Khmer History

—A Short History of Cambodia

The intention of this short history of Cambodia is to help those who are unfamiliar with Cambodia, to understand its history of civil unrest and the power struggle to control Cambodia which has resulted in much political instability. The conflict has cost millions of lives, and has left Cambodian people living with an uncertain future.


We all tend to focus on our own problems, and sometimes we do not want to get involved in other's affairs, as long as we can live in peace and comfort. For this reason, in addition to geographical distance, some people may know of Cambodia but probably do not know very much about its internal conflicts. Cambodia once was a huge empire at the peak of civilization in Southeast Asia, but now it has shrunk to a small country. Today, even the monuments of Angkor Wat that used to stand and testify to the greatness of Cambodia's culture and the national symbol are in ruin. An ancestral prophecy predicted that one day the unfortunate Khmer people will be forced to choose between being “eaten by tigers or swallowed by crocodiles.” Today we are seeing that prophecy fulfilled in the most tragic way possible. The Cambodian people are on the brink of extinction, dying a slow death, murdered in the name of dominant power in the region.

Building the road to tranquility for Cambodia might be impossible as long as China and Vietnam persist in dominating Cambodia for their own benefits. On the other hand from the past to the present the Cambodian leaders fail to make a compromise to share power with others in a democratic way, and most importantly the Cambodians themselves show inability of forgiving each other and the willingness to accept national reconciliation.

First, it is necessary to establish an understanding of Cambodia's background and her people. The name of the country has been changed many times in the past three decades. Today the country is known as Cambodia in English or Cambodge in French, and the people are called Cambodians. However, the Cambodian people prefer to be called Khmer which means “hill" (referring to the greatness and unity) as it is their original name. The country is known to Khmers as Kampuchea or Srok Khmer rather than Cambodia. On the contrary, Cambodia is well known to the world community.

The vast majority of Khmer people themselves belong to the Mon-Khmer ethnic group. The Khmer people are a mixture of various ethnic groups that have intermarried throughout the centuries. The Khmer civilization was dominated by the Hindu-Buddhist, kingdoms of Funan, and Chenla. In the late 6th and early 7th centuries, the Chenla kingdom established sovereignty over the Funan kingdom. Under the leadership of King Jaya-warman II and Suya-warman II, they built their capital in the Angkor region between the 9th and 12th centuries. The Khmer people are so proud of their ancestors that built one of the world's greatest monuments. Angkor Wat is sometimes called the eighth wonder of the world. Angkor Wat is a group of temples that consists of elaborately carved stone of pyramids and towers.

Throughout history, Cambodia has endured numerous civil wars and battles against its neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. Nonetheless, Cambodia also wanted to be a dominant state. In 1113, King Suya-warman II annexed the Champa kingdom to vassal status when the Cham (Muslim Cham) king did not want to cooperate in the campaign against the Vietnamese state farther north. Khmer leaders have always been in conflict about how to rule the country. Their domestic hostility with one another led to an accession of weak rulers that left Khmers exposed to threats from their neighbors.

From the 13th to the end of the 14th century, the repeated Thai incursions compelled Khmers to abandon their capital city of Angkor Wat, and Khmers were forced into slavery. Four hundred years later, it was recaptured. Then, the Angkor region was named as Siem Reap Province to remind all Khmers of how their ancestors suffered defeat by the Thais. Siem Reap means “Khmers living under Thai's repression.” With Japan backing them in 1940, the Thais seized Cambodia's north-western provinces.

In the early 17th century, King Chey Cheatha II wanted to build up friendship with Vietnam by marrying a Vietnamese princess. The Vietnamese rulers demanded the right for Vietnamese to settle in Kampuchea Krom. Kampuchea Krom is the lower part of Cambodia that lies along the Mekong River which once was Funan kingdom, and now is a large part of South Vietnam. Upon his wife's request, King Chey Cheatha II also allowed Vietnamese troops to be stationed in the Khmer town of Pery Nokor. Soon, Pery Nokor became the South Vietnamese's capital city of Saigon. King Chey Cheatha II was viewed by most Khmers as a traitor for his role in giving Cambodia's land for a Vietnamese wife.

For generations, Khmers are reminded not to forget Kampuchea Krom and the "Tek Te Ong" (grandfather tea). The grandfather tea is the name for the way the Vietnamese tortured and killed Khmers. They buried and burned them alive, using their heads as stoves to make tea. There is a saying, "the relationship between Vietnamese and Khmers is like mixing oil with water,” and Khmers should not abandon this lesson, for the Vietnamese will not give up their hypocrisy.

Historically, all Khmers leaders have always found ways to save Cambodia from being erased from the world map by either internal conflict or invasions. In 1841-1859, King Ang Duong pleaded with the French to save Cambodia from being absorbed by Vietnam and Thailand.

Under the leadership of King Norodom (Prince Norodom Sihanuk's forefather) in 1864, the political stability was restored with the establishment of a French Protectorate that lasted until after World War II. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Cambodia but left the French administration intact.

