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A brief history of Cambodia

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started.

During the 1 st century AD, as the lands of northern Vietnam came increasingly under the domination of China, to the south the Kingdom of Fu-nan sprung up. Centred around the seaport capital of Oc-eo on the southern coast near the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. Fu-nan’s success can be attributed to a flourishing of international trade. Oc-eo acted as a central port in the global sea trade network, linking China with the Indian Subcontinent, The Middle East and ultimately Roman Europe. The decline of Fu-nan came with a shift in sea trade to the islands of Java, Sumatra and The Moluccas - and to the rise of the Khmer Empire in the north.

By the 9 th century, Jayavarnam II had fully united the Khmer people and established his capital at Angkor. Over the next three to four hundred years the Khmer Empire at Angkor flourished, expanding westward into Thailand and reaching its highest point in the 12 th century under Suriyavarman II. During this period a massive program of building was undertaken, by the now ‘god–kings’, at Angkor. This can still be seen today in the magnificent temple ruins at Angkor.

There followed a decline in the fortunes of the Angkorean kings. The increased migration westwards of Thai-speaking settlers from China, brought about by the Mongol invasion of China led to a gradual loss of land to the Thais. By 1431 the Thais had sacked Angkor, with the city being abandoned to the jungle and the capital moved to Phnom Penh. Again in 1594 the Thais sacked the capital of the now Cambodian Kingdom, and but for a brief resurgence in Cambodian fortunes in the 17 th century the kingdom progressively fell under the sway of the Thais. This was aided by the constant aggression of the Vietnamese to the east.

As colonial powers increased their interest in Southeast Asia the French moved into Vietnam and by 1859 had taken Saigon. As a result of their domination of Vietnam the French automatically claimed the right to Cambodia and by 1867 Siam had given up its claim on Cambodia and it became a French Protectorate.

The French continued their dominance of Indochina, with the exception of Japanese rule during World War II. With the defeat of the Japanese the French reoccupied Indochina until 1953 when Cambodia won its independence from the French.

King Norodom Sihanouk, crowned in 1941, led the way to independence, and soon after became the countries political leader, having resigned as king in favour of his father Suramarit. Sihanouk’s skilful diplomacy, popular brand of nationalism, support for the Buddhist hierarchy, and Cold War neutrality kept him in power right through to 1970. However Sihanouk’s eventual fall out with the Americans over its Vietnam policy, and his turning a blind eye to the use of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, as part of the Ho Chi Min trail, led to an American backed coup in 1970. Sihanouk went into exile in China and his former Prime Minister General Lon Nol took control. North Vietnam’s increased military support for the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist opposition party, and its armed struggle against the government, led to repeated appeals by Lon Nol for assistance from the Americans and South Vietnamese. Eventually the Americans sent troops into Cambodia and started a heavy bombing campaign. This only served to unite the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk against Lon Nol and by 1975 the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, had taken complete control of the country, sending Sihanouk into exile again.

Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, now set about eradicating all vestiges of the old Cambodia. 1975 became ‘year zero’ and he was now known as ‘brother number one’. All private property was nationalised, money was abolished, Buddhism banned, western medicine rejected and education looked down upon. The Cambodian people were forced to live in communes and to work the land in an attempt to create a kind of rural peasant utopia. Phnom Penh’s 2 million inhabitants were forcibly relocated to the county side to act as peasant workers in the fields. Worse than this was the wholesale extermination of all that didn’t fit in to this ideal. The old ruling and professional class were deemed collaborators with the west, hunted down and executed or exiled. Educated people like teachers, doctors and scientists, or anyone deemed to be soft or from a non-manual background were also ruthlessly hunted down to be tortured and murdered. Any peasants who resisted this collectivisation, or those deemed ideologically suspect, were also killed. During Pol Pot’s four-year reign of terror it is thought that over a million lost their lives - about half by execution and the rest by starvation or illness.

By 1979, more moderate communists, led by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, persuaded Vietnam to invade Cambodia and liberate the country from Pol Pot. Quickly taking control of Phnom Penh, the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia fighting the Khmer Rouge and supporting Heng Samrin’s and Hun Sen’s much more moderate communist Government. During the 80’s the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk - who again returned from exile - formed an unlikely alliance to fight against the Vietnamese. They were backed by Thailand and China and indirectly supported by the US. Eventually in 1989 the Vietnamese army pulled out - due mainly to economic difficulties at home - and left Hun Sen with little option than to start negotiations with his rivals.

By 1991 an agreement was finally reached and Cambodia looked forward to elections in 1993. The results of the elections reinstalled Sihanouk as king and his son, Ranariddh, who led his Funcinpec Party to victory, but was forced to form a coalition government with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. Hun Seng’s complete control of the police and army along with his reluctance to share power, led to a coup in 1997, which forced Ranariddh into exile. The international community renegotiated the Prince’s return but Hun Sen won more than half the seats in the assembly and forced Ranariddh into a coalition government firmly controlled by Hen Sen - as it remains today.

During the 80’s and 90’s the Khmer Rouge continued its armed struggle against the government, confined mostly to the north of the country. But in 1997, unhappy with his continued insistence on armed resistance, military commander Ta Mok overthrew Pol Pot and imprisoned him. Afraid of being handed over to the international community Pol Pot committed suicide in 1998 and by the end of that year the Khmer Rouge finally laid down its weapons and acknowledged the government in Phnom Penh.

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