Colonial Jurisdictions and the Definition of Khmerness

Sally Low

Independent researcher, Melbourne, Australia,

During the French Protectorate (1863-1954) colonial actors and their interlocutors among new and old Cambodian elites contributed to a national ethos that conflates nationality with a culturally and racially defined Khmer identity. This paper outlines the ways that colonial law and in particular colonial jurisdictions lent legal authority to that notion, promoting the idea that ethnic Vietnamese cannot be Cambodians. Precolonial norms had placed all ethnic, religious and cultural groups under the King’s dominion. However, by 1897 the colonial authorities had subjected ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese living in Cambodia to French courts applying the indigenous laws of Cochin China (Southern Vietnam). Cochin China was a directly annexed colony and its inhabitants therefore French subjects. Those considered ethnically Khmer protégés remained under the jurisdiction of the indigenous Cambodian courts. The criteria for differentiating Khmer and non-Khmer ‘Asiatics’ were variable, but related to culture, language and ethnicity or race. Prior to independence the Cambodian government once again placed all people living in Cambodia under Cambodian courts and laws, regardless of ethnicity. Nevertheless, the legacy of the French jurisdictional divisions lent legal authority to a persistent postcolonial tendency to link citizenship and nationality with Khmer identity.


Sally Low’s doctorate, ‘Courts, Codes and Power: the making of state law in colonised Cambodia,’ was awarded in 2017 through Melbourne University. Since 1993 she has worked at the intersection of law, development and human rights. She is now conducting independent research comparing colonial justice administration across Southeast Asia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

Conference Managers

Please contact the team at Conference Design with any questions regarding the conference.

Photo Credits: Visit Victoria

© 2019 Conference Design Pty Ltd