A Short History of
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Preah Bat Jayavarman VII
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