We live in an age when most national anthems don’t mean much any more. They reappear at the Olympic games, political rallies and major sports events. In some countries, they’re sung at school assemblies. Most people, it seems, have forgotten most of the words.
From an historical perspective, though, there are interesting things to say about many national anthems and about Cambodia’s anthems in particular. Since 1942 there have been four of these. The first one, Nokorreach or Royal City, lasted until 1970 when it disappeared after an anti-royalist coup d’etat. Three subsequent regimes followed with anthems of their own before Nokorraech was reinstated, along with Cambodian kingship, in 1993. It’s Cambodia’s national anthem today. Here are its lyrics, roughly translated into English:
We beg the deities to protect our king
And give him happiness and glory
To reign over us and our destinies,
The one being, heir of the sovereign builders,
Guiding the proud old Kingdom.
Temples that lie flat in the midst of the forest
recall the glory of the grandiose kingdom.
Like a rock the Khmer nation is eternal.
Let us trust in the fate of Kampuchea,
The Empire that challenges the ages.
Songs rise up from Buddhist temples
to the glory of our holy Buddhist faith.
Let us be faithful to our ancestors' belief
and the deities will help and support
The ancient Khmer country, The Great Kingdom
Nokorreach was written in 1939, under the French Protectorate in the reign of King Sisowath Monivong (1867-1941). Francois Perrichot, in charge of Cambodia’s Royal Music, composed the slow-moving, soulful melody, based on a Cambodian folk tune. The lyrics were written by Chuon Nath (1889-1969) a prominent Buddhist monk who later compiled the definitive Khmer-Khmer dictionary.
Like anthems everywhere, Nokorreach reflected the politics of its time. King Monivong sponsored Nokorreach in May 1939, but it didn’t become Cambodia’s national anthem for three more years. French authorities in 1939 probably felt that its backward looking; Cambodia-centered lyrics sidestepped the virtues of continuing French protection.
By 1942, however, the political situation in Cambodia and French prestige had altered radically. Starting with France’s defeat in Europe in June 1940 they had both had been damaged by successive blows.
At the end of 1940, sensing French vulnerability, Thai forces, attacked Laos and Cambodia, seeking to regain territories that Thailand (then Siam) had relinquished to France in the early 1900s. The ”stolen” territories included the northwestern quadrant of Cambodia. In a peace treaty brokered by the Japanese, France was forced to return the territories to Thailand, but managed to save the area surrounding the Angkorian ruins.
This humiliating event angered the aging Cambodian king, who refused to speak French with French officials for the last few months of his life. He died in April 1941.
To make matters worse, in August, following a clash between French and Japanese troops on the Sino-Vietnamese border, French authorities in Indo-China agreed to let the Japanese station tens of thousands of troops in the colony in preparation for Japan’s invasion of the rest of Southeast Asia which took place a few months later. In return, Japan allowed the French administration in Indo-China to remain in place.
In the meantime, Cambodia was in mourning and without a king.
In October 1941 the French unexpectedly placed Monivong' s nineteen-year-old grandson, Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) on the throne, plucking him without warning from a Saigon lycée. French authorities were convinced that his youth and inexperience could be moulded to serve their interests.
Nokorreach was dusted off and promulgated as the national anthem in the following year.
Intriguingly, the lyrics that in 1939 may have struck the French as disloyal now fitted neatly into the attentisme favored by the Vichy regime in France and by its officials in Indo China. The anthem, after all, described a once great nation that was waiting to be reborn.
With a few changes its lyrics could be transposed to wartime, non-resistant France and to wartime Cambodia, waiting for the Japanese to leave.
Shanouk was fond of Nokorreach. He probably identified with the King in the first stanza, and he kept the anthem in place after he abdicated the throne in 1955 to become chief of state. In 1993 he insisted that it be reinstated when he became Cambodia’s king for the second time.
In March 1970, when he was traveling abroad, Sihanouk was removed from office in a bloodless coup d’etat. Enraged and taken by surprise, the Prince vowed to return to power, took up residence in Beijing and formed a government in exile. China, North Vietnam supported him. So did the Khmer Rouge which had been, until a then, the relatively ineffectual anti-Sihanouk resistance.
