Khmer history In the nineteenth century, Adams (1879: 171) wrote, “Unhappy is the Cambodian! Hemmed in between the Siamese on the one hand, and the Annamites [Vietnamese] on the other.” But it has not always been that way. At one time the Khmers (Cambodians) were at the top of the regional hierarchy and created the first major political power and advanced civilization in Southeast Asia (Jumsai 2001: 17-19). The details of the pre-historical period of life in the lands that make up the Cambodia of today remain mostly unknown to historians (Chandler 2000: 9), but it appears humans have been living in the area surrounding the Tonle Sap in present-day Cambodia for at least tens of thousands of years; however, it is unknown if the original human inhabitants were ancestors of the present-day Khmers. However, the evidence does suggest Khmer-Mon people have lived in the area since at least the third century bc (Tully 2005: 7-8). By the first century ad, the people living in present-day Cambodia had created a high-level civilization patterned on the Indian model (Tully 2005: 8); but it should be kept in mind that “Indian influence in Cambodia was not imposed by colonization or by force. Indian troops never invaded Cambodia, and if individual Indians enjoyed high status, as they often did, it was partly by convincing local people that they deserved it” (Chandler 2000: 12). Prior to the creation of the Angkor Kingdom, a nation referred to as Funan was reported to have existed and offered tribute to China; however, it is most likely that Funan was not a united kingdom but a group of loosely connected tribes that banded together to make tribute in order to fit into the Chinese worldview and therefore facilitate international trade (Chandler 2000: 15). The Angkor period is usually marked as starting in ad 802 and ending in 1431 (Chandler 2000: 29); however, recent research on the sediment profiles of the moats surrounding Angkor Wat appears to indicate that a large-scale organized workforce was in the area long after the date normally provided as the end of that period (Penny et al. 2007). There is some ambiguity over the length, beginning, and ending of arguably the region’s greatest civilization, and ambiguity has continued to be an integral feature of the history, politics, and daily lives of
individuals in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia up until the present. King Jayavarman II is considered the founder of the Angkor Kingdom. Not much is known of this monarch and there are no known inscriptions that he authorized still in existence today. Nor is the motivation for moving the kingdom from the Mekong Valley to the northwest region adjoining the Tonle Sap known. However, it has been reported that Jayavarman II performed some type of ritual where he became a “universal monarch,” and that he reigned for almost 50 years and founded a lasting dynasty that was to become one of the most advanced in the world during its existence (Chandler 2000: 34; Jumsai 2001: 19; Tully 2005: 15, 20). By the late eleventh century ad, the Angkor Kingdom had become politically fragmented, and then Suryavarman II came to power and reunited the kingdom. Suryavarman II is best known as the ruler who commissioned the building of the world-famous Angkor Wat, which is the great symbol of Khmer power and whose image can today be seen on the country’s currency and national flag. Angkor Wat was built in devotion to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and was not completed until 1150, after the death of Suryavarman II (Chandler 2000: 49-50; Tully 2005: 26). Life in Angkor and the attitudes of its citizens were most likely quite different from what is seen today in modern Cambodia; however, the builders of Angkor are believed to be the direct ancestors of the Khmers of the twenty-first century. The majority of the population of Angkor were slaves; however, slavery during that time period appears to have been quite nuanced, not all slaves fell into a single category and absolute control by a master was apparently not universal. Evidence indicates that both pre-Angkor and Angkor societies were split into the elites, who understood Sanskrit, at least in its written form, and the masses, who only understood the Khmer language. As no popular literature of the period has survived, what is known about Angkor almost entirely comes from the elite’s perspective. Angkor was a multi-ethnic empire that was dominated by a single ethnic group, the Khmers (Chandler 2000: 21, 23, 47, 48; Tully 2005: 17, 21). By the end of the twelfth century, Jayavarman VII came to power and a major shift from Hinduism toward Mahayana Buddhism took place. It is thought that the Angkor Kingdom reached its zenith during Jayavarman VII’s reign, with the empire extending throughout Southeast Asia into the present-day countries of Myanmar/Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Many impressive structures were built during this period, including the incredible Bayon found at Angkor Thom. The Bayon was initially built as a Buddhist structure, a fact that was not rediscovered until the 1920s due to the subsequent reworking of the structure in order to hide its Buddhist origins by more traditional Hindu elements of the Empire in the years following the death of Jayavarman VII. Angkor might have been the largest city in the pre-industrial world, with evidence the population might have been as high as one million (Chandler 2000: 56, 61, 67; Sharrock 2009; Tully 2005: 26-7, 39, 44). “The largest change affecting Cambodia in the thirteenth century was the conversion of most of the people to the Theravada variant of Buddhism” (Chandler
