A History of Cambodia - History

A History of Cambodia - History

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Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state of Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-19th century the country was on the verge of dissolution. After repeated requests for French assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual colony; soon after it was made part of the Indochina Union with Annam, Tonkin, Cochin-China, and Laos. France continued to control the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government. In 1945, the Japanese dissolved the colonial administration, and King Norodom Sihanouk declared an independent, anti-colonial government under Prime Minister Son Ngoc Thanh in March 1945. The Allies deposed this government in October. In January 1953, Sihanouk named his father as regent and went into self-imposed exile, refusing to return until Cambodia gained genuine independence.

Full Independence
Sihanouk's actions hastened the French Government's July 4, 1953 announcement of its readiness to grant independence, which came on November 9, 1953. The situation remained uncertain until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war. All participants, except the United States and the State of Vietnam, associated themselves (by voice) with the final declaration. The Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality of the three Indochinese states but insisted on a provision in the cease-fire agreement that left the Cambodian Government free to call for outside military assistance should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory.

Neutral Cambodia
Neutrality was the central element of Cambodian foreign policy during the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia's eastern provinces were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong (NVA/VC) forces operating against South Vietnam, and the port of Sihanoukville was being used to supply them. As NVA/VC activity grew, the United States and South Vietnam became concerned, and in 1969, the United States began a series of air raids against NVA/VC base areas inside Cambodia.

Throughout the 1960s, domestic politics polarized. Opposition grew within the middle class and among leftists, including Paris-educated leaders such as Son Sen, Ieng Sary, and Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot), who led an insurgency under the clandestine Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

The Khmer Republic and the War
In March 1970, Gen. Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk and assumed power. On October 9, the Cambodian monarchy was abolished, and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic. Hanoi rejected the new republic's request for the withdrawal of NVA/VC troops and began to reinfiltrate some of the 2,000-4,000 Cambodians who had gone to North Vietnam in 1954. They became a cadre in the insurgency. The United States moved to provide material assistance to the new government's armed forces, which were engaged against both the Khmer Rouge insurgents and NVA/VC forces. In April 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying NVA/VC base areas. Although a considerable quantity of equipment was seized or destroyed, NVA/VC forces proved elusive and moved deeper into Cambodia. NVA/VC units overran many Cambodian Army positions while the Khmer Rouge expanded their smallscale attacks on lines of communication.

The Khmer Republic's leadership was plagued by disunity among its leadership, the problems of transforming a 30,000-man army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men, and spreading corruption. The insurgency continued to grow, with supplies and military support provided by North Vietnam. But inside Cambodia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their dominance over the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were purged. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge forces became stronger and more independent of their Vietnamese patrons. By 1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities.

On New Year's Day 1975, communist troops launched an offensive that, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the Khmer Republic. Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route. A U.S.-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia. Phnom Penh surrendered on April 17--5 days after the U.S. mission evacuated Cambodia.

Democratic Kampuchea
Many Cambodians welcomed the arrival of peace, but the Khmer Rouge soon turned Cambodia--which it called Democratic Kampuchea (DK)--into a land of horror. Immediately after its victory, the new regime ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population out into the countryside to till the land. Thousands starved or died of disease during the evacuation. Many of those forced to evacuate the cities were resettled in new villages, which lacked food, agricultural implements, and medical care. Many starved before the first harvest, and hunger and malnutrition--bordering on starvation--were constant during those years. Those who resisted or who questioned orders were immediately executed, as were most military and civilian leaders of the former regime who failed to disguise their pasts.

Within the CPK, the Paris-educated leadership--Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, and Son Sen--was in control, and Pol Pot was made prime minister. Prince Sihanouk was put under virtual house arrest. The new government sought to restructure Cambodian society completely. Remnants of the old society were abolished, and Buddhism suppressed.

Agriculture was collectivized, and the surviving part of the industrial base was abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia had neither a currency nor a banking system. The regime controlled every aspect of life and reduced everyone to the level of abject obedience through terror. Torture centers were established, and detailed records were kept of the thousands murdered there. Public executions of those considered unreliable or with links to the previous government were common. Few succeeded in escaping the military patrols and fleeing the country. Solid estimates of the numbers who died between 1975 and 1979 are not available, but it is likely that hundreds of thousands were brutally executed by the regime. Hundreds of thousands more died of starvation and disease (both under the Khmer Rouge and during the Vietnamese invasion in 1978). Estimates of the dead range from 1.7 to 3 million, out of a 1975 population estimated at 7.3 million.

Democratic Kampuchea's relations with Vietnam and Thailand worsened rapidly as a result of border clashes and ideological differences. While communist, the CPK was fiercely anti-Vietnamese, and most of its members who had lived in Vietnam were purged. Democratic Kampuchea established close ties with China, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict became part of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, with Moscow backing Vietnam. Border clashes worsened when Democratic Kampuchea's military attacked villages in Vietnam.

In mid-1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, advancing about 30 miles before the arrival of the rainy season. In December 1978, Vietnam announced formation of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (KUFNS) under Heng Samrin, a former DK division commander. It was composed of Khmer communists who had remained in Vietnam after 1975 and officials from the eastern sector--like Heng Samrin and Hun Sen--who had fled to Vietnam from Cambodia in 1978. In late December 1978, Vietnamese forces launched a full invasion of Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7 and driving the remnants of Democratic Kampuchea's Army westward toward Thailand.

The Vietnamese Occupation
On January 10, 1979, the Vietnamese installed Heng Samrin as head of state in the new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The Vietnamese Army continued its pursuit of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces. At least 600,000 Cambodians displaced during the Pol Pot era and the Vietnamese invasion began streaming to the Thai border in search of refuge.

The international community responded with a massive relief effort coordinated by the United States through UNICEF and the World Food Program. More than $400 million was provided between 1979 and 1982, of which the United States contributed nearly $100 million. At one point, more than 500,000 Cambodians were living along the Thai-Cambodian border and more than 100,000 in holding centers inside Thailand.

Vietnam's occupation army of as many as 200,000 troops controlled the major population centers and most of the countryside from 1979 to September 1989. The Heng Samrin regime's 30,000 troops were plagued by poor morale and widespread desertion. Resistance to Vietnam's occupation continued. A large portion of the Khmer Rouge's military forces eluded Vietnamese troops and established themselves in remote regions. The non-communist resistance, consisting of a number of groups which had been fighting the Khmer Rouge after 1975--including Lon Nol-era soldiers--coalesced in 1979-80 to form the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), which pledged loyalty to former Prime Minister Son Sann, and Moulinaka (Movement pour la Liberation Nationale de Kampuchea), loyal to Prince Sihanouk. In 1979, Son Sann formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) to lead the political struggle for Cambodia's independence. Prince Sihanouk formed his own organization, FUNCINPEC, and its military arm, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne (ANS) in 1981.

Within Cambodia, Vietnam had only limited success in establishing its client Heng Samrin regime, which was dependent on Vietnamese advisers at all levels. Security in some rural areas was tenuous, and major transportation routes were subject to interdiction by resistance forces. The presence of Vietnamese throughout the country and their intrusion into nearly all aspects of Cambodian life alienated much of the populace. The settlement of Vietnamese nationals, both former residents and new immigrants, further exacerbated anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Reports of the numbers involved vary widely with some estimates as high as 1 million. By the end of this decade, Khmer nationalism began to reassert itself against the traditional Vietnamese enemy. In 1986, Hanoi claimed to have begun withdrawing part of its occupation forces. At the same time, Vietnam continued efforts to strengthen its client regime, the PRK, and its military arm, the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF). These withdrawals continued over the next 2 years, and the last Vietnamese troops left Cambodia in September 1989.

Peace Efforts
From July 30 to August 30, 1989, representatives of 18 countries, the four Cambodian parties, and the UN Secretary General met in Paris in an effort to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. They hoped to achieve those objectives seen as crucial to the future of post-occupation Cambodia--a verified withdrawal of the remaining Vietnamese occupation troops, the prevention of the return to power of the Khmer Rouge, and genuine self-determination for the Cambodian people. A comprehensive settlement was agreed upon on August 28, 1990.

