David Chandler

david-chandlerEducated at Harvard College (AB), Yale University (AM) and the University of Michigan (PhD, 1974), Chandler was employed as a US Foreign Service Officer from 1958 to 1966; between 1960 and 1962 he served in Phnom Penh. He came to Monash in 1972 where he remained until his retirement in 1996. He held a Personal Chair in History (1993−1996), was Research Director of the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, and was elected FAHA in 1994. He is now Emeritus Professor and an Associate of SOPHIS (History). Following his retirement he held adjunct appointments at Cornell University, Georgetown University and the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. In addition to his academic appointments he has been a Senior Advisor at the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap; a USAID consultant evaluating Cambodia’s democracy and governance programs and an Asia Foundation consultant assessing Phnom Penh election activities. He has been a consultant on Cambodia for Amnesty International and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2009 and 2012 he served as an expert witness at the International tribunal to try the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. A room in the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh is named in his honour.

Research Interests:

David Chandler is acknowledged by his peers as ‘the major historian of Cambodia, and his six books and numerous articles on Cambodian history and culture constitute an exceptional contribution to Southeast Asian studies (Ebihara 2008, xi). He has published extensively on Cambodian history from pre−colonial times to the present day. His essay ‘Songs at the Edge of the Forest: Perceptions of Order in Three Cambodian Texts’ (1978) has become a classic in Khmer studies (Ebihara 2008, xi). His Cambodian research is noted for two particular features: his innovative use of unusual sources alongside more ‘standard’ historical documents and his insistence on carefully representing indigenous voices.

Sources:

May Ebihara, ‘Some Introductory remarks: 2001 AAS Panel in Honor of David Chandler’ in Anne Ruth Hansen and Judy Ledgerwood (eds), At the Edge of the Forest: Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2008), xi−xii; David Chandler, ‘Coming to Cambodia’, in Hansen and Ledgerwood, At the Edge of the Forest (2008), 21−8.

Publications:

Books:

Authored:

A History of Cambodia 1983−2007 [4th edition]; translated into Thai [1998] and Khmer [2007]); The Land and People of Cambodia (1991 [1972]); The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics War and Revolution since 1945 (1991); Cambodia (1993); Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (1992/1993; rev. ed. 1999; transl. into French [1993], Thai [1994], Japanese [1994], Khmer [1998], and Vietnamese [2007]); Voices from S−21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (1999; transl. into French [2002] and Khmer [2007])

Co−authored:

In Search of South−East Asia: A Modern History (1971−1987, with D. J. Stenberg [ed.], W. Roff, J. Smail, R. Taylor, A. Woodside and D. Wyatt); The Khmers (1995, with Ian Mabbett); The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History ( 2005, with Norman G. Owen [ed.], William R. Roff et al)

Edited/Co−edited:

Revolution and its Aftermath in Kamupchea: Eight Essays (1983; with Ben Kiernan); Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia: Essays in Honour of Professor J.D. Legge (1986, with M. C. Ricklefs); Pol Pot Plans the Future: Confidential Leadership Documents from Democratic Kampuchea, 1976−1977 (1988; transl/ and ed. with Ben Kiernan and Chantou Boua); L’espace d’un regard: la vie et l’œuvre de Paul Mus (1902−1969) (2005, with Christopher Goscha); People of Virtue: Reconfiguring Religion, Power, and Moral Order in Cambodia Today (2008, with Alexandra Kent).

Essays and articles:

Refereed scholarly essays and other contributions by David Chandler have been published in Asian Studies Association of Australia Review; Cultural Survival; Ethics and International Affairs; Journal of Asian Studies; Journal of Southeast Asian Studies; Journal of the Siam Society; Pacific Affairs; SAIS Review; Southeast Asian Affairs; Thesis Eleven and various dictionaries and encyclopedias. A selection of articles is published in David Chandler, Facing the Cambodian Past: Selected Essays 1971−1994 (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1996).

Selected Monographs:

A History of Cambodia (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1983), xvi, 237 pp. (second edition (1992; updated1996/8); third edition (2000); fourth edition (2007). Translated into Thai (l998) Khmer (2005) French (2011) and Chinese (2012).

