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  • “Reflections on Research in Cambodia, Half a Century Ago: An Address to the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Group”
  • William E. Willmott (bio)

Before I begin, I want to thank Penny Edwards for making my attendance at these meetings possible.1 And thanks, too, to Erik Davis for arranging this meeting of the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Group (TLC). In my dialect, TLC means “tender loving care,” and that’s something this eighty-year-old can do with following the siege of earthquakes we have suffered in Christchurch, New Zealand, over the past eighteen months.

This event has given me the opportunity to return to almost the beginning of my academic career: my doctoral fieldwork in Cambodia fifty years ago. (It was preceded by fieldwork in an Inuit community in the Ungava, Northern Canada; not relevant here.) Rereading my publications from that research has allowed me to relive the excitement of my Cambodian year, living with my wife and child in Phnom Penh apart from a month in Siem Reap, where I could hire a cyclo for ten riels and visit the various ruins of Angkor every afternoon.

Research on overseas Chinese was informed by different paradigms in those days. Bill Skinner was a leading thinker in the field, and Maurice Freedman, my mentor and supervisor, was another. Our issues focused on community social structure and nationalism—many of us were supporters of the national liberation movements in Southeast Asian countries. For most of us, Chinese identity was simply a methodological issue. [End Page 279]

Sadly, I haven’t returned to Cambodia since I left in August 1963. I had intended to visit during my first sabbatical in 1970, but the right-wing coup by General Lon Nol put an end to that, since I was known to be a supporter of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state he deposed. Then, for my next sabbatical, I was planning in 1978 to visit Democratic Kampuchea when we heard the dreadful news that Malcolm Caldwell, editor of the left-wing Journal of Contemporary Asia, had been murdered in Phnom Penh, so again I set aside any idea of going.

In 1962 to 1963 a war was raging next door in Vietnam, and it colored all our thinking. Canadian friends returning to Phnom Penh from a weekend in Saigon showed us a bullet hole in their car, which put an end to our plans to visit Vietnam. Bernard Fall, that brilliant French-American academic who taught at Howard University and was a vociferously pro-French critic of American strategy and tactics, was just completing a term in Phnom Penh when I arrived in 1962, and we inherited his Citröen Deux Chevaux and his Vietnamese maid. Five years later he died while covering a battle with a platoon of American marines when he “stepped on a landmine.” Recent revelations of CIA dirty tricks lead one to wonder exactly how he did die!

The Geneva Conference that ended the First Indochina War in 1954 established an International Commission for Supervision and Control made up of Canadian, Indian, and Polish commissioners. The Canadian ICC Commission on Rue Dekcho Damdin was our mailing address, and the young Canadian commissioner, Tom Pope, eased our entry into Cambodian society. The ICC’s Douglas DC-4 was the only flight to Vientiane, and a ticket cost over a thousand dollars, so I never did get to Laos either.

The Cold War was still strong in 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October bringing the world very close to nuclear disaster. It seemed far from Phnom Penh, however, almost like a fantasy. Prince Sihanouk delighted in organizing volleyball tournaments in which his Royal Palace team would play against a team from the diplomatic corps, forcing the Chinese and American ambassadors to talk to each other as teammates at a time when there was no communication between embassies.

The Cold War affected my doctoral program in a rather serious way. When I went to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1959, my intention was to do research in the New Territories of Hong Kong, where Maurice [End Page 280] Freedman was keen for me to study the only traditional...


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pp. 279-290
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2020
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