Cambodia's Renewal
On October 23, 1991, the Paris Conference reconvened to sign a comprehensive settlement giving the UN full authority to supervise a cease-fire, repatriate the displaced Khmer along the border with Thailand, disarm and demobilize the factional armies, and to prepare the country for free and fair elections. Prince Sihanouk, President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC), and other members of the SNC returned to Phnom Penh in November 1991, to begin the resettlement process in Cambodia. The UN Advance Mission for Cambodia (UNAMIC) was deployed at the same time to maintain liaison among the factions and begin demining operations to expedite the repatriation of approximately 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand.

On March 16, 1992, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in Cambodia to begin implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees began fullscale repatriation in March 1992. UNTAC grew into a 22,000-strong civilian and military peacekeeping force to conduct free and fair elections for a constituent assembly.

Over four million Cambodians (about 90% of eligible voters) participated in the May 1993 elections, although the Khmer Rouge or Party of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK), whose forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized, barred some people from participating. Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC Party was the top vote recipient with a 45.5% vote followed by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. FUNCINPEC then entered into a coalition with the other parties that had participated in the election. The parties represented in the 120-member Assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new Constitution, which was promulgated September 24. It established a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers, respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC). The Constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized human rights.

Compared to its recent past, the 1993-2003 period has been one of relative stability for Cambodia. However, political violence continues to be a problem in there. In 1997, factional fighting between supporters of Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen broke out, resulting in more than 100 FUNCINPEC deaths and a few CPP casualties. Some FUNCINPEC leaders were forced to flee the country, and Hun Sen took over as Prime Minister. FUNCINPEC leaders returned to Cambodia shortly before the 1998 National Assembly elections. In those elections, the CPP received 41% of the vote, FUNCINPEC 32%, and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) 13%. Due to political violence, intimidation, and lack of media access, many international observers judged the elections to have been seriously flawed. The CPP and FUNCINPEC formed another coalition government, with CPP the senior partner. Cambodia's first commune elections were held in February 2002. These elections to select chiefs and members of 1,621 commune (municipality) councils also were marred by political violence and fell short of being free and fair by international standards. The election results were largely acceptable to the major parties, though procedures for the new local councils have not been fully implemented.

A riot occurred in January 2003 in which the Embassy of Thailand and several Thai businesses were damaged. Following the incident, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed the RGC's regret to the Thai Government and promised compensation.

Cambodian history

Cambodian History is long and complicated. It comes from the fact that Cambodia has been always at the center of regional and global interests. It is right at the center of the Southeast Asia and the Indochina Peninsula. In this way, we have a small country where other big ones have been always poring their nose. If Thailand is proud to be the only country of the world that never has been invaded by another nation, Cambodia must be proud to has survived centuries of attempts to make it part of others. The Cambodian spirit has shown to the powerful what resistance means.

Here a short summary of the Cambodian History for beginners.

Cambodia as a people has a story of two thousand years and it begins when the Brahmins of India arrived to the Indochina Peninsula and mixed with the ancient local tribes – an older mixture of Sino-Mongolian and Australasian peoples traced in the region since 12 thousand years ago. Any attempt to see Cambodians or any other Southeast Asian country as a single race will crush with the fact that it is a region of human encounters between different races.

The arrival of Indian Brahmins, fleeing conflicts in their own territories started a process called Indianization. It meant the interbreeding with locals, the construction of fabulous irrigation canals on the Mekong basin that will develop the rice farming and the gradual creation of a new language: the Khmer that is also a local adaptation of Indian Sanskrit with other languages of East Asia.

From this Indianization process came a first political organization called by the Chinese records as Funan between the 1st and 5th century. There was not a “Funan kingdom” with a king around. It was better a confederation of tribes with their own lords – more a feudalist society. The Funan period gave birth to another called also by Chinese records as Chenla. The succession of capitals showed us that it was also a fragile connection of city states than a unitarian entity. During the Chenla period, the Shailendra dynasty of Java was the power over Indochina.

The end of Chenla meant the first real powerful unity in the Indochina Peninsula. It started when King Jayavarman II (770-835) founded Angkor in 802 and declared full independence from Java. He declared himself god and king of the Universe at the Mahendraparvata (today Kulen Mountain). His dynasty started the construction of the Mountain-Temples – however, there are temples one thousand years older during the Funan and Chenla period. The political and military power of the Angkorian kings went beyond the actual borders of modern Cambodia, reaching what is today Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

The mysterious decay of the Khmer Empire at the end of the 14th century gave place to a next powerful state: the Ayutthaya Kingdom that would give birth to what is today Thailand. Cambodia entered in a dark time, weak and anonymous. The growing power of Thailand and the southern advance of Vietnam, would put in danger the very existence of Cambodia as an independent state. Although the European colonization over the world is regarded as an invasion and destruction of peoples and cultures, ironically modern Cambodia has much to thanks to the French. It was going to be shared between Thailand and Vietnam, when the French made Cambodia a “protectorate”. From this fact comes that strain name of “Protectorat français du Cambodge” – it was being protected from Vietnam and Thailand.

The Colonial Time in Cambodia was rather peaceful (1863-1953) and would let its influence in the Cambodian spirit. It put its capital in Phnom Penh and recovered the splendour of the old Monarchy linked to the Angkorian dynasty.

The Colony entered in crisis during the War World II. King Norodom Sihanouk – at the time a very young man – takes the flags of the Independence Movement and became a leader for the new modern nation. But his country would be involved in the Vietnamese War when he got a coup d’etat in 1970 from General Lon Nol. It makes Cambodia to be aligned with South Vietnam and US, while becoming a camp of bombs that destroyed the dreams of a small peaceful nation.

The withdrawal of US from Indochine opened the way to the Khmer Rouge led by a group of intellectuals, who designed the most extreme communist state in history. During their period in government (1975-1979), Cambodia became one of the most isolated nations on Earth and 1 million 700 thousand persons disappeared in a communist social experiment. As the Khmer Rouge were so hostiles with Vietnam, that country organized the National Liberation Force with same Cambodians and invaded it on January 7, 1979. It was the beginning of a new war until 1991.

The Peace Agreement of Paris meant the end of military conflicts and the start of a difficult time of reconstruction in all senses, a period that can be traced until today, where Cambodia is striving to become a modern society with several challenges such as democracy, the balance between development and environment and the education of a growing new generation.


The good, the bad and the ugly is a simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly, as a brutal civil war culminated in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), from which Cambodia is still recovering.

The origin of the Khmers

Cambodia came into being, so the legend says, through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya and the princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled over a watery land. One day, as Kaundinya sailed by, the princess paddled out in a boat to greet him. Kaundinya shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat, causing the fearful princess to agree to marriage. In need of a dowry, her father drank up the waters of his land and presented them to Kaundinya to rule over. The new kingdom was named Kambuja.

Like many legends, this one is historically opaque, but it does say something about the cultural forces that brought Cambodia into existence, in particular its relationship with its great subcontinental neighbour, India. Cambodia’s religious, royal and written traditions stemmed from India and began to coalesce as a cultural entity in their own right between the 1st and 5th centuries.

Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia. Much of the southeast was a vast, shallow gulf that was progressively silted up by the mouths of the Mekong, leaving pancake-flat, mineral-rich land ideal for farming. Evidence of cave-dwellers has been found in the northwest of Cambodia. Carbon dating on ceramic pots found in the area shows that they were made around 4200 BC, but it is hard to say whether there is a direct relationship between these cave-dwelling pot makers and contemporary Khmers. Examinations of bones dating back to around 1500 BC, however, suggest that the people living in Cambodia at that time resembled the Cambodians of today. Early Chinese records report that the Cambodians were ‘ugly’ and ‘dark’ and went about naked. However, a healthy dose of scepticism is always required when reading the culturally chauvinistic reports of imperial China concerning its ‘barbarian’ neighbours.

The early Cambodian kingdoms

Cambodian might didn’t begin and end with Angkor. There were a number of powerful kingdoms present in this area before the 9th century.

From the 1st century, the Indianisation of Cambodia occurred through trading settlements that sprang up on the coastline of what is now southern Vietnam, but was then inhabited by the Khmers. These settlements were important ports of call for boats following the trading route from the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China. The largest of these nascent kingdoms was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province, a site only worth visiting for the archaeologically obsessed today, and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Funan would have been a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region.

Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnam (mountain). Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power.

