A Brief History of Cambodia

Today marks the 37th anniversary of the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge forces. As such, I have a day off work and decided to recycle an essay I initially wrote to be included in my Masters thesis. It never appeared in its entirety so I decided to publish it here. I hope you enjoy, or at least find informative, my brief history of Cambodia.

Happy Victory Day!

Cambodia is an ancient civilisation whose borders once spread far further than they do today. The Khmer Empire was unified in the ninth-century AD by Jayavarman II and by the fourteenth-century the then capital, Angkor, was the largest city in the world with a population of almost one million. Angkor Wat, the most famous of the country’s ancient shrines, was built in the early twelfth-century and enchants over one million tourists annually. During a visit to Cambodia in 1295 and 1296, thirteenth-century Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan described Cambodians harvesting three or four crops per year, implying extensive irrigation systems and farming networks. The Angkor empire began to decline in the fifteenth-century, probably as a result of vast population growth which the country’s natural environment was unable to support. Cambodian territory was quickly lost to their Siamese and Vietnamese neighbours and the country shrank drastically in size. Cambodia once again became dependent on the elements as the irrigation systems fell into disrepair so the best the rural population could hope for was one rice crop per year.

Wars between Thailand and Vietnam battling for control over Cambodia plagued the country, leading King Norodom to sign a treaty with France in 1863, exchanging protection for natural resources. However, the king was reluctant to follow French orders, despite their support in quashing Vietnamese invasions, and failed to fulfil many of the treaty’s conditions. Norodom’s successor, King Sisowath, helped the French evict the last of the Thais in the early twentieth-century. Only then was slavery abolished, a promise Norodom had made in 1863. In 1935 the first high school was built in Phnom Penh although its students were predominantly children from privileged homes, including the Royal family. Several other high schools were built subsequently, all in Phnom Penh. Each year, a few dozen students were sent to study in Paris, in the hope they would return to Cambodia to play key roles in the French colonial government.

One of the students sent to Paris in 1949 was Saloth Sar whom the world now knows by his nom de guerre, Pol Pot. Pol Pot’s older sister was one of the king’s favourite concubine and this afforded him the opportunity to attend high school. Whilst in France he joined the communist movement and met numerous like-minded Cambodians, most of whom would become key members in the Khmer Rouge organisation upon their return to Cambodia:  Ieng Sary became Foreign Minister, Khieu Samphan became the President of State, and Son Sen became the Chief of Staff of Khmer Rouge forces. The only significant political figure to not study in Paris was Nuon Chea who became the party Deputy Secretary.

King Norodom Sihanouk achieved independence for Cambodia in 1953. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated and founded a political party, the People’s Socialist Community, leading the country as Prince Sihanouk until 1970. In 1965, Sihanouk cut ties with the US, partly in an attempt to keep Cambodia out of the Vietnam War, and instead turned to China for aid. An underground communist movement had begun to form since 1961 and Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, and So Phim formed the standing committee of the Khmer Communists as a national military uprising began in 1967. By 1970, they controlled almost 20 percent of Cambodia’s territory, mostly around their headquarters in the North East.

On 18 March 1970, a military coup led by Lon Nol ousted Sihanouk from power, who subsequently fled to Beijing. Sihanouk enjoyed huge support from the population as the patriarch who achieved independence for the country and there was outrage amongst Cambodians. As villagers marched on Phnom Penh in a demonstration against Lon Nol, the new head of state ordered his troops to open fire on hundreds of protestors who fled back to the countryside. Many demonstrators ran straight to join the Khmer Rouge. Mere weeks after the coup, Sihanouk announced he had allied himself with the Khmer Rouge to form the National United Front of Kampuchea. Upon hearing their revered leader profess his support for this little known group of activists, thousands of Cambodians left their villages and went into the jungle to join the Khmer Rouge movement.

Lon Nol rekindled the alliance with the US, giving permission to bomb Cambodian territory in an attempt to dislodge Viet Cong troops based on the Vietnam border. The devastation which these air raids brought upon the Cambodian countryside in the east pushed even more villagers to join the rebel forces in the jungle. Historians including David P. Chandler and Ben Kiernan have surmised that without Lon Nol’s coup and subsequent political decisions, the Khmer Rouge would never have achieved enough support to gain power.

