History of Cambodia

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Carbon 14 dating of a cave at Laang Spean in north-west Cambodia reveals people who made pots were living in Cambodia as early as 4200 BC. Further archaeological evidence indicates that other parts of the region now called Cambodia were inhabited from around 1000-2000 BCE by a Neolithic culture. Cambodia certainly has an old history!

The history of Cambodia has been profoundly influenced by its location midway between the two great cultures of India and China. Indian traders brought their great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, their written languages, Sanskrit and Pali, and their sculpture and arts.

The Chinese brought their scholars and diplomats who were the first to record the emerging kingdoms of the Funan period. Eventually these disparate kingdoms were united under the reign of Jayavarman II and, Cambodia entered the golden age of Angkor.

Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a Devaraja (God king), the earthly representative of Shiva, in 802 and set about consolidating his kingdom. The capital settled at Angkor and from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the Khmer kings created the largest empire mainland South-east Asia has ever seen. At its height it stretched from the borders of modern-day Myanmar in the west to the Mekong Delta (now Viet Nam) in the east, from modern day Laos in the north to what is southern Thailand today. By the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late-12th century, Angkor had a population of almost one million when London was a city of just 40,000. However, disaster was lurking in the wings. Overpopulation, deforestation and siltation conspired to choke the vast hydraulic system that helped fuel and feed the empire. Religious rivalry and dynastic intrigue sparked small-scale civil wars and ascendant neighbours began to conquer the outposts. Siam sacked Angkor several times, but in 1431 there was to be no recovery. The Khmer kings decided to relocate the capital to the area around Phnom Penh, strategically safer and closer to the old trade routes that had created the empire.

Angkor Archaeological Park

Map of Angkor Archaeological Park

The period from the 15th to 19th centuries was a time of weakness and insecurity for Cambodia, as neighbouring Thailand and Viet Nam grew more powerful. Cambodia was in danger of disappearing from the map until the French entered in 1863 and made the country a protectorate. The French did little to develop Cambodia’s infrastructure during their 90 years of rule, but they did help the country to survive as a recognized entity and negotiated the successful return of Angkor and the western provinces from Siam (now Thailand).

Cambodia achieved independence in 1953 and enjoyed a long period of prosperity and stability. However, as the conflict in Viet Nam began to escalate, Cambodia found itself sucked into the vortex. Prince Sihanouk, who continuously maintained neutrality during the Viet Nam War, was overthrown in a coup in March 1970 and then the prime minister, Lon Nol, moved closer to the USA for support. The consequence of this internal political explosion and the escalating bombing of Cambodia led the country into a full scale civil war. It was a bloody conflict with thousands killed on both sides, including many victims of a secret US bombing campaign. Eventually the Khmer Rouge came to power on 17 April 1975 and embarked on one of the most radical and bloodiest revolutions the world has ever seen. Cities were evacuated, money abolished and clocks turned back to Year Zero in a complete break from the past. Cambodia became a prison without walls.

By the time the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in January 1979, millions of Cambodians were dead through execution, starvation, disease and overwork. The Cambodian resistance and their Vietnamese allies took Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 and set about rebuilding the shattered country. It was an almost impossible task due to a desperate famine and the geopolitics of the Cold War.

A new phase of civil war rumbled on until 1991, when the United Nations successfully negotiated a peace agreement. Free elections were held in 1993, which saw the Cambodian People’s Party and FUNCINPEC form a coalition that has continued in one form or another until today. Cambodia became a member of ASEAN in 1999 and joined the WTO in 2005.

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