It is most likely that between the 1st and 8th centuries, Cambodia was a collection of small states, each with its own elites that often strategically intermarried and often went to war with one another. Funan was no doubt one of these states, and as a major sea port would have been pivotal in the transmission of Indian culture into the interior of Cambodia.

The little that historians do know about Funan has mostly been gleaned from Chinese sources. These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practised primitive irrigation, which enabled successful cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India.

From the 6th century, Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimised their absolute rule through hierarchical caste concepts borrowed from India.

This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo, and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of Tonlé Sap Lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, an essential

The rise of the Angkor Empire

Gradually the Cambodian region was becoming more cohesive. Before long the fractured kingdoms of Cambodia would merge to become the greatest empire in Southeast Asia.

A popular place of pilgrimage for Khmers today, the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, to the northeast of Angkor, is home to an inscription that tells of Jayavarman II (r 802–50) proclaiming himself a ‘universal monarch’, or devaraja (god-king) in 802. It is believed that he may have resided in the Buddhist Shailendras’ court in Java as a young man. Upon his return to Cambodia he instigated an uprising against Javanese control over the southern lands of Cambodia. Jayavarman II then set out to bring the country under his control through alliances and conquests, the first monarch to rule most of what we call Cambodia today.

Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who presided over the rise and fall of the greatest empire mainland Southeast Asia has ever seen, one that was to bequeath the stunning legacy of Angkor. The key to the me­teoric rise of Angkor was a mastery of water and an elaborate hydraulic system that allowed the ancient Khmers to tame the elements. The first records of the massive irrigation works that supported the population of Angkor date to the reign of Indravarman I (r 877–89) who built the baray (reservoir) of Indratataka. His rule also marks the flourishing of Angkorian art, with the building of temples in the Roluos area, notably Bakong.

By the turn of the 11th century the kingdom of Angkor was losing control of its territories. Suryavarman I (r 1002–49), a usurper, moved into the power vacuum and, like Jayavarman II two centuries before, reunified the kingdom through war and alliances, stretching the frontiers of the empire. A pattern was beginning to emerge, and is repeated throughout the Angkorian period: dislocation and turmoil, followed by reunification and further expansion under a powerful king. Architecturally, the most productive periods occurred after times of turmoil, indicating that newly incumbent monarchs felt the need to celebrate, even legitimise their rule with massive building projects.

By 1066 Angkor was again riven by conflict, becoming the focus of rival bids for power. It was not until the accession of Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) that the kingdom was again unified. Suryavarman II embarked on another phase of expansion, waging costly wars in Vietnam and the region of central Vietnam known as Champa. Suryavarman II is immortalised as the king who, in his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu, commissioned the majestic temple of Angkor Wat. For an insight into events in this epoch, see the bas-reliefs on the southwest corridor of Angkor Wat, which depict the reign of Suryavarman II.

Suryavarman II had brought Champa to heel and reduced it to vassal status, but the Chams struck back in 1177 with a naval expedition up the Mekong and into Tonlé Sap Lake. They took the city of Angkor by surprise and put King Dharanindravarman II to death. The following year a cousin of Suryavarman II rallied the Khmer troops and defeated the Chams in another naval battle. The new leader was crowned Jayavarman VII in 1181.

A devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219) built the city of Angkor Thom and many other massive monuments. Indeed, many of the temples visited around Angkor today were constructed during Jayavarman VII’s reign. However, Jayavarman VII is a figure of many contradictions. The bas-reliefs of the Bayon depict him presiding over battles of terrible ferocity, while statues of the king depict a meditative, otherworldly aspect. His programme of temple construction and other public works was carried out in great haste, no doubt bringing enormous hardship to the labourers who provided the muscle, and thus accelerating the decline of the empire. He was partly driven by a desire to legitimise his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline, and partly by the need to introduce a new religion to a population predominantly Hindu in faith. However, in many ways he was also Cambodia’s first socialist leader, proclaiming the population equal, abolishing castes and embarking on a programme of school, hospital and road building.

Decline & fall of Angkor

Angkor was the epicentre of an incredible empire that held sway over much of the Mekong region, but like all empires, the sun was to eventually set.

A number of scholars have argued that decline was already on the hori­zon at the time Angkor Wat was built, when the Angkorian empire was at the height of its remarkable productivity. There are indications that the irrigation network was overworked and slowly starting to silt up due to the massive deforestation that had taken place in the heavily populated areas to the north and east of Angkor. Massive construction projects such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom no doubt put an enormous strain on the royal coffers and on thousands of slaves and common people who subsidised them in hard labour and taxes. Following the reign of Jayavarman VII, temple construction effectively ground to a halt, in large part because Jayavarman VII’s public works quarried local sandstone into oblivion and had left the population exhausted.

Another challenge for the later kings was religious conflict and internecine rivalries. The state religion changed back and forth several times during the twilight years of the empire, and kings spent more time engaged in iconoclasm, defacing the temples of their predecessors, than building monuments to their own achievements. From time to time this boiled over into civil war.

Angkor was losing control over the peripheries of its empire. At the same time, the Thais were ascendant, having migrated south from Yunnan to escape Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes. The Thais, first from Sukothai, later Ayuthaya, grew in strength and made repeated incursions into Angkor before finally sacking the city in 1431 and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court. During this period, perhaps drawn by the opportunities for sea trade with China and fearful of the increasingly bellicose Thais, the Khmer elite began to migrate to the Phnom Penh area. The capital shifted several times over the centuries but eventually settled in present day Phnom Penh.

From 1600 until the arrival of the French in 1863, Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings beset by dynastic rivalries. In the face of such intrigue, they sought the protection – granted, of course, at a price – of either Thailand or Vietnam. In the 17th century, the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam came to the rescue of the Cambodian king in return for settlement rights in the Mekong Delta region. The Khmers still refer to this region as Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia), even though it is well and truly populated by the Vietnamese today.

In the west, the Thais controlled the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap from 1794 and held much influence over the Cambodian royal family. Indeed, one king was crowned in Bangkok and placed on the throne at Udong with the help of the Thai army. That Cambodia survived through the 18th century as a distinct entity is due to the preoccupations of its neighbours: while the Thais were expending their energy and resources in fighting the Burmese, the Vietnamese were wholly absorbed by internal strife. The pattern continued for more than two centuries, the carcass of Cambodia pulled back and forth between two powerful tigers.

The French in Cambodia

The era of yo-yoing between Thai and Vietnamese masters came to a close in 1864, when French gunboats intimidated King Norodom I (r 1860–1904) into signing a treaty of protectorate. Ironically, it really was a protectorate, as Cambodia was in danger of going the way of Champa and vanishing from the map. French control of Cambodia developed as a sideshow to their interests in Vietnam, uncannily similar to the American experience a century later, and initially involved little direct interference in Cambodia’s affairs. The French presence also helped keep Norodom on the throne despite the ambitions of his rebellious half-brothers.

By the 1870s French officials in Cambodia began pressing for greater control over internal affairs. In 1884 Norodom was forced into signing a treaty that turned his country into a virtual colony, sparking a two-year rebellion that constituted the only major uprising in Cambodia until WWII. The rebellion only ended when the king was persuaded to call upon the rebel fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for a return to the status quo.

During the following decades senior Cambodian officials opened the door to direct French control over the day-to-day administration of the country, as they saw certain advantages in acquiescing to French power. The French maintained Norodom’s court in a splendour unseen since the heyday of Angkor, helping to enhance the symbolic position of the monarchy. In 1907 the French were able to pressure Thailand into returning the northwest provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon in return for concessions of Lao territory to the Thais. This meant Angkor came under Cambodian control for the first time in more than a century.

King Norodom I was succeeded by King Sisowath (r 1904–27), who was succeeded by King Monivong (r 1927–41). Upon King Monivong’s death, the French governor general of Japanese-occupied Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, placed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne. The French authorities assumed young Sihanouk would prove pliable, but this proved to be a major miscalculation.

