Friday, March 19, 2010

Jayavarman VII: The Great Southeast Asian Leader

Copyright © 2010 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved.

Jayavarman VII (born c. 1120/25 - died c. 1215/19) was perceived as one of the most forceful and productive kings of the Khmer Empire of Angkor. His vestiges were highly recalled that at the age of sixty-one, he was crowned as a sole king of the vast Kambujadesa and began a brilliant reign for more than thirty years, during which he brought the empire to its zenith, both in terms of territorial expansion and of royal architecture and sophistication. But before that, he was regarded as a fierce warrior in Angkor but later on as a prodigal son who emerged as the last of the great god-kings of the Khmers. His momentous military feat was perhaps when he gained power and sacked the rich and dominating neighbor of Champa . He invaded vast territories as far as southern Laos, portions of the Malay Peninsula and Burma under his theocratic "devarajah” kingship.

During his rule, he constructed large numbers of towering and newly awesome Indian-inspired temples. But he was known for building the Angkor Thom (big Angkor), a uniquely Mahayana Buddhist central pyramid temple designed to symbolize as the primary locus of the royal cult. It also served as his own personal mausoleum. Those beautiful bayons reflected and portrayed Jayavarman VII at a mature age, his features somewhat fleshy, his eyes lowered, meditating in outmost humility. His lips are synonymous with the famous “Angkor smile”. Sculptors relinquished the rather impersonal ideal canon of youth and beauty of earlier periods, adopting a more naturalistic, terrestrial, human style with sensitive modeling. In other words, those images profoundly express royal grandeur through the sense of devotion and spiritual serenity.

These smiling faces are prominent landmarks that sparked theories among scholars behind its real images. Some has articulated that the images have provoked a semblance of the Buddha. For many years, historians has been admiring Jayavarman VII’s powerful reign for building over a hundred ‘house of diseaselessness’ or hospitals from which he scattered it throughout the kingdom intended to alleviate the conditions of his subjects. He also engaged himself in other building programs that yielded numerous highways and ‘fire houses’ or rest houses in his guarded empire.

Scope and Delimitation

There are numerous literatures and Internet sources about the Angkor Civilization, mostly penned by western authors and few by native ‘Indo-Chienese’ scholars. But what maybe lacking in most of these researches is to trace the greatness as well as weaknesses of those ancient rulers in comparing the political philosophy and psychology of modern leaders in Southeast Asia. Has the vicious cycle of history affected the kind of leadership some of our modern leaders in the region who has claimed succession and divine right from great monarchs of the past? History may have an effect as to how Southeast Asian leaders manage and lead their own country. They might have imbibed some qualities of most revered ancient rulers to ascertain acceptance from the masses and to justify present roles in the course of history.

The extraordinary and kingly reign of an exceptional monarch like Jayavarman VII has a domino effect to the kind of leadership of modern Southeast Asian leaders. The charismatic yet destructive rule of Pol Pot in modern times may have been blamed to his campaign in regaining Kampuchea’s superiority to agriculture and irrigation systems to which extent he exaggeratedly staged a revolution to force the entire population of his country to bring back its former glory. The sailendra or the ‘kings of the mountain’ concept which embodies divine monarchy may have genetically influenced the kind of leadership of Suharto, who in the fate of history was an erstwhile strong Muslim President of Indonesia, in dealing with some government issues and rituals. This has mostly amazed contemporary neighboring leaders in the region but also the west. In other words, this innate kingly behavior of a modern leader can be traced back to the glorious times of his predecessors. Modern Southeast Asian leaders may even have externalized some of these ancient attitudes subconsciously, but the mere fact that it is still manifested in their actions and behaviors, it cannot be denied though, that they ascribed to ancient Indianized form of leadership of devarajah and sailendra.

