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Cambodia - History

Archaeological evidence indicates that parts of the region now called Cambodia were inhabited during the first and second millennia BC by peoples having a Neolithic culture. By the first century AD, the inhabitants had developed relatively stable, organized societies, which had far surpassed the primitive stage in culture and technical skills. The most advanced groups lived along the coast and in the lower Mekong River valley and delta regions, where they cultivated irrigated rice and kept domesticated animals.

Scholars believe that these people may have been Austroasiatic in origin and related to the ancestors of the groups who now inhabit insular Southeast Asia and many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean. They worked metals, including both iron and bronze, and possessed navigational skills. Mon-Khmer people, who arrived at a later date, probably intermarried with them. The Khmer who now populate Cambodia may have migrated from southeastern China to the Indochinese Peninsula before the first century AD. They are believed to have arrived before their present Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao neighbors.

The Khmer people were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt religious ideas and political institutions from India and to establish centralized kingdoms encompassing large territories. The earliest known kingdom in the area, Funan, flourished from around the first to the sixth century AD. It was succeeded by Chenla, which controlled large areas of modern Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand (known as Siam until 1939).

Most Cambodians consider themselves to be ethnically Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th centuries. About 800 or 900 years ago, a Chinese envoy was sent to the court of the Khmer kingdom, and he wrote the first report about Angkor. At the time, Cambodia was the vassal of China. Over centuries, as the Khmer kingdom lost power, Vietnam and Thailand tried to control what was left of Cambodia. Both the Thais and the Vietnamese had come originally from southern China and in their migration southward occupied certain areas which had been settled by the Khmers.

The golden age of Khmer civilization was the period from the ninth to the thirteenth century, when the kingdom of Kambuja, which gave Kampuchea, or Cambodia, its name, ruled large territories from its capital in the region of Angkor in western Cambodia.

Under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), Kambuja reached its zenith of political power and cultural creativity. Following Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja experienced gradual decline. Important factors were the aggressiveness of neighboring peoples (especially the Thai, or Siamese), chronic interdynastic strife, and the gradual deterioration of the complex irrigation system that had ensured rice surpluses.

Like other Indo-Chinese states Camboja possesses written annals; but these do not commence till 1346 AD. Hence they only take up the history of the kingdom when its power, and perhaps its civilization, were already past their climax. Attacks by the Thai and Cham (the Kingdom of Champa is now part of present-day Vietnam) weakened the empire, ushering in a long period of decline. The Angkorian monarchy survived until 1431, when the Thai captured Angkor Thom and the Cambodian king fled to the southern part of his country.

The fifteenth to the nineteenth century was a period of continued decline and territorial loss. Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the sixteenth century because its kings, who built their capitals in the region southeast of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) along the Mekong River, promoted trade with other parts of Asia. This was the period when Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and missionaries first visited the country. But the Thai conquest of the new capital at Lovek in 1594 marked a downturn in the country's fortunes and Cambodia became a pawn in power struggles between its two increasingly powerful neighbors, Siam and Vietnam.

Vietnam's settlement of the Mekong Delta led to its annexation of that area at the end of the seventeenth century. Cambodia thereby lost some of its richest territory and was cut off from the sea. Such foreign encroachments continued through the first half of the nineteenth century because Vietnam was determined to absorb Khmer land and to force the inhabitants to accept Vietnamese culture. Such imperialistic policies created in the Khmer an abiding suspicion of their eastern neighbors that flared into violent confrontation after the Khmer Rouge established its regime in 1975.

In the early part of the 19th century, the Emperor of Annam even placed a viceroy on the throne in Phnom Penh. The Thais also had their eye on the Khmer provinces west of the Mekong, the rich areas of Battambang. Parts of Thailand and Vietnam had originally been part of the Khmer Empire. Hence, in the latter part of the 19th century, the Cambodians were quite willing to accept the far away rule of France. The king placed the country under French protection in 1863 and it became part of France's Indochina colonies in 1887.

The country gradually came under French colonial domination. The French obviously had their own agenda in Cambodia, but in the 20th century they supported the Cambodian desire to remain outside the Thai or Vietnamese orbit. It was in 1941 that Sihanouk Norodom was selected by the French to take the throne. Sihanouk was only 18 years old at that tine. The French preferred Sihanouk to a Sissavong who had a better claim on the throne but was less pliable and older than Sihanouk. Sihanouk was schooled by French advisers. He really was a popular ruler and many rural folks in Cambodia looked up to him not only as a ruler, but as an intermediary between them and their gods.