During WWII, Japanese forces occupied much of Asia, and Cambodia was no exception. However, with many in France collaborating with the occupying Germans, the Japanese were happy to let their new French allies control affairs in Cambodia. The price was conceding to Thailand (a Japanese ally of sorts) much of Battambang and Siem Reap Provinces once again, areas that weren’t returned until 1947. However, with the fall of Paris in 1944 and French policy in disarray, the Japanese were forced to take direct control of the territory by early 1945. After WWII, the French returned, making Cambodia an autonomous state within the French Union, but retaining de facto control. The immediate postwar years were marked by strife among the country’s various political factions, a situation made more unstable by the Franco-Viet Minh War then raging in Vietnam and Laos, which spilled over into Cambodia. The Vietnamese, as they were also to do 20 years later in the war against Lon Nol and the Americans, trained and fought with bands of Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) against the French authorities.

The Sihanouk years

The post-independence period was one of peace and great prosperity, Cambodia’s golden years, a time of creativity and optimism. Phnom Penh grew in size and stature, the temples of Angkor were the leading tourist destination in Southeast Asia and Sihanouk played host to a succession of influential leaders from across the globe. However, dark clouds were circling, as the American war in Vietnam became a black hole, sucking in neighbouring countries.

In late 1952 King Sihanouk dissolved the fledgling parliament, declared martial law and embarked on his ‘royal crusade’: his travelling campaign to drum up international support for his country’s independence. Independence was proclaimed on 9 November 1953 and recognised by the Geneva Conference of May 1954, which ended French control of Indochina. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated, afraid of being marginalised amid the pomp of royal ceremony. The ‘royal crusader’ became ‘citizen Sihanouk’. He vowed never again to return to the throne. Meanwhile his father became king. It was a masterstroke that offered Sihanouk both royal authority and supreme political power. His newly established party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community), won every seat in parliament in the September 1955 elections and Sihanouk was to dominate Cambodian politics for the next 15 years.

Although he feared the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk considered South Vietnam and Thailand, both allies of the mistrusted USA, the greatest threats to Cambodia’s security, even survival. In an attempt to fend off these many dangers, he declared Cambodia neutral and refused to accept further US aid, which had accounted for a substantial chunk of the country’s military budget. He also nationalised many industries, including the rice trade. In 1965 Sihanouk, convinced that the USA had been plotting against him and his family, broke diplomatic relations with Washington and veered towards the North Vietnamese and China. In addition, he agreed to let the communists use Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and the USA. Sihanouk was taking sides, a dangerous position in a volatile region.

These moves and his socialist economic policies alienated conservative elements in Cambodian society, including the army brass and the urban elite. At the same time, left-wing Cambodians, many of them educated abroad, deeply resented his domestic policies, which stifled political debate. Compounding Sihanouk’s problems was the fact that all classes were fed up with the pervasive corruption in government ranks, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family. Although most peasants revered Sihanouk as a semidivine figure, in 1967 a rural-based rebellion broke out in Samlot, Battambang, leading him to conclude that the greatest threat to his regime came from the left. Bowing to pressure from the army, he implemented a policy of harsh repression against left-wingers.

By 1969 the conflict between the army and leftist rebels had become more serious, as the Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s political position had also decidedly deteriorated – due in no small part to his obsession with film-making, which was leading him to neglect affairs of state. In March 1970, while Sihanouk was on a trip to France, General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, Sihanouk’s cousin, deposed him as chief of state, apparently with tacit US consent. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing, where he set up a government-in-exile in alliance with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. This was a definitive moment in contemporary Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge exploited its partnership with Sihanouk to draw new recruits into their small organisation. Talk to many former Khmer Rouge fighters and they all say that they ‘went to the hills’ (a euphemism for joining the Khmer Rouge) to fight for their king and knew nothing of Mao or Marxism.

Descent into civil war

The lines were drawn for a bloody era of civil war. Sihanouk was condemned to death in absentia, an excessive move on the part of the new government that effectively ruled out any hint of compromise for the next five years. Lon Nol gave communist Vietnamese forces an ultimatum to withdraw their forces within one week, which amounted to a virtual declaration of war, as no Vietnamese fighters wanted to return to the homeland to face the Americans.

On 30 April 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in an effort to flush out thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who were using Cambodian bases in their war to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. As a result of the invasion, the Vietnamese communists withdrew deeper into Cambodia, further destabilising the Lon Nol government. Cambodia’s tiny army never stood a chance and within the space of a few months, Vietnamese forces and their Khmer Rouge allies overran almost half the country. The ultimate humiliation came in July 1970 when the Vietnamese occupied the temples of Angkor.

In 1969 the USA had begun a secret programme of bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia. For the next four years, until bombing was halted by the US Congress in August 1973, huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed by US B-52s, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. While the final, heaviest bombing in the first half of 1973 may have saved Phnom Penh from a premature fall, its ferocity also helped to harden the attitude of many Khmer Rouge cadres and may have contributed to the later brutality that characterised their rule.

Savage fighting engulfed the country, bringing misery to millions of Cambodians many fled rural areas for the relative safety of Phnom Penh and provincial capitals. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand people died in the fighting. During these years the Khmer Rouge came to play a dominant role in trying to overthrow the Lon Nol regime, strengthened by the support of the Vietnamese, although the Khmer Rouge leadership would vehemently deny this from 1975 onwards.

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge, including Paris-educated Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, had fled into the countryside in the 1960s to escape the summary justice then being meted out to suspected leftists by Sihanouk’s security forces. They consolidated control over the movement and began to move against opponents before they took Phnom Penh. Many of the Vietnamese-trained Cambodian communists who had been based in Hanoi since the 1954 Geneva Accords returned down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join their ‘allies’ in the Khmer Rouge in 1973. Many were dead by 1975, executed on orders of the anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot faction. Likewise, many moderate Sihanouk supporters who had joined the Khmer Rouge as a show of loyalty to their fallen leader rather than a show of ideology to the radicals were victims of purges before the regime took power. This set a precedent for internal purges and mass executions that were to eventually bring the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

It didn’t take long for the Lon Nol government to become very unpopular as a result of unprecedented greed and corruption in its ranks. As the USA bankrolled the war, government and military personnel found lucrative means to make a fortune, such as inventing ‘phantom soldiers’ and pocketing their pay, or selling weapons to the enemy. Lon Nol was widely perceived as an ineffectual leader, obsessed by superstition, fortune tellers and mystical crusades. This perception increased with his stroke in March 1971 and for the next four years his grip on reality seemed to weaken as his brother Lon Non’s power grew.

Despite massive US military and economic aid, Lon Nol never succeeded in gaining the initiative against the Khmer Rouge. Large parts of the countryside fell to the rebels and many provincial capitals were cut off from Phnom Penh. Lon Nol fled the country in early April 1975, leaving Sirik Matak in charge, who refused evacuation to the end. ‘I cannot alas leave in such a cowardly fashion…I have committed only one mistake, that of believing in you, the Americans’ were the words Sirik Matak poignantly penned to US ambassador John Gunther Dean. On 17 April 1975 – two weeks before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) – Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge revolution

Upon taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted its goal was a pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. The country cut itself off from the outside world.

In the eyes of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was not a unified movement, but a series of factions that needed to be cleansed. This process had already begun with attacks on Vietnamese-trained Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk’s supporters, but Pol Pot’s initial fury upon seizing power was directed against the former regime. All of the senior government and military figures who had been associated with Lon Nol were executed within days of the takeover. Then the centre shifted its attention to the outer regions, which had been separated into geographic zones. The loyalist Southwestern Zone forces under the control of one-legged general Ta Mok were sent into region after region to purify the population, and thousands perished.

The cleansing reached grotesque heights in the final and bloodiest purge against the powerful and independent Eastern Zone. Generally considered more moderate than other Khmer Rouge factions, the Eastern Zone was ideologically, as well as geographically, closer to Vietnam. The Pol Pot faction consolidated the rest of the country before moving against the east from 1977 onwards. Hundreds of leaders were executed before open rebellion broke out, sparking a civil war in the east. Many Eastern Zone leaders fled to Vietnam, forming the nucleus of the government installed by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The people were defenceless and distrusted – ‘Cambodian bodies with Vietnamese minds’ or ‘duck’s arses with chicken’s heads’ – and were deported to the northwest with new, blue kramas (scarves). Had it not been for the Vietnamese invasion, all would have perished, as the blue krama was a secret party sign indicating an eastern enemy of the revolution.

It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the three years, eight months and 20 days of their rule. The Vietnamese claimed three million deaths, while foreign experts long considered the number closer to one million. Yale University researchers undertaking ongoing investigations estimated that the figure was close to two million.

Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of famine and disease. Meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the fields. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families death was a relief for many from the horrors of life. Some zones were better than others, some leaders fairer than others, but life for the majority was one of unending misery and suffering in this ‘prison without walls’.

As the centre eliminated more and more moderates, Angkar (the organisation) became the only family people needed and those who did not agree were sought out and destroyed. The Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from all they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith. Even the peasants who had supported the revolution could no longer blindly follow such madness. Nobody cared for the Khmer Rouge by 1978, but nobody had an ounce of strength to do anything about it…except the Vietnamese.

Enter the Vietnamese

Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam have historically been tense, as the Vietnamese have slowly but steadily expanded southwards, encroaching on Cambodian territory. Despite the fact the two communist parties had fought together as brothers-in-arms, old tensions soon came to the fore.

From 1976 to 1978, the Khmer Rouge instigated a series of border clashes with Vietnam, and claimed the Mekong Delta, once part of the Khmer empire. Incursions into Vietnamese border provinces left hundreds of Vietnamese civilians dead. On 25 December 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, toppling the Pol Pot government two weeks later. As Vietnamese tanks neared Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge fled westward with as many civilians as it could seize, taking refuge in the jungles and mountains along the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by several former Khmer Rouge officers, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. The Khmer Rouge’s patrons, the Chinese communists, launched a massive reprisal raid across Vietnam’s northernmost border in early 1979 in an attempt to buy their allies time. It failed, and after 17 days the Chinese withdrew, their fingers badly burnt by their Vietnamese enemies. The Vietnamese then staged a show trial in which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were condemned to death for their genocidal acts.

A traumatised population took to the road in search of surviving family members. Millions had been uprooted and had to walk hundreds of kilometres across the country. Rice stocks were destroyed, the harvest left to wither and little rice planted, sowing the seeds for a widespread famine in 1979 and 1980.

As the conflict in Cambodia raged, Sihanouk agreed, under pressure from China, to head a military and political front opposed to the Phnom Penh government. The Sihanouk-led resistance coalition brought together – on paper, at least – Funcinpec (the French acronym for the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia), which comprised a royalist group loyal to Sihanouk the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a noncommunist grouping formed by former prime minister Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea and by far the most powerful of the three. The heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge were swept aside to ensure a compromise that suited the great powers.

During the mid-1980s the British government dispatched the Special Air Service (SAS) to a Malaysian jungle camp to train guerrilla fighters in land mine–laying techniques. Although officially assisting the smaller factions, it is certain the Khmer Rouge benefited from this experience. It then used these new-found skills to intimidate and terrorise the Cambodian people. The USA gave more than US$15 million a year in aid to the noncommunist factions of the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition.

For much of the 1980s Cambodia remained closed to the Western world, save for the presence of some humanitarian aid groups. Government policy was effectively under the control of the Vietnamese, so Cambodia found itself very much in the Eastern-bloc camp. The economy was in tatters for much of this period, as Cambodia, like Vietnam, suffered from the effects of a US-sponsored embargo.

In 1984 the Vietnamese overran all the major rebel camps inside Cambodia, forcing the Khmer Rouge and its allies to retreat into Thailand. From this time the Khmer Rouge and its allies engaged in guerrilla warfare aimed at demoralising their opponents. Tactics used by the Khmer Rouge included shelling government-controlled garrison towns, planting thousands of mines in rural areas, attacking road transport, blowing up bridges, kidnapping village chiefs and targeting civilians. The Khmer Rouge also forced thousands of men, women and children living in the refugee camps it controlled to work as porters, ferrying ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across heavily mined sections of the border. The Vietnamese for their part laid the world’s longest minefield, known as K-5 and stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao border, in an attempt to seal out the guerrillas. They also sent Cambodians into the forests to cut down trees on remote sections of road to prevent ambushes. Thousands died of disease and from injuries sustained from land mines. The Khmer Rouge was no longer in power, but for many the 1980s was almost as tough as the 1970s, one long struggle to survive.

The Un comes to town

As the Cold War came to a close, peace began to break out all over the globe, and Cambodia was not immune to the new spirit of reconciliation. In September 1989 Vietnam, its economy in tatters and eager to end its international isolation, announced the withdrawal of all of its troops from Cambodia. With the Vietnamese gone, the opposition coalition, still domin­ated by the Khmer Rouge, launched a series of offensives, forcing the now-vulnerable government to the negotiating table.

Diplomatic efforts to end the civil war began to bear fruit in September 1990, when a peace plan was accepted by both the Phnom Penh government and the three factions of the resistance coalition. According to the plan, the Supreme National Council (SNC), a coalition of all factions, would be formed under the presidency of Sihanouk. Meanwhile the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) would supervise the administration of the country for two years with the goal of free and fair elections.

Untac undoubtedly achieved some successes, but for all of these, it is the failures that were to cost Cambodia dearly in the ‘democratic’ era. Untac was successful in pushing through many international human-rights covenants it opened the door to a significant number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who have helped build civil society and, most importantly, on 25 May 1993, elections were held with an 89.6% turnout. However, the results were far from decisive. Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, took 58 seats in the National Assembly, while the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which represented the previous communist government, took 51 seats. The CPP had lost the election, but senior leaders threatened a secession of the eastern provinces of the country. As a result, Cambodia ended up with two prime ministers: Norodom Ranariddh as first prime minister, and Hun Sen as second prime minister.

Even today, Untac is heralded as one of the UN’s success stories. The other perspective is that it was an ill-conceived and poorly executed peace because so many of the powers involved in brokering the deal had their own agendas to advance. To many Cambodians, it must have seemed a cruel joke that the Khmer Rouge was allowed to play a part in the process.

The UN’s disarmament programme took weapons away from rural militias who for so long provided the backbone of the government’s provincial defence network against the Khmer Rouge. This left communities throughout the country vulnerable to attack, while the Khmer Rouge used the veil of legitimacy conferred upon it by the peace process to re-establish a guerrilla network throughout Cambodia. By 1994, when it was finally outlawed by the government, the Khmer Rouge was probably a greater threat to the stability of Cambodia than at any time since 1979.

Untac’s main goals had been to ‘restore and maintain peace’ and ‘promote national reconciliation’ and in the short term it achieved neither. It did oversee free and fair elections, but these were later annulled by the actions of Cambodia’s politicians. Little was done during the UN period to try to dismantle the communist apparatus of state set up by the CPP, a well-oiled machine that continues to ensure that former communists control the civil service, judiciary, army and police today.

The slow birth of peace

When the Vietnamese toppled the Pol Pot government in 1979, the Khmer Rouge disappeared into the jungle. The guerrillas eventually boycotted the 1993 elections and later rejected peace talks aimed at creating a ceasefire. The defection of some 2000 troops from the Khmer Rouge army in the months after the elections offered some hope that the long-running insurrection would fizzle out. However, government-sponsored amnesty programmes initially turned out to be ill-conceived: the policy of reconscripting Khmer Rouge troops and forcing them to fight their former comrades provided little incentive to desert.

In 1994 the Khmer Rouge resorted to a new tactic of targeting tourists, with horrendous results for a number of foreigners in Cambodia. During 1994 three people were taken from a taxi on the road to Sihanoukville and subsequently shot. A few months later another three foreigners were seized from a train bound for Sihanoukville and in the ransom drama that followed they were executed as the army closed in.

The government changed course during the mid-1990s, opting for more carrot and less stick in a bid to end the war. The breakthrough came in 1996 when Ieng Sary, Brother No 3 in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and foreign minister during its rule, was denounced by Pol Pot for corruption. He subsequently led a mass defection of fighters and their dependants from the Pailin area, and this effectively sealed the fate of the remaining Khmer Rouge. Pailin, rich in gems and timber, had long been the economic crutch which kept the Khmer Rouge hobbling along. The severing of this income, coupled with the fact that government forces now had only one front on which to concentrate their resources, suggested the days of civil war were numbered.

