Cambodia’s history begins in the first century A.D with the establishment of the state of Funan. Many modern day Khmer customs and language can be traced back to this period. For example Sanskrit, which is part of the Mon Khmer family dialect, was the written and spoken language of that time. The State of Funan lasted for a period of 600 years and was in effect the precursor to the great Khmer Empire. Early in the 9th century king Jayavarman II claimed independence from the Javanese who had been overseeing the affairs of the Funan kingdom for several hundred years and founded the Khmer kingdom at Angkor. This great dynasty reigned for 650 years and their empire covered much of Southeast Asia. Over the next 150 years the kingdom grew in stature, culminating with King Suryavarman I who extended the kingdom’s territories into southern Thailand and Laos.
Shortly after his death in 1050 however the state fell into disarray. The nearby Cham (from present day Vietnam) seized their opportunity and captured the capital. The Cham conquest was short-lived and within 50 years the Khmer Empire was to reach its zenith under the leadership of Suryavarman II. Widely accepted as the greatest of the Khmer rulers, he oversaw the construction of Angkor’s centerpiece Angkor Wat. Under Suryavarman II the arts flourished and the empire rapidly expanded to include most of Thailand, Laos, southern Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula. Angkor was sacked again by the Cham in 1177, only 25 years after Angkor Wat’s completion. In 1181 King Jayavarman VII fought back and seized the Cham capital at Vijiya, effectively eliminating them as a force in the region. He then embarked on Angkor’s boldest building program with the creation of a massive walled citadel – Angkor Thom, with the Bayon as its centerpiece, characterized by its giant sculptured heads. He also officially made Buddhism the religion of the Khmer Empire. In addition to building the most majestic ceremonial structures Jayavarma VII was also responsible for huge feats of Typeering which included sophisticated irrigation systems, great reservoirs and countless canal systems that guaranteed the transport of goods and food. Some of these systems are still in use today.
Angkor became the capital of a great kingdom and the centre for government, education, religion, and commerce. However, in the late 13th century a sudden shift of power took place. Angkor was invaded and eventually overrun. Mankind's most predominant creation on earth at that time was plunged into total chaos. The entire population and wealth of a once proud civilization was abandoned and covered by tropical forest. Following the abandonment of Angkor, its population migrated south to Long Vek, then further to Ou Dong before eventually settling in Phnom Penh. From the 15th to 17th century Cambodia was periodically encroached upon by neighboring Thai and Vietnamese forces. Eventually in 1863 King Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty with France consequently placing Cambodia under French rule for the next 90 years.
After the death of King Norodom in 1904, Sisowath, cousin to King Norodom was crowned king. However, the throne returned to the Norodom family with the coronation of 18 year old Norodom Sihanouk in 1941. The Japanese occupation in 1942 brought home the realization of just how weak France’s grip on the region had become and in March 1945 the Japanese forces evicted the colonial administration and persuaded King Sihanouk to proclaim independence. The French did not accept the proclamation and when the Japanese left in August of that year, the French returned with an army and dissolved the monarchy in 1946, keeping the King as a titular head of state. But the writing was on the wall for French colonial power and Cambodia was granted independence in 1953. From 1950 to 1970, the Kingdom of Cambodia was self-sufficient and prosperous and was regarded by many as the jewel of the Orient. Unfortunately this prosperity was short lived. As war started to escalate in Vietnam, Cambodia was unable to escape the conflict and eventually allied itself to the Communists of northern Vietnam ultimately leading to Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 by his former commander-in-chief, Marshal Lon Nol. Lon Nol's control over Cambodia lasted for barely five years.
Following Sihanouk’s overthrow the United States announced it was going to intervene with its military to bolster the new regime. The intention was to stop arms reaching southern Vietnam via Sihanoukville. This involved carpet-bombing communist controlled parts of the country, usually the rural areas. This, in turn bred resentment among both the rural population and the communist guerillas that they harbored, towards both the Americans and the relatively protected urban middle class and elite. This resentment of the predominantly wealthy city dwellers was to have dramatic and tragic consequences when the Khmer Rouge gained control in 1975.
The Khmer Rouge – a term first used by Prince Sihanouk – were a communist guerilla army, initially backed by the Chinese and on the side of Sihanouk’s exiled National Union of Cambodia. By 1973, when American bombing ceased, they controlled 60% of the country, mostly rural areas. Up to 1975 they steadily eroded Lon Nol’s control and on April first 1975 he fled Cambodia. Just over 2 weeks later the victorious Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh to declare Cambodia as Democratic Kampuchea. Their leader, Pol Pot, set about creating his ideal for a Marxist agrarian society. One of his first moves was to force the population of the capital out into countryside to work in labor camps. This notion of starting from scratch became known as Year Zero. In the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign of terror that followed it is estimated that between 1 and 1.7 million Cambodians perished – a terrifying figure when considering that the entire country’s population in 1975 numbered little more than 7 million. Food became scarce, mainly due to the inefficient techniques used to manage the collective farms. The Khmer Rouge used fear as their means of control; people could be executed for any slight misdemeanor. Many died of starvation and malaria and still many from overwork. Genocide on an unprecedented scale was inflicted upon the middle classes and the educated, seen by the Khmer Rouge as the natural enemy of the peasant worker, whose cause they championed.
On Christmas day 1978 120,000 Vietnamese troops poured into Cambodia to oust the regime and by January 7 Phnom Penh was liberated. Unfortunately this meant a new set of autocratic rulers now controlled the country, although admittedly a vast improvement on what had come before. Further problems were caused due to the huge numbers of refugees and displaced people as a result of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. The superpowers became polarized: the Chinese continuing to support the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas and the Soviets backed the Vietnamese. It was not until 1989 that the Vietnamese eventually withdrew from Cambodia and the country was re-named "State of Cambodia." In 1991, a Paris Peace Accord created the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) which was backed by some 22,000 United Nations troops to prepare the first, free and fair general election. In May 1993 UNTAC supervised Cambodia's first general election. Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk was subsequently re-instated as King. A second general election was held in July 1998.
Today, the Kingdom of Cambodia is once again a peaceful place to visit. It is, at present, in the process of rebuilding. Cambodia now incorporates a Parliamentary Government system with His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk Varman, King and Head of State. His Majesty effectively remains the symbol of national unity for the people of Cambodia who hold him dear to their hearts even after recently stepping down and handing over the throne to little known Norodom Sihamoni.