This is an exploratory paper to understand and probably probe the kind of leadership executed by our modern Southeast Asian leaders in a more culturally diverse environment of today than to an almost singular and homogenous Indianized culture of Southeast Asia during the Angkor civilization. To better value ancient leadership and Jayavarman VII as the objects of study, the research will briefly cover the rise and fall of the Angkor civilization in mainland Southeast Asia and its greater influence to other Indianized kingdoms of maritime Southeast Asia. This is in retrospect with sailendra or ‘kings of the mountain’ and the devarajah or ‘god-king’ as concepts of ancient leadership. It will synthesize and analyze important rulers of the Angkor kingdom before and after the reign of Jayavarman VII. It will briefly discuss the implications of Jayavarman VII’s thirty years of reign as king of the Angkor Empire. And lastly, it will relate devarajah and sailendra to modern Southeast Asian leadership.

The Rise and Fall of the Angkor Civilization

Funan as the mother empire of all Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia disappeared from the Chinese record, late in the sixth century. This formative stage lasted to the rise of the Angkor in the ninth century. Some historians were inclined to place the ancestral home of the Khmer kingdom at the site of Vat Ph’u in Laos, near Bassac and not far from the confluence of the Mun and the Mekong rivers (Mabbet & Chandler, 1996). Mainland Southeast Asia was an arena where rulers competed for hegemony (Chou Ta-kuan, 1951).

Some Angkorian scholars (Harrison 1963, Coedès 1968, Mabbet and Chandler 1996) dramatized their description of Angkor like this one, “around many of these monuments, battered by time, the forest has come crowding. Galleries of beetling dipterocarps strain upwards into the hot sky, their trunks making a nave where bird cries echo in the cathedral stillness…” The world of Angkor was dominated by an obsessive cosmology that sought to banish the dark profane forces of the wilderness to the further side of a protected boundary, setting up an antithesis between disordered, demon-haunted nature and the meticulously symbolic domain of divinely constructed enclosures (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996).

In some accounts, it asserted the Khmer ingenuity with his pursuit on logic of self-imaging (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996), relentlessly seen to the extent of sculpting false windows on some stone temple walls, with false stone curtains equipped with false stone draw-cords. Each building was imitating the ideal form in heaven in order to realize it on earth.

Indian influence (Harrison, 1963) meant the introduction of a developed culture based upon the art of writing, and in this case the Sanskrit, clearly derived form Southern India. The Sanskrit language and literature, the cults of Brahmanism and Buddhism, Hindu mythology and distinctive artistic styles and techniques were influences came under the direct ‘Indianized’ rule, upon the Hindu conception of monarchy, codes of law, and methods of administration. The first inscription in the Khmer language, (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996) was dated 612 CE.

Conventional theories presumed that the vast territories where Angkor stood had been chosen as a settlement site because of its strategic military position and agricultural potential. Alternative scholars, on the other hand, believed the geographical location of the Angkor complex and the arrangement of its temples was based on a planet-spanning sacred geography from archaic times. Based from computer simulations it showed that the ground plan of the Angkor complex – the terrestrial placement of its principal temples which mirrored the stars in the constellation of Draco at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BCE.

While the date of this astronomical alignment was far earlier than any known construction at Angkor, it appeared though that its purpose was to architecturally mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonization of the earth and the stars. Both the layout of the Angkor temples and iconographic nature of much of its sculpture, particularly the asuras (‘demons’) and devas (‘deities’) were also intended to indicate the celestial phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes and the slow transition from one astrological age to another.

The whole plan of cosmopolitan Angkor (Harrison, 1963) was based upon the ancient Indian conception of the structure of the universe. The essential features of this cosmology, common to Brahmanism and Buddhism, were a central mountain called Meru – above which was the home of the gods, a surrounding ocean, and an enclosing wall of rock.

Jayavarman II (802-834 CE) was the founder of the Angkor dynasty. His successors ultimately built the grandest and largest empire in mainland Southeast Asia.

The rise of the Angkor civilization can be attributed to three reasons:

1)The adoption of the Indian doctrines of devarajah which robed the ancient Khmer kings with divine kingship and absolute power to rule over the empire. It justified a successful monarchy system transported by the Indians. It also enhanced the king’s power to mobilize large manpower in serving naval fleets and military strongholds to protect its expanding territories and conquer more foreign lands. Brahmanism played a special role from the foundation of the dynasty in the ninth century down to the twelfth century. The aristocratic Brahmins were appointed as advisers to the god-king to run an efficient empire. The cult of god-king was closely bound up with the worship of Siva. Scholars even articulated that as part of the custom, a Khmer king, after his death he could become Siva or Vishnu or even Buddha, according to his own preference.

