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Cambodia History

Well known globally as Cambodia and formally as the Kingdom of Cambodia, the local population here refer to their country as Srok Khmer which means Khmer land. For over 600 years from the start of the 9th century the Khmer empire was the most powerful and wealthy in the region with its sprawling capital, Angkor, being the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

The earliest evidence of human existence in modern day Cambodia goes back 8,000-9,000 years ago where stone tools have been unearthed in the province of Battambang, in northwest Cambodia. Other finds in this area made from pottery date back to 4,200 BC. Farming was introduced here around 2,300 BC with the farmers of this region using stone tools. From about 1,500 BC, tools and weapons made from bronze can be found and by 500 BC the people living here had learned to use iron.

 

The origins of Cambodia’s modern-day culture began in the 1st century and lasted until the 6th century. This was a civilisation which was known originally as Funan and later as Chenla which was an Indianised state and in fact the oldest one in Southeast Asia. This era is considered the period of time when Cambodian society became more advanced and language and religion began to evolve. Initially the land was divided into separate states which competed against one another, but by the start of the 9th century King Jayavarman II brought unity and founded the Khmer Empire.

 

Lasting for six centuries the Khmer Empire was a major regional power going on a series of conquests until it was the largest empire covering much of modern day Southeast Asia by the 12th century. Perhaps the most fascinating part of their history which can still be seen today is their architectural prowess which saw them build the vast Angkor temple complex which is has the highest concentration of temples in the world. With over 100 temples it covers an area of over 400 square kilometres and is situated in the province of Siem Reap. The highlight of the complex is Angkor Wat which is the biggest religious monument in the world and is the best-preserved temple to be found in the complex and also features on the current day Cambodian national flag. Another example of how advanced a civilization the Khmers were for their time is the engineering ingenuity which was developed during the reign of four Khmer kings. A complex irrigation system was built in the Angkor complex, with huge man-made lakes and canals that carried water to the farmland providing the population with at least three crops of rice per year. Parts of this classic piece of ancient engineering are still in use today. Initially the temples of Angkor were built for the Hindu gods but that began to change in the 13th century when Sri Lankan monks brought Theravada Buddhism to the empire which eventually became the official state religion in 1295. By this time, however, the empire had overstretched its powers and was in decline which coincided with the Ayutthaya (Thai) Kingdom’s rise to the west. A number of wars ensued and in 1431 Angkor was sacked. The following year it was abandoned due to a breakdown in its infrastructure and it was left to be covered by the surrounding jungle while a new capital was founded near Phnom Penh.

 

The first Europeans to document their arrival in Cambodia were the Portuguese in 1511 who described the new Khmer capital at Longvek as a place thriving with wealth and foreign trade. However it was Cambodia’s neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, who were competing to take over the kingdom from the 15th to the 17th century. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that French rule in the region began to take effect. In 1863, King Norodom, who had been installed by Siam, asked for help from the French in safeguarding Cambodia from Vietnam and Siam and so became a protectorate of France. French rule brought a period of relative economic development with roads and railways being built and a progressing rubber industry. The taxes imposed by the French were heavy and by the 1930s Cambodian nationalism was growing. The French remained in control until 1953, relinquishing power briefly to the Japanese during World War II, when King Sihanouk won independence for his nation. Throughout the late 1950s and through the 60s Cambodia was finally self-sufficient and began to prosper on its own terms. However with the war in Vietnam spilling over the border Prince Sihanouk, who had abdicated the throne to his father to run the government, was overthrown in 1970 by an army general named Lon Nol. Five years later General Lon Nol himself was overpowered by the Khmer Rouge and so began Cambodia’s most horrific period in history. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge set the calendar to ‘Year Zero’ and all city dwellers were sent to the countryside to work on agricultural projects modelled on 11th century farming. Unrealistic targets were set and when they were not hit, people got hungry many of them dying of hunger, those who were caught foraging for food were executed. Laziness was also punishable by death as were people complaining. Religion was banned and anyone caught engaging in religious activities were killed. Intellectuals were also targeted with a death sentence put into effect for people who wore glasses or could speak a foreign language. This is where the Killing Fields became infamous. In the four years from 1975-1979 when the Khmer Rouge unleashed their ‘Reign of Terror’ it’s estimated that they killed up to two million of their own people, possibly more and it would have been had the Vietnamese not invaded and toppled the regime. A lot of the Khmer Rouge soldiers fled to the jungle and over the border into Thailand where they tried to continue with guerilla warfare tactics. Pol Pot died in 1998.

These days there are still reminders of Cambodia’s cruel recent past. Much of the country lives in or on the verge of poverty and there is also the issue of landmines still scattered in parts of the country after being placed by decades of warring factions. In the 1990s the country saw an average of 4,000 casualties from mine fields annually, with a large number of amputees. However, in 2016 that number fell to 82. Cambodia has cleared around 1,500 kilometres of landmines and unexploded ordnance since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, so things are improving. Also there are almost 900 Cambodian demining experts working for the UN as peacekeepers around the world. With textiles and tourism being the country’s top two sources of income things are getting better in this nation but it’s going to take time.

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