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The Story of Cambodia

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

The story of Cambodia is quite old - archaeological evidence of caves of stone working people date back to 4000 BC. The first urban civilization came into existence in what is now southern Vietnam. They established their capital in Angkor Borei and traded with India and China. This trade with India started a process of ‘Indianization’ whereby elements of Hindu culture, Sanskrit and Buddhism was absorbed by this civilization (referred to as a Funan by the Chinese) and this continued when the Khmer Empire was founded in 802 A.D. by Jayavarman II (who apparently was crowned by a Brahmin priest). The use of the Sanskrit suffix “-varman” by Khmer kings is a testimony to this process, and when Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century, the monument was dedicated largely to the Hindu god Vishnu (protector of creation).

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The Indianization and the process of building temples was more of governance tool used by the Khmer Kings as devotion to Gods for whom they built temples created a strong and loyal following. This process interestingly is not limited to Cambodia but other parts of the region as well. The Khmer empire gained strength and expanded to the now north eastern Thailand, southern Laos and southern Vietnam. But over the years Hinduism saw a decline and rise of Buddhism started from 13th century and most Cambodians converted to Theravada Buddhism leading to the era of stone temples.

Bayon Temple - Angkor Thom

In the 14th century several Theravada kingdom started to break away from the empire and around the same time Thai army attacked Angkor and because of this Angkor was partially abandoned and the capital was moved closer to Phnom Penh. Vietnam also started slow encroachment of Cambodian territory. For the next 500 years, frequent wars continued between Thailand and Vietnam over Cambodia. This prompted King Norodom to invite the French (who had colonized southern Vietnam) to set up a protectorate in Cambodia in1863. The French eventually made it into a colony and exploited the country’s natural resource. During this time, they laid the first, roads, railways and rubber plantations, but did little else that benefitted the country. Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953 after a royal crusade launched by Prince Norodom Sihanouk who had been crowned by the French as the 19 year old king during World War II.

However post-independence Sihanouk gave up his throne and started a political party and ruled Cambodia for many years without any opposition. Pol Pot and his communist party (Khmer Rouge), notorious for the genocide in Cambodia had little support or power at the time. However, around 1968, the war in Vietnam started to spill over in Cambodia and following a pro-American military coup Sihanouk was overthrown. He however joined hands with Khmer Rouge, North Vietnam and China and what ensued for the next 5 years is the Cambodian civil war. In 1975, Khmer Rouge fighters invaded and took over the capital city of Phnom Penh, thereby winning the war against the military. But the Khmer Rouge decided not to restore power to Sihanouk, but instead to Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot. Prince Norodom was forced to live in exile.

What happened next is the most disturbing time of the Cambodian history. Pol Pot who was an admirer of farming tribes of rural northeast Cambodia because their self-sufficiency and lack religious (Buddhism) affiliations. He embarked on a mission to re-create this rural, agricultural and self-sufficient Cambodia. He renamed the country to Kampuchea, declared the year 1975 as ‘Year Zero’, abolished the country’s currency and made it illegal to own private property or practice religion. He also forced hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers into rural farming and executed thousands of intellectuals or even those appearing to be intellectuals (wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language). Special centres were established in the cities to carry out this torture and execution and the most notable is the Tuol Sleng jail (formerly a school) in Phnom Penh, where nearly 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned. Workers on the farms overseen by Khmer Rouge guards also died of overwork, abuse, starvation and disease. An estimated 2.2 million people died during what became known as the Cambodian Genocide.

Restored stone sculptures from Angkor Thom

Then in 1979 the Vietnamese Army of around 100,000 invaded Cambodia and got rid Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from power (but they continued to remain active as an insurgency). Vietnam established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) and stationed 200,000 troops in the country and therefore managed to get normalcy back- reintroducing currency, opening schools and reviving Buddhism.

A Buddhist monk in Angkor Wat

It withdrew troops in 1989. Then in 1991, the temporary UN protectorate was established, and this saw the repatriation of Khmers from Thailand, and the general elections were held which was won by the royalists. Sihanouk was crowned as the King again and foreign minister (Hun Sen) from PRK took up the position of the Prime Minister in 1993.

Pol Pot who lived in the rural northeast of the country was never brought to justice and died in 1998. The harrowing regime is depicted in films like ‘First they killed my father’ 2017 and ‘The killing fields’, 1984.


DK Eyewitness travel- Cambodia and Loas

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