The Impact of Censorship on Modern Cambodian Literature

20 Aug

The Impact of Censorship on Modern Cambodian Literature

by Teri Shaffer Yamada
Professor of Comparative Literature and Classics
CSU Long Beach

Although a frequent trope for Southeast Asia is “crossroads of the world[i]” the region remains undiscovered for most academics in the disciplines of Asian, world, and comparative literatures. For them, Southeast Asia’s existence as a literary domain remains unmapped and unproblematized, while the literatures of East and South Asia exert a colonizing influence over both public consciousness and academic discourse. One factor for this elision is Southeast Asia’s complex literary landscape. The sheer number of its nations and their linguistic constituencies make it a daunting field of inquiry. Whatever the cause, Southeast Asia’s modern literature remains the least anthologized in either Asian or World literature collections. [ii]

I suggest that an analytical frame for the region would assist in the goal of introjecting Southeast Asian literature into contemporary academic discourse on Asian and World literatures. Among the contradictory bricolage of current literary theories, ranging from structuralist to post-colonial, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production provides one possible solution, especially in the context of state censorship and literary production, a problematic issue found in all Southeast Asian nations. (1993).[iii] According to Bourdieu, the field of literary production is situated within and relationally subordinate to the field of power, which includes such factors as State censorship. I define the “State” in the context of literary production as the dominant player in the field of power in terms of the following factors: its synergistic deployment of censorship laws and the violence or intimidation necessary to enforce them; ideology; control or manipulation of literary prizes; economic sponsorship and legitimization of writers’ organizations; and economic and political constraints on publishers and publications.

In Bourdieu’s scenario, a writer’s product will be positioned in the field of literature somewhere along the continuum of art for art’s sake to social art, according to the degree and design of state domination. The state may deploy a synergistic strategy of economic, legal and ideological dimensions or may resort to violence, thus manipulating writers through coercion or accommodation to produce a “politically correct” literature, that is one in which criticism of the State has been elided or so encoded that it remains undetected and uncensored. Writers who refuse to be intimidated, or who situate themselves on the margins of political correctness, do so at their own risk.

One common literary response of tenacious writers has been to produce politically encoded literature, often so cryptically or allegorically written as to be opaque to outsiders. In any case, whether blatantly oppositional, politically correct, or deeply encoded, literary content and technique of craft are often influenced by State power. This influence occurs throughout Southeast Asia, albeit in different degrees in different nations at different historical junctures. Modern Southeast Asian nations may also have historical moments of comparative literary autonomy when the relationship of State power to the literary field remains either weak or disinterested. At these times, a writer may create freely without fear of State reprisal; although the same author’s safety may change later in tandem with altered historical and political circumstances. This pattern of censorship and literary repression is also seen in East and South Asia.

Cambodia’s literary history provides fertile ground for a case-study application of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production and its relation to State power. In fact, Cambodia may be an extreme example in Southeast Asia of the negative, or rather crushing, influence State censorship can exert on the development of literary arts. Cambodia’s literary productivity, educational system, and publication industry have yet to recover from the Pol Pot era, dragging down the country’s economic viability. A March 2002 project synopsis from the Center for Khmer Studies on the current state of publishing in Cambodia notes the following:

“There is a crisis in publishing in Cambodia that has severe negative effects on the educational system and impedes the proper flow of intellectual knowledge and information in all fields. There is an imbalance in the scholarly material written about Cambodia, too: most such materials were written and published abroad in foreign languages, not Khmer. These problems are evident at all points of the process: writing new texts or translating texts from other languages; editing, designing, printing, and publishing books; and marketing, distributing, reading, and storing books.”[iv]

The lesson here is for the State: too much censorship is economically counterproductive.

