Cambodia is a small nation
in Southeast Asia
. It covers roughly 181,000 Square Kilometer
s and roughly 8.9 Million people, making it the second least dense
ly populated area in Southeast Asia
. The country
is broken up into 20 provinces
and three municipalities. Phnom Penh
is the captial and largest city.
Laos borders the country to the north, Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west, with the Gulf of Thailand to the south.
The majority of the people, 85% to 90%, are Khmer, with significant minorities of Chinese and Vietnamese, along with a few Muslim Chams. The state religion is Buddhism, of which 95% of the population adheres to.
Cambodia is separated from Thailand by a long semicircle of mountains. These are heavily forested and currently are the base of the remaining Khmer Rouge rebels. The main river through Cambodia is the Mekong River. The country is dominated by the Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia’s largest lake, which during the rainy season can swell to double its normal size. The majority of the land is fertile plain, well suited to agriculture.
The original recorded empire of Cambodia was the Funan Empire. Established in the 1st century AD. The Funanese people, under the leadership of Fan Shih-man, who ruled from 205 – 225 AD, extended their control to the lower Mekong River. By the 4th century the area came under the sway of an Indian Brahmin. Through this Indian customs, legal codes and alphabet, along with Hinduism were introduced to the area.
The Angkor Period (889 – 1434)
The Khmer kingdom was the greatest period of Cambodian history. At times stretching throughout much of Southeast Asia, the kingdom was a center place for art and religion. The famous cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom stand as reminders to this civilization’s achievements.
Temples, Pyramids and statues covered Khmer monuments and buildings from the earliest time. By the time Angkor Wat was built, the construction methods had changed from brick to stone, and Bas-reliefs and statues covered everywhere in the beautifully designed city.
The Kingdom of Khmer was the next nation to rule over the area after the Funan. It rose in the areas today comprising Laos and Cambodia in the 6th century. Eventually civil war would split the nation and the area around the Mekong Delta fell under the sway of the Java Kingdom (Present day island of Java in Indonesia).
Cambodia was ruled by the kingdom of Java until 802 AD. During this time, a Khmer prince Jayavarman II, who was born and raised at the Javanese court, declares the areas inhabited by Khmer independent, founding the Kingdom of Khmer. Jayavarman II is crowned the Devaraja, or God King). He cannot seem to decide were to have his captial and it is moved several times; first to Indrapura, then to Wat Phou and finally to Rolous.
Stable rule extends many more centuries. In 889 Yasovarman I becomes king of Khmer. His major goal is the building of the city of Angkor (Yasodharapura). In 1002 the usurper Suryavarman I begins his glorious reign. Under his control, vast stretches of land now in current day Laos and Thailand are conquered.
During the beginning of the Second Millennia AD, Angkor is conquered by the Champa kingdom. By 1080 a northern Khmer governor declares himself king of Khmer. His chosen name is Jayavarman VI. During the reign of Jayaarman’s nephew, Suryavaman II, Angkor Wat is built.
Less than 100 years later, in 1177, Champa again conquers Angkor. A cousin to Suryavaman II, Jayavarman VI, assumes the throne in the year 1181. His first act is the conquest of Vijaya, the Champa captial in present-day southern Vietnam. Under his rule, Khmer land stretches through nearly all of Thailand and Laos, plus parts of Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. Jayavarman also converts to Buddhism from Hinduism and changes the state religion to Buddhism.
A new royal captial is begun in the year 1200 AD at Angkor Thom. The project cost is enormous and bankrupts the empire. The depleted resources of the Khmer lead to a decline in power. Over the next few decades the Thai kingdoms to the west and Vietnamese lands to the east are revitalized and the declining Khmer is caught in the middle.
The Khmer kings must beg help from one of the two every few years, each of which brings them further into political assimilation. After 2 centuries, the Thai conquer Angkor yet again and the captial is abandoned to the jungles. The captial itself was transferred to Phnom Penh and the end of the Angkor period was at hand.