2)The strategic location of Angkor in Siam Rep hampered the attack of potential enemies. Its place in north of Tonle Sap Lake and upstream of the Mekong River, with rugged thick forests from all sides, protected Angkor from foreign attacks. Throughout its history of over six hundred years, Angkor lost only one major naval battle on Tonle Sap Lake to Champa in 1711.

3)Khmers’ mastery over the water control due to heavy rainfall during the monsoon and the dry season during off-monsoon gauged their ability to create many large reservoirs, dikes, moats and ponds to prevent floods and conserve water storage. The efficient and extensive irrigation system of the ancient Khmer enabled the empire to cultivate crops two to three times a year.

The demise of the great empire in this part of the world caused the Angkor civilization to falter until this day. Its fall can be blamed on four reasons:

1)The late interference of Theravada Buddhism in thirteenth century to the Khmers had turned out to hurt sublimely the basic foundation of the Angkor Empire in the long run. Khmer people lost their faith to the devarajah. Theravada Buddhism taught the people to seek self-enlightenment, abandon worldly things, and discourage any superstitious belief which directly and indirectly means all deities and all evils. Lastly, the sovereignty of the devarajah and his lavish lifestyle has been challenged.

2)Since the Khmers lost their trust and confidence to the king it meant their disobedience to his sovereignty. The erstwhile efficient irrigation and drainage system became silted and dry. The economy fell down and the productivity weakened with the decline of harvest.

3)History tells that Jayavarman VII was the last greatest monarch of the Angkor Empire. His successors lost the mystery and power of the mighty kingdom which was sacked by neighboring Thailand’s Ayuthaya in the west. The Thais were once considered allies to the Khmers, but it turned out that they changed their allegiance, and became traitors to their former friends.

4)The road networks built by Jayavarman VII had aided the transports of products and trade throughout the empire and also facilitated the Khmer troops to quell its neighbors. The invaders could easily marched in through this road network, instead of previously sailing up from the Mekong River. Angkor was finally sacked as a great empire in 1431.

The Avatars of the Angkor Empire

In the course of the Angkor civilization, every inspirational record was an exercise in apotheosis: the king is portrayed, not as the real individual he is, but as an imitation of an ideal king in heaven (Coedès, 1968).

In understanding the concept of devarajah, some Angkorian scholars have unleashed their ideas to justify the legitimacy of the god-king’s leadership to his people. Mabbet and Chandler (1996) synthesized this concept with the works of the following scholars: G. Coedès, a pioneer of the Angkorian Studies believes that devarajah is identified with the cult of kings at the kingdom’s shrines. J. Filliozat regards it as a cult of Siva under the name of devarajah. H. Kulke takes the important step of disassociating it decisively from the cult of royal shrines and suggests that it is the bronze image of Siva. C. Jacques points out that instead of seeing the Khmer version of the name as a translation of the Sanskrit (devarãja = ‘king of the gods’ or for some think it as, ‘god-king’), the latter was in fact a translation of an originally Khmer name for a local Khmer god = ‘god who is a king’, kamraten jagat ta raja. Michael Vickery accepts it as a type of Khmer cult. This cult had to take its place within the universe of Khmer religious thought, as a patron spirit with protective power, the likes of nak ta or ancestral spirits.

‘He who kills the king becomes the king’ had become the pitiless logic, the mantra of ancient Cambodia’s royal courts, and the principle grounded in the politics of succession disputes. This belief began with a legend about a royal cucumber gardener who had dedicated his life through his work, and even threatened everybody not to enter his garden without him knowing it; or else pain of death was bestowed. Until an intruder came in, and as his strict rule applied, he killed the stranger, ignorant that it was the king. He defended himself at the royal court that he did kill the king, in line of his duty. Because he killed the king, he was later proclaimed as his successor to the throne.

