The History of Cambodia in brief

”A vicious interaction of variables at domestic, regional and global levels has shaped Cambodia’s tragic destiny”, writes Chhay Yiheang. In the 1500s there were several incursions by Vietnam and Thailand, and in the 1800s and 1900s, there was French colonization, invasion by the US, Khmer Rouge backed by China, and invasion of Vietnam. Especially since 1946, there were several extra-state, inter-state, intra-state conflicts and one-sided violence. Cambodia has been, and still is, recovering from civil war, genocide and foreign invasions.

Interestingly, although Theravada Buddhism as Cambodia’s main religion preaches avoidance of violence, this has not concerned the people in power: Power has always been achieved by means of violence. There were neither legal restraints on people holding power nor peaceful methods to replace them. After a kings died, struggles for succession were often heavy, and losers were killed. There has always been a ”winner takes it all” mentality in Cambodia. This has made, and is still making co-operation, consensus building and trust extremely difficult.

In the Khmer culture, a healthy political debate is extremely difficult. People don’t have the skills and confidence to debate. To simply question someone can be misinterpreted as a blame. Chhay Yiheang writes: ”Many people are still not comfortable with the idea that political opponents can harangue each other in a parliamentary session, as happens in Western parliamentary systems, without one of them losing face.” Especially women deputies are expected to be submissive and soft-spoken. King Sihanouk was not a good example, either. His intolerance is considered as one reason for radicalizing young Khmers, with well known and dire consequences.

In addition to all this, there is a historical fear of Vietnam, and even today an anti-Vietnamese sentiment. According to Yiheang, it is not as much a hatred for Vietnamese people but a fear of Vietnamese hegemony. With memories of foreign exploitation, however, Cambodians are often guilty of failing to separate hatred from fear.

1863-1941: Cambodia as a colony of French.  

1941: King Sisowath dies and his nephew, Norodom Sihanouk, is installed as a new king.

1945: Japan occupies Cambodia and declares Cambodia as independent. (Actually, Japan urges the new king to make the declaration.) During the coming years, Sihanouk gains more power.

1950: Tension raises. Democrat Party competes with right-wing parties, who support Sihanouk. Cambodian Communist Party (later: Khmer Rouge) is formed. Soon there’s a coup by Sihanouk, who appoints himself as Prime Minister and starts to suppress the Democrats.

1953 – 1970:  Kingdom of Cambodia (The time of Sihanouk) 

1953: Cambodia gained independence, endorsed by Geneve convention in 1954. Sihanouk was clever in staying in power. In 1955, he saw a threat of new Cambodia’s democratic parties, so he decided to resign, but soon formed a new party: People’s Socialist Community (PSC). He swept to power as on ’ordinary citizen’. Under various titles, he then ruled the country almost single-handedly. Sihanouk’s ideology was called ”Buddhist socialism.”

1962: Pol Pot becomes a secretary of the Communist party. Pol Pot with his supporters, in fear of Sihanouk, went to the jungle.

1965: The Vietnam War gets more intense. Sihanouk ends all relations with the US, because of their air strikes have yielded from Vietnam to Cambodia. Sihanouk also stops accepting aid from the US. He wanted to keep Cambodia neutral, and out of the war.

Sihanouk’s relation with North Vietnam was somewhat interesting. He allowed Viet Cong and North Vietnam maintain bases in his Cambodia. The North Vietnamese, in turn, urged the Khmer communists not to fight with Sihanouk. All this, together with Sihanouk’s socialistic politics distanced him from the elite. Actually, both right- and left-wing as well as middle-class opposition against Sihanouk’s rule grew in the mid-1960s.

Soon, however, Sihanouk started to cleanse the country from lefties, who escaped more and more to the countryside. There was much rebellion, but Sihanouk’s government ended them violently. Finally, his enemies organized themselves to a communist guerrilla movement, Khmer Rouge.

1968: Khmer Rouge started an armed struggle and soon controlled half of Cambodia. Sihanouk became friends with the US again. President Nixon authorized a secret bombing of East Cambodia, aiming at destroying North Vietnamese military bases there. In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War spilled over into Cambodia.

1970 – 1975 Khmer Republic (The time of civil war)

The government was not happy with Sihanouk’s policies. He was considered monopolizing political life, and not allowing political debate. After a coup by General Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s ruling was over. Interestingly, after the coup, Sihanouk joined Khmer Rouge!

Prime Minister Lon Nol declared Cambodia as a republic. His regime was backed by US (or at least CIA). The aim was to launch a ”holy war” against Vietnamese ’unbelievers’, i.e. communists. A civil war started and lasted until 1975. In addition to fighting the Vietnamese in Cambodia, the new Khmer Republic fought Khmer Rouge, which in turn was supported by Vietnam and Viet Cong. (Viet Cong, FNL and NLF all mean the same. It was established in 1959 and fought the government in South-Vietnam. FNL stands for Front National de Libération du Vietnam, and an english acronym NLF for National Liberation Front. NFL, in turn, stands for National Football League…)

It was not only the US that came to the Cambodian territory. Also, South-Vietnam invaded Cambodia, trying to abolish North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong there. All this was unsuccessful, and the communists in Cambodia gained even more ground and power.

The US bombings in eastern Cambodia, especially in 1973, were heavy. It has been estimated that during the bombings 250 000 people died in Cambodia. Besides, the bombings helped Khmer Rouge to recruit even more people.

