We went Cambodia with the intention of learning about Cambodia's rich but distant past - it was the heart of South-east Asia in the 9th through 13th centuries. But after a week in the country we had both become much more interested in Cambodia's tragic recent history.
Much of the information in these pages is derived from the excellent "Cambodia, report from a stricken land" (Arcade books) by former New York Times Southeast Asia correspondent Henry Kamm.
Despite UN-supervised elections in 1993, the future of the country still looks very bleak, as you will see in this brief chronology of Cambodia. For more detail on Cambodia's recent past, read "Cambodia, report from a stricken land" (Arcade books) by former New York Times Southeast Asia correspondent Henry Kamm. As you read the chronology below, keep in mind the fact that Cambodia is sandwiched between two relatively powerful neighbors: Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east.
In the Funan era (first to sixth centuries AD) the trading route between India and China included a port of call at Funan which was then part of Cambodia and is now in southern Vietnam. Indian influence flowed through this port into Cambodia which embraced the Hindu deities known as Vishnu and Shiva.
The Angkor era began in 802 when Jayavarman II declared himself a god king.
King Indravarman (reigned 877-889) ordered the construction of temples at Ruluos and also the irrigation of the area. The irrigation was very sophisticated and would one day serve a million people. Note that in the text below the kings' reigns are given rather than their lifetimes.
Yasovarman I (889-910) moved the royal court from Ruluos to Angkor and constructed the Phnom Bakheng temple on top of the only hill in the area (Phnom is Khmer for "hill").
A power vacuum formed and Suyavarman I moved in to fill it (1002-1049), unifying the kingdom again with alliances.
Conflicts began again in 1066 and the country was again unified under Suyavarman II who commissioned Angkor Wat. It's clear that the most productive building periods occurred just after periods of great turmoil, perhaps because kings were building to legitimize their rule.
The Chams of Vietnam invaded in 1177 with a naval attack up the Mekong and across the Tonlé Sap lake. They took Angkor and killed the king.
In the following year Suryarvarman's cousin defeated the Chams and was crowned in 1181 as Jayavarma VII. He built Angkor Thom (Angkor's walled city) and ordered many other public works. His enormous program of temple construction and other works, carried out in great haste, caused enormous hardship to his people and was also very costly - from this point onwards the Angkor era would decline. Also by this time the irrigation system had become overloaded and and all the local sandstone used for temple construction had already been quarried. Furthermore, Buddhism was introduced in the 13th century and would gradually displace Hinduism, sidelining the Hindu temples of Angkor.
The Thai kingdom of Ayudhya gained strength as Angkor waned and the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, forcing the Khmer elite to migrate to Phnom Penh, which became the new capital. The Khmers fought back and forced their way all the way to Ayudhya, only to find that it had already been taken by the Burmese. The Thais recovered and again went to war against the Khmers. The Khmer king Satha requested the assistance of the Spanish and Portuguese who had recently become active in the region but they arrived too late, after the Thais captured the Khmer capital in 1594. When the Spanish arrived and found usurper Chung Prei on the throne they killed him and installed Satha's son. But the Khmer court increasingly resented the Spanish influence and the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh was massacred in 1599. Satha's brother took over the throne with the backing of the Thais.
From 1600 to 1863 a series of weak kings could only maintain control of Cambodia by enlisting the help of neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. Help was given only at a price and Cambodia gave away to Vietnam the area that is now southern Vietnam, while the Thais gained control of areas in western Cambodia. Cambodia managed to survive as an entity, however, as Thailand was busy fighting Burma at the time and Vietnam was busy fighting itself.
In 1864 French gunboats forced king Norodom (1860-1904) into signing a treaty of protectorate. The French presence stopped further expansion by Cambodia's neighbors and helped keep Norodom on the throne. In fact the Norodom court in such splendor as had not been seen since the Angkor period.
In 1941 the French placed 19 year old prince Norodom Sihanouk on the throne - a big mistake for it turned out that Sihanouk was not as pliable as they had expected. (Norodom Sihanouk is still king now in 1999).
France gave Cambodia nominal autonomy after WWII but in fact remained in control. Infighting and instability due to the war in Laos and Vietnam began to increase. In 1953 King Sihanouk dissolved parliament, declared martial law and launched the Royal Crusade to drum up international support for his country's independence. His wish was granted less than a year later. In 1955 king Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father so that he could pursue politics - his party won ALL the parliamentary seats in the dubious 1955 election. Sihanouk was prime minister until 1960 and then became head of state. Mistrusting the USA and its "allies" Thailand and Southern Vietnam, he declared Cambodia to be neutral. Then, believing that the USA was plotting against him and his family, he decided to side with the Viet Cong, North Vietnam and China. Furthermore, he gave the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese permission to use Cambodian territory in their battle against the South Vietnamese and Americans. He was unpopular both with the his country's right wing (for siding with leftists) and also with the left wing for his repression of political dissent.
In 1969 the Americans began secretly bombing east Cambodia, killing untold thousands of Cambodians and displacing many more in their attempts to destroy Viet Cong bases there..
In 1970, while Sihanouk was in France, his General Lon Nol and Sihanouk's cousin took power, apparently with US support. Pogroms against ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia soon broke out, forcing many to flee. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing and set up a revolutionary movement which he nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. Later that year the Americans and South Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, seeking the Viet Cong based there. The Viet Cong retreated deep into Cambodia, destabilizing Lon Nol's government which was was further compromised by corruption and greed. Widespread fighting left hundreds of thousands dead in the period 1970-1975, but worse was yet to come.
