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History of Cambodia


History  |  Country  |  People  |  Religion  |  Climate |  Language


Our knowledge of Cambodia’s very early history is limited. From the discoveries that have been made, we know that the earliest inhabitants of Cambodia came to Indochina in several great waves of migration over a period of at least a thousand years.

One wave of people came northward from the island chains that are now called Malaysia and Indonesia. They were brown-skinned people whose way of life involved fishing and growing rice. Another great wave came southward from Tibet and China. These yellow-skinned people possessed metal-working skills and the tradition of domesticating animals. By about 350 B.C., these two waves of migrating people had met in Indonesia and blended to form a cluster of new people and cultures. The Khmer, who lived in present-day northern Cambodia, were one of these people.

These early Khmer lived in small settlements along waterways. They fished, farmed, and raised cattle and pigs. They also hunted, using spears and bows and arrows. In the first century A.D., the first great Khmer civilization arose in Cambodia. It was called Funan. Although the Funanese left no written records and no great buildings, we know of them through the writings of Chinese travelers who visited the country. About 245 A.D. a Chinese ambassador named K’ang T’si traveled to Funan. Upon returning to China, he described Funan as a land so hot that the people wore no clothing, and so rich that taxes were paid in gold, jewels, and precious perfumes.

Although the people of Funan were Khmers, much of the Funanese culture was borrowed from India. Traders and wandering scholars from India had reached Southeast Asia as early as 100 B.C. Along with trading goods, the Indian travelers brought Sanskrit, the language of their country. In Funan, Sanskrit began to be used for religious writings and court ceremonies (the Khmer language continued to be used for everyday business). The Indians also brought the two great religions of their country: Hinduism and Buddhism. Some Khmers were attached with Buddhism, but Hinduism won so many followers that it became the state religion of Funan. Hindu gods and rituals became part of Khmer culture.

Funan prospered as a center of trade between India and China. Its merchants received goods from as far away as Persia (now called Iran) and even the Roman Empire. Its craftsmen created magnificent jewelry and religious statues of gold and bronze. Funan had enormous military strength, too. By the mid-6th century A.D., it dominated two neighboring states, Chenla in present-day Thailand and Champa in present-day southern Cambodia. The people of Chenla were also Khmers, but the Chams were Malaysians.

Late in the sixth century, Chenla grew strong and threw off Funan’s overlordship. Then, in 598, a king named Bhavavarman claimed rulership of both Funan and Chenla. From that time on, Funan ceased to exist as a separate state. It was absorbed into Chenla. The quarrels among members of ruling family led to the break-up of the state in the 7th century. It was divided into Land Chenla, a farming culture located north of the Tonle Sap, and Water Chenla, a trading culture along the southern Mekong River. The rulers of Java, an island kingdom in what is now Indonesia, acquired some control over Chenla and took members of the Khmer royal family to live in Java.

In the late 8th century, Khmer princes returned from Java to establish a new kingdom in Cambodia. This new state dominated Indochina for many centuries. It was called Kambuja (from which the name “Cambodia” is taken), and one of its first great rulers was Jayavarman II, who gained the throne about 802. Jayavarman’s actions set the patterns for Kambujan society for years to come. He united the country and was worshiped as a god-king. The people living during that period devoted much of their time to building magnificent temples and court buildings for the glory of their god-king. Jayavarman declared Kambuja free of all control by Java or any other state, and he moved the capital from the banks of the Mekong River to a site called Mahendraparvata, northeast of the Tonle Sap. At Mahendraparvata, Jayavarman started a tradition of royal temple building that reached its peak several centuries later in nearby Angkor.

King Yasovarman I moved the capital a few miles from Mahendraparvata to Angkor in the late 9th century. The new capital was a center of scholarship, government and worship. All of these aspects of Khmer culture continued to be influenced by India. parts of Champa, Under Yasovarman’s successors, Kambuja expanded by conquering Annam (northern Cambodia), and Siam (Thailand). It became a powerful state

called the Khmer Empire. About 1130, King Suryavarman II honored the Hindu god Vishnu with a huge new temple at Angkor. It was the beginning of a great cluster of temples that came to be called Angkor Wat.

