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A Shifting Universe – religion and moral order in Cambodia

Chapter in book
Authors Alexandra Kent
Published in The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, eds. Katherine Brickell and Simon Springer
Pages 378-388
ISBN 978-1-138-83118-6
Publisher Routledge
Place of publication London
Publication year 2017
Published at
Pages 378-388
Language en
Keywords Cambodia, morality, Buddhism, history
Subject categories Other Social Sciences


Throughout Southeast Asia, understandings of good and evil, right and wrong have historically been interlaced with schemes of cosmological or religious order. This chapter describes how the Khmer people, individually and collectively, have responded over the last three centuries to the way various powers have tried to reconfigure their moral universe and govern their moral conduct. An historical overview of Cambodia’s religious landscape is presented here, with a view to enhancing understanding of the continuities and discontinuities seen in contemporary Cambodia. The first part of the chapter deals with the Angkorean period of Cambodia’s history and with the arrival of Theravada Buddhism. The second part describes the French colonial period, independence, and the Khmer Rouge communist revolution. The final third of the chapter focuses on how religion and morality have emerged following the violent imposition of an entirely secular moral order upon the people by the Khmer Rouge regime 1975–1979, when all religious activity was suppressed. The section discusses how new moral anxieties have arisen as consumer values and competition for resources swept into the country while it was still struggling to recover its moral compass. It also describes the moral implications of the entanglement of religion with party politics and the weakening of the Cambodian monarchy in recent times. In sum, the chapter shows how deeply significant religion continues to be in Cambodia for the exercise of power and the acquisition of moral legitimacy.

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