It was for an economic reason that in 1884, the French forced King Norodom at gun point to make Cambodia its colony. Instead of saving Cambodia from being swallowed up by Vietnam and Thailand, the French sliced up Khmer lands such as Kampuchea Krom and handed it over to Cambodia's former enemies. The French also brought Vietnamese settlers to take over the Khmer administration and economy.


In 1941 the French installed 18-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanuk on the Cambodian throne, so they could have influence over this young Prince. Unfortunately, Prince Sihanuk gave up his throne and united with other Khmer activists, agreeing that Cambodia should be freed from French colonization.

In 1954, Cambodia had claimed its independence from France and became a neutral and peaceful country. However, this peace was short lived. Between 1967 and early 1969, Prince Sihanuk struggled to keep the U.S -Vietnam war from engulfing Cambodia. The United States asked Sihanuk if he would allow the United States military to be stationed in Cambodia, to drive out the North (Communist) Vietnamese who had stayed inside Cambodia escaping the U.S bombardment. In return, the United States would help rebuild Cambodia but Sihanuk refused to cooperate.

On March18, 1970, General Lon Nol toppled Prince Sihanuk while the Prince was on foreign visits. Lon Nol accused Sihanuk of being aligned with communist China and North Vietnam, whereas Sihanuk accused Lon Nol of being power and money thirsty. "To survive, Lon Nol turned Cambodia's neutrality into anti-communism and Cambodia suddenly found herself trapped in an expanding war, both civil and foreign. Two months after Sihanuk was ousted, "the United States and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia to help Lon Nol" to drive out the North Vietnamese and Khmer communist revolutionaries known as Khmer Rouge.

On April17, 1975, the United States and its backed regime in Phnom Penh were defeated and the Khmer Rouge came to power. The Cambodians were hoping that they would again enjoy peace but that hope was completely dashed. People were evacuated from cities and personal rights were taken away. Even Prince Sihanuk himself, who joined the revolution after he was ousted in hope of regaining his one-man rule, was placed under house arrest.

During the so called "reign of terror", thousands of Cambodians were executed. They were killed either by starvation, illness or even political persecution if they were suspected to be linked with the Vietnamese, CIA or KGB. Some were probably killed by social class vengeance (poor against rich), or by Vietnamese agents, who wanted to undermine the Khmer Rouge government in an attempt to overthrow the regime. One thing was clear though, if people opposed "Ongka" (the authority of organization) they would face the death penalty. Many Cambodian leaders and the other leaders were also held responsible for the killings, but the Khmer Rouge was singled out because it was in charge. Years of misery were ended by Vietnam invasion. Nonetheless, all Cambodian governments in the past have perpetrated, in one way or another, some form of crimes against their own people where only the magnitude of the crimes varied.

For decades, Cambodia and Vietnam have been in dispute over land and borders. Vietnam is perceived by many Cambodians as a country that envies Cambodia's resources and prosperity. Just days after the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) government was formed in April 1975, Vietnam invaded Cambodia's sea and captured two islands, which were believed to be Cambodia's oil resources. Under the United Nations agreement, however, Vietnam was forced to retreat within 24 hours. In late 1977, Vietnam invaded the north-eastern part of Cambodia and demanded that land. At the same time, a group of pro-Vietnamese within the Democratic Kampuchea government attempted a coup, but it was crushed and the remaining plotters defected to Vietnam. For the sake of saving Cambodia from the "killing fields", Vietnam invaded Cambodia and installed those defectors as its puppet government. Ever since, Vietnam has been using the "genocidal Khmer Rouge" as an instrument for its 'fait-accompli' in Cambodia.

Most Cambodians appreciate this regime for bringing the Vietnamese to revive them. But after the military presence for 13 years and the relentless flow of Vietnamese settlers, they fear the "Vietnamization of Cambodia" through intermarriages, so that one day Cambodia may become a second Kampuchea Krom. Vietnamese leaders are thought to have a doctrine called “The Federation of Indochina.” This federation consists of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but Vietnam is in charge. Today, Laos is being Vietnamized because there is no anti-Vietnamese movement.

Due to the Khmer Rouge and its coalition's resistance, Vietnam failed to achieve its goals in Cambodia. This forced Vietnam to withdraw its troops from Cambodia in September 1989, so that the trade embargo could be lifted. Should the trade embargo be lifted and Hanoi opens its country to free enterprise, then Vietnam is bound to acquire a large degree of influence over Cambodia's economics this time, rather than political and military influence.

The socialists have always wanted to dominate Cambodia, whereas the capitalists feared the expansion of communism in the region. The struggle to have veto power, added with the Cambodian leaders who always wanted to have absolute authority has left Cambodia in crisis. Cambodia also became the site of weapon testing for the super powers. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend the super powers' policy on Cambodia.

Despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge was a foe of the West, the United States itself and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries pretended that they were not dealing with the Khmer Rouge in the early day of invasion, but they were supporting the rest of its coalitions in their struggle against the Vietnamese. Today the West and the world community have changed their course. They consider the Khmer Rouge as a menace to both the region and Cambodia. It is feared that the brutal regime may again come to power. Without the existence of the Khmer Rouge, in a way, Cambodia would have ceased to exist. Despite of the Khmer Rouge slaughtering thousands of Cambodians, it is still viewed by many Cambodian peasants and intellectuals as a patriotic force that is standing up to any perceived Vietnamese encroachment or colonization.

China has played the biggest role in Cambodian conflict. All along, China has been the Khmer Rouge's best friend and main supporter in both politics and weaponry. But since the collapse of communism in Europe and the Soviet Union, China fears this collapse will spread to both China and Vietnam. This has led to the normalization of relationship between Bejing and Hanoi, even though Hanoi is the main enemy of the Khmer Rouge. It is obvious that China adheres to double standards in the region because it wants a stake in the political future of Cambodia.

For years, Cambodians have been waiting for an end to their suffering and search for peace. In order for the prospect of peace to come into light, Cambodia has once again turned to the international community for help. Since 1981, Prince Norodom Sihanuk has pleaded with the world to place Cambodia under the protection of the UN trusteeship. His efforts bored fruit when the International Peace Conference on Cambodia convened in Paris on October 23, 1991. A historic day was made in Paris when the peace accord was signed by all Cambodian warring factions and 17 other countries, including Canada. The Paris Agreement provides for the formation of the Supreme National Council (SNC) as the unique legitimate body and source of authority in Cambodia during the transitional period, the verification of the withdrawal of foreign forces in all categories from Cambodia and their non-return, the total disarmament of all Cambodian parties' arm forces, the repatriation of Cambodian refugees from Thailand, and the organization of a free and fair election, to enable the Cambodian people to exercise their sacred right of self-determination.

The UN was to ensure the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is the biggest UN operation ever undertaken. The operation is known as UNTAC (United Nation Transitional Authority in Cambodia). During the mission, UNTAC failed to achieve some of its mandates. The lack of impartiality in implementing the provisions of the treaty was one of the reasons for its failure. UNTAC and the Cambodian factions accused each other of failing to adhere to the treaty. There was also much controversy about the election process. When it comes to voting rights, UNTAC helped millions of illegal Vietnamese immigrants to register.

Nevertheless, UNTAC can not solve all Cambodian problems because they are internal matter. In spite of difficulties and accusations, UNTAC was able to hold the election from May 23 to 28 1993, in hope of bringing peace to Cambodia. However, peace seems to fade away when the losers do not accept their defeat but instead threaten to renew fighting and demand an autonomous zone. The impact of civil unrest and political upheaval are tremendous. It has weakened Cambodian unity, confidentiality and has caused them to undergo great torment. Millions of lives have been lost and the country has become a world of widows and orphans. Many families have been uprooted, torn apart and scattered around the globe, or displaced. Some have to live without freedom in refugee camps that are fenced by barbed wire, while people in the homeland are living in poverty.

Due to the prolonged fighting, the industrial and agricultural production is limited. The country's main roads and bridges are cut off and demolished. The cities have no electricity, running water or sewage systems. Cambodia is on the verge of epidemic disaster because there is an inadequate health care system. Whether there is peace or not, Cambodians are facing life with deadly land mines. It is estimated about 4 million mines are thickly sewn in the new killing field.

Definitely, Cambodians believe that in order to survive the plague of civil unrest for the past 23 years, Cambodia has to observe a policy of strict neutrality in its sovereign state. Otherwise, the true peace, freedom and democracy of Cambodia will still seem remote. The question is, will the new leaders be able to solve the internal conflict and prevent Khmer land from being absorbed by neighboring countries, or will those leaders just want power? For the future of the country, the Khmer leaders and people must sort out their differences.

Lasting peace for Cambodia also depends on the sincerity of the super powers, Vietnam and Khmer leaders. If Khmer leaders are only the puppets of outside powers, the riches of the country will be looted, the frontiers will disappear and Cambodia will cease to exist. Cambodia must not allow itself to become a 'side show ' again for the power that-be, and it is only the Khmer people themselves who can prevent this. Today, considering how intolerable the situation is, how surely it will bring about the extermination of the Khmer race in the short or long term. The logical answer to the Cambodia's conflict can be nothing but a dream, unless the foreign powers implicated in the devastating war are in Cambodia directly. Otherwise, grant the supremely unlucky Khmer people the right to self-determination.

First and foremost, Khmers have to help themselves and find ways to get along with their compatriots before the rest of the world can help them. Khmers also should not be obsessed with their past but instead live for the future. Otherwise, the tenuous peace that they are enjoying right now may soon become only a memory of the past. It is hard to forgive the perpetrators but revenge is not always the solution either. We hope that this short history of Cambodia has provided readers with a brief understanding of Cambodia's conflict.


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