In general, Cambodia follows the historical pattern of other SEA nations in its development of modern literature. Like Laos, however, its development was delayed into the 1940s, quite late when compared to the emergence of modern literature in Vietnam, Thailand and Burma, which occurred during the late nineteenth century.[v] Irrespective of this relative delay, Cambodia shares a similar pattern of literary development with other SEA nations: there must be independent printing presses, a written national language, an educated middle class along with a developing public school system, and an aesthetic influence from modern Western and East Asian literary genres. Its initial development also requires that writers remain relatively free of State censorship, enabling them to create in multiple directions across a wide range of literary possibilities, from social to apolitical content and experimental forms.

Cambodia also shares a similar pattern of censorship in Southeast Asia. This pattern takes the following form: the “independent” nation-state typically emerges, in part, through the utilization and promotion of its creative writers who are frequently journalists. They are willing, and often inspired, to write on behalf of their country’s independence project and its hegemonic need to establish a public consensus through the construction of a national identity. After this honeymoon period, the State becomes hostile to these writers as soon as they turn their talent towards criticism of State management, typically its misuse of funds, friends, and power. The State then imposes various practices of censorship to maintain its hegemony. Examples of this are bountiful in SEA: Indonesia’s New Order regime; North Vietnam’s Socialist government, Burma’s SLORC, Singapore’s “theoretical” democracy.

Censorship in Cambodia began under the French who hindered the introduction of popular printing presses and the training of journalists during the 1920s—factors needed for the development of modern literature— and then exerted strict censorship on newspaper content in the 1930s. (Amratisha 77; Mehta 1997) This French delay of print technology affected the development of modern literature since it was the Khmer-language newspapers that would first publish serialized novels and short stories to a growing literate Khmer, middle-class audience.[vi] (Amratisha 45, 47)

This delay was exacerbated from 1943-1945 when the French colonialists tried to implement a romanized script for Khmer, hoping to emulate the success of Vietnamese quoc ngu script for the modernization of Viet Nam. (Chandler 1991: 15; Amratisha 89) This romanized Khmer met with great resistance and was finally dropped; but this failed experiment impeded the process of literacy in a country already lagging behind most of Southeast Asia. (Sharma 147) The French were also very interested in Khmer classical texts, an absorption said to preclude the fostering of modern literature. To be fair, the French l’Institute Bouddhique in Phnom Penh did establish the first literary prizes and publish some information on an emerging Khmer modern literature in their journal Kambujasuriya . (Amratisha 79) The l’Institute Bouddhique was also the first organization in Cambodia to publish a modern Khmer novel (Pisac Sneha; Kulap Pailin, Kambul Kamsat; Kambul Sneha) in serialized form, as well as a number of modern Khmer plays. (81, 90) This was accomplished during WWII with paper shortages and high printing costs.

Irrespective of these multiple obstacles, the first experimentally modern Khmer novels were written and self-published during the late 1930s. They emerged through the desire of their authors to create a modern Khmer fiction in an urban market place already saturated with modern Vietnamese and Chinese novels[vii] (Amratisha 63-68) and in response to a colonial school system with French instruction in the 19th century romantic literature of France (Amratisha 57). These modern Khmer writers were ashamed that Cambodia had no modern literature. (83, 85, 100) In this new literary field with a small literate audience, these emerging novelists experienced relative autonomy since they were not yet influential enough to be noticed by the Vichy French regime which had begun to censor and shut down Khmer newspapers during W.W. II. (Amratisha, 87) Following a developmental pattern similar to other SEA authors at the initial stage of modern writing, their concern was on form and language, such as the shift from verse to colloquial prose. Their first attempts were largely socially critical romantic novels exploring a modern Cambodian identity in terms of realistic human experience. (Amratisha 49, 99, 161) This period, from the late 1930s through Cambodia’s independence from the French in 1953 is perhaps the most freely creative and experimental era in the history of modern Cambodian literature. (Vickery 1990; Bitard 1955) The uniqueness and freshness of this literature remains unsurpassed in Cambodia’s subsequent history.

After the French returned in 1946 they allowed the formation of political parties, elections, and the development of a constitution. The 1947 Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, which appears to have encouraged Khmer writers. (Amratisha 91) Novels were now being serialized in Khmer language newspapers which flourished during this period, especially after 1949 when all educational institutions were transferred from French to Cambodian control and Khmer language became more important.