The book was hailed as a ‘new departure’: the first serious English−language general history of Cambodia by a specialist scholar familiar with the country and its language that connected the Angkorian era (c. 802 CE to c.1430 CE) with modern times, written for the student and general reader rather than the academic specialist. There were also no analytical histories written in Khmer and narratives in French were either out of date or inconsequential. Drawing on materials in English, French, Cambodian and Thai, and making use of relevant Vietnamese materials, the author presents the ‘often jumbled history of Cambodia both before and during the colonial period … in a coherent and readable form’ (Osborne1984, 361). As predicted by several reviewers, the book indeed has remained a standard text for many years.

The first edition of the book surveyed Cambodia from the prehistoric evidence to independence in 1953, with additional commentary on the period up to 1982, roughly 2000 years of history. Ten chapters were divided almost equally between pre−modern Angkor and modern Cambodia (from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries). ‘Chandler is a true pioneer in his effort to take Cambodian history at one sweep and to treat the Cambodian past and present as an analytical whole’ (Taylor 1985, 327). ‘[T]he treatment of the seventeenth−twentieth centuries represents an original contribution, superior to any other existing work’ (Vickery 1985, 460). It was ‘the first such continuous history of Cambodia to draw on nineteenth and twentieth century Khmer archives and documents’ (Gray 1986, 82). The author himself has written in an unpublished note, ‘I deliberately chose the indefinite article “a” , rather than “the” to precede the word “History” in my title. Other histories have always been possible …’

While the first edition did not cover post−independence history, this has been included in the later versions, with each subsequent edition extended chronologically to the year of publication and expanded to accommodate new research (including the author’s expanded study of the modern period, The Tragedy of Cambodian History [published 1991]). ‘A valuable aspect of the book is the wide−ranging integration of new secondary and, for the modern period, primary archival material’ (Vickery 1985, 458). A concluding bibliographic essay directs readers to a selection of the main primary and secondary sources on Cambodian history in French and English. The book’s true sequel is, however, Chandler’s The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution since 1945 (1991; rev. 1993), in which, inspired by his interviews with over 300 Cambodian refugees in 1984 and hearing their often heartbreaking stories of life under the Khmer Rouge, he tells the story of Cambodia from 1945−1979, a period that roughly matches what most of them had lived through.

Chandler’s analysis of Cambodian history in A History of Cambodia presents four major themes: the country’s vulnerable geography and its geopolitical relations with Thailand and Vietnam; modern Cambodia’s relationship with and interpretations of its past, especially the splendours of the Angkor Empire; the persistent influence of hierarchical structures and their link to religious−metaphysical concepts; the question of rural ‘inertia’ and the myth of the changelessness of Cambodian society (Hägerdal 2002, 559). ‘Chandler’s exploration and analysis of these themes throughout his presentation of Cambodian history is one of the book’s major triumphs’ (Zucker 2008, 493).

Reviewing the third edition, Hägerdal (2002, 560) detected a tension between the two halves of the book. The first six chapters, make use of a wide array of materials other than narrative political sources, ‘including architecture, art objects, folklore, Chinese reports, missionary texts and aphorisms’, and enable a wide−ranging discussion of social, economic and cultural issues. ‘The last seven chapters, by contrast, are very much political history.’

The longevity of the book is the most powerful argument for its importance and influence: ‘since 1983, it has remained the key text for specialists and the general public alike’ (Jacobsen 2011, 301). It has been published (and reviewed) in four revised and updated editions 1983−2008, in Kindle (2009), paperback and e−book (2014) forms and Southeast Asian editions (1993/2003). ‘Chandler’s extensive notes and bibliography are a gift to scholars, while the readable text and clarity of expression make the book accessible to the Cambodian studies novice. Since 2007, the book has been available in Khmer translation—one of the few English−language histories of Cambodia to receive such treatment—and it is a testament to its local popularity that it is now in its second Khmer−language edition’ (Jacobsen 2011, 302).

