Cambodian History (Khmer: ប្រវត្តិសាស្រ្តកម្ពុជា – also known as Kampuchea) Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia. More than a thousand years ago, Cambodia was the center of the Khmer Empire that dominated Southeast Asia for 600 years. A monarchy since ancient times, Cambodia was a French protectorate from 1863 to 1953. A republic replaced the monarchy in 1970, and in 1975 a Communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge took power, naming the country Democratic Kampuchea.
- Early Beginnings
- The Khmer Kingdoms
- Angkor Era
- Cambodia’s “Dark Ages”
- French Rule
- The Modern State
- Coup of 1970 and The Khmer Republic
- Democratic Kampuchea
- Vietnamese Domination
- Recent Developments
The Khmer Rouge’s brutal repression and radical socialist reforms devastated Cambodia’s society and economy. In 1979 anti-Khmer Rouge Communist forces from Vietnam and Cambodia overthrew the Khmer Rouge and established a more moderate socialist state. In 1989 the country abandoned socialism, and in 1993 a new constitution restored the monarchy. Cambodia’s official name is the Kingdom of Cambodia. Cambodia is bounded on the northeast by Laos, on the east and southeast by Vietnam, on the west and northwest by Thailand, and on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand (Siam). The country’s capital and largest city is Phnom Penh. Cambodia History has been divided as the following:
No one knows for certain how long people have lived in what is now Cambodia, as studies of its prehistory are undeveloped. A carbon-l4 dating from a cave in northwestern Cambodia suggests that people using stone tools lived in the cave as early as 4000 bc, and rice has been grown on Cambodian soil since well before the 1st century ad. The first Cambodians likely arrived long before either of these dates. They probably migrated from the north, although nothing is known about their language or their way of life. By the beginning of the 1st century ad, Chinese traders began to report the existence of inland and coastal kingdoms in Cambodia. These kingdoms already received much to Indian culture, which provided alphabets, art forms, architectural styles, religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), and a stratified class system. Local beliefs that stressed the importance of ancestral spirits coexisted with the Indian religions and remain powerful today.
Cambodia cam into being, so the legend goes, through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya. The princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled over a watery place. 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 princess to fearfully 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.
The Khmer Kingdoms
Early Chinese writers referred to a kingdom in Cambodia that they called Funan. Modern-day archaeological findings provide evidence of a commercial society centered on the Mekong Delta that flourished from the 1st century to the 6th century. Among these findings are excavations of a port city from the 1st century, located in the region of Oc-Eo in what is now southern Vietnam. Served by a network of canals, the city was an important trade link between India and China. Ongoing excavations in southern Cambodia have revealed the existence of another important city near the present-day village of Angkor Borei.
A group of inland kingdoms, known collectively to the Chinese as Zhenla, flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries from southern Cambodia to southern Laos. The first stone inscriptions in the Khmer language and the first brick and stone Hindu temples in Cambodia date from the Zhenla period. (Back to Top)
In the early 9th century a Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) prince returned to Cambodia from abroad. He probably arrived from nearby Java or Sumatra, where he may have been held hostage by island kings who had asserted control over portions of the Southeast Asian mainland. In a series of ceremonies at different sites, the prince declared himself ruler of a new independent kingdom, which unified several local principalities. His kingdom eventually came to be centered near present-day Siĕmréab in northwestern Cambodia. The prince, known to his successors as Jayavarman II, inaugurated a cult honoring the Hindu god Shiva as a devaraja (Sanskrit term meaning “god-king”). The cult, which legitimized the king’s rule by linking him with Shiva, persisted at the Cambodian court for more than two hundred years.
Between the early 9th century and the early 15th century, 26 monarchs ruled successively over the Khmer kingdom (known as Angkor, the modern name for its capital city). The successors of Jayavarman II built the great temples for which Angkor is famous. Historians have dated more than a thousand temple sites and over a thousand stone inscriptions (most of them on temple walls) to this era. Notable among the Khmer builder-kings were Suyavarman II, who built the temple known as Angkor Wat in the mid-12th century, and Jayavarman VII, who built the Bayon temple at Angkor Thum and several other large Buddhist temples half a century later. Jayavarman VII, a fervent Buddhist, also built hospitals and rest houses along the roads that crisscrossed the kingdom.