From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached as far as Vietnam to China and to the Bay of Bengal.

Some kings of Angkor (but not all) claimed their links with Jayavarman II (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996). When the Khmer civilization evolved in early ninth century, the Khmer kings inherited several elements from his predecessor as well as those from the Indian civilization. Jayavarman II crowned himself as a devarajah or "god-king" in 802 CE, and his regime was more or less a replica of the successful Indian monarchy.

But the circumstances of Jayavarman II’s rise as a monarch were obscure. He left no inscriptions of his own but was frequently referred to in the inscriptions of later kings. He was said to have come from ‘Java’, though this name was perhaps more likely to refer to somewhere on the Malayan coast. As an eleventh-century inscription suggested that his task was not only to unite the Khmers but also to rebut the claims over them made by the ‘Javanese’. This was an important step towards the unification of the Khmers beneath the authority of one throne. Jayavarman II died in about 834 CE, and according to the belief, he went to his own special heaven and was thereafter known by his posthumous name, Paramesvara, which declared his destiny in the abode of the supreme lord Siva (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996).

The greatest achievement of Jayavarman II was to unify his people and its territory. Unity was the product of particular historical conditions.

The reign of Jayavarman VI in 1080 CE appeared to have initiated a new line of rulers, the Mahidhara line. The rulers from Jayavarman VI’s (Mabbet and Chandler, 1996) family had territory in Thailand. The pattern of demographic spread suggested a westward thrust. This era represented a significant phase in Cambodian cultural expansion. In fact, every account in Thai cultural and artistic history had found space for a ‘Khmer period’ in their written history from tenth to eleventh centuries.

Angkor became supreme and a major empire under the dynasty of Suryavarman II who was consecrated in 113 CE but ended his reign about 1145-50 CE. He was the builder of the famous Angkor Wat, the most spectacular of all the monuments that remain to attest the empire’s glory. And up to now this national shrine is figured in Cambodia’s national flag. He also built temples like Beng Melea, Banteay, Samre, Chey Say Tevoda, and Thommanon. According to Mabbet and Chandler (1986), Angkor Wat’s name meant as ‘city-monastery’ is modern but the original foundation was in honor of Vishnu. It can be further explained by Angkorian scholars that Angkor Wat’s sculpture provided the world a tangible image of the aspirations and values of the culture which created it. His reign was distracted by wars with the perennial enemies, the Chams. By the 1170’s the Chams, by chance, took a surprise naval attack in Angkor from Tonle Sap and across the Great Lake before the Khmers could muster their defenses.

From here, a Cham king Jaya Indravarman IV ruled Angkor, then emerged, a fierce warrior and a Khmer prince to rise in power and destined to liberate his people. The prince was Jayavarman VII, the last of the great Khmer god-king who brought glory and honor to the avatars of the Angkor Empire.

The Emergence to Power of Jayavarman VII

Based from archaeological evidences and historical accounts, Jayavarman VII was the son of King Dharanindravarman II, roughly from 1150-1160 CE and Queen Sri Jayarajacudamani. He married a very religious, strong-minded, and devout princess, Indradevi, who exerted an important influence on him. Both before he gained the throne and during the early years of his rule as the last of the great monarch of the Angkor Empire.

Jayavarman VII stood up as a leader with a powerful vision to build and expand his kingdom with an image of order, stability, and purpose mediated by his religious beliefs. He spoke of his intentions in erecting temples as being, “full of deep sympathy for the good of the world, so as to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality…by virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence.” (Harrison, 1963).

The successful adoption of the Indian doctrines of devarajah legitimized the leadership of Jayavarman VII to exercise divine kingship and absolute power over the entire empire. With the power vested on him, he launched a thousand vessels, a flamboyant attitude to show off his hegemonic power to his enemies. He exercised his military prowess by conquering foreign lands and defeating the kingdom’s nemesis. He led and commanded a strong and large battalion of warriors and his strong physical presence in warfare was expected from him. His success in every battle guided by strong philosophical and cosmological beliefs exuded a kingly behavior. And later on, he built a new city and temples of Angkor Thom that reflected his youthful and energetic image as the sole king of the mighty Kambujadesa.

