this come from ?

Indeed, this is the unfairness of the society in tropical country.

Shall we continue this life style, which is spoiled by the nature ? Or shall we try to win over the nature ?
Shall we destroy this root of Khmer mentality  or not ?  The solution to this problem relies mainly on the awareness of Khmer youngsters, but the right awareness will be possible only after being educated, in other words, after being enlightened. For if we lack enlightenment, our awareness may unconsciously lead into the wrong  direction. For being blind or ignorant is a great evil that allows others  to easily do business over our mind.


In Khmer folk tales, Khmer authors also illustrate this mentality by the  following events:

_ An ignorant man found two jars of gold hided under the ground
- A senseless man usually has a wife with excellent quality
- A stupid man most probably get sacred power
- An uneducated man get promoted to the rank of the lord
- Kong Hean is made a Khmer hero by his own

Other examples: A Khmer old saying tells us that, "A sage falls down into a hole, while a fool rises up to the paradise "Based on the above argument, shall we continue to keep this root of Khmer  mentality or not ?


The Seventh root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer people are  inclined to be confused at all important aspects of commitment.

This is because Khmer people live in a country in which various seasons are not clear cut: rainy season, dry season as well as cold season start and end at fuzzy dates known to nobody. In contrast, countries in cold region, they have their seasons clear-cut. For example, in European continent:

- Spring from 21st March to 21st June - Summer from 21st June to 22d September
- Fall from 22d September to 21st December             - Winter from 21st December to 21st March

Clear cut seasons have trained the mind of the people who live in that region to have clear plan:

- When they work, they concentrate on working       - When they play, they concentrate on playing
- When they study, they concentrate on their study   - When they eat, they concentrate on eating
- When they take a rest, they stop all works

In France, it is almost impossible to find a restaurant which is open beyond  AM 9 to PM 10 and serves anything other than drinks.

Khmer country's fuzzy seasons have spoiled the mind of the people living therewith fuzziness in all aspects of commitment.

- Work and play mixed together - Clash at work is similar to clash at home
- Study time and Break time mixed in the same period

- Time to eat lasts from morning, through midnight, till the sun rise again
- Office's works and home's works mixed together
- Government owned car is also taken as personally owned car  and used to carry the wife, to send the children to school or even to carry the mistress
- Experts of organizing theatre play or of teaching at school  happen to take over minister positions(different people have talent in different areas)

In order to correct this root of Khmer mentality, it is necessary to enforce a truly severe law, and also have examples from the top, not from the bottom.

The Eighth root: EXTREMISM

The Eighth root of Khmer mentality resides in a habit of being inclined  towards an ambivalent Extremism. Khmer extremist thinking is not always oriented in one particular direction. For when we come to like any thing we tend to go out of our weight to stick on thatthing. But when we start  to dislike it, we usually go extremely far in the opposite direction.
This is reflected in a popular expression as follows.

- The more loving the more hating

For example: In the story of "Tum and Teav", at first Teav's mother loved  Tum so extremely that she asked him to become her adopted son. But when  she turned to dislike him she asked people to kill him in an extremely  ruthless way.

- Teav's mother:
(verse in Seven-Words rhyme)

- When we believe somebody, hundred and twenty percent we believe, but if we stop to believe, that means we will stop eternally.
- If you drink, then go as far as being carried by others. But if you walk by yourself, then what does drinking mean ?
- If you sin (by killing), go ahead to get your mouth touched with fat (meet)
- If you put your hand into the fish paste, go as deep as having   your whole arm buried by the fish paste.
- If you want to cut, do not just feign


The Ninth root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer worship  the so-called "Truth-Word". This truth-word or the loyalty to what   have been said is one of Khmer principal virtues, which has been found via researches on Khmer literature, to have existed since long time.

Some people believe that this virtue came into being via the influence of Hinduism. For Hindu Bhraman who were considered as God's agent and have a mission to spread their religion, are believed to have observed strictly  their words. This observance to what have been said was taken as an excellent  virtue of Hinduism and in addition as the essence of its theology.

- The essence of the body is the purity or chastity                 - The essence of the mind is the courage
- The essence of verbal activities is the truth-word

We can see this philosophy in the Khmer version of an Indian legend called "Ramayana" in which, a King named Preah Bat Tusarath did not dare to change  his truth-word which had been spelled out by himself as a promise to a woman  called Neang Kaikesi, that he would leave the throne to the prince named  Preah Phirut, if he wins a war with the Sun. In Part one of "Ramayana", although the conflict was created by the crisis of the throne in the city of Aiyutya, the way to solve the problem prescribed that the truth-word should win over the tradition. That was the reason for Preah Ream, Preah  Laksmn and Neang Sita having to quit the kingdom and to stay in the forest. In the story of "A young weaver of palm-leaf basket", words were also taken as  truth-word, i.e. a contract. For example, when this weaver made a promise to  become a slave to anyone who can save his life from the danger of falling down  from the top of the palm-tree, another person who passed by riding on an  elephant completely believed him and started the rescue without asking for real guarantee of that promise.
The four bald men who came next to the rescue  of the first two's, after the elephant rider had himself been trapped by  the same danger as the weaver, also believed without real guarantee, the  promise of the two's only because these letters had spelled out their promise in words which the four balds took as truth-word.