Creative autonomy was short-lived. Most of the early experimental novelists stopped writing after Cambodia’s independence from France, largely because of political reasons. (161-62) It appears to have ended in 1955 with Prince Sihanouk’s successful subversion of Cambodia’s first pro-democracy movement, led by the Khmer Independence Party under the direction of newspaper publisher, journalist and creative writer Son Ngoc Thanh. With this political co-option, Sihanouk ushered in a period of social and political control until he was deposed in 1970.

The Sihanouk era is symbolized by his new organization, the Sangkum Reastr Niyam (Popular Socialist Community). (Sharma 71) In contrast to Thailand and Vietnam, an effective public school system with instruction in Khmer developed very slowly so that a middle-class audience interested in literature only began to emerge in the late 1940s and 1950s. An interest in the new novel and short fiction, typically published in various Khmer language newspapers, met the demands of a growing literary public in the 1950s. Finally in the 1960s, a literary public emerged that showed a strong preference for escapist fiction and romance. A crucial growth stage in Cambodia’s modern literary development, over 1,000 novels would be published during these two decades.

At first glance, all may seem well for the autonomy of Cambodia’s new literary field of production during the Sangkum period (1955-1970). Sihanouk successfully expanded social and educational development along with literacy programs throughout the country, creating an audience interested in the new literature. A closer look, however, reveals the political manipulation of writers by State ideology. Sanjeev Sharma describes Sangkum ideology as “nationalism, loyalty to the monarch, a struggle against injustice and corruption,” and protection of a Buddhist religion which accepted social inequalities as legitimate because of the workings of karma. (71) Although state ideology advocated the struggle against injustice and corruption, Sihanouk’s regime was noted for its “vanity, eccentricity, and intolerance to dissent” riddled with “unbridled greed and corruption inspired by a foreign policy motivated by opportunism rather than a desire to preserve national independence.” (70) The Sangkum era was a time of serious restrictions on freedom of speech, as Sihanouk brooked no opposition, even if his critics posed little political threat. (Martin 1994; Mehta 1997; Chandler 1993) “Freedom of speech and writing, a right guaranteed in the constitution, was not officially interpreted as including the right to question or criticize his policies and the Sangkum government” (Amratisha 172).

Writers during this period were often actively associated with political parties. Their fiction was published in party newspapers, the major venue for short fiction and serialized novels. Mehta relates a 1960-incident involving, Khieu Samphan, the founder of the newspaper L’Observateur: “Sihanouk could not tolerate gratuitous criticism from young French-educated political activists in their columns. As a result Samphan’s humiliation began on April 13, 1960, when he was riding his motorcycle near the police headquarters in Phnom Penh. He was stopped and taunted by the police agents, stripped and photographed in the nude” (1).

Sihanouk was especially antagonistic to the Pracheachon Party since some members of the communist Khmer Peoples Revolutionary Party (KPRP) had become affiliated with it. (Sharma 89) In order to control writers and align them with his political agenda, he became the patron of literature. He provided political, social and financial support to members of the Association of Khmer Writers (AKW) as the organization’s honorary president. He presented some politicians who were members of the association with political positions in his government. The first literary competition of the AKW, the Indradevi Literary Competition, was held in the royal palace in 1961, financially supported by the Prince. During his speech at his event, Sihanouk informed the writers that they must take every opportunity to support government policy, yet if they described political ideologies in their writings, their works would not be considered literature. (Amratisha 174) In spite of Sihanouk’s control of the field of literary production through both his sponsorship and censorship, he created what Cambodian scholar Khing Hoc Dy considers the period of full cultural development for the Khmer novel. (Khing Hoc Dy 1978). It also ushered in the era of politically correct fiction in the form of the historical novel. Frequently dedicated to Prince Sihanouk, they typically extolled the glories of Angkor, and the current monarchy’s commitment to the betterment of Cambodia. The reading public became conditioned to this type of nation-building literature that reflected the glories of the Angkorean past. (Amratisha 176)

