Cambodian History is long and complicated. It comes from the fact that Cambodia has been always at the center of regional and global interests. It is right at the center of the Southeast Asia and the Indochina Peninsula. In this way, we have a small country where other big ones have been always poring their nose. If Thailand is proud to be the only country of the world that never has been invaded by another nation, Cambodia must be proud to has survived centuries of attempts to make it part of others. The Cambodian spirit has shown to the powerful what resistance means.
Here a short summary of the Cambodian History for beginners.
Cambodia as a people has a story of two thousand years and it begins when the Brahmins of India arrived to the Indochina Peninsula and mixed with the ancient local tribes – an older mixture of Sino-Mongolian and Australasian peoples traced in the region since 12 thousand years ago. Any attempt to see Cambodians or any other Southeast Asian country as a single race will crush with the fact that it is a region of human encounters between different races.
The arrival of Indian Brahmins, fleeing conflicts in their own territories started a process called Indianization. It meant the interbreeding with locals, the construction of fabulous irrigation canals on the Mekong basin that will develop the rice farming and the gradual creation of a new language: the Khmer that is also a local adaptation of Indian Sanskrit with other languages of East Asia.
From this Indianization process came a first political organization called by the Chinese records as Funan between the 1st and 5th century. There was not a “Funan kingdom” with a king around. It was better a confederation of tribes with their own lords – more a feudalist society. The Funan period gave birth to another called also by Chinese records as Chenla. The succession of capitals showed us that it was also a fragile connection of city states than a unitarian entity. During the Chenla period, the Shailendra dynasty of Java was the power over Indochina.
The end of Chenla meant the first real powerful unity in the Indochina Peninsula. It started when King Jayavarman II (770-835) founded Angkor in 802 and declared full independence from Java. He declared himself god and king of the Universe at the Mahendraparvata (today Kulen Mountain). His dynasty started the construction of the Mountain-Temples – however, there are temples one thousand years older during the Funan and Chenla period. The political and military power of the Angkorian kings went beyond the actual borders of modern Cambodia, reaching what is today Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
The mysterious decay of the Khmer Empire at the end of the 14th century gave place to a next powerful state: the Ayutthaya Kingdom that would give birth to what is today Thailand. Cambodia entered in a dark time, weak and anonymous. The growing power of Thailand and the southern advance of Vietnam, would put in danger the very existence of Cambodia as an independent state. Although the European colonization over the world is regarded as an invasion and destruction of peoples and cultures, ironically modern Cambodia has much to thanks to the French. It was going to be shared between Thailand and Vietnam, when the French made Cambodia a “protectorate”. From this fact comes that strain name of “Protectorat français du Cambodge” – it was being protected from Vietnam and Thailand.
The Colonial Time in Cambodia was rather peaceful (1863-1953) and would let its influence in the Cambodian spirit. It put its capital in Phnom Penh and recovered the splendour of the old Monarchy linked to the Angkorian dynasty.
The Colony entered in crisis during the War World II. King Norodom Sihanouk – at the time a very young man – takes the flags of the Independence Movement and became a leader for the new modern nation. But his country would be involved in the Vietnamese War when he got a coup d’etat in 1970 from General Lon Nol. It makes Cambodia to be aligned with South Vietnam and US, while becoming a camp of bombs that destroyed the dreams of a small peaceful nation.
The withdrawal of US from Indochine opened the way to the Khmer Rouge led by a group of intellectuals, who designed the most extreme communist state in history. During their period in government (1975-1979), Cambodia became one of the most isolated nations on Earth and 1 million 700 thousand persons disappeared in a communist social experiment. As the Khmer Rouge were so hostiles with Vietnam, that country organized the National Liberation Force with same Cambodians and invaded it on January 7, 1979. It was the beginning of a new war until 1991.
The Peace Agreement of Paris meant the end of military conflicts and the start of a difficult time of reconstruction in all senses, a period that can be traced until today, where Cambodia is striving to become a modern society with several challenges such as democracy, the balance between development and environment and the education of a growing new generation.