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, engaged in a campaign to overthrow the Lon Nol regime and the strategy of attrition proved successful, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, 2 weeks before Saigon fell to the communists. The people of Phnom Penh were glad that that the war was over and that the corrupt Lon Nol government had been overthrown, but were stunned when the Khmer Rouge instructed them to immediately evacuate the city. So began the darkest period in Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge tried to turn the country into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative, just as Mao had disastrously tried to do in China a few years earlier, in the Cultural Revolution. Thus Cambodia cut itself off from the outside world completely and all city dwellers were force-marched to the countryside to perform slave labor for 12-15 hours per day. Currency, private property, western medicine, education and religious practice were abolished. More than two million people were exterminated over the next four years, including almost all intellectuals such as teachers, doctors and anyone who might have been influenced by foreign ideas. Even artists and spectacle-wearers were sought out and slaughtered. Torture centers were set up as the regime became increasingly paranoid about spying, even within its own ranks. And the Pol Pot years completely destroyed the moral values of Cambodians - even the deeply anchored Buddhist religion lost its moral content.
It is very rare for one communist country to attack another, but in 1978 the Khmer Rouge clashed with Vietnam, wanting to take back the Mekong delta region that was now southern Vietnam. This was a big mistake, for Vietnam launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia, taking Phnom Penh in 1979 and forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat into the mountains along the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a puppet government led by former Khmer Rouge member Hun Sen. The United Nations undertook a relief effort to avert the widespread famine that would have followed the deliberate destruction of rice fields during the war.
In 1982, Sihanouk, back in Beijing after several years under house arrest in Phnom Penh, agreed to lead a movement against the Phnom Penh government and formed a coalition uniting FUNCINPEC (a royalist group loyal to Sihanouk), the non-communist Khmer People's National Liberation Front and the Khmer Rouge. In 1985 this coalition was overrun and forced to retreat into Thailand. Thailand supported the Khmer Rouge through the 1980's, seeing them as a counterweight to the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition was also supported by China, Singapore, Malaysia and the USA (!).
In 1989 Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia and the coalition began a new offensive on Phnom Penh. A year later the Phnom Penh government and the coalition accepted a UN plan, the Paris Agreement, that led to elections in 1993. FUNCINPEC won 58 seats in the National Assembly and their Prince Norodon Ranariddh, Sihanouk's son, became first prime minister. The Cambodian People's Party, made up of communists and the previous Vietnamese-appointed government, lost the election with 51 seats but its leader Hun Sen threatened that the eastern provinces would secede from Cambodia and king Sihanouk, fearing civil war, promised Hun Sen that he would be granted the same power as Ranariddh. Thus Hun Sen became second prime minister. The Buddhist Liberal Democrats won 10 seats. Sihanouk is chosen to be king once again but, suffering from cancer and aware that he has little influence in Cambodia, he spends most of his time in China and North Korea.
In 1996-97 the Ranariddh-Hun Sen coalition breaks apart, with Hun Sen in a position of superior strength since he controls the countryside and the administration as he had done under the Vietnamese administration. Both sides seek the support of the Khmer Rouge but the enduring unity of the Khmer Rouge is giving way to factional fighting. Pol Pot has his defense minister and his family murdered and Pol Pot in turn is seized by his top military commander and imprisoned in a Khmer Rouge jungle encampment on the Thai border. On July 6 1997 Hun Sen stages a military coup d'état against his opponents - Ranariddh, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Son Sann. Their aides are murdered, their residences pillaged and all three seek exile. Hun Sen reestablishes the status quo that existed before the Paris Agreement. His communist People's Party is now in full control of Cambodia and he postpones elections due in May 98.
In April 98 Hun Sen's troops capture the last Khmer Rouge stronghold and Pol Pot dies.
In July 98 elections are held and Hun Sen and his party are elected but the elections are corrupt.
Thus Cambodia's tragedy has been continuous since its independence in 1953. First there was the authoritarian regime of Sihanouk then five years of war between the manic Khmer Rouge and the incompetent, American-supported Lon Nol. Next came the utter destruction of society during the four years of Khmer Rouge control, followed by the Vietnamese-imposed puppet government which has had uninterrupted power since 1979 despite the UN effort to allow the Cambodian people to change their sad destiny.
Henry Kamm, in the afterword of his book "Cambodia, report from a stricken land", says:
"Today's Cambodia is a basket case. It is a country that nourishes and barely teaches its ever-increasing people, nor does it bind its multiple wounds or cure its many ills. Its workers are exploited, its women ill-used, its children unprotected, its soil studded with treacherous landmines primed to kill. No equitable rule of law or impartial justice shelters Cambodians against a mean-spirited establishment of political and economic power, a cabal that is blind and deaf to the crying need of an abused people. Their leaders' passions are private: to expand their might and riches. Unlike most politicians elsewhere, they do not even profess high ideals that they then betray. The betterment of the lot of the people is rarely even the object of the customary lip service paid by holders of power all over the world. Cambodia's politicians scarcely pretend to serve the Cambodian people. [...]
The well-being of Cambodians, their constant struggle for food and shelter, health and education, is left in their own hands. Their government ignores their plight without apology. What little help and protection reaches Cambodians comes mainly from outside sources [... but] there is one fundamental need to which outsiders cannot minister - Cambodia's need of leaders, a class of politicians whose concern it is to guide their nation out of the depths of misery into which it was cast in 1970."
Cambodians seem to have lost hope for the future and can think only of the present and only of themselves. There is no savings and no investment. Wells that are no longer yielding water are abandoned, not repaired. Even around the beautiful villas that the nomenklatura of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party has built for itself the streets are not maintained and the rainy season flooding damages their Mercedeses...