Most of the monarchs, however, seem to have been more concerned with displaying and increasing their power than with the welfare of their subjects. At its greatest extent, in the 12th century, the Khmer kingdom encompassed (in addition to present-day Cambodia) parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the Malay Peninsula. Thailand and Laos still contain Khmer ruins and inscriptions. The kings at Angkor received tribute from smaller kingdoms to the north, east, and west, and conducted trade with China. The capital city was the center of an impressive network of reservoirs and canals, which historians theorize supplied water for irrigation. Many historians believe that the abundant harvests made possible by irrigation supported a large population whose labor could be drawn on to construct the kings’ temples and to fight their wars.
The massive temples, extensive roads and waterworks, and confident inscriptions give an illusion of stability that is undermined by the fact that many Khmer kings gained the throne by conquering their predecessors. Inscriptions indicate that the kingdom frequently suffered from rebellions and foreign invasions. Historians have not been able to fully explain the decline of the Khmer kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, it was probably associated with the rise of powerful Thai kingdoms that had once paid tribute to Angkor, and to population losses following a series of wars with these kingdoms. Another factor may have been the introduction of Theravada Buddhism, which taught that anyone could achieve enlightenment through meritorious conduct and meditation. These egalitarian ideas undermined the hierarchical structure of Cambodian society and the power of prominent Hindu families. After a Thai invasion in 1431, what remained of the Cambodian elite shifted southeastward to the vicinity of Phnom Penh. (Back to Top)
Cambodia’s “Dark Ages”
The four centuries of Cambodian history following the abandonment of Angkor are poorly recorded, and therefore historians know little about them beyond the bare outlines. Cambodia retained its language and its cultural identity despite frequent invasions by the powerful Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and incursions by Vietnamese forces. Indeed, for much of this period, Cambodia was a relatively prosperous trading kingdom with its capital at Lovek, near present-day Phnom Penh. European visitors wrote of the Buddhist piety of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Lovek. During this period, Cambodians composed the country’s most important work of literature, the Reamker (based on the Indian myth of the Ramayana). In the late 18th century, a civil war in Vietnam and disorder following a Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya spilled over into Cambodia and devastated the area. In the early 19th century, newly established dynasties in Vietnam and Thailand competed for control over the Cambodian court. The warfare that ensued, beginning in the l830s, came close to destroying Cambodia.
By the second half of the 19th century, France had begun to expand its colonial penetration of Indochina (the peninsula between India and China). In 1863 France accepted the Cambodian king’s invitation to impose a protectorate over his severely weakened kingdom, halting the country’s dismemberment by Thailand and Vietnam. For the next 90 years, France ruled Cambodia. In theory, French administration was indirect, but in practice the word of French officials was final on all major subjects—including the selection of Cambodia’s kings. The French left Cambodian institutions, including the monarchy, in place, and gradually developed a Cambodian civil service, organized along French lines. The French administration neglected education but built roads, port facilities, and other public works. Phnom Penh, as planned by the French, came to resemble a town in provincial France.
The French invested relatively little in Cambodia’s economy compared to that of Vietnam, which was also under French control. However, they developed rubber plantations in eastern Cambodia, and the kingdom exported sizable amounts of rice under their rule. The French also restored the Angkor temple complex and deciphered Angkorean inscriptions, which gave Cambodians a clear idea of their medieval heritage and kindled their pride in Cambodia’s past. Because France left the monarchy, Buddhism, and the rhythms of rural life undisturbed, anti-French feeling was slow to develop.
During World War II (1939-1945), Japanese forces entered French Indochina but left the compliant French administration in place. On the verge of defeat in 1945, the Japanese removed their French collaborators and installed a nominally independent Cambodian government under the recently crowned young king, Norodom Sihanouk. France reimposed its protectorate in early 1946 but allowed the Cambodians to draft a constitution and to form political parties. Soon afterward, fighting erupted throughout Indochina as nationalist groups, some with Communist ideologies, struggled to win independence from France. Most of the fighting took place in Vietnam, in a conflict known as the First Indochina War (1946-1954). In Cambodia, Communist guerrilla forces allied with Vietnamese Communists gained control of much of the country. However, King Sihanouk, through skillful maneuvering, managed to gain Cambodia’s independence peacefully in 1953, a few months earlier than Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which marked the end of the First Indochina War, acknowledged Sihanouk’s government as the sole legitimate authority in Cambodia. (Back to Top)
The Modern State
Sihanouk’s campaign for independence sharpened his political skills and increased his ambitions. In 1955 he abdicated the throne in favor of his father to pursue a full-time political career, free of the constitutional constraints of the monarchy. In a move aimed at dismantling Cambodia’s fledgling political parties, Sihanouk inaugurated a national political movement known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community), whose members were not permitted to belong to any other political group. The Sangkum won all the seats in the national elections of 1955, benefiting from Sihanouk’s popularity and from police brutality at many polling stations. Sihanouk served as prime minister of Cambodia until 1960, when his father died and he was named head of state. Sihanouk remained widely popular among the people but was brutal to his opponents.