Although, it was clear that during his late 30s and 40s he lived in the neighboring and prime foe of the Khmers, the Champa kingdom which is now the central region of Vietnam. As the story went on, when Jayavarman VII’s father died, a relative named Yasovarman II appeared to have claimed the throne, and out of Jayavarman VII’s frustration, he left his wife and retreated to Chmapa alone. Much of what can be said about the career of Jayavarman VII was derived from an inscriptional eulogy by his wife, Indradevi (Mabbet and Chandler, 1986). Archaeologists found inscriptions referring to Queen Indradevi’s thoughts after her husband went into exile…"asceticism, her virtuous conduct, her tears, her likeness to Sita, found by her husband and then separated from him, her body thinned by observances, her religion, her devotion to him, her joy at this ultimate return."

In 1166 Tribuvanadityavarman, a court official, stole the throne from Yasovarman II which caused trouble to Angkor’s succession of kingship. And because of worsening palace rebellion, prince Jayavarman VII hastened to Cambodia, maybe to help re-install his relative, Yasovarman II’s right to the throne or to assert his own succession rights. Twelve years after, Jayavarman VII thought that it was the right time to gain the throne from a former court official. He grabbed the opportunity and led a rebellion, in which that time, the Chams had moved in to Angkor 1177 that ultimately unrobed Tribhuvanadityavarman’s title as the king of Angkor. In less that five years of struggle, the prince-warrior emerged as a savior and was crowned as a new devarajah of Kambujadesa and from there he started his brilliant reign.

This was an inscription referring to the capture of the Cham city by King Jayavarman VII:

"In 1190, King Sri Jaya Indravarman ong Vatuv was against the King of Kambujadesa. The latter sent the Prince (Vidyanandana) as the head of the troops of the Kambuja to take Vijaya and defeat the king. He captured the king and had him conducted to Kambujadesa by the Kambuja troops. He proclaimed Suryajavarmadeva Prince, brother-in-law of the king of Kambujadesa, as king of the city of Vijaya."

Jayavarman VII’s reign was grander than any other kings of the empire. His inscriptions declared a loftier and more inspiring ambition. He made Mahayana Buddhism as his kingdom’s religion and built new shrines called the bayon. In his thirty-one years of service as king, he built 121 ‘fire houses’, 102 ‘halls of diseaselessness’, and his own reservoir at Jayatataka. An inscription referred him as to how he envisioned building the halls of diseaselessness or hospitals, "He suffered from the maladies of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public grief which makes the grief of kings, and not their own grief."

After he subjugated Champa under his control, his administration reached as far as to present-day Laos. A Chinese record listed the dependencies of Angkor at the time, an act of homage by vassals; the list included what it called the king of Java (possibly a Malay ruler), the king of the Yavanas (the Vietnamese), and the two king of Champa. His stunning empire appeared to have been as great as Angkor had ever been (Mabbet and Chandler, 1986).

The world-renowned Bayon, which was Jayavarman VII’s central shrine, had been called ‘forest of heads’. It may be true, as some archaeologists have unearthed that all the faces in the sculptures of bayon represented the king himself. The idea was taken from the mythology of the Mahayana, according to which the Bodhisattva’s eyes sent rays of all-seeing compassion into the whole space, filling it with the light of his boundless merit.

In his greatness as a devarajah of the Angkor Empire, on the other side of the coin, it was the exhaustion of the kingdom brought about by Jayavarman VII’s extravagance that set it upon the downward course (Briggs, 1951). After his glorious reign, although the age of mighty deeds and massive endowments recorded in Sanskrit inscriptions came to an end. Angkor continued to be known as a prosperous kingdom after his death around 1215 CE and even monarchs in outer territories regarded him with certain high respect (Mabbet and Chandler, 1986).