After the new press law in 1957, there were essentially no political or socially critical novels, nor new creative developments in psychological depth of character development or literary form. Permission to publish any book had to be obtained through the Ministry of Information, which clearly approved only pro-Sihanouk literature. The few novels that were critical of the monarchy and published clandestinely were banned or the writers arrested. (180). Soth Polin was able to get several of his socially critical novels published (Jivit It Nay, “Life without Sense” and Anak Phsan Bren Arat Aray, “The Anarchist”) by disguising them as sentimental novels dedicated to Prince Sihanouk. Piat describes popular literature of this period as an escapist, melodramatic literature, rarely portraying contemporary society; and if portrayed, only through stereotypical characters devoid of self-reflection or psychological depth. (257, 259) As the country devolved into civil war in 1967 and 1968, the government implemented strict censorship measures against both Communist and progressive thinkers. As all private newspapers were shut down, a number of writers, including Laing Peng Siek, stopped producing fiction to protest such strict censorship. (181)

In 1970 while on a trip abroad, Sihanouk’s regime was dramatically deposed by a quiet coup under the direction of U.S.-backed General Lon Nol. State ideology was reshaped to support the new agenda as Lon Nol worked to undo the socialist economic policies of Sihanouk, which he believed had impeded economic development. (Sharma 76, 89) Yet Lon Nol’s government had the reputation of being equally corrupt as it ineffectually engaged in a full-blown civil war with the encroaching Khmer Rouge. In a familiar pattern, writers were encouraged to criticize the previous regime as corrupt and decadent. Tomoko Okada reports that during this period writer Khun Srun “was imprisoned for half a year in 1971, because his integrity and honesty kept him from accepting a conciliatory gesture of the new government that needed him.” (2001: 23) There was pressure for the literary allegiance of a small number of popular writers. After a year in power, Lon Nol’s policy toward literature mimicked Prince Sihanouk’s repression of socially critical fiction directed against the current government. (Amratisha 182) His control over the Khmer Republic was disintegrating; paper had to be imported since the only paper factory was now in an enemy zone. Martial law was declared in 1973 and all private newspapers forced to suspend publication (184). Adventure, mystery and sentimental novels were safe and popular with the readers living in the midst of an emerging dystopia.

The appearance of black-clad Khmer Rouge cadres in Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 signified the end of Lon Nol who had already resigned and fled the country on April 1. Year Zero of Democratic Kampuchea had begun. Sharma reports that the “Khmer Rouge attempted to change Cambodian society to an extent that is unmatched in post World War II history.” (91) The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities in an attempt “to eliminate the bourgeoisie, capitalist, and feudal classes of the previous society.” (91) The “new people” from the cities, now treated as slave labor, were all suspect in contrast to the more trustworthy “old people,” the poor and middle class peasants who had remained in the countryside throughout the civil war years. (92) Although the ideology of the Khmer rouge was to pursue “equality among the people,” they produced new class distinctions. Family members were promoted to influential positions in the new government, a trait previously seen in former Cambodian governments. (Kiernan 1996)

The Khmer Rouge period (1975-79) illustrates an extreme example of how State power can so contract the cultural space for a writer’s autonomy of expression as to halt all literary activity. (Thion 1993) The range of literature was limited to certain revolutionary songs defined by the State as products in conformity with its definition of socialist realism and forced confessions, which appear to have become the popular literature of the Khmer Rouge. (Chandler 1999) To establish their new Cambodia, Angka executed thousands of teachers and set up new “schools” for children that taught only the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, essentially leaving an entire generation of Khmer children illiterate. (Sharma 93, 151; Vickery 1990)

