Though peace has returned to Cambodia, polar extremes best typify the country’s history, with brilliant artistic and cultural developments balanced by some of the most brutal genocide the world has ever seen. For a country of its size, Cambodia is a land of contrasts, with a beach studded coastline in the south, mountains where tigers still roam in the west and north, and a vast river system that has created the Tonle Sap Lake, which nourishes the country with water during the long dry months. With a strengthening domestic economy, standard of living is steadily rising; bringing hope and optimism back to the people.
Like many cultures in Asia, Cambodians have a story that details their origins as a nation: legend has it that a Cambodian princess married an Indian Brahman with whom she ruled over a kingdom that was named Kambuja, forming the nation that would someday be responsible for constructing Angkor Wat. Prehistoric ruins in Cambodia are rare, though it is believed caves were inhabited in the country’s north as long as 6,000 years ago (4,000 BC). Cambodia’s real development began with seafront trading outposts established by India in the country, which introduced the language, religion, and governmental structure, most of which remain to this day as
The largest of these was Bnam, which is Khmer for mountain; with direct links to China, the city was known there are Funan. From the 1st to 6th centuries AD, Funan flourished, spreading Indian culture deep into the country, worshipping both Buddhist and Hindu deities (Shiva and Vishnu, for example). The advancement in wet rice cultivation (with assistance from India), better canals were built, and the population shifted away from the coast towards the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. For the next two hundred years, several powerful kingdoms battled for power, with governmental systems mirroring the Indian style. This period has become known as the Chenla Period, (again, a Chinese term) with the country eventually coming under the rule of just one kingdom, Angkor.
Near the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake, the Angkor Empire was established. This lake floods heavily during the rainy season, providing plenty of irrigation water to sustain tens of thousands of people. This helped pave the way for massive population growth. It was Jayavarman II who was successful in uniting the Cambodian nation in 802 AD, and beginning the creation of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Angkor. At the time, Angkor was the most populous on earth, with an estimated one million inhabitants, and what remains today outside of the modern town of Siem Reap, is just a tiny fraction of the enormous city that once stood there. Commoners were not allowed to live in houses of stone or brick, which were decreed fit only for the gods, and lived in houses of carved wood instead. Angkor Wat and the Bayon were built, vast irrigation systems (some still visible from space) and a rich tradition of dance, writing and art developed.
In the 11th century, Cambodia stretched to its greatest size, before a sharp decline that began in the 15th century, that would spell the end of this great civilization, sparked by deforestation and silting of the waterways, forcing residents to seek food elsewhere; and with the Thais, who defeated the Cambodian
empire when the royal court moved south in the 16th century, to Phnom Penh.
In 1864, around the time Vietnam came under French rule, Cambodia followed suit, with a French protectorate formed over the country, followed 15 years later with the country becoming a colony of France. French rule continued through the beginning of the 20th century, though Vietnam was a more important source of raw materials and income from taxes. At the end of World War II, King Norodom Sihanouk took the throne, and in 1953, after decades of instability brought on by the turmoil of World War II, Cambodia was declared an independent nation. Sihanouk stepped down from the throne, and promoted his People’s Socialist Communist Party, that would remain involved in Cambodian politics for the next decade and a half.
In the 1960’s, Cambodia was increasingly involved in the growing war in Vietnam, because Sihanouk believed that the USA, Thailand and South Vietnam were working against his country’s interests; he allowed North Vietnamese troops access to transport links in Cambodia. In 1970, while in France, Sihanouk was removed from office, replaced by a government led by Lon Nol.
In the early 1970’s, the United States started a secret bombing campaign to eliminate Communist guerrillas taking shelter in the country. The large amounts of casualties helped build public support for the Khmer Rouge, active in the rural areas, recruiting and spreading their message of revolt against Lon Nol. Fighting began to spread across the country, as the death toll mounted from the US bombing campaigns, by March 1975, the country had collapsed, taken over by the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, ‘Brother Number 1,’ who turned back the clock to ‘Year Zero’ where all cities and towns were emptied of inhabitants, sending everyone to the countryside to do agricultural work. Intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, even those who wore spectacles, were suspected of being linked to the Lon Lol regime, and Cambodia’s past, and were executed en masse, in what was to become one of the most murderous rampages only seen since in the genocide that affected Rwanda in 1994.
Over the next three years, Cambodia became so unstable that the Vietnamese stepped in, and in 1978, invaded the country and established a pro-Hanoi government led by Hun Sen. The Khmer Rouge collapsed, though factions melted into the country’s thick jungle, where they waged a campaign of sneak attacks for the next 15 years. A humanitarian crisis developed, with thousands of Cambodians fleeing to Thailand, where camps along the border overflowed with arrivals. In 1989, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, leaving the
country under the control of UNTACV (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) who was to supervise free and fair elections. A coalition government was formed in 1993, which lasted through the 1990’s as the country gradually began to see increased foreign investment