In the late 1950s the Cold War (period of tension between the United States and its allies and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, and its allies) intensified in Asia. In this climate, foreign powers, including the United States, the USSR, and China, courted Sihanouk. Cambodia’s importance to these countries stemmed from events in neighboring Vietnam, where tension had begun to mount between a Communist regime in the north and a pro-Western regime in the south. The USSR supported the Vietnamese Communists, while the United States opposed them, and China wanted to contain Vietnam for security reasons. Each of the foreign powers hoped that Cambodian support would bolster its position in the region. Sihanouk pursued a policy of neutrality that drew substantial economic aid from the competing countries.
In 1965, however, Sihanouk broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. At the same time, he allowed North Vietnamese Communists, then fighting the Vietnam War against the United States and the South Vietnamese in southern Vietnam, to set up bases on Cambodian soil. As warfare intensified in Vietnam, domestic opposition to Sihanouk from both radical and conservative elements increased. The Cambodian Communist organization, known as the Workers Party of Kâmpŭchéa (later renamed the Communist Party of Kâmpŭchéa, or CPK), had gone underground after failing to win any concessions at the Geneva Accords, but now they took up arms once again. As the economy became unstable, Cambodia became difficult to govern single-handedly. In need of economic and military aid, Sihanouk renewed diplomatic relations with the United States. Shortly thereafter, in 1969, U.S. president Richard Nixon authorized a bombing campaign against Cambodia in an effort to destroy Vietnamese Communist sanctuaries there (see Secret Bombing of Cambodia). (Back to Top)
Coup of 1970 and the Khmer Republic
In March 1970 Cambodia’s legislature, the National Assembly, deposed Sihanouk while he was abroad. The conservative forces behind the coup were pro-Western and anti-Vietnamese. General Lon Nol, the country’s prime minister, assumed power and sent his poorly equipped army to fight the North Vietnamese Communist forces encamped in border areas. Lon Nol hoped that U.S. aid would allow him to defeat his enemies, but American support was always geared to events in Vietnam. In April U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, searching for North Vietnamese, who moved deeper into Cambodia. Over the next year, North Vietnamese troops destroyed the offensive capacity of Lon Nol’s army.
In October 1970 Lon Nol inaugurated the Khmer Republic. Sihanouk, who had sought asylum in China, was condemned to death despite his absence. By that time, Chinese and North Vietnamese leaders had persuaded the prince to establish a government in exile, allied with North Vietnam and dominated by the CPK, whom Sihanouk referred to as the Khmer Rouge (French for “Red Khmers”). The United States continued bombing Cambodia until the Congress of the United States halted the campaign in 1973. By that time, Lon Nol’s forces were fighting not only the Vietnamese but also the Khmer Rouge. The general lost control over most of the Cambodian countryside, which had been devastated by U.S. bombing. The fighting severely damaged the nation’s infrastructure and caused high numbers of casualties. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into the cities. In 1975, despite massive infusions of U.S. aid, the Khmer Republic collapsed, and Khmer Rouge forces occupied Phnom Penh. Three weeks later, North Vietnamese forces achieved victory in South Vietnam.