In 1177, rebellious Chams from southern Cambodia invaded Angkor and sacked its temples and palaces. Order was restored to the empire under King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 to 1215. He drove the Chams out of Kambuja, and his army sacked the Cham capital of Vijaya to avenge the looting of Angkor. The king built a glittering new capital city called Angkor Thom near Angkor Wat. Under the rule of Jayavarman VII, Indian monks and Khmer Buddhist princes spread Buddhism throughout Cambodia. By the end of the 13th century, it was the dominant religion of Cambodia and has remained so ever since. Jayavarman VII brought the Khmer Empire to its peak of power. After the death of Jayavarman VII, however, the empire entered a long period of decline. The Annamese people of northern Cambodia pushed southward and conquered Champa. A civilization called Lan Xang in northern Laos seized territory from the Khmers. But the biggest threat was in the west, where a mixture of Thai and Khmer people formed some small states that rebelled against Kambujan rule. The most powerful of the western states was called Sukhothai. In 1238, Sukhothai successfully threw off Khmer rule. From that time on, Thai states grew ever more powerful and restless. Eventually they formed a single kingdom, called Siam. In 1431, Siam captured Angkor, and the Khmer rulers had to move their capital to Phnom Penh.

From the 15th to the 18th century, Cambodia’s prestige and power declined steadily. One reason for this decline was the growth of militant and power-hungry neighbors in Thailand and Cambodia. Another was the constant fighting among members of the Khmer royal family.

During the 16th century, the Khmers tried to take back some of the territory they had lost to Siam. In 1564, the Khmers invaded Siam and entered its capital of Ayutthaya, but Burmese army already occupied the capital. By the end of the century, the Siamese regained their strength and trounced both the Burmese and Cambodians. In 1594, the Siamese captured Phnom Penh. The Cambodian king, Satha, asked for the help of Spain in the fight with Siam. Help arrived from the Philippines in the form of Spanish adventurers who helped defeat the Siamese. Satha’s son was crowned king. Resentment of the Spanish grew until the Khmers overran the Spanish garrison in 1599. The next contact with European invaders would not come until the middle of the 19th century.

Between 1603 and 1848, Cambodia had at least 22 kings. Some of them held the throne more than once. By the late 18th century, Siam dominated Cambodia and controlled Battambang and Siem Reap. The French arrived in 1864 and signed a treaty of protectorate with King Norodom as the start of their bid to take control of the country. In 1884 King Norodom was forced by the French to sign another treaty, and Cambodia became a French colony. In 1941 France installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the throne. When the Japanese occupied the country during World War II, the French left, only to return after the war to declare the country an autonomous state under French rule. In 1953 King Norodom Sihanouk declared martial law and asked for international recognition as an independent country. Independence was granted in the same year and recognized by the Geneva Conference in the following year. King Sihanouk dominated politics for the next seventeen years. King Sihanouk was deposed in March 1970 by General Lon Nol and subsequently fled to Beijing, China, to set up a government in exile. In April of 1970, the United States and South Cambodia invaded Cambodia and drove the communist forces deep into the jungles. These forces joined a revolutionary group and became Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers fighting against the government as a guerilla force for the next few years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and took control of Phnom Penh in April 1975. Thus began one of the most terrible events in the history of the world.

The Khmer Rouge proceeded to destroy every part of Khmer society; millions of people were killed. At that time, the events were largely unknown to the rest of the world, as the country was effectively cut off from the outside world. The Khmer Rouge brought about their own downfall by conducting frequent border raids on Cambodia. On 25 December 1978, Cambodia came to Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in two weeks. 

In 1989, Cambodia withdrew all of its troops, and the Khmer Rouge continued to fight the government. In 1990, two thousand Cambodians were killed in the civil war.

In September 1990, the UN Security Council produced a plan to end the fighting and hold free elections, with the resulting Paris Peace Accords signed in 1991. A United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) basically ran the country until elections were held in 1993. Cambodia's first-ever democratic elections were held in May, 1993, supervised by a large UN peacekeeping mission. Royalists won the largest bloc of national assembly seats (58 out of 120); Hun Sen's party came in second, and a coalition government with co-premiers—Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen—was formed.

The Khmer Rouge, who had boycotted the elections, continued armed opposition, retaining control of substantial territory in the N and W parts of the country. A new constitution reestablished the monarchy, and in Sept., 1993, Sihanouk became king. Attempts at mediation with the Khmer Rouge failed, and fighting continued. In 1996 the Khmer Rouge split into two factions, one of which made an accord with the government. Pol Pot was ousted and imprisoned by the remaining Khmer Rouge in 1997 and died in 1998; the Khmer Rouge subsequently lost most of its remaining power and support.

The year 1998 brought second national election, scheduled for July of that year. The internationally monitored elections saw Hun Sen’s ruling party win.

History  |  Country  |  People  |  Religion  |  Climate |  Language

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