- The Khmer Lands of Vietnam: Environment, Cosmology and Sovereignty by Philip Taylor
The ethnic minority populations of Vietnam are hardly understudied, but the gaze of foreign scholars has long skewed towards the northern and central uplands. By comparison, the ethnic Khmer of southern Vietnam, or Khmer Krom, have received relatively little scholarly attention, despite numbering over a million and inhabiting some of the most ecologically and politically sensitive areas of the country. Philip Taylor’s masterful new study does much to remedy this oversight. The product of years of ethnographic fieldwork, conducted in over 400 villages across the Mekong Delta and southeastern Vietnam, The Khmer Lands of Vietnam provides a richly illustrated portrait of the Khmer Krom and their environs. The book is replete with oral histories and local legends, which Taylor weaves together with his own analysis and ethnographic observations, providing insights into how Vietnam’s Khmer see themselves, their natural surroundings and their place within nature.
The main point advanced by Taylor is that the Khmer Krom are both distinct from their Cambodian brethren and internally differentiated. The diversity of environmental conditions in southern Vietnam, Taylor argues, has given rise to regionally distinct ways of life, and there are thus multiple ways of “being Khmer Krom” (p. 266), each specific to a particular sub-region. The organization of the book flows from this premise, with each of its seven chapters surveying one such sub-region and its resident Khmer population, tracing the ways in which environmental conditions shape local livelihoods, identities and social organization.
In the first two chapters, we visit the eastern Mekong Delta, where the river meets the South China Sea. Chapter One covers the coastal province of Trà Vinh, where a network of sand dunes both provides a base for self-sufficient rice agriculture and a physical link between Khmer settlements, contributing to the region’s prominence [End Page 274] as a centre of Buddhist learning. Chapter Two covers the provinces of Sóc Trăng and Bạc Liêu to the south, where Khmer settlements instead cling to rivers and canals, facilitating commerce and migration and giving rise to a more “outward oriented, cosmopolitan, and economically dynamic” way of life than is found in Trà Vinh (p. 79).
Taylor is no environmental determinist, and his analysis reveals a sensitivity to the indirect and sometimes unexpected ways in which environmental conditions shape social and cultural outcomes. Chapter Three, for example, surveys the central Mekong Delta, where conditions are ideal for rice agriculture and where a large Khmer population once thrived. The Khmer, however, were largely dispossessed of their farmland and displaced from their villages in the French and American wars, and they now scrape out a precarious existence in the towns, their “communal life … all but disintegrated” (p. 121). In contrast, the Cà Mau peninsula, discussed in Chapter Four, suffers from perennial water shortages and saline intrusion, but adverse conditions have prompted collective responses by the Khmer, such as the use of temple pools as dry-season reservoirs. In Taylor’s view, such efforts have forged “stronger communal bonds” in the Cà Mau peninsula “than in the freshwater-dominated central delta where cooperation was less vital” (p. 152), allowing for greater cultural resilience in the face of recent in-migration by ethnic Kinh or Vietnamese.
Taylor then turns his attention westward, covering the mountainous border province of An Giang in Chapter Five and the coastal province of Kiên Giang in Chapter Six. These areas are broadly similar. Both maintain strong cultural ties with nearby Cambodia, and in both the Khmer have historically engaged in a mix of economic activities, including agriculture, fishing and forestry. In writing about An Giang, Taylor paints a portrait of selective engagement, as agricultural modernization and the privatization of common-pool resources place pressure on traditional livelihoods, but as tourism and a surge in cross-border trade open up new niches for entrepreneurial Khmer. In Kiên Giang, however, development has come at a high ecological cost, as extractive industries...