Immediately after occupying Cambodia’s towns, the Khmer Rouge ordered all city dwellers into the countryside to take up agricultural tasks. The move reflected both the Khmer Rouge’s contempt for urban dwellers, whom they saw as enemies, and their utopian vision of Cambodia as a nation of busy, productive peasants. The leader of the regime, who remained concealed from the public, was Saloth Sar, who used the pseudonym Pol Pot. The government, which called itself Democratic Kâmpŭchéa (DK), claimed to be seeking total independence from foreign powers but accepted economic and military aid from its major allies, China and North Korea. Without identifying themselves as Communists, the Khmer Rouge quickly introduced a series of far-reaching and often painful socialist programs. The people given the most power in the new government were the largely illiterate rural Cambodians who had fought alongside the Khmer Rouge in the civil war. DK leaders severely restricted freedom of speech, movement, and association, and forbade all religious practices. The regime controlled all communications along with access to food and information. Former city dwellers, now called “new people,” were particularly badly treated. The Khmer Rouge killed intellectuals, merchants, bureaucrats, members of religious groups, and any people suspected of disagreeing with the party. Millions of other Cambodians were forcibly relocated, deprived of food, tortured, or sent into forced labor.
The Khmer Rouge also attacked neighboring countries in an attempt to reclaim territories lost by Cambodia many centuries before. After fighting broke out with Vietnam (then united under the Communists) in 1977, DK’s ideology became openly racist. Ethnic minorities in Cambodia, including ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, were hunted down and expelled or massacred. Purges of party members accused of treason became widespread. People in eastern Cambodia, suspected of cooperating with Vietnam, suffered severely, and hundreds of thousands of them were killed. While in power, the Khmer Rouge murdered, worked to death, or killed by starvation close to 1.7 million Cambodians—more than one-fifth of the country’s population. The war with Vietnam went badly for Cambodia, and in the second half of 1978 the DK tried to open the country up to the wider world, inviting journalists to visit and extending diplomatic recognition to several nonsocialist countries. In December 1978 the Vietnamese launched a blitzkrieg assault on Cambodia, using more than 100,000 troops. A group of Cambodian Communist rebels, the Khmer National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), accompanied them. On January 7, 1979, the invading forces occupied Phnom Penh, which the Khmer Rouge leaders had abandoned the day before. Pol Pot, his colleagues, and hundreds of thousands of followers sought refuge over the next few months along the Thai-Cambodian border. There they were protected by the Thai regime, which was hostile to Vietnam. (Back to Top)
Vietnam established a satellite regime called the People’s Republic of Kâmpŭchéa (PRK) in January 1979. The new government included many former members of the Khmer Rouge who had defected to Vietnam, as well as some Cambodians who had sought refuge in Vietnam before the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975. After coming to power, the regime restored much of Cambodia’s pre-1975 way of life, including the practice of Buddhism and a nationwide education system. For the time being, however, agriculture remained collectivized. Like all previous regimes, the new government treated its opponents harshly; like the Khmer Rouge, it severely limited people’s freedom of expression. The pro-Vietnamese Kâmpŭchéan Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (KPRP) monopolized political power and swept the 1981 elections for the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodians who had fled to Thailand formed an anti-Vietnamese government in exile, which continued to be known as DK. China, Thailand, and the United States had disapproved of the overthrow of DK, viewing it as Vietnamese aggression, and encouraged the formation of the government in exile. With the support of these countries, DK retained Cambodia’s seat in the United Nations (UN). Only a few foreign governments, including the USSR and India, recognized the PRK as Cambodia’s legitimate government. Foreign aid to Cambodia was largely limited to the Soviet-led bloc of Communist nations. Throughout the 1980s, Vietnam maintained more than 100,000 troops in Cambodia.
Conflict between PRK and DK forces, combined with Cambodia’s relative isolation, produced continuing economic instability. Thousands of people were killed in battle or maimed by landmines. In 1985 Cambodia’s foreign minister, Hun Sen, became prime minister of the PRK. Weary of socialism and the harsh conditions inside Cambodia, more than 500,000 Cambodians sought asylum in Thailand in the 1980s. More than 300,000 of these people eventually resettled in other countries, especially France and the United States. This outflow deprived Cambodia of thousands of trained personnel and removed many members of the small elite, whose ranks had already been thinned through execution and fatal illnesses under the Khmer Rouge. (Back to Top)
In September 1989, as the Cold War ended and Soviet financing of the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia fell sharply, Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia. The withdrawal left the Cambodian regime, under young prime minister Hun Sen, in a precarious position, deprived of all substantial foreign aid and threatened militarily by the forces of the Khmer Rouge and their allies on the Thai-Cambodian border. Soon afterward the PRK officially abandoned socialism, renamed itself the State of Cambodia (SOC), and introduced a range of reforms aimed at attracting foreign investment and increasing the popularity of the ruling KPRP, renamed the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). A program of privatization, which ended collectivized agriculture, and a headlong rush toward free-market economics from 1989 to 1992 widened the inequities in Cambodian society. Some members of the government became millionaires overnight, while the national economy was still stumbling to its feet. As markets opened in Thailand and Vietnam, exploitation of Cambodia’s gem and timber resources by foreign businesses became widespread. Meanwhile, fighting between government and Khmer Rouge forces intensified, as the Khmer Rouge occupied large areas in the relatively inhospitable northern part of the country.