During World War II, the Japanese allowed the French government (based at Vichy) that collaborated with the Nazis the Vichy French to continue administering Cambodia and the other Indochinese territories, but they also fostered Khmer nationalism.

Following Japanese occupation in World War II, Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of independence in 1945 before Allied troops restored French control. King Norodom Sihanouk, who had been chosen by France to succeed King Monivong in 1941, rapidly assumed a central political role as he sought to neutralize leftist and republican opponents and attempted to negotiate acceptable terms for independence from the French. Sihanouk's "royal crusade for independence" resulted in grudging French acquiescence to his demands for a transfer of sovereignty.

The new leadership of the country presented itself as following a policy of neutrality. Prince Norodom Sihanouk viewed Cambodian history as essentially a struggle to forestall national extinction at the hands of more aggressive Thai and Vietnamese. As a result, Cambodia’s energies — and those of Thailand and South Vietnam as well — were often diverted by border incidents, propaganda wars, and diplomatic recriminations.

Cambodia gradually gained great autonomy. Sihanouk's actions hastened the French Government's July 4, 1953 announcement of its readiness to grant independence, which came on November 9, 1953. The situation remained uncertain until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war. All participants, except the United States and the State of Vietnam, associated themselves (by voice) with the final declaration. The Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality of the three Indochinese states but insisted on a provision in the cease-fire agreement that left the Cambodian Government free to call for outside military assistance should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory. Cambodia was able to bring about the withdrawal of the Viet Minh troops from its territory and to withstand any residual impingement upon its sovereignty by external powers.

In order to play a more active role in national politics, Sihanouk abdicated in 1955 and placed his father, Norodom Suramarit, on the throne. Now only a prince, Sihanouk organized his own political movement, the Popular Socialist Community, (Sangkum Reastr Niyum, or Sangkum), which won all the seats in the National Assembly in the 1955 election. The Sangkum dominated the political scene until the late 1960s. Sihanouk's highly personal ruling style made him immensely popular with the people, especially in rural villages. Although the Sangkum was backed by conservative interests, Sihanouk included leftists in his government, three of whom -- Khieu Samphan, Hou Yuon, and Hu Nim -- later became leaders of the Khmer Rouge. In 1963 he announced the nationalization of banking, foreign trade, and insurance in a socialist experiment that dried up foreign investment and alienated the right wing.

In foreign relations, Sihanouk pursued a policy of neutrality and nonalignment during the 1950s and 1960s. He accepted United States economic and military aid, but he also promoted close relations with China and attempted to keep on good terms with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The principal objectives of his foreign policy were to preserve Cambodia's independence and to keep the country out of the widening conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Relations with Washington grew stormy in the early 1960s. In 1963 the prince rejected further United States aid, and, two years later, he severed diplomatic relations.

By the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia's eastern provinces were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong (NVA/VC) forces operating against South Vietnam, and the port of Sihanoukville was being used to supply them. As NVA/VC activity grew, the United States and South Vietnam became concerned, and in 1969, the United States began a series of air raids against NVA/VC base areas inside Cambodia.

The Khmer Republic faced not only North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat units but also an effective, homegrown communist movement that grew more lethal as time went on. The Cambodian communists, whom Sihanouk had labeled Khmer Rouge, traced their movement back to the struggle for independence and the creation in 1951, under Vietnamese auspices, of the Kampuchean (or Khmer) People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP). During the early 1960s, however, a group of Paris-trained communist intellectuals, of whom the most important were Saloth Sar (known as Pol Pot after 1976), Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary, seized control of the party. They gradually purged or neutralized rivals whom they considered too subservient to Vietnam, and led an insurgency under the clandestine Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

Both the domestic and the international situations had deteriorated by the late 1960s. The increasingly powerful right wing challenged Sihanouk's control of the political system. Peasant resentment over harsh tax collection measures and the expropriation of land to build a sugar refinery led to a violent revolt in 1967 in the northwestern province of Batdambang (Battambang). The armed forces, commanded by General Lon Nol (who was also prime minister), quelled the revolt, but a communist-led insurgency spread throughout the country.

