Cambodia: A Short History

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Cambodia is a country with a long and illustrious history. For that reason it is more than a pity that, whenever the country is mentioned, the only thing that outsiders seem to know is the name Pol Pot.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Cambodia dates back to pots dated at 4200BC. However, little is known about the country until it starts to be mentioned in the reports of Chinese bureaucrats. In the 1st century AD trading settlements linking India, southern Vietnam and southern China began to appear and, between the 1st and 8th centuries, Cambodia was probably a conglomeration of small trading states, the most important of these being Funan.

From the 6th century onwards Funan became less important as a port and the major centres of popuation began to appear along the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers. It is thought that one of the reasons for the move was developments in technologies relating to wet-rice production. Between the 6th and 8th centuries Cambodia was made up of warring kingdoms, known collectively as Chenla.

In the year 802 Jayavarman II proclaimed himself 'universal monarch'. Over a period of time he developed a series of alliances until he was universal monarch in actuality as well as in name. It was during Jayavarman II's reign that the first temples were built around Roluos and the first great irrigation projects were started.

The kingdom developed but, by the end of the 10th century, alliances were being broken and the country was torn by strife. It took a usurper, Suryavarman I, to pull the country back together and continue to expand Cambodia's borders. This pattern continued to be repeated. First the country would begin to fall apart, then a strong ruler would take over and a period of expansion and temple building would follow. Then internal tensions would increase and the cycle would begin again.

In 1112 Suryavarman II came to the throne and began a series of wars of expansion into Vietnam and Champa (southern Vietnam). It was Suryavarman II who comissioned the building of Angkor Wat. In 1177, the Chams fought back, sailed up the Mekong and into the Tonlé Sap Lake. They took the city of Angkor by surprise, captured it and put the king to death.

In 1178 a cousin of Suryavarman II built up a force that eventually defeated the Chams. In 1181, this leader was crowned Jayavarman VII. Jayavarman VII was the great builder of the Angkor period. Among others, he comissioned Angkor Thom, Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan, Preah Palilay, Ta Prohm and Ta Nei. The massive programme of temple building was hard on the people, who both paid for them in taxes and actually built them. This, along with a decline in Cambodia's political influence with its neighbours, lead to the fall of the Angkorian Empire. There was a series of wars with the kingdom of Ayudhya1 and for more than one hundred and fifty years there were wars both with foreign countries and between conflicting dynasties.

For three years (1596 to 1599) the Spanish had a lot of influence over the internal politics of Cambodia, but their garrison in Phnom Penh was massacred and a new king put in place by the Thais. From 1600 until the French arrived in 1863 a series of minor kings ruled Cambodia, under the protection of either Thailand or Vietnam.

In 1864 France employed gunboat diplomacy to pressurise King Norodom into signing a treaty of protectorate. Later, in 1884, King Norodom was forced into signing a further treaty which changed Cambodia's status to that of a colony. This lead to an uprising which lasted for two years. But, apart from that, the French ruled with little organised resistance until after the Second World War.

In January 1953, King Sihanouk dissolved parliament, declared martial law, and began a 'Royal Crusade' to gain independence for Cambodia. Independence was declared on 9th November 1953, and was recognised internationally in May 1954. Over the next fifteen years Cambodia got drawn further and further into the mess that was South East Asian politics. In May 1965, King Sihanouk broke off relations with the USA, convinced that they were plotting against him. This lead to a strengthening of ties with North Vietnam and China.

In 1969 the USA began bombing suspected communist camps in Cambodia. By the time this secret programme was halted by the US Congress in August 1973 thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands had become refugees. Meanwhile, in March 1970, King Sihanouk visited France. While he was away he was deposed by General Lon Nol and the King's cousin, Prince Sisowath Matak. With the support of the USA, pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese began. King Sihanouk fled to Beijing and set up a government-in-exile, in control of a Cambodian revolutionary movement that King Sihanouk nicknamed the Khmer Rouge2.

On 30th April 1970 the USA and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia to try and destroy the bases of 40,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. The communists withdrew deeper into the jungle and became more of a threat to the Lon Nol regime which was extremely unpopular due to the massive corruption and greed of the leaders. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand Cambodians died in the fighting. During this time a Paris educated activist, Saloth Sar, became a leading light within the Khmer Rouge and took on the name Pol Pot. On 17th April, just two weeks before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge had been welcomed into Phhnom Penh but, within two weeks, everyone in the capital and the provincial towns (including those ill in hospital) were force marched into the countryside. The coming to power of the Khmer Rouge was declared 'Year Zero', postal services were stopped, money abolished, and the borders closed. The only flights in or out of Cambodia (renamed Democratic Kampuchea) were fortnightly planes to Beijing (China was providing aid and advisers). Cambodians in the countryside were treated as slave labour, working in the fields for up to fifteen hours a day. Any resistance, even the smallest act of disobedience, resulted in execution. At least two million people died under the Pol Pot regime although the actual figure may be much higher than this.

King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh as the chief of state in September 1975, but resigned and was imprisoned in the palace three months later. The Chinese insisted that he was kept alive as they thought he may be useful. Between 1976 and 1978 the new government clashed a number of times with Vietnam, the Cambodian regime claiming the southern region of Vietnam which had been part of the Khmer Empire. On Christmas Day 1978 the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Pol Pot government on 7th January 1979. The Vietnamese installed two former Khmer Rouge officers ( Hun Sen and Heng Samrin ) as the new leaders. In June 1982 King Sihanouk, under pressure from China, lead the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) into the fray. The group couldn't have been more disparate, ranging from royalists to the Khmer Rouge. The only common link was their opposition to the Vietnamese backed regime.

The fighting continued unabated and, in September 1989, Vietnam forces finally withdrew from Cambodia. By September 1990 the United Nations Security Council agreed a plan that installed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and, on 25th May 1993, elections were held. Factions of the Khmer Rouge continued to fight throughout the 1990's, retreating further into the jungle and carrying out guerilla raids. However, since the death of Pol Pot and the capture of General Ta Mok (in 1999) things have been quiet.

There are still bandits in some areas (some calling themselves Khmer Rouge, although, in reality, they are just outlaws) and so it is still best to ask advice before travelling in the more remote regions and planning on arriving at your destination long before dark. The long slog to return fully to normality can now continue. Part of the action now centres on the work to remove landmines. There are still millions scattered around the country, one team was recently reported as having taken five years to clear 700 hectares of jungle so that the local population can begin farming it again. The people of Cambodia, after coming through so much, are now optimistic about the future. If any country deserves a better future, it is Cambodia.

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