In October 1991 Cambodia’s warring factions, the UN, and a number of interested foreign nations signed an agreement in Paris intended to end the conflict in Cambodia. The agreement provided for a temporary power-sharing arrangement between a United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and a Supreme National Council (SNC) made up of delegates from the various Cambodian factions. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former king and prime minister of Cambodia, served as president of the SNC. The Paris accords and the UN protectorate pushed Cambodia out of its isolation and introduced competitive politics, dormant since the early 1950s. UNTAC sponsored elections for a national assembly in May 1993, and for the first time in Cambodian history a majority of voters rejected an armed, incumbent regime. A royalist party, known by its French acronym FUNCINPEC, won the most seats in the election, followed by the CPP, led by Hun Sen. Reluctant to give up power, Hun Sen threatened to upset the election results. Under a compromise arrangement, a three-party coalition formed a government headed by two prime ministers; FUNCINPEC’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh, one of Sihanouk’s sons, became first prime minister, while Hun Sen became second prime minister.
In September 1993 the government ratified a new constitution restoring the monarchy and establishing the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanouk became king for the second time. After the 1993 elections, no foreign countries continued to recognize the DK as Cambodia’s legal government. The DK lost its UN seat as well as most of its sources of international aid. The unrealistic power-sharing relationship between Ranariddh and Hun Sen worked surprisingly well for the next three years, but relations between the parties were never smooth. The CPP’s control over the army and the police gave the party effective control of the country, and it dominated the coalition government. In July 1997 Hun Sen staged a violent coup against FUNCINPEC and replaced Prince Ranariddh, who was overseas at the time, with Ung Huot, a more pliable FUNCINPEC figure. Hun Sen’s action shocked foreign nations and delayed Cambodia’s entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By the end of 1997, Cambodia was the only nation in the region that was not a member.
Despite the coup, elections scheduled for July 1998 proceeded as planned. Hundreds of foreign observers who monitored the elections affirmed that voting was relatively free and fair; however, the CPP harassed opposition candidates and party workers before and after the elections, when dozens were imprisoned and several were killed. The election gave the CPP a plurality of votes, but results, especially in towns, where voting could not be dictated by local authorities, indicated that the party did not enjoy widespread popular support. Prince Ranariddh and another opposition candidate, Sam Rainsy, took refuge abroad and contested the outcome of the election. In November the CPP and FUNCINPEC reached an agreement whereby Hun Sen became sole prime minister and Ranariddh became president of the National Assembly. The parties formed a coalition government, dividing control over the various cabinet ministries. In early 1999 the constitution was amended to create a Senate, called for in the 1998 agreement. These signs that Cambodia’s political situation was stabilizing encouraged ASEAN to admit Cambodia to its membership a short time later.
Pol Pot died in 1998, and by early 1999 most of the remaining Khmer Rouge troops and leaders had surrendered. Rebel troops were integrated into the Cambodian army. In 1999 two Khmer Rouge leaders were arrested and charged with genocide for their part in the atrocities. They were tried and convicted by a domestic military court. Several other high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders who had surrendered to the government were allowed to live freely in Cambodia. In June 2003 the United Nations (UN) and the Cambodian government signed an agreement to set up a UN-assisted genocide tribunal to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The agreement capped years of difficult negotiations, which had faltered over the level of foreign control of the tribunal. The compromise agreement allows the majority of the judges to be Cambodian but requires at least one foreign judge to support a tribunal ruling.
Since the Paris Accords of 1991, Cambodia’s economic growth has depended on millions of dollars of foreign aid. Foreign interest in Cambodia has decreased, however, and the country has received diminishing economic assistance. This development, along with the continued lack of openness in Cambodian politics, has made Cambodia’s prospects for democratization dim, as well as its chances for sustained economic growth.
The Arts and Culture section of this article was contributed by Dawn F. Rooney. The remainder of the article was contributed by David Chandler.