The Colonial Period
Cambodia’s troubles did not stop; in fact they accelerated. As the rest of Southeast Asia was falling under colonial ambitions by the European powers, Siam to the west and Annam to the east were taking bites out of Cambodia’s territory. In the 18th century, Cambodia lost three of its western provinces to Siam and Cochin China to Annam. The wars continued to sap the Cambodian strength until in 1854 the King of Cambodia asked for French assistance. The country formally became a French Protectorate in 1863 and a treaty was verified in 1884, formalizing the arrangement.
During this period, the French gained large amounts of Southeast Asia. Thus it was that in 1887 Cambodia was incorporated into the Union of Indochina and in 1907 a French-Siamese treaty restored the three western provinces lost in the 18th century. With the start of World War II, the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia. Cambodia again lost those same three provinces, but they were restored after the end of World War II.
The end of World War II brought Cambodia some self-rule, as its end brought for many colonial areas. In January 1946, France formally gave Cambodia self-rule, though only within the French Union. A constitution was drafted in May of 1947. By 1949, Cambodia signed a treaty that raised it to the status of an associated state (diplomatically recognized) within the Union.
It would be a few more years until Cambodia gained its independence. During the time, King Norodom Sihanouk actively campaigned for full independence from France, which was finally granted in 1953. By this time though, the problems in Vietnam between the Vietnamese people and France were already under way and it would only be a year before Viet Minh troops infiltrated Cambodia.
The Geneva Conference of 1954 led to an armistice in which French troops were forced to withdraw from Southeast Asia. In December 1954, France and Cambodia reached an agreement. Cambodia withdrew from the French Union in 1955, becoming fully independent and was admitted into the United Nations later that year.
Cambodia under Norodom Sihanouk and the Vietnamese War
King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated his throne in March of 1955 to enter politics, strangely even after this “unique” action, it would be his father Norodom Suramarit who would succeed him on the throne and would later be succeeded by his wife Queen Kossamak Nearireak. Sihanouk proceeded to create the Popular Socialist party, of which he served as Premier.
With the rise of his mother to the throne, Sihanouk was made the first Cambodian Chief of State, of which his duties very soon began to become solely the duty of keeping Cambodia neutral from the Vietnam War. In a sort of two sided gamble, Sihanouk allowed the Viet Cong troops from North Vietnam to have bases and supplies in Cambodia, all the while receiving support and military aid from the United States to strengthen his forces against the Communist threat.
The Viet Cong forces though began to infiltrate Cambodia, setting their bases deeper in the country and beginning to have an adverse effect on politics in the nation. In 1963, Sihanouk accused the United States of supporting anti-government groups and activities and cut ties with the US in 1965. He renounced US aid and began to improve relations with France and Communist China. The loss of US aid, along with the infiltration of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces into Cambodia heavily damaged the stability and economy of the nation.
In 1969, the United States widened the Vietnam War and began to institute aerial bombardments of Cambodia. As the North Vietnamese forces continued to grow in power in Cambodia, Sihanouk again turned to the US. In 1969 US-Cambodian relations were restored. Relations with Thailand and South Vietnam, perennial enemies up till this point also began to improve.
The previous Lt. General Lon Nol, who had been Defense Minister and Supreme Commander of the army, succeeded Sihanouk in the position of Premier. Sihanouk delegated considerable control to Lon Nol, while he tried to negotiate for the removal of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces from Cambodia. These forces now numbered around 50,000 and had become a significant problem for Cambodia.
The army leaders grew more and more discontented with Sihanouk. This coupled with a weakened economy and rising inflation led to many problems. Bad financial policies failed to solve the downturn and government corruption and mismanagement helped to accelerate the problems. On March 18, 1970, while Sihanouk was in Moscow negotiating for help against the North Vietnamese, Lon Nol led a coup, in which Sihanouk was disposed as the Chief of State.
