Mining the Archives for French Law Legacy

Dr. Sally Frances Low, a scholar with a Ph.D. in legal history from the University of Melbourne and extensive experience in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, has authored a new book entitled "Colonial Law Making: Cambodia under the French."

The legal framework established during the French colonization of Cambodia has been an overlooked topic in historical discussions. Furthermore, its influence on present-day Cambodia has been the subject of limited analysis.

Dr. Sally Frances Low, a scholar with a Ph.D. in legal history from the University of Melbourne and extensive experience in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, has authored a new book entitled "Colonial Law Making: Cambodia under the French."

Drawing from archival sources in Cambodia and metropolitan France, the book thoroughly examines the role of colonial laws and courts in shaping and maintaining colonial authority, as well as their enduring impact in the post-colonial era. Sao Phal Niseiy interviews Sally Low to discuss her book.

Sao Phal Niseiy: You wrote a book on a neglected area of colonial Cambodian history, titled “Colonial Law Making: Cambodia under the French.” Could you briefly tell us about your book and what the key takeaways are?

Sally Frances Low: My book examines changes to laws, courts, and the administration of justice in Cambodia during the time of the French protectorate (1863-1953), and some results of those changes in the early years after independence from France.   

I started by asking whether, as well as being a way of controlling the population, colonial laws and courts also established some of the acclaimed benefits of Western legal systems, for example, equality before the law, fair legal processes, and independent courts that apply the law without fear or favour.

My answer to that question is that colonial law introduced many of the concepts of the rule of law, but often prevented them from being put into practice.

Colonial rule was never democratic, and the French therefore did not encourage real judicial independence in the Cambodian courts. They also actively prevented lawyers from being able to represent their clients effectively, and they neglected legal education.

Therefore, when Cambodia became independent, it inherited a legal system that was too underdeveloped, and too dependent, to play a role in defending democracy and the rule of law.  

During my research, I also became interested in the negotiations and compromises by which Cambodian courts and laws were reformed under the French, and in the many ways that the French used law to establish and justify their rule.

I argue that even though Cambodia’s laws and courts were completely reformed along French lines, the Cambodian elite and the King still exercised considerable influence because the French needed their cooperation.

The French made a great show of respect for the King and claimed to be protecting Cambodian tradition, even as they introduced important changes. As a result, there was no clear break between the new state law, the Buddhist religion, and the idea of a semi-divine monarch who was the source of the law. Arguably, this helped to create the context for King Norodom Sihanouk to override the 1947 constitution.

Law played various roles in colonial rule. International treaties authorised the French presence, the law established the structures and rules for colonial control, and it divided the population into ethnically based groups.

It also, in some instances, provided protection for ordinary people against more powerful members of society. It planted the idea that laws should be universally applicable, and that they should be administered through courts according to set rules of procedure.

One aspect of colonial law in Cambodia was the way jurisdictions divided the inhabitants along ethnic lines.

There were effectively three jurisdictions: one for French citizens and Europeans; one for ethnic Vietnamese and other so-called “foreign Asiatics”; and finally, what the French called the indigenous jurisdiction which covered the majority Khmer population.

The people in each jurisdiction were governed by different laws and courts. The indigenous jurisdiction in Cambodia took shape in the context of a dispute between the French judiciary and the French administrators.

Largely because of this dispute, Cambodia had the most complete hierarchy of indigenous courts in all of French Indochina. Right up to the highest level of appeal, the judges were all Cambodians, although they were closely supervised by French administrators and “advisors.”  It was this tightly controlled indigenous jurisdiction that formed the basis for the legal system when Cambodia became independent from France. 

Sao Phal Niseiy: Why did you decide to work on this book?

Sally Frances Low: I first visited Cambodia as a volunteer, just a few months before the UN-supervised elections in 1993 and after that, I returned many times to work and to visit friends.