Support for the Khmer Rouge grew steadily as living conditions under Lon Nol deteriorated. With support from Vietnamese communists, the countryside was gradually brought under Khmer Rouge control and their military might grew as they moved further south. On 17 April 1975, Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into Phnom Penh and easily captured the country’s capital with surprisingly little bloodshed. Lon Nol and his aides fled and the country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea. Over the next few days, the Khmer Rouge steadily emptied the city of its three million inhabitants. Phnom Penh was a ghost town as were the rest of Cambodia’s significant urban centres including Battambang, Siem Reap, Kompong Som (Sihanoukville), Pailin, and Kampot. Despite soldiers’ reassurances that residents would return to their homes and lives within a few days, these cities would remain eerily deserted for the next three years, eight months and twenty days.

Cambodia was now under new management but information about who was really in charge was sparse and confusing. Some knew the name Pol Pot but Saloth Sar’s true identity was only uncovered in the 1980s. Throughout Cambodia, Khmer Rouge cadre rounded up the local population and forced them to work the land. Treatment of the population varied according to who was in charge of the specific Zone. For example Ta Mok, Brother Number Five, had a fearsome reputation in the South West Zone whereas the Eastern Zone under So Phim was notably more lenient. Despite inconsistencies, several directives were implemented throughout the country. Everyone had to work: men and women were separated into different work groups (krom), children over the age of five were put to work, and the elderly were charged with caring for the youngest children. The whole country was to be harvested: rice was planted in every available plot and forests were felled to create more agricultural land. Eating and living became a communal affair with ownership of anything prohibited. Money was abolished and family was replaced by “Angkar” or “The Organisation”. Relationships between men and women were strictly policed and marriages were usually arranged by, and had to be approved by, Angkar.

Throughout all this dramatic change, Pol Pot remained a mysterious figure, shrouded in confusion and myth. The ill-informed population were afraid to speak up after witnessing brutal attacks on their fellow villagers who had dared to defy the new command structure. Soldiers of the Lon Nol regime were killed instantly, often along with their entire family, and those who were well educated also found their lives endangered. The regime was paranoid and regularly purged its members, many of whom passed through Tuol Sleng, a former high school in Phnom Penh which had been turned into a torture centre under the command of Kang Kek Lew (alias Duch). Only seven men are known to have survived the place because after prisoners confessed to various crimes, usually under torture, they were transported to Choeung Ek killing field were they were murdered and buried in mass graves.

Despite Cambodia being turned into an immense agricultural machine powered by eight million slaves, rice rations depleted steadily throughout the regime. Dock workers stationed at Kompong Som, Cambodia’s primary port, recall seeing vast shipments of rice being sent from the coast daily, mostly to China but also to North Korea and some as far as Yugoslavia. As Khmer Rouge leaders sold the fruits of the population’s labour and strengthened themselves militarily though an improved relationship with China, the masses steadily starved, hundreds dying daily of malnourishment and diseases their bodies were too frail to fight without access to appropriate health care. Those caught stealing food, even children, were usually killed. An entire country lived in fear, worked to exhaustion, and starved until they were so weak they were unable to do anything but struggle to survive.

In many ways, the fall of the regime was self-inflicted. Pol Pot overestimated his military strength and throughout 1978 launched a series of attacks along the Vietnam border as he attempted to reclaim areas of the Mekong Delta. These attacks eventually sparked retaliation and Vietnam invaded on 25 December 1978. The Khmer Rouge attempted to defend their territory but without the support of the population, they had little choice but to flee to the jungles. On 7 January 1979, after meeting very little resistance during their advance, Phnom Penh was occupied by Vietnamese troops. Remaining Khmer Rouge loyalists ran west towards the Thai border along with many locals who feared the Vietnamese soldiers and wanted to escape: some made it to refugee camps in Thailand, others were recruited into the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia had been liberated but the country lay ruined. The Vietnamese and Cambodians are ancient enemies and many locals were apprehensive about their saviours’ presence. Hundreds of thousands of refugees headed to Thailand, filling border camps and attempting to relocate to any western country. The daily running of Cambodia was taken over Vietnam, much to the dismay of the US. In 1985, the Vietnamese placed Hun Sen in the position of Prime Minister where he remain to this day.