By 1997 cracks were appearing in the coalition and the fledgling democracy once again found itself under siege. But it was the Khmer Rouge that again grabbed the headlines. Pol Pot ordered the execution of Son Sen, defence minister during the Khmer Rouge regime, and many of his family members. This provoked a putsch within the Khmer Rouge leadership, and the one-legged hardline general Ta Mok seized control, putting Pol Pot on ‘trial’. Rumours flew about Phnom Penh that Pol Pot would be brought there to face international justice, but events dramatically shifted back to the capital.

A lengthy courting period ensued in which both Funcinpec and the CPP attempted to win the trust of the remaining Khmer Rouge hard-liners in northern Cambodia. Ranariddh was close to forging a deal with the jungle fighters and was keen to get it sewn up before Cambodia’s accession to Asean, as nothing would provide a better entry fanfare than the ending of Cambodia’s long civil war. He was outflanked and subsequently outgunned by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. On 5 July 1997 fighting again erupted on the streets of Phnom Penh as troops loyal to the CPP clashed with those loyal to Funcinpec. The heaviest exchanges were around the airport and key government buildings, but before long the dust had settled and the CPP once again controlled Cambodia. The strongman had finally flexed his muscles and there was no doubt as to which party was running the show.

Following the coup, the remnants of Funcinpec forces on the Thai border around O Smach formed an alliance with the last of the Khmer Rouge under Ta Mok’s control. The fighting may have ended, but the deaths did not stop there: several prominent Funcinpec politicians and military leaders were victims of extrajudicial executions, and even today no-one has been brought to justice for these crimes. Many of Funcinpec’s leading politicians fled abroad, while the senior generals led the resistance struggle on the ground.

As 1998 began, the CPP announced an all-out offensive against its enemies in the north. By April it was closing in on the Khmer Rouge strongholds of Anlong Veng and Preah Vihear, and amid this heavy fighting Pol Pot evaded justice by dying a sorry death on 15 April in the Khmer Rouge’s captivity. The fall of Anlong Veng in April was followed by the fall of Preah Vihear in May, and the big three, Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, were forced to flee into the jungle near the Thai border with their remaining troops.

The 1998 election result reinforced the reality that the CPP was now the dominant force in the Cambodian political system and on 25 December Hun Sen received the Christmas present he had been waiting for: Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were defecting to the government side. The international community began to pile on the pressure for the establishment of some sort of war-crimes tribunal to try the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership. After lengthy negotiations, agreement was finally reached on the composition of a court to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The CPP was suspicious of a UN-administered trial as the UN had sided with the Khmer Rouge–dominated coalition against the government in Phnom Penh and the ruling party wanted a major say in who was to be tried for what. The UN for its part doubted that the judiciary in Cambodia was sophisticated or impartial enough to fairly oversee such a major trial. A compromise solution – a mixed tribunal of three international and four Cambodian judges requiring a super majority of two plus three for a verdict – was eventually agreed upon.

Early 2002 saw Cambodia’s first ever local elections to select village and commune level representatives, an important step in bringing grassroots democracy to the country. Despite national elections since 1993, the CPP continued to monopolise political power at local and regional levels and only with commune elections would this grip be loosened. The national elections of July 2003 saw a shift in the balance of power, as the CPP consolidated their grip on Cambodia and the Sam Rainsy Party overhauled Funcinpec as the second party. After nearly a year of negotiating, Funcinpec ditched the Sam Rainsy Party once again and put their heads in the trough with the CPP for another term.

Funan and Chenla

The Funanese period and Chenla period, occurring between the 3rd – 6th centuries CE were culturally continuous Kingdoms linking eastern India and southern China to the islands of the South Seas. It is thought that, at its height, Funan extended as far west as Burma and south to Malaysia, taking in much of what is now Thailand and South Vietnam. Both civilizations were heavily influenced by trade with India, leading to the adoption of many Hindu religious beliefs that came to gain importance in later Khmer culture. It is unlikely that these Kingdoms were great ruling powers over the whole region rather they were composed of different states or principalities supported through trade and intermarriage – and sometimes at war with each other.

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The Funan Kingdom, believed to have started around the first century BC, is the first known kingdom of Cambodia. The kingdom was strongly influenced by Indian culture by shaping the culture, art and political system.

An alphabetical system, religions and architectural styles were also Indian contributions to the Funan Kingdom. There is archeological evidence of a commercial society in the Mekong Delta that prospered from the 1st to 6th centuries.

Returning from abroad, a Khmer prince declared himself the ruler of a new kingdom during the 9th century. Known as Jayavarman II, he started a cult that honored Shiva, a Hindu god, as a devaraja (god-king) which then linked the king to Shiva.

He also began the great achievements in architecture and sculpture while his successors built an immense irrigation system around Angkor.. His successors (26 from the early 9th to the early 15th century), built a tremendous number of temples - of which there are over a thousand sites and stone inscriptions (on temple walls).

By the 12th century, Cambodia had spread into other areas, now known as Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia (the peninsula). There is actually still evidence of Khmer inhabitance in Thailand and Laos to this day.

The 13th and 14th centuries were not as successful for Cambodia, some believe it was due to the increased power of (and wars with) Thai kingdoms that had at one time paid homage to Angkor. Others believe it was due to the induction of Theravada Buddhism, which was totally contrary to the Cambodian societal structure at that time. After this time historical records are rather sketchy at best regarding Cambodia and it is considered the "Dark Ages" of Cambodian history.

Cambodia was ravaged by Vietnamese and Thai invasions and wars up until the 19th century, when new dynasties in these countries fought over control of Cambodia. The war, that began in the 1830's almost destroyed Cambodia. King Norodom signed a treaty that enabled the French to be a protectorate, thus effectively stopping the Viet-Thai war within. For the next 90 years, France in essence ruled over Cambodia.

Although officially they were just advisors, it was known that the French had final say on all topics of interest. Although the French built roadways and made other improvements regarding trade and transportation, they sadly neglected the Cambodian educational system, which is still not effective to this day.

In 1953, Cambodia managed to gain their independence in spite of World War II and the First Indochina War. Their independence was obtained through the political savvy of King Sihanouk. Wanting to be released from the pressures of the monarchy, Sihanouk abdicated the throne and became a full time politician.

He started a political faction called the People's Socialist Community (Sangkum Reastr Niyum) which then won by a landslide in the 1955 national elections. In part the success was due to his popularity, but also from police brutality at the polling stations.

In 1960, when his father died he was named head of state (up until then he'd been the prime minister). Although he had remained neutral in a struggle between the US and USSR regarding tensions in Vietnam, he changed his position in 1965 and eliminated diplomatic relations with the US.

At the same time he allowed the Communist Vietnamese access to Cambodian soil to set up bases. With the Cambodian economy becoming unstable, Sihanouk decided to renew his relations with the US, who were secretly planning on bombing Cambodian areas suspected of housing Vietnamese Communists.

While Sihanouk was abroad in 1970, he was ousted from power and fled to China. General Lon Nol, the prime minister, had hoped for US aid, but the US was occupied with Vietnamese troubles and didn't help. In the meantime, since his army was ill-equipped, they couldn't stop an invasion by the South Vietnamese, searching for North Vietnamese.

To add to Lon Nol's problems, Sihanouk had been persuaded to set up a government while in exile, called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge became a thorn in Lon Nol's side along with the Vietnamese until the Khmer regime collapsed. Another contributing factor to the collapse was the repeated US bombing of the Cambodian countryside. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge was able to take over Phnom Penh and shortly thereafter, the North Vietnamese were occupying South Vietnam.

The Khmer Rouge felt antipathy toward Cambodians living in urban areas and forced them to the countryside where they were forced to work in various forms of agriculture. Leading the Khmer Rouge was a man by the name of Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. The government, Democratic Kampochea (DK), was run in part by rural Cambodians who were illiterate, but had fought along with the Khmer Rouge in the war.

The derision and ill-treatment felt towards the former city dwellers was slightly better than the treatment of anyone intellectual, religious, and those who were believed to be against the regime - their punishment was death. During Pol Pot's (Khmer Rouge's) regime over twenty percent of Cambodia's population was murdered.

The Khmer Rouge's plan to attack Vietnam and other areas backfired when the Vietnamese surprised Cambodia with an attack of over 100,000 troops. They were accompanied by Cambodian Communist rebels and managed to invade Phnom Penh, which had been vacated by the Khmer Rouge the day before.

The Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot among them, fled to the Thai-Cambodian border, where they were given asylum by the Thai government, which was unfriendly to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese established a regime in Cambodia that included many members of the Khmer Rouge as well as Cambodians who had fled to Vietnam before 1975. Not to be swayed, the Khmer Rouge and it's followers created a government that was hostile to Vietnam while in exile, also known as DK.

The UN upheld this government in exile, with the support given to it by the US, China and Thailand. With more ensuing conflicts between the two governments, many of Cambodia's finest along with the general population, totaling over half a million people, resettled in other countries.

By the end of 1989, the Cold War had ended which had the Vietnamese exiting Cambodia. Without financial support from the Soviets, the Vietnamese couldn't keep their troops in the country.

This withdrawal made things difficult for Cambodians, especially the prime minister, Hun Sen. The Khmer Rouge had not disappeared, but had made their presence known and were threatening military action. Since Cambodia was without much needed foreign aid, they discarded socialism and tried to get investors interested in the country.

Another major change was in the country's name, it was changed to the State of Cambodia (SOC), while the KPRP (who currently ruled Cambodia) changed their name to the Cambodian People's Party. An attempt to have a free-market economy just increased the gap between the rich and the poor with many government officials becoming millionaires.

In 1991, the UN, Cambodia, and other interested parties came to an agreement to end the Cambodian conflict. A United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) and a Supreme National Council (SNC) were formed and were comprised of members from different factions within Cambodia. The agreement in Paris and the UN protectorate started competitive politics in Cambodia, something they hadn't seen for about 40 years.

In May 1993, UNTAC sponsored an election for the national assembly, which ended up ousting the military regime. The Cambodians wanted a royalist party, FUNCINPEC, but Hun Sen, who won the second largest number of seats, refused to give up his power. Fortunately a compromise was reached and a government was formed with two prime ministers, FUNCINPEC had the first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen became the second prime minister.

A name change for the country was in order, so in 1993 Cambodia became known as the Kingdom of Cambodia and Sihanouk became the king once again after ratifying a new constitution which re-established the monarchy. After these changes were made, the UN no longer accepted the DK as the ruling party, thus causing them (the DK) to lose their seat and power in the UN.

The tentative compromise between the FUNCINPEC and the CPP fell apart in 1997 when Prince Ranariddh was overseas. Hun Sen took advantage of the Prince's absence and organized a violent takeover to replace him. He replaced Prince Ranariddh with another member of the FUNCINPEC, but this time with one who was more easily manipulated and compliant. In spite of this takeover, the elections of 1998 were carried out, but not without foreign observations.

Although it was stated the voting was fair, the CPP hassled it's opposition and following the elections many were put in jail while a few others were killed. Once again, the results were not accepted, but this time it was Prince Ranariddh who opposed it. Yet again another compromise was reached with Hun Sen as the only prime minister and with Prince Ranariddh as the president of the national assembly.

Things are stabilizing in Cambodia, but not without the help and support of foreign aid. With the outside world's interest waning, it's help is steadily decreasing, hich is discouraging any hopes for economic advancement and democracy.

The French Colonial Era (1863–1953)

In 1863, King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over the kingdom of Cambodia, which eventually led to signing a treaty that turned the kingdom into a French colony. The French helped Norodom’s court to prosper, protecting the Cambodian kingdom from the Thai and Vietnamese.

The French also regained Battambang and Siem Reap from the Thai. The French establishment in Cambodia is evident from the French colonial architecture in Battambang, which has now become a center for the arts community in Cambodia.

The French colonial era lasted until 1953, except for a period of 4 years during Japanese occupation in World War 2.

About Cambodia

Even though Khmer is the official language, English is widely spoken and understood. French and Mandarin are also spoken frequently in the country most elderly Cambodians speak French and many people in the Khmer-Chinese population speak Mandarin.

Climate of Cambodia

Angkor Wat Kingdom

Interesting Fact - In the 1100's when the Khmer Kingdom was at its peak and of Angkor Wat built, there were 1 million inhabitants in the city. At the same time, London had only 70,000 inhabitants.

Khmer Rouge

Even though the Khmer Rouge was finally overthrown in 1979, the civil war continued for 20 more years. Each Cambodian family has stories to share of their suffering.

Cambodia Today

Yet in the countryside poverty is still widespread. the Cambodians being very proud and hardworking, do whatever it takes to make ends meet. But many families in the rural areas earn less than $2 per day and cannot afford to build their own drinking water wells or even to buy uniforms to send their children to school.

History of Cambodia

is located at Roluos south of Preah Ko. Enter and leave the temple at the east. A modern Buddhist temple is situated to the right of the east entrance to Bakong. It was build in late ninth century (881) by king Indravarman I dedicated to Siva (Hindu) followed Prah Ko art style.

Bakong was the center of the town of Hariharalaya, a name derived from the god Hari-Hara a synthesis of Siva and Visnu. It is a temple representing the cosmic Mount Meru. Four levels leading to the Central Sanctuary correspond to the worlds of mythical beings (Nagas, Garudas, Raksasas and Yaksas).

The temple of Bakong is built on an artificial mountain and enclosed in a rectangular area by two walls. It has a square base with five tiers. The first, or outside, enclosure (not on the plan) (900 by 700 meters, 2,953 by 2,297 feet) surrounds a moat with an embankment and causeways on four sides, which are bordered by low Naga balustrades. The second and smaller enclosure has an entry tower of sandstone and laterite in the center of each side of the wall. There were originally 22 towers inside the first enclosures. After passing through the entry tower at the east one comes to a long causeway decorated with large seven-headed serpents across a moat. Long halls on each side lie parallel to the eastern wall. They were probably rest houses for visitors. Two square-shaped brick building at the northeast and southeast corners are identified by rows of circular holes and an opening to the west. The vents in the chimneys suggest these buildings served as crematoriums. There was originally a single building of this type at the northwest and southwest corners but today they are completely ruined. On each side of the causeway just beyond the halls there are two square structures with four doors. The inscription of the temple was found in the one on the right.

Further along the causeway, there are two long sandstone buildings on each side, which open to the causeway. These may have been storehouses or libraries. To the north and south of the storehouses receptively there is a square brick sanctuary tower . There are two more on each side of the central platform, making a total of eight. Decoration on the towers is in brick with a heavy coating of stucco. The towers, with one door opening to the east and three false doors, have a stairway on each side, which is decorated with crouching lions at the base. The two to the east of the central platform have a unique feature, a double sandstone base, The door entrance and the false doors were uniformly cut from a single block of sandstone, The decoration on the false doors is exceptionally fine, especially that on the tower on the right in the front row, the false door of which has remarkable Kala handles. The corners of the towers are decorated with female and male guardians in niches.

Tip: the lintels of the west towers are in the best condition. A long building with a gallery and a porch opening to the north is situated close to the western wall (on the left) it is mostly demolished.

The square-shaped base has five tiers with a stairway on each of the four sides and, at the base, a step in the shape of a moonstone. Remains of a small structure can be seen at the base of the stairway fairway flanked by two sandstone blocks, which may have held sculpted figures.Elephants successively smaller in size stand at the corners of the first three tiers of the base. The fourth tier is identified by twelve small sandstone towers, each of which originally contained a linga. The fifth tier is framed by a molding decorated with a frieze of figures (barely visible) the ones on the south side are in the best condition.

The Central Sanctuary is visible from each of the five levels because of the unusual width of the tiers. The sanctuary is square with four tiers and a lotus-shaped top. Only the base of the original Central Sanctuary remains. The rest was constructed at a later date, perhaps during the twelfth century.

LOLEI Location: Lolei is at Roluos, north of Bakong. A modern Buddhist temple is located in the grounds of Lolei near the central towers. Access: Enter and leave the temple by the stairs at the east.

Beware of the ants during certain seasons near the top of the entrance steps. Date: End of the ninth century (893) Religion: Transitional between Prah Ko and Bakheng

Although Lolei is small it is worth a visit for its carvings and inscription. The temple of Lolei originally formed an island in the middle of a Baray (3,800 by 800 meters, 12,467 by 2,625 feet), now dry. According to an inscription found at the temple the water in this pond was for use at the capital of Hariralaya and for irrigating the plains in the area.