Although Khmer Rouge cadres would conspicuously display confiscated ballpoint pens in their shirt pockets as a symbol of power; they did not like writers, who were found mostly among the bourgeois new people. Only a score of writers and intellectuals survived this experience of starvation, disease, starvation, torture and execution. When the Vietnamese finally overthrew the Pol Pot regime in 1979, many of the surviving writers fled to France where over the next several decades they would develop a distinct Cambodian literary tradition in exile.[viii] (Khing 1994) A few writers eventually relocated to the United States, such as Soth Polin and U Sam Oer, but they would have difficulty publishing their works due to a small literate population interested in Khmer fiction in the United States.[ix] The remaining handful of well-known literary survivors became part of the new government established by the Vietnamese as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). (Khing 1994) One of the first actions of the new government of anti-Khmer Rouge Cambodians under President Heng Samrin was to sign a twenty-five year Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with Vietnam followed by other agreements of cooperation on economic, cultural, educational and other sectors.

Although Heng Samrin set out to restore social and economic stability, the intellectual capital of Cambodia had been nearly destroyed and the material infrastructure dismantled. Most of the educated elite had been murdered or fled and the government had to expend energy it could ill afford on combating Pol Pot insurgencies along the Thai border. It also had to contend with dissension from a pro-Lon Nol Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front (KPNFL) and a weaker pro-Sihanouk faction. The socialist agenda once against constrained literature in a politically correct mode, this time towards the prescriptions of socialist realism. Since all published novels had to be approved by a state agency and produced through state publishing houses, politically correct, social realist novels occupied the entire field of Cambodia’s literary production during the 1980s. (Khing 1994) One exception is Vandy Koan’s “Devils Island,” a cleverly disguised allegory of state corruption, which slipped by the censor’s gaze. (Okada 1998)

When Cambodia finally regained more literary independence during the UNTAC era, mass media was introduced. A new generation of writers, born after 1975 with little memory of the Khmer Rouge era, began to publish short fiction in the scores of newspapers that began to flourish. Tomoko Okada describes these works as “often overlooked or ignored because they are not significant for the canon”; yet they are ethnographically relevant. (2001: 24) Television and karaoke have replaced literature as a form of popular entertainment in Cambodia. Writers tend to produce scripts for television productions since these are much more lucrative than novels. Newspapers flourished in the mid-1990s and provided a venue once again for serialized novels and short stories, yet the quality remains comparatively low with a penchant towards the pornographic. Literacy rates remain a problem as the public education system is slowly rebuilt, especially in the rural areas.

In 1997 Hun Sen overthrew the democratically-elected government and currently exerts an authoritarian control over censorship and the judicial system, having recently issued an indict to shut down all karaoke businesses, discos and bars, and banned western dress on television shows. (Seth Mydans, 2002) The depiction of the Khmer Rouge era in contemporary history books is still being debated, with Phnom Penh youth first learning about this history from a rap song on an illegally marketed rap CD by Long Beach rapper Prac Ly. The Phnom Penh Post has recently reported that well-known novelist Kong Bunchoeun is writing a fictionalized version of the acid-attack incident on his 16-year-old niece, former mistress of Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha. He states his purpose:

“Cambodia is a society that has lost any sense of morality, riven by violence and injustice….By highlighting the case of Tat Samarina, we can hold up a mirror to the ills affecting Cambodian society….The book is not a product of anger, but for the purpose of educating girls not to become involved with married men and to teach ‘first wives’ not to use violence against ‘second wives.’ (Bou Saroeun and Phelim Kyne)

Kong Bunchoeun is reported to have written over 130 “sentimental” novels since the 1960s and made a “career” out of attempting to “highlight the problems of the poor.” His current project follows a didactic trend also seen in short newspaper fiction of the 1990s. (Yamada 2002).

