History of Cambodia in brief

Angor Thom dates from the 12th century

Angor Thom dates from the 12th century

Despite being one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia today, Cambodia was once an extremely prosperous nation. Cambodia has a long and rich history, and was once strong and independent, taking influence from other Asian nations such as India and China.

In the early days Cambodia stretched across much of Southeast Asia, and this impressive influence can still be seen to this day in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam where vast monuments, palaces and temples created in the early Khmer style can still be seen to this day.

However, Cambodia was torn apart by a number of conflicts, which started in the 13th century when Cambodia was at war with Thailand and gradually escalated over the years. Cambodia then came under French control and was heavily bombed during the First and Second World Wars.

Finally, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge during the second half of the 20th century resulted in the murder of around three million Khmer citizens, with families being torn apart and forced to work hard in the countryside under threat of death.

The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror finally ended in 1978 and the nation began to piece itself back together. Years of war have left the people of Cambodia poor and the once rich farmland virtually infertile, but hope is on the horizon as Cambodia looks towards a brighter future.

The first known kingdom of Cambodia is believed to have been the Funan Kingdom, which started in the first century BC. During this time, Cambodia received strong influence from elements of Indian culture, which can be seen in Cambodia’s artwork, politics and architecture.

A Deputy Governor of Kamboja in 1828

A Deputy Governor of Kamboja in 1828

Cambodia’s heyday lasted from around 600 BC until the 12th century, when the nation was under Khmer rule. The Khmer people were Hindus and created a large number of magnificent cities such as the Angkhor temple complex.

Buddhism was introduced in Cambodia in the 12th century, when Jayavaram VII ruled the nation. At this time, Cambodia was known as Kambuja and after the ruler’s reign ended the nation was nearly completely wiped out when both Thai and Vietnamese troops invaded.

From this time, Cambodia’s power slowly yet steadily diminished and largely came under French control in the early part of the 19th century. Although Prince Sihanouk was the official monarch during this time, many people resented his rule and he was accused of reserving education for the elite.

There was a great deal of discontent among the upper classes due to Cambodia’s bad economic situation and lack of respectable jobs, and these people looked for an extreme political solution in embracing communist ideals. Before long, this restlessness led to the forming of the Khmer Rouge.

Initially, the Khmer Rouge gained a lot of support, especially with the elite, and Prince Sihanouk declared himself to be in favour of their ideals, abdicating his leadership. Under the leadership of the charismatic Pol Pot the group drew inspiration from the French and Vietnamese political philosophy being taught in left-leaning European colleges.

It took the Khmer Rouge five years to built their forces, until in 1975 the captured the capital city of Phnom Penh, forcing all citizens to evacuate the towns and cities and head into the countryside. Anyone who refused to leave their home was executed on the spot.

Millions died under the Khmer Rouge

Millions died under the Khmer Rouge

The idea was to return Cambodia to an agrarian utopia when everyone toiled in the fields and no one was any richer than anyone else. However, the brutal reality was that those slightly educated, could read or even that wore glasses was slaughtered for being counter-revolutionary.

Although the Khmer Rouge’s reign only lasted for three years, around half the nation’s population was killed during this time, with citizens being put through unimaginable hardships. Few people escaped the wrath of the Khmer Rouge and as paranoia mounted even their own soldiers were interrogated, tortured and finally executed in special prisons or the Killing Fields. More on the Khmer Rouge.

The horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were finally put to an end by Vietnamese troops in 1978. However, by this time Cambodia had become one of the most heavily bombed countries in the entire world. There was no infrastructure left and people were forced to try and piece together the meagre pieces of their lives and try to rebuild.

After a long period of uncertainty, the UN finally held elections in 1993. The Cambodia People’s Party was elected as the main governing party and under their leadership the situation in Cambodia has steadily improved.

Cambodia is now a safe place to visit as the nation has enjoyed peace for several decades. Although the crime rate is relatively low, visitors are warned against straying from well-worn paths in rural areas, as there is still danger of accidently activating landmines.

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