Sihanouk fled to Beijing, from Moscow, where he established a government-in-exile. The Cambodian forces under the military government now began fighting the North Vietnamese troops in Cambodia.
Cambodian Civil War
In April of 1970, the new land phase of the Vietnam War began when US and South Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia under heavy bombing cover. Their goal was to wipe out the Viet Cong bases in the country. The US bombings caused heavy devastation of the Cambodian villages and towns in the path, and anti-US sentiment rose considerably, though the US ground forces had withdrawn by June 30th of 1970. Within a few years of this campaign, the Communist ranks in Cambodia, of Cambodians, had swelled from a mere 3000, to well over 30,000 under the Khmer Rouge. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong then withdrew from the area and left a raging civil war, that was financed by North Vietnam and China on one side, and the United States on the other.
Cambodia had been changed to a republic on October 9, 1970 and renamed the Khmer Republic. By this time though the change had very little effect. The Cambodian government controlled less than 1/3 of the land including most of the provincial captials, along with the national captial of Phnom Phen. More and more territory fell into communist hands despite help from US bombing raids. The government’s position became increasingly desperate as did that of Phnom Phen and the maintaining of communications from that city became nearly the sole goal of the military.
In September the end approached rapidly. Phnom Phen was experiencing large-scale food shortages and riots and looting spread across the city. Lon Nol and his brother Lon Non became increasingly oppressive, waging large-scale political arrests and newspaper seizures. By September 1973, the US Congress had ended the bombing raids a month earlier, and the Khmer Rouge swept forward. The third largest city in Cambodia, Kampong Cham came under full assault and Phnom Penh was shelled from 1974 to 1975, with enormous casualties.
The Rise of the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge, then led by Pol Pot, finally seized control of Phnom Phen in 1975. Lon Nol was removed from power and Pol Pot installed as Premier, the country was renamed the Kampuchean People’s Republic. The anti-western and anti-technological Khmer Rouge evacuated the people of Cambodia from the cities and forced them to work in agriculture. They destroyed cities, machines and vehicles and, it is estimated, they executed over 1.5 Million people over the next four years. Most of those with education or of the middle or upper classes were the ones executed.
Offers (more demands that actual offers) of international supervision of Cambodia were rejected continuously by Pol Pot. In 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and drove the Kampuchean People’s Republic into the western reaches of the country, the United Nations refused to back the drive and still recognized the government under Pol Pot at the legitimate Cambodian government, rather than Sihanouk’s government-in-exile in Beijing.
Vietnam continued to occupy the country during the 1987 talks in Paris to try to settle the civil war. In 1989, Vietnam agreed to withdraw its troops from Cambodia. A peace treaty was signed among all the competing factions in Cambodia, of which there were now three major ones. Also, with the treaty, the United Nations assumed the administrative activities of Cambodia and called for total disarmament of the three factions. The Khmer refused to disarm and resumed guerilla warfare in 1992. Sihanouk then allied himself with the legitimate government under Premier Hun Sen and again was made Head of State. The first democratic elections in Cambodia were held in May 1993.
The Royalists won the most seats, with 58 of 120, with the faction under Hun Sen achieving the second most seats. A coalition government was formed with Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen holding the positions of Co-Regents. The Khmer Rouge, who still held the majority of the north and west boycotted the elections and continued armed resistance. Overall the government administration was still run by those from Hun Sen’s faction. A new constitution reestablished the monarchy and Sihanouk became king. All attempts at peace with the Khmer Rouge failed.
The Khmer Rouge declined in power over the next few years. In 1996 it split into two parts when one group signed a peace accords with the Cambodian government. Pol Pot was ousted a short time later and imprisoned, he died in 1998. The factions of Prince Ranariddth and Hun Sen broke into open fighting in July 1997 and the prince was forced to flee the country. He returned in March of 1998 to compete against Hun Sen’s faction in the election. Hun Sen won a majority (64 out of 122 seats) and became sole Premier. In 1999 Cambodia joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).