Devarajah and Sailendra in Modern Southeast Asian Leadership

Post-colonial Southeast Asia has succeeded in producing far more competent, intelligent and oftentimes notorious leaders who expelled the western colonials in their territories. Some have been molded by circumstances while others used it to legitimize their rule. Almost all Southeast Asian countries have been able to produce imminent and respectable leaders in world politics. Some are known to have ruled their countries under an iron-fist and authoritarian regimes. These leaders have shone and been written in history as great leaders of Southeast Asia, the likes of President Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986) of the Republic of the Philippines, President Suharto (1966-1998) of the Republic of Indonesia, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1959-1990) of Singapore’s Parliamentary Government, Ho Chi Minh (1945-1969) of Vietnam under the Communist Government, Prime Minister Pol Pot (1976-1979) of Democratic Kampuchea, and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003) of the Constitutional Monarchy of Malaysia.

The modern leaders of Southeast Asia have fought peculiar faces of problems that confronted their countries. These faces of issues like western colonialism and imperialism, the rise and fall of communism, prevalent ethnic conflicts and poverty, economic reforms and political saga that have tested the strength of their regime. Some has successfully reached the zenith of their political ambitions at the same time achieved high-level of economic prosperity but others fell, ousted or died, leaving their countries with remnants of complex problems.

In trying to link up the concepts of devarajah of ancient Angkor and sailendra of ancient maritime kingdoms of Srivijaya in today’s modern leadership in Southeast Asia, important leaders of Cambodia and Indonesia shall be given emphasis.

The Angkor civilization decayed after the strong army of the neighboring Ayuthaya kingdom conquered the cosmopolitan city of Angkor. And later in history, foreshadowing the conduct of nineteenth and twentieth-century Cambodian leaders, the Cambodian king sought help from a distant country from the Spanish Philippines. The Cambodian king even promised to become a Catholic if sufficient military help arrived. But it never did instead the Thai returned in 1959 and sacked the Khmer capital (Mabbet and Chandler, 1986).

When France consolidated its holdings into Indo-China and Cambodia turned to a backwater, several scholarly mission to the kingdom copied, catalogued, and deciphered hundreds of inscriptions that had been found at Angkor (Mabbet and Chandler, 1986). Little by little, Cambodia’s half-forgotten past was brought to light. The French, obsessed with the dimensions of beauty of the ruins, invariably saw the contrast in terms of Cambodia’s decline. During these years, French officials sought to limit Norodom’s powers and to expand their own. They even forced King Norodom Sihanouk to sign a humiliating document that led to systematic French controls.

With this political transformation in Cambodia, King Norodom as embodied to be the modern devarajah had not been fully realized. In 1941, the Thai took advantage of French defeats in Europe and attacked French positions in Laos and Cambodia. Thailand once again regained its stronghold over most of Cambodia’s northwest. A nineteen-year-old Norodom Sihanouk, then a high-school student in Saigon succeeded the throne who later availed a French education.

But a fierce and notorious modern Khmer leader responsible for the ‘killing fields’ has emerged in Cambodia trying to bring back the past glory of Angkor. Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot was the ruler of the Khmer Rouge and the Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea from 1976-1979, having been a de facto leader since mid-1975. During his unforgettable rule, he adopted Theravada Buddhism to justify his non-standard communism. He instigated an aggressive policy of relocating people to the countryside in an attempt to purify the Cambodian people as a step toward a communist future. The means to this end included the extermination of two million intellectuals and other ‘bourgeois enemies’. In 1979 he led Cambodia into a disastrous war with Vietnam (the former ancient Champa kingdom which became the perennial nemesis of the Angkor kingdom).

Known as the ‘Javanese King’ by some Indonesians, General Suharto, in his autobiography Pak Harto published in 1989, deems and portrays himself as the only figure who can deliver prosperity and stave off the twin specters of Communist subversion and Islamic extremism. Without him, he claims, Indonesia could run amok again.