In Phnom Penh, the new regime called itself the Khmer Republic and dismantled what it could of Cambodian kingship. Nokorreach was replaced by a tuneless and jittery anthem that with hindsight unintentionally expressed the anxieties of the regime. A rough English translation reads:
The Khmer are famous for their singular skills in the world -
Their victories, successes and their temples of stone.
Their civilization and religion are truly superior.
The heritage of our ancestors kept us safe on the Earth.
Khmers, rise up!
Khmers, rise up!
Khmers, rise up!
Fight to build the Republic!
The enemy is invading Cambodia,
Don't be anxious.
Bring the ultimate victory to the Khmer people
Independence will shine the way to a superior country.
What's notable about the anthem? Aside from its poor literary quality, is its shift from the quietude of Nokorreach to the war that was already beginning to destroy the Khmer Republic. The anthem was written as the Republic’s defeat, largely at the hands of the far more experienced Vietnamese army was gathering momentum. It’s a poignant text when seen from that perspective.
Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia 1973. By then the movement had become a formidable military force and the Khmer Republic was in disarray.
By the time that Khmer Rouge soldiers reached Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, Cambodia had been devastated by five years of civil war. For much of 1973 it countryside was subjected to a brutal campaign of almost indiscriminate US carpet bombing.
The Khmer Rouge leadership, concealed from view, proclaimed its existence as Democratic Kampuchea (DK) in January 1976, publishing a constitution and a national anthem with lyrics allegedly by DK’s still concealed leader, Pol Pot. It reads:
The bright scarlet blood
Flooded over the towns and plains of our motherland Kampuchea,
The blood of our good workers and farmers,
Our revolutionary fighters' blood, both men and women.
Their blood produced a great anger and the courage
To contend heroically.
On 17 April, under the revolutionary banner,
Their blood freed us from the state of slavery.
For the glorious 17 April!
That wonderful victory had greater significance
Than the Angkor period!
We are uniting
To construct a Kampuchea with a new and better society,
Democratic, egalitarian and just.
We follow the road to firmly-based independence.
We absolutely guarantee to defend our motherland,
Our fine territory, our magnificent revolution!
Hurrah! For the new Kampuchea,
A splendid, democratic land of plenty!
We guarantee to raise aloft and wave the red banner of the revolution.
We shall make our motherland prosperous beyond all others,
Putting aside the notion that dead peoples’ blood is a liberating force (a concept perhaps borrowed from the Marseillaise) what happened for most Cambodians in 1975-79, to quote the long-winded anthem’s final lines, was far from prosperous, magnificent or wonderful. Instead, DK’s misguided policies, its leaders’ paranoia, its unchecked use of violence and its war against Vietnam tore the regime apart.
Left in its wake were perhaps 2 million men, women and children who had died from starvation, overwork, mistreated diseases and executions. Their blood had accomplished nothing except perhaps the demise of the regime.
In January 1979 Vietnamese troops arrived in Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign that had lasted less than three weeks, Later in the year the Vietnamese and their Cambodian protégés (who had fled to Vietnam to escape DK purges) assembled a pro-Vietnamese regime called the Peoples’ Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). For the next ten years, Cambodia’s exhausted but resilient people profited from Vietnamese military protection that’s not mentioned in the PRK’s national anthem.
The Khmer Republic’s anthem had been composed at the start of of an onrushing defeat, and DK’s in the aftermath of victory. The PRK anthem describes an ongoing, undecided conflict in which “all enemies are destroyed”. It reads:
All Cambodian people are the power of conquering dictator,
We swear to destroy all enemies,
Solidarity makes us stronger.
we sacrifice our life for victory.
The Cambodian army is valorous,
We cross all barriers,
All enemies are destroyed,
W e bring the precious freedom to the people.
Cambodian heroes are aimed at war,
we swear to revenge our enemies,
the victorious flag of blood-colored temple is erect,
and leads the nation into happiness
Since the early 1990s, Cambodia’s motto “King, State, Religion”, celebrated by Chuon Nath, has lost much of its power.
In 2017, an uninterested, powerless King lives in the Royal Palace, Cambodians are turning away from Buddhism and the State, whose intrinsic oppressiveness is played down in Nokorreach, is increasingly oppressive.
Has Nokorreach passed its use by date? Maybe so, but I still believe that an anthem that honors Cambodia’s long history and the enduring strengths of its people is deeper, more relevant and more worthwhile than the heartless anthems of the 1970s that urged their listeners to seek and destroy their fellow Khmer, and praised them when they did.