In two folk tales entitled "A man and a tiger" and "A man and a crocodile", we can see that both men who had made a promise respectively to these wild  animals that they would come back to be eaten by those animals once they had  arranged the donation of their asset inherited respectively from their family, ultimately did come back to the animals without thinking of any tactic to get rid of their ill fate.  Also, in a story named "Golden arrow", a king  who had made a statement that he would kill anybody who created troubles to his war plan, later on when he realized that it was his own consort, the  queen who had made that mistake, he bitterly forced himself to execute the  queen with the golden arrow, in order to keep his statement as truth-word.

Because of the existence in Khmer mentality, of this kind of truth-word as  explained above, Khmer people have formulated a proverb to express this value  as follow:


Khmer value about this truth-word have partially been changed from a period called "The lord's tea spilling" around the year 1845, due to the fear of being maltreated by Vietnamese occupiers under a general named Troeung Minh Yang. In one night this general
ordered his troop to behead four or five Khmer citizens under the policy of the then emperor of Vietnam named Ming Mang.

He then used the victims' head as supports to his boiler in order to prepare  his tea. This lasted until the French came into our country and had constantly destroyed Khmer people's spirit so that Khmer became very weak-minded (broken  until the base). Only by then that Khmer people started to think of accepting  a tricky way as one method of problem solving as indicated in the following  saying. "DO NOT NEGLECT THE CURVED ROAD, DO NOT FOLLOW THE STRAIGHT PATH"
However, this value of truth-word still subsists nowadays and has been inherited  in its nearly original form, by people in rural areas as well as in mountainous regions where they still observe strictly their words similarly to the practice of the ascetic monk...These people also teach their youngsters that a person  who does not obey his or her truth-word can not live in the mountain.

The Tenth root of Khmer mentality resides in the fact that Khmer people highly  value Chastity or Purity. That is to say that Khmer essence is the devotion to this chastity, especially by womanhood. For Khmer women try incredibly hard  to preserve their chastity including, of course, their physical purity, i.e.  virginity. This happens along with Khmer men's mental habit to accept as” Queen"  of their heart, only a woman who is qualified with a fairly complete chastity  which naturally includes bodily purity as necessary condition. When a single  woman loses her purity, she generally believes that her body has no more worth,  i.e. has lost all the essence. Her life becomes meaningless and she sometime  tries to end her problem by suicide. This happens quite contrary to the mentality of European women who tend to take this loss of bodily purity just as a natural happening in their life. Instead, they are inclined to value more on the reality of their heart, which they take seriously as the essence of their life.

Khmer people place more value on the quality of the body than on the quality  of the heart. There are people who believe that bodily essence has its root in Bhramanism. For the Bhraman highly valued this essence as principal quality  of Brahman hood. However, we believe that this sort of value transfer has  been made possible only through the fact that both sides had initially got  a similar mental habit.

The existence of this value in Khmer mentality has also been pointed out in  many writings of Khmer literature as follows.

- In the story of "Ramayana", when Preah Ream took refuge in a forest,  his wife Neang Sita also accompanied him to the same forest.
- In the story of "Preah Vesantar", when Preah Vesantar was exiled into  a forest, his wife Neang Metri also followed him to the same forest.

Some people think that these stories are influenced by Indian thought.
the compatibility of that influence with some existing factors in
However, we can make a reasoning which concludes that the acceptance of any  influence of one country by another, be it about belief, custom, religion or any kind of institution as well as ideology, can be made possible only through  the compatibility of that influence with some existing factors in the country that accepts it. From this reasoning, we can conclude that the devotion to chastity by Khmer women had already existed before the Indian influence. But this influence added more momentum to our mental habit, which has  led us to be so fond of any story, which particularly praises this value.
For example,
- In the story of "Tum and Teav" which is purely a Khmer love story, we can see clearly through the deed of Neang Teav, our Khmer women's devotion to chastity. For when she learnt that Tum had been executed  with a knife, Neang Teav also cut her throat with a knife to follow   her lover.
- In the story of "Sophat", Neang Manyan who believed that Sophat   was drowned, also drowned herself in a river in order to follow   her sweetheart.
Now, can we prove this characteristic as invariant factor ?

In our society up to now, we have seen that along with the rotation  of  Khmer soldiers from one place to another as required by different missions  of the armed forces, which can be viewed as a series of coping with various  dangers, the wives of these public servants always follow their husband everywhere as well as devote themselves to support them from the rear.   Although there are many factors to be considered, such as those  related to the family finance, the change of life style as well as the change of habit,  Khmer women still prefer to take this devotion as their first priority,  in order to preserve their chastity.

1 comment so far

  1. Sovannarun TAY on

    This idea now is challenged by American anthropologists May Mayko Ebihara and Judy Jeagerwood. Only culture that is MATRIARCHY; polity not.

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