President Suharto’s ancestry has been raised from time to time in an attempt to link him to the royal house of Jogyakarta. In the Javanese cultural context, some of his subjects would like to link him with descent from the glorious Mataram kings. Given the vast extent of Javanese aristocratic genealogies, it is more likely that he, as a pure Javanese, could trace some ancestry to the royal palace or kraton (R.J. Vatikiotis, 1993). But Suharto empathetically denied this reports, instead he linked himself as a humble son of a farmer. Perhaps, this was a political strategy to identify himself with the masses, in disguising his persona as a son of a petani or farmer.

Inscriptions had that great empire of Srivijaya was thalassocratic. A thalassocracy is a Greek expression for a kingdom (a state for the west) whose realms are primarily maritime or empire at sea.

The political muscle of both Sukarno and Suharto under their regimes to unite a vast archipelagic country can be traced back to the thalassocratic leadership of the sailendras in ancient Srivijaya kingdom.

Both Generals Suharto and Sukarno have used military maneuvering in their leadership. President Sukarno as a founding father posed as a revolutionary but he failed to recognize the fragility of the republic he built up, until revolutionary rhetoric has devoured him up in his desire to preserve the social status quo. In the same level, the successor, President Suharto, a master politician, has always made economic development a holy mission. He brought a large degree of unity to the multi-ethnic nation and the world’s largest Muslim population through his shrewd political suppression on internal threats to stability.


The avatars of the Angkor Empire have taught us that beauty of a civilization is nestled by rich spiritual nourishment. The devarajah as well as the sailendra assumed supreme roles to rule a mandala. Jayavarman VII may have been regarded as the last of the great king of his empire before it ultimately faltered under his successors’ weak administrations. His greatness is until now carved throughout history. His narcissistic vestiges reflected through the bayons give us hope that the famous ‘Smile of Angkor’ has imparted us certain degree of beauty and serene spirituality of a ruler who once ruled a mighty Kambujadesa during his time.

Jayavarman VII conceived a prosperous society for his domain. At the peak of his power, he merged the close linkage between economic and political stability in his kingdom. He exercised successfully his theocratic devarajah power. The rise of a powerful and integrated kingdom has been attributed to the discovery and sustenance of agriculture and the surplus which it provides. During his reign, he expanded infrastructures like the halls of diseaselessness or hospitals, the firehouses or rest houses, numerous highways, and enhanced the irrigation system. This comes with the belief that the most important of all natural resources his kingdom owns is water. Water imposes the most immediate limitations on the life supporting potential of a given geography. Given that the two great kingdoms in Southeast Asia, the Angkor Empire (mainland) and the Srivijayan Empire (maritime), became so powerful because of its skillful knowledge in utilizing the water systems. The sophisticated irrigation systems of the Khmers and the strong maritime trading of the people of Srivijaya used intelligently the function of water in the development of their kingdoms.

Every great empire experiences the grim reality of life and death. It will rise and fall but great rulers are forever immortalized. New breed of leaders will soon imitate their mighty deeds and learn from their philosophy. But very few succeeds, to the extent of surpassing even the achievements of their predecessors. It may be possible that some modern leaders mimic the achievements of ancient rulers and portray a reincarnated persona to exploit power endowed to them by the people.

It is therefore true that the kind of leadership is ever evolving. The qualities of past rulers may had been brawny and also spiritual in nature, ascribed inheritors of the throne, a warrior who commanded naval fleets and military strongholds, and claim to have descended from the gods or act just like the gods. This may invariably be different in today’s type of leadership where technocrats and bureaucrats dominate the political scene. They are elected but can be ousted by the masses. Lastly, they should be accustomed to be servant-leaders of the people.


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Chou Ta-kuan. 1951. Memoires sur les coutomues du Cambodge de Tcheou Takouan. Paris: Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient.

Coedès, George. 1968. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Harrison, Brian. 1963. Southeast Asia: A Short History. London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd..

L.P. Briggs. 1951. The Ancient Khmer Empire. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Mabbet, Ian and Chandler, David. 1996. The Khmers: The Peoples of Southeast Asiaand the Pacific. Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

R.C. Ng. 1979. The Geographical Habitat of Historical Settlement, In Early Southeast Asia: Essays in Archeology History and Historical Geography, ed. R.B. Smith and W. Watson, New York: Oxford University Press

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