The spillover of the Second Indochina War (or Vietnam War) into the Cambodian border areas also was becoming a serious problem. Apparently one factor in Sihanouk's decision to reestablish relations with Washington in 1969 was his fear of further incursions by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.

In March 1970, Gen. Lon Nol and other right-wing leaders deposed Prince Sihanouk and assumed power. On October 9, the Cambodian monarchy was abolished, and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic. Hanoi rejected the new republic's request for the withdrawal of NVA/VC troops and began to re-infiltrate some of the 2,000-4,000 Cambodians who had gone to North Vietnam in 1954. They became a cadre in the insurgency.

After the March 1970 coup d'état that toppled Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge formed a united front with the ousted leader, a move that won them the goodwill of peasants who were still loyal to the prince. The insurgency continued to grow, with supplies and military support provided by North Vietnam. But inside Cambodia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their dominance over the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were purged. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge forces became stronger and more independent of their Vietnamese patrons.

The United States moved to provide material assistance to the new government's armed forces, which were engaged against both the Khmer Rouge insurgents and NVA/VC forces. In April 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying NVA/VC base areas. Although a considerable quantity of equipment was seized or destroyed, NVA/VC forces proved elusive and moved deeper into Cambodia. NVA/VC units overran many Cambodian Army positions while the Khmer Rouge expanded their small scale attacks on lines of communication.

The Khmer Republic's leadership was plagued by disunity among its members, the problems of transforming a 30,000-man army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men, and spreading corruption. By 1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities. Despite massive United States aid to the newly proclaimed Khmer Republic and the bombing of North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge installations and troop concentrations in the countryside, the Phnom Penh regime rapidly lost most of the country's territory to the communists. In January 1975 communist forces laid siege to Phnom Penh, and in succeeding months they tightened the noose around the capital.

On New Year's Day 1975, communist troops launched an offensive that, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the Khmer Republic. Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route. A U.S.-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia.

On April 1, 1975, President Lon Nol left the country. Sixteen days later Khmer Rouge troops entered the city. Phnom Penh surrendered on April 17, 1975--5 days after the U.S. mission evacuated Cambodia. After a 5-year struggle, Communist forces, referred to broadly as the "Khmer Rouge," captured the evacuated all cities and towns. The forty-four months the Khmer Rouge were in power was a period of unmitigated suffering for the Khmer people. Although the severity of revolutionary policies varied from region to region because of ideological differences and the personal inclinations of local leaders, hundreds of thousands of people starved, died from disease, or were executed. "New people" (the intelligentsia and those from the cities--those new to the rural areas), being considered politically unreliable, were special targets of terror and of a harsh, unremitting regime of forced labor. In 1977 Pol Pot launched a bloody purge within the communist ranks that accounted for many deaths. At least 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, forced hardships, or starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot.

The slaughter of the Vietnamese minority living in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge's aggressive incursions into Vietnam led to fighting with Vietnam in 1977 and 1978. A December 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside. On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese captured Phnom Penh and began to establish the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). This began a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, and touched off almost 13 years of civil war. The Vietnamese sponsored government renamed the country as the People's Republic of Kampuchea from the Khmer Rouge regime's name of Democratic Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge fled to isolated corners of the country and resumed their guerrilla struggle, which continued in the late 1990s.

The 1991 Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, which were not fully respected by the Khmer Rouge initially. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy under a coalition government and ended a period of a UN transitional authority that had existed in the country since 1989. As part of the election results, a new constitutions was promulgated and the country was renamed once again as the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Factional fighting in 1997 ended the first coalition government, but a second round of national elections in 1998 led to the formation of another coalition government and renewed political stability. The remaining elements of the Khmer Rouge surrendered in early 1999.

Some of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders were tried or were awaiting trial for crimes against humanity by a hybrid UN-Cambodian tribunal supported by international assistance by the 2000s. The tribunal became the subject of numerous scandals and a focus of international criticism. Elections in July 2003 were relatively peaceful, but it took one year of negotiations between contending political parties before a coalition government was formed.

In October 2004, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne and his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, was selected to succeed him. Local elections were held in Cambodia in April 2007, with little of the pre-election violence that preceded prior elections. National elections in July 2008 were relatively peaceful.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:36 ZULU