The project led by the EFEO-FEMC since 1990

Happily, however, it seems that as massive as the ravaging of Cambodia’s libraries might have been, it was a blind undertaking, in other words, not targeting a specific type of writing for what it was. Moreover, despite their scattering, the extant fragments of certain texts could well complement one another, making it theoretically possible to reconstitute a plausible image of what Cambodia’s traditional monastic literature was like immediately prior to the recent destruction that took place, provided that an effort was made to embrace in one comprehensive picture the remains salvaged from as many libraries as materially possible. That was the virtually unending task taken on by the EFEO-FEMC team as it moved into an organized visit of all monasteries in Cambodia.

That sums up the EFEO-FEMC team’s agenda in 1990, which aimed to systematically inventory and make a photographic collection of Cambodia’s manuscripts, based on the decision of Professor Léon Vandermeersch, Director of the École française d’Extrême-Orient from 1989 to 1993, and Professor François Bizot, member of the EFEO, director of studies at the École pratique des Hautes études (EPHE - Academy of Advanced Studies) and in charge of the school’s manuscript publication fund.

After a number of preparatory missions, F. Bizot was able to get permission from the Khmer authorities of the time (1990) for the FEMC to set up shop in one of the two small pavilions next to the main entrance to the east of the Silver Pagoda, within the compound of the former Royal Palace Museum.

When King Norodom Sihanouk returned to Cambodia on November 14, 1991, the EFEO-FEMC was graciously invited by His Majesty to remain at the Royal Palace. The monarch himself had already been actively encouraging this mission in Cambodia since 1989.

The work done by the EFEO-FEMC has been funded since its inception by the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research, with a number of one-off assignments receiving funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Cambodia, the FEMC has always worked in concert with the Ministry of Cult and Religion and has enjoyed the trusting and amicable support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts that has seconded out a number of staff members to it since 1991.

In 1992, the FEMC set up and undertook management of the EFEO-Preah Vanarat Ken Vong Library, named after the late deeply lamented Venerable Superior of Wat Saravann who, in 1979, with courage and self-sacrifice, undertook the rescue and collating of what remained of the old collections of manuscripts in Phnom Penh. The resulting collection of works is by far the largest in all of Cambodia (3,400 bundles of manuscripts compared to only 800 at the National Library).

The manuscript conservation program and study of texts carried out by the EFEO in Cambodia has been kindly accommodated by the Khmer authorities since it got underway, first in the prestigious compound of the Royal Palace from 1990 to 1998, while from 1999 on, it has been housed by His Holiness Supreme Patriarch Samdech Tep Vong in the no less prestigious compound of Wat Uṇṇalom.

Since 1993, the FEMC has been placed under senior royal patronage.