Phnom Penh in 1870


Cambodia’s rich cultural history can be traced back thousands of years, with radiocarbon dating of a cave in the northwestern Battambang province confirming the presence of stone tools from between 7000 to 6000 BC and pottery from 4200 BC.

Southeast Asia’s Iron Age began around 500BC, and ran for around a millennia until the end of the Funan era. The Kingdom of Funan was an ancient Indianised state, which existed from the first to sixth century CE and centred around the Mekong Delta, according to Chinese reports. It was the region’s first great economy, becoming prosperous through maritime trade and agriculture, with houses built on stilts by the rivers and families cultivating rice, fishing and keeping domesticated animals.

The fall of Funan saw the rise of the Chenla Kingdom, which existed from 550 CE to the early ninth century. Like its predecessor Funan, Chenla enjoyed a strategic position being on the confluence of the Indosphere and East Asian cultural sphere maritime trade routes, affording a prolonged socio-economic and cultural influence.

Traditional leaders had been chosen based on their merit in battle and ability to attract a sizeable following, but a shift to consecrated military leaders (“Varman” or protector king) was adopted from the idea from the Hindu state. Hinduism and Buddhism both came with Indianisation, and the religions were allowed to peacefully coexist and flourish during Chenla because they brought great benefits to the ruling kings, who identified themselves with the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva and saw Buddhism motivate the expansion of maritime trading networks.

One of Chenla’s rulers, Isanavarman I, was considered as the founder of the new capital Isanapura in the 7th century, which is now the archaeological site of Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province, just north of the Tonle Sap lake. This was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2017.

According to the New Book of Tang, a work of official history of the Tang dynasty in China, the region was split into Land Chenla and Water Chenla shortly after 706, also referred to as Upper (northern) and Lower (southern) Chenla. The decline of Chenla was caused by further internal divisions and external attacks from the Shailendra dynasty of Java in Indonesia, who eventually took over.

In 790, Javanese ruler Jayavarman II became king of a kingdom called “Kambuja”, moving the capital from Indrapura to Mahendraparvata, in the north of what is now Siem Reap province.

Jayavarman II conducted a grandiose consecration ritual in 802 on the sacred Mount Mahendraparvata, now known as Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap province, to celebrate the independence of “Kambuja” from Javanese dominion. In doing so, he set the foundation of the Angkor period of Cambodian history, and proclaimed himself a universal monarch, or God King. He later moved south from Mahendraparvata to establish the capital of Hariharalaya near the Cambodian town of Rolous. Successors continued to expand the territory of Kambuja, and began extensive building projects, including temples such as Preah Ko and Bakong. There was also significant progress and achievements in technical and artistic areas, as well as political integrity and political stability.

In the late ninth century, King Yasovarman I established the second capital of Khmer Empire, Yasodharapura, which was centred around the temple-mountain Phnom Bakheng, now a popular spot in the Angkor Archaeological Park to view the sunset. Yasovarman I also ordered the construction of huge water reservoirs known as Barays to help supply irrigation to the surrounding plain.

Succeeding monarchs continued to build new capitals in the Angkor area, which reached its greatest geographical extent under King Suryavarman II (1113-1150), directly or indirectly controlling Indochina, the Gulf of Thailand, and large areas of northern maritime Southeast Asia. Suryavarman II commissioned arguably the most accomplished expression of classical Khmer architecture, Angkor Wat, built over 37 years as a representation of the mythical Mount Meru.

Jayavarman VII (1181-1218AD), meanwhile, is widely generally considered to be Cambodia’s greatest King, a prolific builder of monuments including the “Great City” of Angkor Thom, centred around the magnificent Bayon temple with its 216 gigantic smiling stone faces, as well as Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Neak Pean and Sra Srang temples.

With a sophisticated engineered irrigation system helping to maintain a surplus of wet-rice, along with an abundance of fish and aquatic fauna from the nearby Tonle Sap lake for protein, the population flourished. According to Geo-surveys, Angkor accounted for the largest pre-industrial settlement complex in the world during the 12th and 13th centuries (some 750,000 residents).

However by the 14th century, the Khmer Empire had suffered a steady decline, with historians putting the blame on a religious conversion from Vishnuite-Shivaite Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism that affected the social and political systems, Khmer prince power struggles, vassal revolt, foreign invasion, plague, and even climate change.

The era from the early 15th century to the late 19th century is referred to as the “Dark Ages of Cambodia”, or the “Middle Period”. Little is known about this time, with not a single contemporary record of even a king’s name for over two hundred years. Monumental constructions ceased and the political centre shifted southwards to the newly founded Phnom Penh, via Longvek and later, Oudong.

An agreement was signed in 1863 between King Norodom and France to establish a protectorate over the Kingdom, which gradually came under French colonial rule. The 1940–41 Franco-Thai War weakened the French Indochinese position, allowing Japanese to occupy the territory until the end of World War II in 1945.

A young king Norodom Sihanouk then proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea, although the French were able to reimpose colonial administration until 1953, when an agreement was finally made to transfer sovereignty.

Sihanouk attempted to maintain neutrality during the Vietnam War of the mid-1950s and 1960s, but allowed eastern provinces to serve as bases for North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front forces fighting against South Vietnam, with Sihanoukville port used to supply them. He also reportedly invited US planes to bomb these bases along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam, despite publicly opposing it.

