The History of Cambodia

A bas-relief carving in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

From the splendour of the Khmer Empire to the chilling brutality of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has had a tumultuous history. For nearly six centuries, between the fall of Angkor and the rise of Communism, the kingdom lay buried in obscurity, forgotten by the rest of the world. Recent years, however, have seen the nation overcome its former misfortunes and become a developing economy.

The Khmer People

It is likely that the Khmers originated in China and arrived in what is now Cambodia several millennia ago. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of stone-working people in northwestern Cambodia around 4000 BC. They date the first rice cultivation in the region to around 2000 BC, and bronze working to perhaps a millennium later. At that time, many Cambodians lived in fortified, circular villages, eating rice and fish, and raising domestic animals. Bronze artefacts, found in places such as Kampong Chhnang in the heart of present-day Cambodia, prove that they possessed advanced metalworking skills.

The first urban civilization in Cambodia, and what is now southern Vietnam, sprang up both inland and along the coast, where excavations of a port-city have been carried out near the Vietnamese town of Oc-Eo. The rulers of this civilization, known to the Chinese as Funan, established their capital at Angkor Borei and built an extensive canal system, probably used for drainage and transportation. They traded with China and India and coins from the
Roman Empire have been found at Oc-Eo. Unfortunately, no reliable written records from this era have survived.

Between 500 BC and AD 500, Cambodia experienced the process referred to as “Indianization.” During this time, elements of Indian culture, such as the Hindu pantheon, Buddhism, language (Sanskrit), a writing system, a centralized administration, and the idea of universal kingship, were absorbed by the Khmer and blended with local customs such as ancestor worship. The earliest inscriptions in the Khmer language date from the 7th century AD. Between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, several small city-states flourished in central Cambodia and northeastern Thailand.

These were known collectively as Chenla. Stone inscriptions from this period reveal the slow unification of principalities under a smaller group of rulers. This was to culminate, in the early 9th century, in the consolidation of power near the present day city of Siem Reap, by the mysterious “universal monarch” known as Jayavarman II, who established the Khmer Empire.

The Rise of Angkor

Angkor, derived from the Khmer word for city, dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia between 802 and 1431. At the end of the 9th century, King Yasovarman I moved the capital closer to Siem Reap, where it remained for the next 500 years.

He named the new city Yasodharapura after himself. Successive kings expanded the empire, building more temples honouring themselves, their forebears, and Hindu deities such as Shiva, the God of Destruction. Between 1130 and 1150, King Suryavarman II built the spectacular Angkor Wat, which served as an astronomical observatory, his tomb, and a monument to Vishnu, the Hindu Protector of Creation.

The might of the Khmer Empire steadily increased and by the mid-12th century, its rule stretched beyond present-day Cambodia to what is now northeastern Thailand, southern Laos, and southern Vietnam. The powerful empire had trade links with China, but trade was conducted on a barter basis because Angkor never used currency of any kind. Successive kings, such as Jayavarman VII (r.1178–1220), a Mahayana Buddhist, added to the architectural magnificence of Angkor.

He built the walled city of Angkor Thom inside Yasodharapura, and several impressive temples, including Bayon. But the days of Hindu influence were numbered and in the 13th century, most Cambodians converted to Theravada Buddhism, the relatively ascetic religion of the country today, and the construction of stone temples ended.

The Decline and Fall of Angkor

In the 14th century, several Theravada kingdoms broke away from the empire and in 1431, Thai armies attacked Yasodharapura. As a result, the city was partially abandoned and the royal capital was moved south, close to Phnom Penh.

The next five centuries often referred to as the Middle Period, were marked by frequent wars with Thailand and by the slow, informal expropriation of Cambodian territory in the Mekong Delta by the Vietnamese. Vietnam established a protectorate in Phnom Penh in the 1830s and fought Thai forces sent from Bangkok to dislodge them. In 1848, however, a fragile peace was established between the two warring states.

The Colonial Era

In 1863, France, which had colonized southern Vietnam, offered its protection to Cambodia in exchange for certain economic privileges. The French protectorate evolved into complete control after an anti-French rebellion was suppressed in the 1880s. The French record in Cambodia, however, was mixed. On the one hand, they established towns, roads, and institutions; the economy flourished, the population doubled, and Cambodia was at peace for the first time in centuries. France also forced Thailand to return the annexed territory, and French scholars restored the Angkorian temples, reconstructing the history of Angkor. On the other hand, France did little to improve education or health and also imposed high taxes on the locals.

