A (Brief) History of Cambodia

by Jeff Hartman

The Beginning (4200 BC – 7th Century)

Cambodia’s history dates back to the Stone Age when its first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. By the end of the first century, Indian traders and holy men brought Buddhism and Hinduism, resulting in the decline in animism.  By the 7th century AD, all of Cambodia was highly civilized.

The Mighty Khmer Empire (9th Century)

While Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, Cambodia was flourishing. King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire, the largest of its day, which extended into modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Malaysia and flourished for 600 years. The city of Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.

Angkor Wat (12th Century)

With ingenious engineering skills, the Khmer kings built what is now the largest temple complex in the world. Although the wooden cities around them have long rotted away, over 100 stone temples still cover an are of 400 square kilometers.

Conflict and Instability (12th Century to 19th Century)

After the decline of the Khmer Empire, Thai and Vietnamese rulers began fighting over Cambodian land. By the middle of the 15th century, the Khmers were ruled either by local kings with very limited power, or, alternatively, by the Thai and Vietnamese. Very little stability existed in Cambodia thus growth and development was minimal.

The French Saviors (19th Century – WWII)

The mighty French came in 1863 and Cambodia became a French protectorate until WWII. The French offered much-needed protection from the Thai and Vietnamese forces and economic development began to take place in the form of roads, railways, and rubber.

Freedom (1953)

Cambodia won its independence from France and under King Sihanouk and it soon became the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanouk became a national hero and many still refer to him as the “Father of the Nation”.

The Vietnam War (Mid-60’s)

During America’s war in Vietnam, King Sihanouk broke off relations with the US and allowed North Vietnamese guerrillas to set up bases in Cambodia. Four years later, Richard Nixon authorized a secret bombing campaign against North Vietnamese forces on Cambodian soil resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

Khmer Rouge Genocide (Mid-70’s)

Led by Pol Pot, the communist Khmer Rouge sought to make the country completely agricultural and independent of capitalism. Private property was banned, collective farms were formed, religion was outlawed, money was worthless, and the smallest infringement of the rules or complaints resulted in execution. The people were given insufficient food and many fell ill and died from a combination of work exhaustion and malnutrition. Furthermore the Khmer Rouge murdered intellectuals, those who could speak a foreign language or who wore glasses. It is estimated that between 1.5-3 million Cambodians died during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Freedom (Late 70’s – Mid-80’s)

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge. Buddhism was re-established as the state religion and in 1994, thousands of Khmer Rouge guerillas surrendered in government amnesty.

Development (2000’s – Today)

In the last decade, Cambodia has emerged from the shadows to join other Southeast Asian countries on the global scene. Infrastructure, business and tourism are all beginning to flourish. Although poverty, sex trafficking and a poor education system are ongoing problems, international attention is beginning to face these issues head on. The future seems bright for this beautiful nation.