1975 – 1979 Democratic Kampuchea (The time of genocide)

After a heavy fight of 117 days, and ruling over many areas of Mekong river, Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Lon Nol resigned and fled the country. Sihanouk was placed under house arrest in Phnom Penh. Democratic Kampuchea was founded, and Cambodia became a communist state. (As a curiosity, much happened in 1975. In Cambodia’s neighbor, South-Vietnam surrendered to North-Vietnam. In Helsinki, the ”ETYK”, Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, was held. While the Western world became more secure, the opposite happened in East.)

During the start of Pol Pot’s dictatorship, the population of Phnom Penh was as much as 2 million, since people from the countryside have fled there. However, the direction would soon be back to the countryside, since all urban centers have been ordered to evacuate. The city people were thus opposed to existing country people. It was hard for them to get along.

The year 1975 was a ”Year Zero” for the new leader and prime minister, Pol Pot, a pseudonym for Saloth Sar. His goal was to achieve socialism faster than anywhere else in the world before. The elite was the main ”enemy of revolution”; thus many teachers, doctors and engineers were killed. They, together with many of 65 000 Buddhist monks, were executed. All minorities were opposed.

Khmer Rouge tried systematically to destroy Cambodia’s Buddhist culture. An ”Angkar” system started to watch over people, like a big brother. No private ownership or money was allowed. No individualism at all was allowed. No tradition, theater, music, newspapers, libraries, hospitals, schools were allowed. Many fled to Thailand, but for others, Cambodia became a prison farm. An estimated 1,7 million people died, mainly of starvation, overwork, and executions.

In Christmas 1978, Vietnam attacked heavily Cambodia, together with many former Khmer Rouge members. The purpose was to liberate Cambodian people from Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime.

1979 – 1989 People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) (Time of Vietnam in Cambodia)

During these ten years there, the time of another civil war in Cambodia, there was lots of turmoil and changing political situations. Cambodia was one of world’s poorest countries. However, the line between humanitarian activity and war in Cambodia became confused.

Vietnam established its own Communist government in Cambodia, protected by more than 200 000 Vietnamese soldiers (thus opposing UN resolution to leave Cambodia). The only legal party during that time was CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) and still is today. Likewise, Hun Sen is still today the head of CPP.

As an opposition to PRK, there was a so-called tripartite resistance, consisting of 1) Khmer Rouge, 2) Sihanouk’s FUNCINPEC (or: Noncommunist resistance, NCR), and 3) Son Sann’s Republicans (later called ”Khmer People’s National Liberation Front”, KPLNF).

The political situation was complicated. Pol Pot’s delegation held a seat at the UN, even being in exile. Sihanouk became a prime minister, but he also was in exile. Officially, the resistance represented a ”Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea” (CGDK), comprising also the other resistance factions, FUNCINPEC and KPLNF. The US gave military support to all these three factions, including Khmer Rouge! By doing so the US wanted to destabilize Cambodia, and by extension, Vietnam.

1989 – 1991 State of Cambodia (SoC; just a name change)

Vietnam begins withdrawing its troops, and PRK changed its name to SoC, to shed its communist image. In 1990 Khmer Rouge was no more allowed to have a UN seat, for representing Cambodia. Also, the China aid to Khmer Rouge diminished.

The five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States) proposed a political settlement for the crisis, and all the four factions of Cambodia (PRK and tripartite resistance) accepted this as a framework. They then formed a ”Supreme National Council (SNC), to help go through a transitional period.

1991 – 1993 United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)

In June 1991, a first ceasefire was accepted between all four parties. At an August meeting in Thailand, the key obstacles to a political settlement are ironed out. A peace agreement was signed in Paris, 23. October 1991, and in November, Sihanouk returned to Cambodia. The new government was to be formed, following elections.

UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping mission to oversee the implementation of the agreement. There were 22 000 military and civilian personnel from more than 100 countries. However, when the disarmament took place in 1992, Khmer Rouge refused to participate.

1993 – present: Kingdom of Cambodia

In 1993 there were elections, which UN declared free and fair. A huge number of 89 % voted. FUNCINPEC wins with 45.2 %; the ruling CPP got 38.7 % and BLDP (Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party) got 3,7 %. These three parties then shared power, and Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. By the end of 1993, UNTAC withdrew from Cambodia, and the international community declared the Cambodian conflict over.

Concerning the elections, however, Hun Sen’s CPP rejected the results. What followed, was that Sihanouk started to fear a coup, so he suggested a 50:50 coalition model. His son, Prince Ranariddh reluctantly accepted this compromise. In return, CPP accepted the election results. Ranariddh became the ”First Prime Minister” and Hun Sen (at the same time) a ”Second Prime Minister.” There was a strange dual-command structure, and eventually almost two separate ”states” with two armies, and two police forces. This was, of course, a very ineffective model for the state.

FUNCINPEC and CPP managed to keep peace for three years, but problems arouse, obviously, because the state was split to two. Amnesty International paid attention to human rights violations. There was a lot of corruption in many levels. This resulted in fewer revenues for the government, which in turn made it difficult to pay for country’s security forces.

In 1997 Cambodian’s governing coalition collapsed violently after CPP’s military action to overthrow Ranariddh. In 1998 elections CPP gained a majority of votes, although probably with fraud and political intimidation. In all the subsequent General elections, in 2003, 2008 and 2013, CPP was the winner. However, CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party, with a key figure of Sam Rainsy) came very close in 2013, thus making the upcoming 2018 elections very interesting.

Conciliation Resources 1998, Accord issue 5 
Lonely Planet Cambodia. Google Books, 2005
Oxfam Country Profile: Cambodia. Google Books, 2000.