I became interested in the topic of law under the French protectorate for two reasons. First, I had studied law and history at university.  Second, a friend and colleague, Peter Arfanis, worked at the National Archives of Cambodia for several years. He told me that the archives contain a lot of material about the colonial justice system. I started to research the topic for my PhD and then decided to try to publish the work as a book.   

Sao Phal Niseiy: What challenges did you face when authoring the book, particularly dealing with archival documents in Cambodia?

Sally Frances Low: I felt privileged to work in the National Archives of Cambodia. They are a very important resource for anyone interested in researching the modern history of Cambodia. The staff are helpful and patient. With not many resources, they are doing a great job to preserve and classify the collections.

As a westerner who is used to working with sophisticated data bases and being able to make digitised images of material, I had to adjust to a slower, lower-tech way of working. Once I had adapted, I really enjoyed the months I spent in the archives.

A general challenge for all historians is that the archives were constructed by those in charge. They do not provide a full picture of how ordinary people, especially those who were illiterate, experienced events. Historians also must examine and acknowledge their own personal biases and the cultural lens through which they interpret the historical material.

Sao Phal Niseiy: It is not uncommon that in many colonies, the voices of colonial administrators and elite groups dominate the existing archival documents. How do you navigate the lack of voice from colonial subjects who were non-elites?

Sally Frances Low: You are right that the voices of non-elite colonial subjects are largely absent from the colonial archive. My work specifically deals with interactions between the French and members of the Cambodian elite.

However, I searched for evidence about non-elite Cambodians’ reactions to colonial law by analysing some of the issues the French encountered in implementing their reforms.

For example, the French tried for many years to introduce a uniform system of land titling across all of Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos). Yet in Cambodia, they really struggled to do so because the people simply ignored new laws and stuck to the tradition that based land ownership on occupation and use.

There are also some second-hand accounts of the collective voices of non-elite Cambodians, such as when people from a range of provinces demonstrated against unfair taxes in late 1915 and early 1916.  

In at least one province, armed confrontation broke out between local authorities and protesters, some of whom were later put on trial. Their statements under interrogation are still filed in the archives. We can also glean evidence from the many reports regarding bandits, some of whom openly spoke against both the Cambodian and the French authorities.

Sao Phal Niseiy: What chapter do you think was the most difficult part when you wrote the book?

Sally Frances Low: My conclusions about the courts and the legal system in the early years after independence are largely based on secondary sources written during those years. I would like to see more research done on this, using any old court records, newspapers or other documents from that time that may have survived. There may even be some people still living who remember something about the administration of justice during the Sangkum Reastre Niyum era, under Norodom Sihanouk, who was then head of state.  

Sao Phal Niseiy: If we are to judge, what are the implications of French colonial law-making and colonial rule in Cambodia?

Sally Frances Low: Like most governments, whether they are democratic or authoritarian, the colonial administration justified and structured French rule using laws.

Because Cambodia was a protectorate, that is, an indirectly ruled colony, colonial law-making was influenced by the negotiations and transactions that took place between the French and the Cambodian elite, and between the judicial and administrative arms of the colonial administration.  

Although they attempted to create courts that applied the law without corruption or external influence, the French did not put enough resources into their reforms. Moreover, when it suited them, they also manipulated and influenced the courts. 

One of the distinguishing features of European colonialism was the racist assumptions on which it was based. Like all European colonial powers, the French used law to establish hierarchies based on race or ethnicity. In this respect, colonial law reverted to pre-modern European law, which was also based on status, patronage, and prestige.

Sao Phal Niseiy: What are some pieces of advice you can offer to other writers interested in working on Cambodia’s colonial history?

Sally Frances Low: Approach the archives critically, remembering that they are a very selective and biased form of evidence. Be prepared to spend plenty of time in the archives. There is a lot of material, mostly written in French.  There are also many documents in archives in France and Vietnam. The French National Library, la Bibliotèque Nationale de France, has a lot of material online.

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