Reviews:

First edition: American Historical Review 89/3 (June 1984), 834−5 (Constance M. Wilson); Pacific Affairs 57/2 (Summer 1984), 361−2 (Milton Osborne); Journal of Asian Studies 44/2 (February 1985), 458−60 (Michael Vickery); The History Teacher 18/2 (February 1985), 288−90 (Alain-Gérard Marsot); Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 16/2 (September 1985), 327−9 (K.W. Taylor); Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48/3 (1985), 600−1 (R.B. Smith); Journal of Asian History 20/1 (1986), 82−4 (Christine E. Gray)

Second edition: Law Institute Journal 67/8 (August 1993), p.755−7 (Jefferson Lee); Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3/3 (November 1993), 486 (D.A. Smyth); Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28/1 (March 1997), 185−6 (Ramses Amer) (2nd edition, updated).

Third edition: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158/3 (2002), 558−60 (Hans Hägerdal).

Fourth edition: Pacific Affairs 81/3 (Fall 2008) 493−4 (Eve Monique Zucker); Journal of Asian Studies 70/1 (February 2011), 301−3 (Trude Jacobsen).

Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992; rev. 2nd edition 1999), xvi, 260pp.

In this book, Chandler attempts an account of the life of Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) from the time of his birth in 1925, through his youth, his studies in France (1949−1952), and rise to leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). The book then traces the career of the mature Pol Pot to the CPK’s victory in 1975, its defeat four years later, and revival with Western support through the 1990s. The revised second edition extends the narrative to Pol Pot’s death in 1998, including new biographical data. ‘In essence, Chandler has documented the major influences that helped shape Pol Pot’s ideological outlook …readers will be able to follow the transformation of a mild-mannered, gentle and charming Saloth Sar into a paranoid and ruthless Pol Pot’ (Yeong 1993, 414).

The subject is challenging because Pol Pot, ‘the most unknown of modern revolutionary leaders’ (Williams 1993, 592) aimed to keep as much of his life as possible a secret, including his birth name, thus forcing his biographer into some speculation. Then there was the intellectual challenge of Pol Pot himself: ‘demonized in liberal milieux as one of the mass killers of our times; excoriated in socialist circles as xenophobic, chauvinist, infantile, and ultra-leftist; denounced vehemently in Cambodia as “contemptible”, … revealing the concealed life requires not only the lifting of veils but a trek through political minefields’ (Summers 1995, 140).

Extensive reviews reflect fascination with a highly contentious biographical subject and express diverse opinions about how this example of ideological extremism and its murderous consequences are to be objectively presented and explained, and about how successfully the author has accomplished his task. Broadly speaking, reviewers agreed that Chandler had ‘carried out an important and impressive research task by writing such a comprehensive political biography of Pol Pot’ (Amer1997, 185), one that succeeds ‘not only in reconstructing “Brother Number One’s” hidden life, but also brings us closer to an understanding of one of the world’s most bloody revolutions’ (Williams 1993, 592).

Reviews: Library Journal 117/17 (15 October 1992), 74 (John H. Boyle); Current History91/569 (December 1992), 437 (William W. Finan, Jr.); The Economist 326/7798 (13 February 1993), 93 (Anonymous); Contemporary Southeast Asia 14/4 (March 1993), 413−8 (Mike Yeong); Foreign Affairs 72/2 (Spring 1993), 186 (Donald Zagoria); Choice 30/8 (April 1993), 1382 (R. Marlay); International Affairs 69/3 (July 1993), 592 (Michael C. Williams); The New York Review of Books 40/14 (12 August 1993), 37(5) (William Shawcross); Law Institute Journal 67/8 (August 1993), 755−7 (Jefferson Lee); Far Eastern Economic Review 156/41 (October 1993), 40(2) (Nayan Chanda); Journal of Asian Studies 52/4 (November 1993), 1076−8 (Ben Kiernan); Orbis 37/4 (Fall 1993), 686 (Ross H. Munro); SAIS Review; A Journal of International Affairs 13/1(Winter 1993), 161 (Jeffrey M. Ritter); History Today 44/2(February 1994), 52 (Ralph Smith); Australian Journal of International Affairs 48/1(May 1994), 161 (Kelvin Rowley); Political Studies 42/4 (December 1994), 722−3 (Christopher Tremewan); Australian Journal of Politics and History 40/2 (1994): 280−1 (Martin Stuart-Fox); New Zealand International Review 2 (March 1995): 29 (Bill Willmott); International Review of Social History 40/1 (April 1995): 143−5 (Leo van Rossum); Pacific Affairs 68/1 (Spring 1995), 140−1 (Laura Summers); Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 28/1 (March 1997) 183−5 (Ramses Amer); Foreign Affairs 78/5 (September−October 1999), 185 (Lucian W. Pye) (revised edition); Pacific Affairs 73/4 (Winter 2000−2001), 620−2 (D. Gordon Longmuir) (revised p’back ed.).