In 1989 Khmer Rouge forces captured Pailin and secured it as the organisation’s stronghold. Pailin is a city on the Thai border, rich in natural resources, specifically lumber and gemstones, the exportation of which allowed the Khmer Rouge to continue funding their military operations. On 23 October 1991 the four political factions within Cambodia, Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh, Son Sann, and the Khmer Rouge, signed the Paris Peace Accords whose conditions included an immediate ceasefire, the demobilisation of the armies, the repatriation of almost 400,000 refugees, and national elections held by mid-1993. The signing did little to improve conditions within Cambodia. In 1992 the United Nations became involved in their most ambitious mission to date, attempting to rebuild infrastructure, establish democracy, and defeat the few Khmer Rouge soldiers believed to remain active. The military strength and numerical superiority of the Khmer Rouge soldiers was vastly underestimated however and the UN failed to remove the continued threat. The mission was abandoned for cost issues and Cambodia became irrelevant to the western world once more.

From 1997 factions began to show between remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers, mostly living in their stronghold Pailin, and many were murdered by their former comrades. In 1998 Pol Pot died peacefully in his home and in 1999 the last of the active Khmer Rouge soldiers were arrested. Some were imprisoned and after extensive deliberation the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was established to bring justice to notable perpetrators. The rest of the Khmer Rouge soldiers simply slipped back into normal life as if nothing had happened.

For over a decade, Cambodia witnessed fierce political fights, primarily between Hun Sen, Prince Ranariddh, and Sam Rainsy. In 2006 Prince Ranariddh was voted out of the Funcinpec political party and Hun Sen became the undisputed leader. Corruption within Cambodia is seen as an accepted part of life with vast quantities of international aid money and supplies disappearing annually without explanation. With more NGOs than any other country, thousands of well meaning people battle the system daily, attempting to offer support and aid to those with no legal rights or support. Despite being freed from an oppressive regime over thirty years ago, conditions today can be equally as harsh and unforgiving for the country’s poor. However as the US Ambassador for Cambodia from 1999 to 2002 Kent Wiedemann stated “we don’t have any major national interests here” and therefore the western world has only made a limited effort to assist. Significant amounts of assistance which does arrive never reaches those whom it was intended to help.

Categories: Awareness, Cambodia, change, Corruption, Expat, Genocide, History, Khmer Rouge, NGO, phnom penh, USA, Vietnam, war | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Cambodia

  1. Reblogged this on Siem Reap Mirror.


  2. Well, in all honesty, not all the NGOs would be easy to classify as “well meaning people” who battle the system. More often than not they are pretending to be “well meaning people” who are actually abusing the system. Speaking of corruption – it takes two to “dance”. If the government is corrupt (and it doubtlessly is) then question is – who is corrupting it. The answer is very often – foreign and domestic NGOs. Government made attempts to follow UNICEF recommendations regarding orphanages housing children that actually have parents (75% of children in Cambodian orphanages actually have parents) and who practically stopped it? – Well, NGOs and “charities” mainly from foreign countries.
    Problem is not that the “west” does not assist enough – it is actually probably assisting too much – in case of orphanages: why care about family planning when you can just give your children to some of the orphanages that are all over Cambodia?

    From resident of Cambodia (5 years)


    • Thanks for reading and commenting on this blog and I agree with what you are saying. I wrote this two years ago and have since spent a lot more time in Cambodia. I probably should have changed the overly generous comment about NGOs as I know there are far too many dubious organisations operating here. The corrupt nature of the country, too, is something which is undeniably influenced by western involvement and stems from the UN intervention in 1992.
      As someone who works in an orphanage, I know only too well the scams which are happening in other organisations and try to avoid using the “o” word when I talk about my work now. People almost assume it is a scam now, even though it isn’t in our case.
      The question is however, would Cambodia be better off if the west backed off? If the NGOs pulled out tomorrow, who would provide shelter and food to vulnerable members of society? Who would provide free schooling? Who would work with the underprivileged to try and offer them better chances in life? Regardless of some NGOs corrupt and, at times, abhorrent behaviour, the good ones are undeniably providing services which would not exist if they were not present.


  3. Isabel Moritz

    All very interesting – and the comment above. Better understanding of the challenges and influences is essential when considering where to put aid. Thanks Ruth.


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