The current state of modern Cambodian literature is described in a document prepared by the Literature Panel at a January 1999 Conference convened by the Center of Khmer Studies in Siem Reap: “Although Cambodia has a long and strong literary heritage, this has not passed through to contemporary literature. There are relatively few writers currently writing in Cambodia. There are few literary groups to support them; it is hard for them to get their works published, and when they do, few people to read it.” (Harrison and Okada 1999)

* * *

Throughout this essay, I have described the interplay between two relational fields according to Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production: the field of power, defined in terms of State censorship, and the field of literary production. The field of literary production in a functional democracy would have relative autonomy from State manipulation, and writers hypothetically would be free to explore a range of literary options constructed along the spectrum of art for its own sake and social art. Although political regimes changed repeatedly during Cambodia’s modern history, the only era in which a free range of literary possibilities existed for writers was the earliest period of literary development between the late 1930’s and Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkum era in 1955. One reason for this early era’s relative freedom of expression is the absence of a wider reading audience, Khmer language newspapers, and state recognition of a modern literary tradition. Deemed non-threatening or unimportant, writers were left alone to create in an unimpeded manner.

This period of experimentation ended with the Sangkum era and the instigation of the politically correct sentimental and historical novel, 1955-1970. Strict censorship laws were similarly deployed by General Lon Nol in the Khmer Republic (1970-1975) and taken to a horrendous extreme in the Khmer Rouge era (1975-1979). After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, socialist realism became just another form of politically correct fiction in the subsequent PRK period. Ultimately after the early 1990s, the free market of visual media entertainment has acted synergistically with a high rate of illiteracy to suppress the development of a modern Cambodian literature beyond the sensational, didactic or pornographic.

>>> Learn more at the Modern Literature of Southeast Asia website >>>

[i] For example, Northern Illinois University, Southeast Asian Studies Center’s journal “Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies” and Clark D. Neher’s 2001 publication”Southeast Asia: Crossroads of the World.”

[ii] For example, Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World: Where the Waters Are Born (1995) contains one section for South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Of thirty-five stories, nine represent Southeast Asia as follows: two for Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh and Thich Nhat Hanh); two for the Philippines (Bienvenido N. Santos and Amador Daguio; two for Indonesia (Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Toer); one for Malaysia (TanKong Peng) and two for Malaysia/Singapore (Edwin Thumbo and Catherine Lim). In Global Cultures: A Transnational Short Fiction Reader (1994) containing 62 short stories, three represent the Philippines (Paulino Lim, Jr., two by Leoncio P. Deriada), one represents Vietnam (Thich Nhat Hanh), one represents North Vietnam/Australia (Uyen Loewald). In One World of Literature (1993) in the section on “Asia,” there is one story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer for Indonesia, one poem by Shirley Geok-lin Lim for Malaysia ; one poem by Lee Tzu Phen for Singapore; a short story by Vo Phien for Vietnam, compared to six entries for Japan, five for India, and seven for China.

[iii] A cogent critique of the current disconnect between theory and literary text/context is Aijaz Ahmad’s “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality.” Ahmad has also critiqued Fredric Jameson’s interesting argument about third world literature as national allegory.

[iv] E-mail correspondence from John Weeks, Center for Khmer Studies, 13 March 2002.`

[v] Martine Piat in her article “Contemporary Cambodian Literature,” states that popular literature in Cambodia only existed since the end of the 1960s. She defines popular literature by the criterion of low price. It includes film strips, historical novels. The priint run is 1,000 copies at most which typically takes six years to run out, and there are no reprints. This literature is found for sale in bus-stations, market places, and itinerant fairs.

[vi] The issue of technology is important. The first Cambodian typewriter, invented by Keng Vansak in 1955, with the 120-plus elements of Cambodian script and punctuation marks required a larger keyboard than the standard typewriter of 46 keys and 92 positions (“Modern Cambodian Writing,” p. 45).

[vii] The influence of both traditional and modern Chinese literature on the development of Cambodian fiction has been generally overlooked with the exception of Jacques Nepote and Khing Hoc Dy.

[viii] Other Khmer literature in exile includes border literature, see Thompson.

[ix] Research assistant Kiry Poeun’s March 2002 survey of the Long Beach Khmer stores that sell books revealed only one Khmer novel published in the U.S.: Khmer Oeuy Khmer by Sou Sieu Heng.


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Posted by on August 20, 2010 in S.chuon Nath Buddhist High School


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