LAYOUT The layout consists of two tiers with laterite enclosing walls and stairway to the upper level in the center of each side. Lions on the landings os the stairways guard the temple. A sandstone channel in the shape of a cross situated in the center of the four towers on the upper terrace is an unusual feature, the channels extend in the cardinal directions from a square pedestal for a linga. It is speculated the holy water poured over the linga flowed in the channels.

Four brick tower with tiered upper portions, arranged in two rows, on the upper terrace make up the Central Sanctuaries. As the two-north towers are aligned on the east-west axis, it is possible the original plan had six towers, which probably shared a common base like that at Prah Ko.

A History of Cambodia: from Funan to Modern Times

Dr. Ea Darith will present a brief history of Cambodia covering more than 2000 years, from the Funan to Modern times. During the three kingdoms period, in the mid-3rd century C.E., two Chinese envoys were sent to record the history of Southeast Asian countries. Cambodia was called Funan from approximately 1st to 6th centuries C.E. during which the capital was located at Angkor Borei, Takeo province with its international trading port at Oc Eo. After that, from the 6th to the 8th century C.E., the Chinese recorded Cambodia as Chenla whereby the early 8th century C.E., Chenla was divided into Water Chenla in Ishanapura and Land Chenla in Lingapura/Shrestapura. Then from the 9th to 15th centuries C.E., the capital of the Khmer empire was located on Mahendraparavata, Hariharalaya, Yoshodharapura, Lingapura (Chok Gargyar), and Yoshodharapura. After that, from 15th century C.E., the capital was moved to Chaktomuk city (Phnom Penh), 16th century C.E. to Longvek, 17th century C.E. to Udong Mean Chhey, and finally returned to Phnom Penh in 19th century C.E up until the present.


Dr. Ea Darith received his Ph.D. degree from Osaka Ohtani University in 2010. He graduated with his Bachelor of Arts from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1995, his Master’s Degree from Kyoto University in 2000. Since 2000, he has been working at the APSARA Authority and teaching the History of Khmer Ceramics at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He has long coordinated a spectrum of diverse projects between the APSARA Authority and numerous international teams. Darith’s main research interests focus on Khmer stoneware ceramics from the ninth to fifteenth centuries. He has published widely on this subject in particular and maintains an interest in the transition from the Angkorian to the Cambodian Middle Period at Angkor.


Mr. Duong Keo is a history lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and a Ph.D. candidate at Bundeswehr University Munich, Germany. He obtained his BA in History from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in 2008 and an MA in Southeast Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, in 2014. He engages in developing educational tools, doing research on Cambodian violence past and post-conflict Cambodia, oral history and memory politics, and training and teaching students on modern Cambodian history. He is a lead author of the Khmer Rouge History App, a multi-media application to help students learn Khmer Rouge history. He also published a book entitled, “ Khmer Rouge Nationalism and Mass Killing: Perceptions of the Vietnamese”.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the publications and through webinars are solely those of the authors or speakers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. The designations employed in the publications and through the webinars, and the presentation of material therein, do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. as to the matters discussed therein. The responsibility for opinions expressed in the publications and webinars are solely those of the authors or speakers, and the publication does not constitute an endorsement by The Center for Khmer Studies, Inc. of the opinions, views or issues discussed therein.

A Brief History of Cambodia

The history of Cambodia has not always been pretty. Today, Cambodia is still recovering from the devastation of the Khymer Rouge period when possibly as many as 2,000,000 out of a population then of about 7 million were killed or worked to death by the Pol Pot regime. But let’s start with a happier story. We’ll make the story brief and leave out names of the many kings.

Cambodia has been inhabited at least as early as 4200 B.C. Carbon dated ceramic pots and bones of these early cave dwellers are evidence of a people not much physically different than Cambodians of today. Ancient Chinese records describe these people.

A.D. 100—A. D. 1400 The Rise of the Angkorian Empire

The religions, language, and culture of India start to take root during these years. Chinese merchants and even envoys sent by the Chinese Wei emperor describe this Mekong region as a “barbarous but rich country”. Beginning in about 890 A.D. temples and other structures of huge carved stones begin to be built in Angkor. This is the beginning of the Angkorian Empire. This building spree continues with each leader outdoing the one before for another 400 years. Angkor Wat, the mother of all temples, was built in about 1115 A.D. The area now known collectively (by tourists) as “Angkor Wat” is actually a 64 square mile assembly of more than 50 temples, Angkor Wat being the largest. These structures are massive rock with almost every inch covered with ornate carvings of aspara dancers, soldiers, kings, gods, designs, wars, animals, celebrations, journeys, victories, and cultural mythologies. Today these structures, some lying in masses of huge piles of tumbled stones beneath the tropical forest still take your breath away. Here is the way the lonely planet 2013 edition describes it:

“The temple complex of Angkor is simply enormous and the superlatives don’t do it justice. This is the site of the world’s largest religious building, a multitude of temples and a vast, long-abandoned walled city that was arguably Southeast Asia’s first metropolis…”

These structures give testimony to the wealth and power of this Empire which exerted control over much of what is today Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. This Empire was at times Hindu and at other times Buddhist. The carvings and structures reflect the history of both. This was the zenith of the Khymer people. These buildings were bigger than anything in existence in the world at that time. Many of them rival, even today the size, beauty, and scope of modern Washington D.C.’s capitol buildings. This ancient civilization document the potential and intelligence of the Khymer people.

A.D. 1400—1960 Times of Confusion, Devastation, Occupation

The Angkorian Empire ended about 1430 under attacks by the Thais. From that time until the French forced King Norodom I into signing a treaty in 1863, making it a protectorate of France, Cambodia was overrun again and again by the Vietnamese and Thais who sort of took turns controlling the country. As it turned out, the French actually preserved Cambodia from being completely wiped off the map.

The Japanese invaded and occupied Cambodia during World War II and fanned the flames of independence as the war drew to a close. In 1947 the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, and Sisophon which had been seized by the Thais, were returned to Cambodia.

1965—1980 The Khymer Rouge Period

During America’s Viet Nam War Khymer guerrillas launched a revolt against the Cambodian government. In 1969, President Richard Nixon authorized the secret bombing of Cambodia (with whom we were not at war). Over 250,000 Cambodians were killed in these bombings which continued until 1973. On April 17, 1975 the Khymer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and turned the calendars back to what they called Year Zero. They imposed a ruinous vision of the past, on the country for the next four years. During that period the cities were emptied of people who were then forced to work in the country’s rice fields. Pol Pot had become enamored with the peasant life style while visiting China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot returned to Cambodia and out-did Mao, determined, no matter what the cost, to make the whole country a country of peasants. The Khmer Rouge killed everyone who could speak a foreign language, who wore glasses, who was a professional (teachers, lawyers, doctors, dancers, artists, writers, business men, accountants, reporters, publishers, college-educated, professors), or whom they didn’t like. Tens of thousands fled the country—many dying in the attempt. Thailand was one of the places refugee camps were set up for those who made it out of Cambodia. It was at this time that Christopher LaPel lost both parents and his brother and sister and he escaped to Thailand.

In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded the country, disposed of Pol Pot, and liberated the people, and set up another government. The next two years were gripped by a terrible famine as the dislocation caused by the Khymer Rouge meant that no rice had been planted or harvested. The United Nations eventually came in and stabilized the country, but it’s soldiers also fostered the child-sex industry.

Today’s Current Peace and a Window of Opportunity For The Gospel

Coalition governments have led Cambodia ever since. It has been rocky, but generally peaceful to the present time. In 2005, Cambodia joined the World Trade Organization and opened its markets to free trade. General Elections will be held in 2013 and so far things look like they will be peaceful.

Our Christian Church organization in Cambodia (Cambodian Christian Churches Organization) has won government approval and recognition. Christopher LaPel has led in that recognition by building relationships with leaders, paying for infrastructure to provide electricity to villages, and building bridges of help to the areas of Northwestern Cambodia.

Christians have a window of opportunity for the gospel at the present time. We are doing everything we can to minister to the Cambodian Khymer people who have been so decimated and devastated. They are responding in amazing numbers. Perhaps the difficulties of the recent past has opened their hearts to the hope in Christ that Hope For Cambodia brings. Only God knows how long this window will remain open, but since he opened it, we are bringing in the fresh air of the good news of Jesus.

Watch the video: Cambodia - After Pol Pot (May 2022).