With politics becoming increasingly polarised and Paris-educated Cambodian communists starting to lead a clandestine insurgency, General Lon Nol formed a new government in 1966. In 1970, a military coup ousted Sihanouk, and Lon Nol formed an alliance with the US. The monarchy was abolished and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic, with the new regime demanding that Vietnamese communists leave.

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces fought back and quickly overran large sections of eastern Cambodia, handing them over to the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), a clandestine insurgency led by Paris-educated leftists including Son Sen, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot). Sihanouk dubbed this group the Khmer Rouge, or “Red Khmer”.

The CPK grew in strength and independency, aided by supplies and military support from North Vietnam and China, with the carpet bombing of Cambodian territories by US planes reportedly playing a decisive role in the recruitment and popular support from locals.

Three attempts at negotiations between the Lon Nol regime and the insurgents were all unsuccessful, and the Communist troops launched an offensive on New Year’s Day 1975 that culminated in the surrender of Phnom Penh on 17 April, five days after the US mission evacuated Cambodia.

Some historians argue that the US bombing campaign was a significant factor in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, although many say that American intervention had actually helped save the country from collapse in 1970 and 1973.

Upon victory, the country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, with the CPK ordering the evacuation of all towns and cities. The entire urban population was sent to work in the provinces in the attempt to restructure society into an agrarian utopia. Remnants of the old society including currency were abolished, religion was suppressed, and most leaders of the former regime were executed.

Ethnicities such as the Cham (Muslim community) were suffered specific persecution, and many people were also rounded up and executed for the likes of being able to speak a foreign language, wearing glasses, or scavenging for food.

A new constitution was established in January 1976, with a 250-member Assembly selected in March to choose the collective leadership of the State Presidium. Sihanouk was selected as chairman, and became the head of state, but he resigned the following month to allow Khieu Samphan to assume the chair, with Pol Pot as prime minister. Sihanouk was put under virtual house arrest.

The new regime was brutal, with thousands starving or perishing due to disease in the aftermath of the evacuation. Fear amongst the Khmer Rouge leaders was rife, with some even killed for failing to find enough ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to execute.

Studies have estimated the death toll of the Khmer Rouge era at between 740,000 and 3 million. The population of Cambodia was estimated at 7.5 million in 1975.

The Vietnamese army and the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation invaded Cambodia on December 25, 1978. They quickly overran the armed forces of the Khmer Rouge, and on January 7, 1979, they seized the capital and officially toppled the regime. The new People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established, with Heng Samrin as head of state. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces managed to retreat to the jungles of the northwest.

A ten-year period of Vietnamese occupation was plagued by civil war, which saw a further 600,000 flee to refugee camps along the Thai border, with tens of thousands more losing their lives. The Vietnamese withdrew in 1989 to create the State of Cambodia, with peace efforts beginning in Paris and culminating two years later in a comprehensive settlement known as the Paris Peace Accords.

Prince Sihanouk became President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia, with other members of the council returning to Phnom Penh.

In March 1992, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which eventually grew to 22,000 civilians and military peacekeepers, was tasked with enforcing a ceasefire, dealing with refugees and disarmament, and ensuring the conduct of free and fair elections.

About 90 percent of eligible Cambodian voters (over 4 million) participated in May 1993 elections, despite pre-election violence, intimidation and blocking of polling booths, mainly by former Khmer Rouge cadre who had yet to be disarmed.

The election outcome saw the royalist Funcinpec Party, led by Sihanouk’s son Prince Ranariddh, come out on top with 45.5 percent of the vote. This was followed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. A coalition government was formed with two co-prime ministers: Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen, who was a former Khmer Rouge commander that had been originally installed as prime minister of the Communist government by the Vietnamese in 1985.

A 120-member assembly drafted and approved a new constitution, promulgated on September 24, 1993 and establishing a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with Sihanouk elevated to King.

However, the relationship between the two parties suffered from long-standing tensions. In July and August 1997, Hun Sen staged a coup to oust Ranariddh, using his army to purge Funcinpec supporters, with dozens killed in the conflict. Ranariddh went into exile in Paris, while Ung Huot was elected as the new First Prime Minister.

In the 1998 National Assembly elections, CPP received 41% of the vote, Funcinpec 32%, and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) 13%. CPP and Funcinpec formed yet another coalition, with CPP the senior partner. These elections were judged to have been seriously flawed by several international observers, with claims of political violence, intimidation and lack of access for the media.

In 2003, the CPP won a general election by majority, but still not enough to rule outright, so another coalition with Funcinpec was formed in mid-2004. Soon after King Sihanouk, who had urged Funcinpec and the SRP to accept the incumbent Hun Sen as prime minister, announced his abdication. The Royal Council of the Throne selected Prince Norodom Sihamoni over Ranarridh as the new king.

An agreement with the United Nations to establish a tribunal to try senior leaders responsible for atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge was ratified by the National Assembly in October 2004. Millions of dollars from international donors have been spent on the tribunal, also known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which has sentenced several Khmer Rouge leaders to life imprisonment since 2008, including Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Kang Kek Iew (head of the notorious Toul Sleng prison camp, “S21”). Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith both died before cases against them were brought to verdict.