Cambodia’s people have had a lot to contend with. Its troubled past has had a significant impact on its culture and helped to form modern Cambodia.
Today’s Cambodia started with an ancient civilization that begin in the region of 4200 BCE. Archaeological digs have discovered artefacts like pots that date to that time in northern regions of the country; similar styled copies are now being found in the city markets and relatively cheap to pick up on the Cambodia tour packages. Kingdoms to follow included the Funan Kingdom and Chenla Kingdom. But the next era of the country was the most influential with the start of the Khmer Empire.
The Khmer Empire lasted from the 9th to 13th centuries and at the time a very powerful force in Southeast Asia. It not only ruled in Cambodia, but also parts of modern-day Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Thailand.
In its day, the capital city of the Khmer Empire was Angkor, which is mostly still standing and has become one of the most impressive attractions to see in the country while on the Cambodia holiday.
The end of the Angkorian monarchy was hastened by issues with the water supply and this was further cemented when Angkor was captured by the Thais in 1431. This left the Khmer people to migrate in the direction of Phnom Penh.
Following this in the years from the 1500s until the French arrived in 1863, the country continued to have issues with its more influential neighbours, the Thais and the Vietnamese. Also, during this period, there was even a risk of Cambodia being swallowed up altogether after suffering great territorial losses.
Later in 1863, an agreement was signed between the French and King Norodom that made Cambodia a settlement of France.
In World War II a lot of the country was occupied by the Japanese, which was similar to most parts of Asia at the time. However, the French Vichy government that collaborated with Germany was able to maintain charge until a short period of control by the Japanese in 1945. At the end of WWII the French soon regained control, but granted independence to Cambodia in 1953.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s with war raging in Vietnam, the Cambodian ruling party agreed to provide tactical support to the Northern Vietnamese. By the time the mid-1960’s arrived, the North Vietnamese were making use of provinces in the east of the country, while also making use of Sihanoukville to act as a supply route for the war against the United States and South Vietnam. Because of Cambodia's continued assistance, the US start to bomb areas of the country which result in nearly 2.7 million tons of bombs being dropped up until 1973. During this period Cambodians were displaced or killed in the hundreds of thousands.
King Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970 and a US-backed government soon took charge with Lon Nol in command. After this period a civil war started to play out. Sihanouk escaped to Beijing and started to give his support to a new communist group known as the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Rouge era
Even though the Khmer Rouge gained control of the country, their rule only lasted for a period of four years. But, this had a devastating impact on the country, which took a long time to fully recover. The fighting that led up to the Khmer Rouge rule was brutal and left hundreds of thousands of Cambodian people dead. Pol Pot took charge of the country on 17th April 1975 after the collapse of the Lon Nol government. The country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea for the duration of the Khmer Rouge rule.
Within a relatively short time of taking charge, the Khmer Rouge attempted to radically restructure the Cambodian society. Major cities like Phnom Penh were emptied by force with the local Cambodian population relocated to the countryside and made to work in the fields. By taking this course of action, the new regime wanted to create a communist society with no currency, no intellectuals and no religion.
In time the Khmer Rouge was involved with infighting that led to violent purges that resulted in removing those that did not appear to display sufficiently dedicated. During this time several of the top Khmer Rouge leaders fled to neighbouring counties, like Vietnam, where they started to organise a government while in exile.
By early 1979 Cambodia had been liberated with the help of the Vietnamese government and a new ruling party was put in place and led by Hun Sen. This government was mainly made up of the former members of the Khmer Rouge who had fled to Vietnam.
During the period of Khmer Rouge rule it is estimated that between 1-3 million Cambodian people died with many more left starving and hundreds of thousands escaped to refugee camps near the border with Thailand. Many of those that lost their life were executed by the regime, or died of disease or starvation. A visit to the country on a Cambodia tour can include a sombre reminder of the past by visiting places like Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek about 17 km outside the capital city.
Fighting continued with the Khmer Rouge even after the Paris peace agreements were signed in 1991, and they were no longer in power. Part of the peace agreement had the United Nations responsible for administering the country for a period of 2 years. This did help to give some stability in Cambodia with an election held in 1993 with nearly 90% of the local people casting a vote.
The election result wasn’t entirely welcomed with Hun Sen who led the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) threatening to lead a secession of the eastern provinces in Cambodia. In an attempt to avoid this action, the government with royalist Norodom Ranariddh as the first prime minister agreed to accept Hun Sen as co-prime minister and coalition partner.
But, by 1997, in a military-backed coup Hun Sen took the decisive action to oust his co-prime minister and Hun Sen is still in charge of the country today.
After nearly three decades of fighting a devastating war, Cambodia lost a lot of its intellectuals, educational institutions, its cultural, and its infrastructure. Nearly a complete generation of the Cambodian people were traumatized, tortured and starved. Many people still blade the short period of Khmer Rouge rule for this negative impact on the country’s history, which is likely to resonate for future generations