Voices from S-21:Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), xiii, 238pp.

This book is a case study of the Khmer Rouge’s secret prison at Toul Sleng in Phnom Penh during its genocidal rule in Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, when nearly two million people perished. At least fourteen thousand of these were interrogated and tortured at S-21, before being executed at the nearby Choeung Ek killing field. ‘No one was ever released from S-21 … people went in but never came out’ (Chandler, p. 7). ‘This facility served as an ante-room for death’ (p. 16). Four survivors were liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, two of whom were interviewed by Chandler for this study.

The book is based on thousands of primary source materials—documents, photographs, administrative papers and cadre notebooks—microfilmed by Cornell University in 1991, and on a second archive of what were then new materials made available by the Cambodian government to an affiliate of the Cambodian Genocide Program established by Yale University in 1995. Among the documents from S-21 were 4,300 ‘confessions’ of prisoners, varying in length from a single page to several hundred pages. ‘It is these remarkable materials [over 1000 confessions and all available administrative material from S-21] that became the basis for David Chandler’s book’ (Smith-Hefner 2003, 1002). Documentation was plentiful: as the author writes, S-21 was ‘a frighteningly heavily documented institution’ (p. ix).

The book is organised in six chapters dealing with the Vietnamese discovery of the prison in 1979, profiling both the institution (its character and mission) and the prison personnel (frighteningly ordinary, like the inmates), and describing the interrogation process, the accusations levelled at prisoners, the nature of the confessions and the use of torture to extract them. ‘Perhaps the most illuminating sections of the book focus on the dynamics of interrogations’ (Baker 2000, 182). Voices from S-21 is Chandler’s only book that lacks a narrative format. It is also the only one that draws on materials from other countries.

Chandler positions his book in the global field of genocide studies through comparisons with other prison settings within and outside Cambodia: the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, China, Vietnam and Argentina, suggesting analogies which one reviewer at least found ‘troublesome’ (Baker 2000, 182). Of S-21 itself, Chandler concludes (p. 152) that it was ‘a Cambodian, Communist, twentieth-century phenomenon’ and that ‘as an amalgam, it was unique … Its inflexibility and totality, its isolation … and the masses of documentation assembled there were without precedent’.

Reviewers noted the book’s value to a world in which ‘the subject of violence continues to command attention’ and in which ‘man’s inhumanity to man has not abated’ (Sodhy 2002, 1210). ‘Chandler’s book is not only a great history of the DK period, but it is as equally seminal as [Hannah] Arendt’s book in speaking to the human condition in the aftermath of genocide in the modern era’ (Smith 2002, 355). The author admitted (unpublished note) that ‘it was a difficult book to write because the subject matter was unnerving, but I felt at the time that analyzing and trying to understand horrifying phenomena like S-21 is more honest and more rewarding than demonizing them out of hand and thereby letting ourselves and people like us off the hook.’

Reviews: History 28/4 (Summer 2000), 182 (Anni Baker); Contemporary Southeast Asia 22/3 (December 2000), 627−9 (Sue Downie); Pacific Affairs 73/4 (Winter, 2000−2001), 620−2 (D. Gordon Longmuir); Studies in conflict and terrorism 24/2 (March 2001), 149−151 (Shawn McHale); Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15/1 (2001), 135−7 (Judy Ledgerwood); Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33/2 (June 2002), 353−5 (Anthony L. Smith); American Historical Review 107/4 (October 2002), 1209−10 (Pamela Sodhy); Journal of Asian Studies 62/3 (August 2003), 1001−3 (Nancy J. Smith-Hefner).

 

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