Contested heritage : the people of Angkor
The thesis is an ethnography of heritage, as contested by various groups of people who have a
stake in Angkor, Cambodia. Contestation is over the notion of heritage and its meaning, in
particular, knowledge, ownership, cultural rights, practices, and control of space and practices.
The main protagonists are local villagers and Buddhist monks. Other social actors include
conservators, local authorities, international organisations, local NGOs, and the international
community. The inscription of Angkor on the World Heritage List in December 1992 marked
the emergence of new perceptions of heritage and its management. The thesis analyses the
nature of contestation in the historical context and from various vantage points - conservation,
tourism, and local practice. While adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, it emphasises the
need for and appropriateness of anthropological perspectives in heritage studies, which have
traditionally been dominated by archaeologists, architects, geographers and historians.
Angkor is often referred to as a living heritage site, yet there is no coherent knowledge
among policy-makers and managing authorities on what `living' entails. The religious and
symbolic importance of Angkor is emphasised, while villagers' socio-economic and cultural
practices have been severely restricted, leading them to become marginalized. My argument is
that religious aspects of life cannot be separated from everyday practice. Ethnographic
materials on local practices in Angkor are scarce. My research provides the first
comprehensive case study that focuses on the `living' aspects of Angkor.
The study consists of four interconnected sections. Part I examines the definition of
heritage and such related concepts and notions as space, place, locality, and landscape as
argued by academics and UNESCO. Part II fills out Angkor's cultural landscape, exploring
the local significance of space, particular places, as well as locality and sense of place in
conceptual knowledge and people's practices. Part III discusses the local inhabitants'
experience of marginalization from Angkor ranging from physical expulsion to denial of
practices. The final section demonstrates how local villagers negotiate and strategise their way
through living in an ever-contested heritage space. In conclusion I demonstrate the `location'
of the issue of local community in debates among international and national policy-makers and
suggest the reconsideration of the notion of heritage.
It is hoped that the study will make a contribution to discussions on heritage issues in
general and how to make the `ideal' of a living heritage site, in particular, genuinely realisable
for the people living with Angkor.