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Historian of Cambodia, David Chandler, Receives Prestigious Award for Asian Studies


David Chandler was given the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies from the Association for Asian Studies at its 2018 annual conference in Washington, DC, held on March 22-25, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Association for Asian Studies)

The 85-year-old American academic was given the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies for his extensive body of scholarly work on Cambodia’s history, politics and culture.

A renowned historian of Cambodia, David Chandler, received the top award from the Association for Asian Studies at its 2018 annual conference, held here from March 22-25.

The 85-year-old American academic, who is now professor emeritus at Monash University in Australia, was given the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies for his extensive body of scholarly work on Cambodia’s history, politics and culture.

Previous winners of the honor include well-known figures such as Senator J. William Fulbright and political scientist Benedict Anderson.

Chandler’s five books on Cambodia, including the seminal 1983 work “A History of Cambodia,” have been used in classrooms all over the world and translated into multiple languages. Perhaps more importantly, Chandler is credited with helping train a generation of Cambodia-focused scholars and make the country into a focus of study.

“He has helped make Cambodian studies a field, such that there is now a group that meets here every year specializing in Cambodia,” said Katherine Bowie, president of the Association for Asian Studies.

“Even if you weren’t interested in Cambodia, you didn’t know you were interested in Cambodia, his work will make you interested,” she added.

Bowie said there was “tremendous enthusiasm” within the association for honoring Chandler because he had been a generous mentor to so many scholars.

An attendee at the 2018 annual conference organized by the Association for Asian Studies prepared to enter the award presentation for professor David Chandler, author of “A History of Cambodia.” (Chetra Chap, VOA Khmer)
An attendee at the 2018 annual conference organized by the Association for Asian Studies prepared to enter the award presentation for professor David Chandler, author of “A History of Cambodia.” (Chetra Chap, VOA Khmer)

After graduating from Harvard University, Chandler became a US Foreign Service officer in 1958 and was posted in 1960 to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, where a room is now named in his honor. There, he learned to speak and read Khmer and gained insight into the country’s political dynamics by following then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk around the country to observe his speeches.

After leaving his diplomatic career and deciding to become an academic, he went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Michigan in 1974, writing about pre-colonial Cambodian politics, and since then has researched and written numerous books, articles, and reports on Cambodia.

Chandler told VOA Khmer he was “very flattered, very pleased and surprised” by the recognition, but was most gratified that he might have influenced other scholars to follow him into the field.

“When I started being a scholar of Cambodian history, there was no one else doing that,” he said.

David Chandler addressed the audience at the Association for Asian Studies' annual conference, Washington DC, March 22-25, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Association for Asian Studies)
David Chandler addressed the audience at the Association for Asian Studies' annual conference, Washington DC, March 22-25, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Association for Asian Studies)

“With the civil war, the Khmer Rouge, the refugee issue, UNTAC, a lot of people became involved in Cambodia outside the academic world. A lot of them moved into academic after that… and it just became a much larger and more crowded—happily crowded—field.’’

Judy Ledgerwood, a professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University who co-edited “At the Edge of the Forest,” a 2008 book of essays inspired by Chandler’s work, told VOA Khmer that he was a “wonderful scholar” who had written some of the most important works in English about Cambodia and inspired many people to enter the field.

“They are really readable and so they were a good introduction for many people to the country,” she said.

George Chigas, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who uses Chandler’s “Tragedy of Cambodian History” and “Brother Number One” as required readings in his classes, agreed that the award was “a much-deserved recognition for great work.”

“All of us who study and are interested in Cambodian history and culture have a great debt to David Chandler,” he said.

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