Nationalising space through rewriting the past


It is not just new buildings that can be created to alter the symbolic landscape. Ancient landscapes have been given different interpretations over time indicating the way the meaning of places can become a matter of political contest. Cambodia‘s ruling party in the 1970s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, found it useful to promote a particular interpretation of the ancient and ruined palaces of Angkor Wat. They were sceptical of urban groups and wanted to pursue an isolationist policy.


They found evidence of a Khmer culture existing before any Western contact useful in bolstering their claims that they did not need links to the rest of the world, and their policy of eradicating the legacy of French colonialism in Indo-China. Moreover, they used the elaborate canal system as the basis for creating an irrigated agricultural system  that failed to feed the populace. Such a use of the symbolism of Angkor Wat helped legitimise a policy that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths before the Vietnamese invasion deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A different example can be found in Zimbabwe, where the ruins of Great Zimbabwe caused symbolic difficulties for the white rulers of Rhodesia. Their rule was legitimated by discourses or stories about the black population being incapable of self-government and being less ‘advanced’ in some sort of ladder of civilisation, and, in some quarters, as being just as much recent arrivals to the region as the white rulers. Yet here were a set of ruins from the fifteenth century, at least as impressive as anything in Europe. White society dealt with the symbolism of these ruins through a variety of means: from allegedly scientific studies through to popular mythology and romantic histories. Textbooks during white rule thus ascribed them to Arab traders, or some earlier people that had died out (or been destroyed by the current black inhabitants) or even to the mythical figures and lost ‘white civilisations’. With majority rule this changed  the ruins now having a symbolic centrality to the state mythology, and appearing as a recurring motif in national symbols, such as bank notes. The current regime can use the antiquity of a Zimbabwean polity to add legitimacy to their claims for the modern state. They can now retell the history of the ruins as the fall from a black-dominated golden age, and a current ‘resurgence of our Zimbabwean civilisation’ (cited in Kaarsholm 1989: 91).


These three examples illustrate the role of landscapes in shaping identities for a people, in a place over time. The shaping of landscape can reflect and reinforce ideas of what constitutes a people. who is included, or excluded  so the polite society of country houses excludes the poor, while Indonesia struggled to invent an inclusive idea of Indonesian-ness. And such can involve ‘inventing histories’, in shaping ideas of how that people relate to their place and their past

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