Keng Vannsak, A Cambodian Scholar, Philosopher and Khmer Linguist​

Keng Vannsak, A Cambodian Scholar, Philosopher and Khmer linguist

Professor Keng Vannsak was born on September 19, 1925, in Kampong Boeng village, Kampong Leng district, Kampong Chhnang province. His father's name is Keng Siphan and his mother's name is Cheas Horn. After graduating from high school in philosophy in 1946, he went to study in France. During his studies, he worked as an Assistant Professor of Khmer at the Ecole Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in Paris in the academic years 1947‑1948 and 1951‑952. He also taught Khmer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in the academic year 1948‑1950. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the Faculty of Letters and Humanities in Paris in 1951. His wife's name is Suzanne Colleville.

Suzanne Colleville (1921-2003) graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1943 from Caen University. She focused on the study of Southeast Asia, and passed her Thai Language Examination in 1945 and passed her Lao and Khmer Examinations in 1947. During this time, she studied French literature, history, art, and geography. In 1945 she taught Thai and in 1947 was appointed a scientific associate at the French Ministry of National Meteorology. In the 1951-52 school year, she taught Lao at the Langues Orientales School, replacing Professor M. Reinhorn. She gave up her excellent job in Paris to move to Phnom Penh with her husband in 1952, and became a Physics professor at Sisowath High School and the National Institute of Pedagogy and then taught at the Faculty of Science, Phnom Penh until the end of the 1971 academic year. She taught students in Cambodia for generations. She last returned to work in France in September 1971 until retiring. She lived in the outskirts of Paris in the city of Montmorency until her death in 2003.

After the invention of the Khmer alphabet in 1952, Professor Keng Vannsak returned to Cambodia and became a professor at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh from 1952 to 1958. He was the leader of the Democrat Party in the 1955 general election, following the planned Geneva Conventions in 1954. He opposed the throne, especially against Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the founder of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum Party or the "People's Socialist Community".

After the defeat of the Democrats, the government imprisoned him from September 13 to October 10, 1955. Upon his release from prison, he published a collection of poems he had written while incarcerated, which had a profound effect on Khmer poetry at that time.

In 1958, he was the chairman of the Khmer Literature Review Committee in secondary school. From 1958 to 1962 he served as dean of the Faculty of Letters and Humanities and director of the National Institute of Pedagogy (1958-1960). He taught Khmer literature, culture, and civilization at the Faculty of Letters and Humanities and the Buddhist University of Phnom Penh until 1968. 

In mid-1968, the government stopped him from teaching and allowed agents to monitor his home, accusing him of instigating students to act against the government. Authorities then searched the professor's home and found "Mark, Mao" books and a Chinese magazine at his own library. The leading Ministry of Security authorities detained him at the Royal Police Academy with Sonem and Phuong Ton on charges as communists inciting students and people against the Sangkum Reastr Niyum government.

After the political situation in 1970 led by General Lon Nol, Cambodia became the Khmer Republic, the new government rehabilitated him and established the Khmer-Mon Institute and appointed him as the leader of this institution for the purpose of promoting Khmer-Mon culture to the highest level so that the Khmer people are proud of being Khmer and unite Cambodians around this cultural heritage as a weapon against foreign influences. 

He wrote a dissertation at the Sorbonne University in 1971 entitled "Researching The Root Of Khmer Culture"(Recherche d'un fond culturel khmer). 

Professor Keng Vannsak is a rare intellectual with a long-term vision and global perspective on our Khmer culture and civilization. The professor has influenced many generations of professors of Khmer literature in Cambodia. Later, he was appointed as Permanent Representative to UNESCO in Paris in 1971 and later served as Chargé d'Affaires of the Government of the Khmer Republic in France from October 1974 to April 1975. He lived in Montmorency on the outskirts of Paris until his death on Thursday, December 18, 2008. He wrote two plays, a series of poems and several essays:


  1. សាច់​ពុំ​បាន​ស៊ី​យក​ឆ្អឹង​ព្យួរ​ក 5 scenes in 1944
  2. អន្ទិត​គោ​លោត 5 scenes from 1945 (describe traditional and modern issues)


  1. Chet Kramom, Phnom Penh, 1954
  2. Kuk Kamkeles, Phnom Penh, 1956
  3. អន្ត្រែងៗ ក្រលិត​ក្ដ​ឯង អន្ត្រែង​ឱយ​គេ, Montmorency, 1972
  4. Ouy Tae Khmer Rous (Let Only Khmer Live), Montmorency, 1972
  5. Tver Tov Ah Tha, Montmorency, 1978
  6. Ah Tour Ah Tea, Montmorency, 1979
  7. Khmer Slab Khmer Rous (Khmer Live and Die), Montmorency, 1981
  8. Chen Tesong Angkor , Montmorency, 1986


  1. The Concept of Word Formation, Phnom Penh, Faculty of Letters, 1964
  2. Khmer Vocabulary, Phnom Penh, Faculty of Letters, 1966
  3. Aspects of Khmer Literature, Phnom Penh, Faculty of Letters, 1965 (Published as Réflexion sur la litérature khmère”, La revue française “présente le Cambodge”, Paris, 1968, p. 31-34 )
  4. Ramayana Khmer, Phnom Penh, 1969
  5. Researching the Root of Khmer Culture, University of Paris VI, 1971
  6. Overview of the Polpotist Revolution (Khmer Rouge), Montmorency, 1977
  7. The tragedy of the People (Khmer), Montmorency, 1981 (poem).

The "Master Teacher" poem has had a profound effect on students and professors of the Khmer language throughout the country. As a young man, he wrote the poem "Chet Kramom" containing 11 poems, the first of which was written in 1945 when he was a student at Sisowath High School. He wrote these poems in 1945-1950 when he was a student at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh, London, and in Paris. This collection of poems is written in the traditional style, respecting the method of rhyming the end words. He was able to be realistic with his words and show the feelings of the poet himself and also the reality of our Cambodian society at that time.

The second series, written while he was in prison in Phnom Penh, shows the realities of prison and the poet's heartbreak. While living in France, he continued to write poetry, in 1972 he responded to the press with a poem entitled "Let only Khmer Live." A year later, he published another collection of poems entitled "Chapey Song: អន្ត្រែង អន្ត្រែង ក្រឡិត​ក្ដ​ឯង អន្ត្រែង​ឱយ​គេ", a modern poem with a new style of the literary revolution that some Cambodians do not understand and seen as "obscene" poetry, without knowing the value of the evolution of literature as found in major countries in Asia, Europe, and the United States. This poem affects politicians and rulers. Some of the words used these poems are not even found in the dictionary. The poet deliberately uses these words to express his own emotions and feelings. For example Mebon (មេបុណ្យ)​ as Meboun (មេបូន)​ and Bayon (បាយ័ន) as Bayoun (បាយ៉ូន). However, he gives definitions to all the new words he created in his poems. 

Source: | By: Sareth Moy