Cambodia’s very early history is somewhat vague as there are few studies of the country’s prehistory and dating of very early settlements is inaccurate. There is evidence that people were using stone tools and living in caves around 4 000 BC and rice is believed to have been cultivated in the area now known as Cambodia since before the 1st century AD.
The roots of the modern day Cambodian culture are generally believed to have started in the 1st to the 6th century AD as part of a state called Funan. This state was a mixture of many influences and considered to be the oldest “Indianised” state in Southeast Asia. Early Cambodian ancestors are also thought to have come from Bangladesh where this culture mixed with Chinese influences.
The language evolved and the unique Khmer alphabet developed being influenced by its Indian roots along with Sanskrit. Religious beliefs and practises were influenced by the ancient religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Early civilisations were concentrated around the Tonlé Sap Lake and River and the Mekong River down to the delta on the coast in what is now known as southern Vietnam.
Funan was eventually surpassed by the rise of the Angkor Empire in around 800 AD and for the next 600 or so years powerful Khmer kings ruled much of what we know as present-day Southeast Asia. There was a succession of 26 monarchs ruling during this period and they were responsible for the construction of the great temples in and around Angkor for which it is now famous around the world.
The following 400 years saw the decline of the Angkor Empire under a succession of weak kings and hostile “protection” from the Thais to the West and the Vietnamese to the East. The capital of Cambodia changed periodically as parts of the country were incorporated into these two states as borders changed.
In 1863 the French signed an agreement with the Cambodian king and the country became a protectorate of the French who were expanding their influence in Indochina. This halted the carving up of Cambodia by its two neighbours.
The following century saw France effectively ruling Cambodia. They even had the final say in selecting the Cambodian kings. They gradually developed a Cambodian civil service – similar to that of the French one, built roads, port facilities and other public works. They also restored the Angkor temple complex and deciphered Angkorean inscriptions which gave Cambodians a clear idea of their medieval history and a pride in their past. Phnom Penh, which had become the capital of the country, resembled a French provincial town.
In 1907 they pressurized the Thais into returning the north-western provinces they had occupied back to Cambodia. These were annexed again during the Second World War and returned – again – to the Cambodians in 1947.
The First Indochina War occurred from 1946-1954 as nationalist groups tried to win independence from France. Much of the fighting took place in Vietnam. It was during this time that King Sihanouk was able to secure Cambodia’s independence through peaceful negotiation and the Geneva Accord of 1954 – which marked the end of the First Indochina War – acknowledged Sihanouk’s government as the sole legitimate authority in Cambodia.
This new state of peaceful independence didn’t last for long, however, as tensions in the region were ramped up due to the Communist, Russian supported, North Vietnamese and the United States supported South Vietnamese. Cambodia was caught in the middle of this escalating tension and conflict and Sihanouk attempted to remain neutral in all of this.
It was much easier said than done and amid all the tension in the region he was deposed in March 1970 by the National Assembly while out of the country by forces led by the Prime Minister General Lon Nol. In October of that year Lon Nol inaugurated the Khmer Republic which was dominated by the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) which Sihanouk – now in exile in China – called the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers).
Five years later the Khmer Republic collapsed and the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh. Three weeks later North Vietnamese forces defeated South Vietnam. The fallout from the Vietnamese War had severely damaged the Cambodian nation’s infrastructure, the countryside and seen many casualties amongst the Cambodian people.
The Communist Guerrilla Force (Khmer Rouge) were organized by one: Saloth Sar – who had taken on the pseudonym Pol Pot. Most of his followers were uneducated farm boys who despised people in towns and cities – particularly the educated. In 1975 they overthrew General Lon Nol and established a regime that would rule the country until early 1979. They renamed the country “Democratic Kampuchea”.
They forced all the city dwellers into the countryside to essentially become slaves on the farms working 12 to 15 hours a day seven days a week. They also set about killing nearly 1,7 million people – more than one-fifth of the country’s population. Most of these were educated people: teachers and lecturers, merchants, bureaucrats and members of religious groups. Religion, freedom of speech and movement were all banned and the Khmer Rouge controlled all news, information and access to food.
All of this took place in the very short period of only three years, eight months and 20 days – the time the Khmer Rouge ruled the country!
Pol Pot’s aggression towards Vietnam was his eventual undoing. He had launched attacks on Vietnam and also attempted to take back the land around the Mekong River delta. On Christmas Day 1978 the Vietnamese launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia and two weeks later Pol Pot and his remaining supporters fled from Phnom Penh for the north-western mountains along the Thai border – taking refuge in the jungles there.
Agriculture – largely the planting of rice – had been badly neglected during the rule of the Khmer Rouge and what followed was mass starvation. Hardly a family in Cambodia remained untouched by the awful atrocities that had gone on under the Khmer Rouge. Families had been split up and torn apart.
The Khmer Rouge had been forced across the border into Thailand by the Vietnamese forces. Both sides laid many thousands of land mines and Cambodians continued to die from starvation, disease and land mine injuries.
Pol Pot eventually died on 15 April 1998 in his early seventies.
In October 1991 an uneasy truce was negotiated between Cambodia’s warring factions, the United nations and a number of interested foreign countries. Elections were held in May 1993 under the auspices of the United Nations and a three party coalition formed a government headed by two Prime Ministers. Four months later the government ratified a new constitution restoring the monarchy establishing the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanouk became King for the second time.