Independence and Revolt

In 1941, the French crowned 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk as king of Cambodia. They also allowed Japanese troops to be stationed in Cambodia during World War II. In March 1945, the Japanese imprisoned French officials throughout Indochina. and urged local leaders to declare independence. Sihanouk did so reluctantly, welcoming back the French when they returned to power in October 1945.

But in 1952, he launched a royal crusade, forcing the French to grant Cambodia its independence the following year. In 1955, however, Sihanouk abdicated the throne to become a full-time politician, founding a political party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum, that won several elections unopposed. The Communist Party, led by Pol Pot (1925–98), had a small following at that time and had little chance of coming to power. In 1968, the war in Vietnam began to spill over into Cambodia as the US Army bombed Communist supply bases in the country.

By this time, local and international pressure had weakened Sihanouk’s control and in March 1970, the National Assembly voted to depose him. A pro-American regime, led by Lon Nol, came to power. This event precipitated the Cambodian Civil War. Sihanouk vowed to return, accepting support from North Vietnam, China, and Cambodian Communists. Months of fighting and heavy bombing ensued between Communist and US-backed forces until the former occupied the capital, ending the war in April 1975.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge

On April l7, 1975, Cambodian Communist forces occupied Phnom Penh, welcomed by a population exhausted by five years of civil war. Within 48 hours, however, the victors forcibly evacuated the city, driving over two million people into the countryside to take up agricultural work. The Communists, under Pol Pot, established the government of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and in order to form a new society “with no oppressors and no oppressed,” abolished money, personal property, schools, laws, religious practices, markets, and freedom of movement.

Pol Pot, the prime minister of DK, remained hidden during this time, denying DK’s Communist affiliations. He wanted the revolution to be seen as uniquely Khmer. In reality, he borrowed many policies and slogans directly from Maoist China. In 1975, the regime executed thousands of former soldiers and ex-civil servants. Paranoid about unidentified enemies destroying DK, they also began indiscriminate executions the next year. In the countryside, where the regime irrationally sought to triple rice production overnight, thousands died of malnutrition, overwork, and disease.

When fighting broke out between DK and Vietnam in September 1977, Pol Pot finally came into the open, travelling to China to seek military aid. In a speech delivered before the visit, he claimed that the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), which until then had been hidden to all but its members, had ruled Cambodia since April 1975.

As the fighting with Vietnam expanded into a full-scale war, thousands of inhabitants from the eastern parts of Cambodia, suspected of being pro-Vietnamese, were executed. Several DK cadres, including a 25-year-old regimental commander called Hun Sen, sought refuge in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese began recruiting refugees into a “liberation army.”

A Democratic State

In December 1978, Vietnam invaded DK with a force of over 100,000 men. Phnom Penh fell in January 1979, and Pol Pot, his colleagues, and thousands of DK troops fled to Thailand. The “three years, eight months, and twenty days” of tyranny, as Cambodians commonly refer to this period, were over, but not before over 1.5 million people had met with unexpected, and often violent, deaths. The Vietnamese established a friendly regime in Phnom Penh that called itself the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

Hun Sen; at 27, he was named foreign minister, the youngest in the world to hold the post. Protected by 200,000 Vietnamese troops, the PRK moved cautiously to stabilize the country. It reopened schools, reintroduced money, and allowed the revival of Buddhism. Unfortunately, although the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime had now become widely known, DK retained Cambodia’s seat at the UN, because China, the US, and their allies vigorously opposed the Vietnamese “invasion.” This isolated PRK from all except the former Soviet Bloc. As a result, most of the assistance the country needed to recover never arrived.

Peace

Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia in 1989, and the PRK renamed itself the State of Cambodia (SOC), rejecting Marxism-Leninism. The PRK party structures remained in place, and political opposition was dealt with severely. Over the next two years, Cambodia’s fate hung in the balance. A major international conference held in Paris in 1991, however, decided to establish a temporary UN protectorate over Cambodia to disarm the three Cambodian factions that opposed the PRK – Sihanouk’s Funcinpec party, the Khmer Rouge, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front – repatriate over 300,000 Khmer from Thailand, and prepare the country for general elections.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was the most expensive UN operation to date and accomplished mixed results. They held fresh elections in July 1993, won by the royalists. Sihanouk was crowned king for the second time, with Hun Sen serving as prime minister. Initially, the SOC and DK factions refused to disarm, which forced the victors into an uneasy coalition that lasted until 1997, when the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed. In the new millennium, foreign investment and assistance poured in, as did millions of tourists. King Sihanouk retired in 2004, succeeded by his son, Norodom Sihamoni. In 2007, the UN established the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot was never tried by the tribunal as he died in 1998. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has tightened control over politics and for the first time, the kingdom is at peace and part of the globalized world.

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