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Cambodia has experienced not only seasons of power and prosperity, but also dark periods of discord, including genocide on a massive scale only 40 years ago, which has left a legacy of deep scars, even up to today.
Cambodia’s history makes the country what it is today. Knowing what the nation has gone through will give you a deeper appreciation and love for Cambodia’s culture, people, and places.
Between the 1st and 9th century, Cambodia was covered by small kingdoms, including the Funla and Chenla kingdoms, noted in historical Chinese records. The people cultivated rice and traded basic commodities such as spices, with China and India. Over time the population gradually concentrated itself along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
During this period, the kingdoms were heavily influenced by their Indian neighbors, adopting their traditions and religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.
Indians probably arrived in Cambodia through sea ports and trading settlements on the coastline of southern Vietnam, which was part of a trading route connecting the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China.
The Angkor Empire, also known as the Khmer Empire, began in 802 AD, when Jayavarman II wrested the land from Javanese control. He established the kingdom through alliances and conquests, along with mastery of hydraulic and irrigation systems.
The Khmer Empire grew to be the greatest ever in mainland Southeast Asia. With its capital at Angkor in Siem Reap, the empire at one time reigned over most of Indochina, including today’s Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
The prosperity in this era was marked by Angkorian art and the building of Hindu and Buddhist temples such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and others. The most iconic – Angkor Wat – has become a destination famous worldwide for tourists and is a testament to the glories of the former empire.
Gradually, the Khmer empire was weakened by internal conflicts and leaders who were preoccupied with their own fame and fortune. The rapid increase in population was also taking its toll on the land and people.
The irrigation network became overworked and silt started to build up due to large-scale deforestation. Massive construction projects also exhausted the slaves and common people, who provided labor and paid taxes.
As the kingdom weakened and the economy stagnated, the empire started losing its peripheral territories to neighboring kingdoms. The Mekong Delta region was eventually occupied by southern Vietnamese, while Battambang and Siem Reap in the west were controlled by the Thai.
In 1431 the Thai invaded Angkor city and promptly abandoned it due to ecological failures and infrastructural breakdown that had already taken place. Afterwards, the capital shifted several times, and eventually settled in Phnom Penh.
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.
In 1953, King Sihanouk declared Cambodia’s independence from the French. Sihanouk sided with the communist Vietnamese in fighting against South Vietnam and the USA, and allowed the communist Vietnamese to establish bases in Cambodian territory.
His reign was overthrown with support from the USA by General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. Exiled from his own country, Sihanouk then allied with the Khmer Rouge, an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement with communist ideology, to rebel against the Lon Nol regime.
There was much conflict in the early 1970s between the Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge rebels. In April 1975, the US finally withdrew their support from the Cambodian government and five days later Phnom Penh fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, changed the country’s name to Democratic Kampuchea. They wanted to model Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward and create a communist country of farmers.
One day after the Khmer Rouge conquered Phnom Penh, they evacuated everyone from the city to rural areas. This marked the beginning of a country-wide genocide which saw around a quarter of the population killed, an estimated 2 million people.
Civilians were sent to the rural areas for hard labor and many died from the labor. Educated people were persecuted, especially doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Many were convicted of being spies for the allies and were sent to prison and tortured. Books and temples were destroyed, along with anything connected to the West.
Some of the horrors of this period are recorded in the S21 Museum, which used to be a prison for the Khmer Rouge prisoners. The Killing Fields of Choeung EK also preserves the site of former orchards which became a mass grave for victims, where at least 8,895 bodies were buried.
The Khmer Rouge reign ended in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. In its place, the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was established and in the following years, civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, and many fled to refugee camps along the border to Thailand.
In efforts to create peace, a comprehensive peace settlement known as the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established in 1991 by the UN. The settlement arranged for a ceasefire and dealt with refugees and disarmament.
Cambodia still needs to recover from the devastating memories and effects of genocide. Many were involved in the killing, but in order to move on, the government has decided to pardon them and only put on trial the top leaders of Khmer Rouge.
Since then, Cambodia has made progress towards recovery and development through reestablishment of its educational systems and infrastructures, and also rebuilding of its identity as a nation.
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