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New Left Review I/180, March-April 1990


Anthony Barnett

‘Cambodia Will Never Disappear’

In addition to pride in a unique greatness, most expressions of nationalism contain a fear of extinction. The idea that the national essence might be lost or the national culture swamped is a common one, whether this is perceived as a danger posed by the threat of conquest, racial penetration, the influence of foreign ideas or behaviour, or the economic erosion of independence. Although this notion—that the very identity of the nation itself is under threat—is widespread, it is usually confined to the rallying cries of extremist sentiment. But in the case of Cambodia it is central. There can be few countries where the theme has been accorded such weight both by its inhabitants and by foreigners. In numerable reports it is accepted that Cambodia could soon disappear; that in one way or another it will fail to survive. This long predated Pol Pot. ‘Shrinking Cambodia’ is the first heading of a 1960s essay, the present continuous suggesting that by the time the reader has got to the end of the text, another square centimetre might have gone. [1] Bernard Gordon, The Dimensions of Conflict in Southeast Asia, New Jersey 1966, p. 41. One of the best early accounts of Cambodia’s independence movement asserts that only its ‘neutralization’, surely a vague concept, will ensure the country’s ‘survival as a nation’. [2] V.M. Reddi, A History of the Cambodian Independence Movement, Tirupati 1970, p. i. The suggestion is extreme—Cambodia’s very existence is at stake—yet it is noted as if it were a matter of fact, despite all the evidence that nations are remarkably durable.

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