Cambodia : A Brief History

The first significant civilization in Cambodia was an Indianised state called the Kingdom of Funan which dominated the region that now encompasses modern day Vietnam and Cambodia between the 1st to 6th centuries AD - some 300 years before the reign of the first Angkor King. Funan’s success was due to its advantageous position on the lucrative trade route between China and India. The state began to decline in the 6th century AD. It lost its western territories and was eventually conquered by the Zhendla state, which resided in northern Cambodia. This signaled the start of the pre-Angkorian period. Zhendla flourished but only for a short time and eventually broke into two rival states - ‘Land Zhendla’ in northern Cambodia/southern Angkor, and ‘Water Zhendla’ in Kampong Thom.

The Angkorian era began in 802AD under its first King, Jayavarman-II, who ruled for 48 years. Jayavarman was a warrior, who after returning to Cambodia from Java, managed to subdue enough Khmer rival states to declare one sovereign kingdom under his rule. He also declared a ‘god king’ rite and legitimised his power through the setting up of a ‘royal linga worshipping cult’ which remained central to Angkorian kingship, religion, art and architecture for centuries.

Thirty years after his death, Indravarman II decided to construct Preah Ko, the first member of the Roluos Group, in honour of Jayavarman-II. Not only that, he constructed Bakong, which marked the beginning of grand temple building that lasted for centuries, and was also responsible for the first large baray (water reservoir). The three defining characteristics -- the linga-cult, temple construction and reservoir building -- of the Angkor Kingdom had been established.

Many great temples were then built over the proceeding centuries including the most famous, Angkor Wat. Today, it is one of the greatest religious monuments in the world and is counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There’s no doubt that Angkor Wat (along with other temples like Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm) is a remarkable masterpiece, and continues to attract and amaze visitors to this day.

In the 13th century, King Jayavarman-VII broke with over 400 years of tradition and replaced the state religion, Hinduism, with Mahayana Buddhism, and also began the most prolific period of Angkor temple building. Despite this, his death actually marked the end of such grandiose projects and the Angkor Kingdom began to decline. This was largely due to repeated invasions by the Thai’s from the west, eventually forcing it to up sticks and move from Angkor to Phnom Penh in 1432.

During the 15th to 19th centuries, Cambodia suffered numerous invasions from Thailand and Vietnam, and attempts to pacify them by giving away land failed. It was eventually decided that a French Protectorate was the only way of stopping Cambodia from being eaten up by its two neighbours. In 1863, the Kingdom became a French colony and remained such until November 1953, after an independence campaign led by King Norodom Sihanouk.

Its surprising to note now but during the 1950’s till the latter part of the 1960’s, Cambodia was considered to be the most advanced country in South-East Asia, and was fully enjoying its independence and internal infrastructure left by the French.

However, due to the rise of Communism in the region, Cambodia’s bordering countries had fallen into war, which eventually spread over into parts of its own territory. So much so that the US began carpet-bombing areas of Cambodia where North Vietnamese Communist base camps were suspected to be located. Not long after, Sihanouk’s general, Lon Nol, overthrew the King (who was alienating both the political left and right in the country) in a US-backed coup on 18 March 1970. Shortly after, the country (now called The Khmer Republic) witnessed American and South Vietnamese troops invading its interior in order to weed-out Vietnamese Communist forces. This offensive was unsuccessful and the fighting also had the negative effect of providing a platform for Cambodia’s communist entity, the Khmer Rouge (KR), to seize the moment, taking full control of the country on 17 April 1975 and renaming it The Kampuchea Democracy.

This was the beginning of the ‘Killing Fields’ regime under leader Pol Pot. The KR’s goal was the transformation of Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated, agrarian collective. During this time, towns were emptied and everyone was forced to relocate to the countryside to work the rice fields. Most of the educated class were branded parasites and executed, many others died from mistreatment, malnutrition and disease. At least one million, maybe as much as two million people died during the reign of the KR from 1975 to 1979. At the end of 1978, Vietnam invaded and captured Phnom Penh on January 1979, installing a state called the People’s Republic of Kampuchea.

Years of civil war between the KR and Vietcong finally ended with the Paris Peace Accord in 1991. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was created to hold the country together and oversea the 1993 general election. A constitution was approved and Samdach Noromdom Sihanouk was once again crowned the King of Cambodia (although this time as a constitutional monarch).

The main parties in the election were the United Front for an Independent, Neutral and Free Cambodia (Funcinpec) Party, led by the Kings son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) led by Hen Sen. The Funcinpec Party won the election but the CPP cried foul and demanded that they have some share of power. A deal, brokered by UNTAC, was made where Ranariddh became prime minister number one with Hun Sen given the title of prime minister number two. This was misleading because Hun Sen was definitely the strongman, finally ousting Ranariddh in factional fighting in July 1997.

One positive consequence of the first parliament, however, was the final demise of the KR as a significant force. It suffered mass defections, the most damaging being Brother Number Three, Ieng Sary, who decided to side with the government in 1996. This cut of vital revenue for the KR army as it relied on gem mining from the Pailin province which Sary had control over. In April 1998, Pol Pot died (not long after he’d actually been put on trial by the KR in 1997). General Ta Mok became leader of the dying movement and an unsuccessful alliance was formed with the weakened Funcinpec Party.

The 1998 election saw the CPP gain the largest share of the vote but still had to form a coalition government, as it didn’t receive the two-thirds majority necessary to govern alone. The deal, organised by King Sihanouk, saw Hun Sen become prime minister while Ranariddh was made president of the National Assembly.

Since 1998, Cambodia has witnessed stability not seen since the 1960’s (although despite its recent WTO membership, it remains one of the poorest nations in the world). The 2003 election saw the CCP remain in power but had to again form a coalition. In the same year, the country celebrated 50 years of independence from France.

Recent developments also indicate that former KR leaders may finally have to stand trail before some sort of international tribunal for the atrocities committed during 1975 to 1979. However, Pol Pot is now dead and some of his former colleagues (such as Ieng Sary) have immunity from prosecution. Plus, countries within the UN pushing for a trial today actually supported the KR after its fall from power in the 1980’s (when its atrocities from the 1970’s were widely known) and even gave it a seat on the UN General Assembly. But at least a trail of some description would finally give the Cambodian people a small amount of justice for what happened and should hopefully go ahead.

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