2000: 68). This conversion may have been the result of an increasing number of Tai speakers into the regions controlled by Angkor and the influence of Mon Buddhist missionaries. While Theravada Buddhism had many features in common with Mahayana Buddhism as practiced at the time in Angkor, there were also some differences. Theravada Buddhism taught that one’s own actions carried out while living a humble and modest life would lead to nibbana, while Mahayana Buddhism placed more emphasis on achieving nibbana via appeals to various bodhisattvas, or “Buddhist saints” for want of a better term (Chandler 2000, 69: Tully 2005: 39). The demise of Angkor is a mystery that has not been solved to the satisfaction of all historians. The Siamese (Thais), who had previously been vassals of the Khmers, apparently launched a large-scale and successful assault on Angkor around 1431, which seems to have played a part in the moving of the capital of the Khmer civilization to Phnom Penh. Other factors given for the decline of Angkor include ecological degradation and the impact of Theravada Buddhism on the population. Although conventional wisdom has been that Angkor was suddenly abandoned, evidence indicates that Angkor Thom was only abandoned in 1629, nearly 200 years after the attacks by the Siamese, and other parts of Angkor were rebuilt as late as 1747 (Tully 2005: 17, 49; Vickery 2004). From the beginning of the fourteenth century until the middle of the sixteenth century, there are very few surviving inscriptions of life in the Khmer Kingdom. Although decline is the common term used to refer to this time period, Chandler (2000: 78-9) cautioned against taking an overly negative view of the era. Change from a centralized political structure that built massively in stone to a more decentralized political system may not have had a seriously negative effect on the majority of the population even if it makes this later period of less interest to historians and archeologists. However, the loss of the Saigon (Prey Nokor) and the Mekong Valley in the 1620s to the Nguyen (Vietnamese) had the effect of cutting off the Khmer Kingdom from maritime trade, which weakened the country politically and may have resulted in Cambodia losing some sovereignty to its two neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. In general, Cambodia’s historical relations with Thailand have been different and less confrontational than its relations with Vietnam, which may be attributed to the sharing of a common religion. It has been speculated that the current situation, where the majority of the Khmer population are mostly occupied with activities related to agriculture, monastic life, and roles in the government, and where most commercial activities are carried out by ethnic minorities, can be traced back to the days before French colonization and can be partially attributed to the conversion of the population to Theravada Buddhism (Chandler 2000: 77, 95, 100, 115; Tully 2005: 56, 62). The French colonial period of Indochina began in 1858 when French marines came ashore near Saigon under the pretense of protecting French Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese converts to Catholicism; the Vietnamese military forces were no match for a modern European army and the French military victory set the stage for the mission of protection that would evolve into outright
occupation. The French established a protectorate in Cambodia in 1863 and this gradually evolved through various stages into Cambodia becoming a fully fledged French colony. At first, the French preferred to rule through the traditional system; however, King Norodom proved to be a less than reliable puppet and was in 1884 forced under the threat of physical harm to revise the original treaty giving France complete control over administrative, judicial, and commercial matters (Chandler 2000: 137; Tully 2005: 80-8). The French ruled and viewed Cambodia through a colonial prism and Cambodian opinions were mostly discounted. Most of the French literature of the colonial era takes a romantic view of the Khmer people and refers to them as lazy, obedient, and in need of French protection. The costs of running the colony in Cambodia were consistently higher than the income it provided and this fact was often blamed by the French on the Cambodian royal family and local administrators. King Norodom was blamed by the French for holding up reforms; however, after 40 years a new ruler, King Sisowath, came to power and modernization progressed somewhat under programs including those to abolish slavery, update the legal code, limit corruption, create a civil service workforce hired by merit, and improve the nation’s infrastructure. Similar to what was seen in Laos, over time a significant number of Vietnamese become important in the administration of the country, which may have been a factor in developing a stronger sense of Cambodian nationalism that became more evident in the twentieth century (Chandler 2000: 139; Tully 2005: 88, 92, 103). Up until the time of World War II, there was not a substantial anti-French Cambodian national movement, yet there was an uprising against the French of considerable scale in 1885-86 that required the French to back down on some demands for reforms in exchange for King Norodom’s support in restoring peace and stability. Most rural Khmers had no direct dealing with the French and complaints were mostly directed at local Khmer administrators, not toward the central government controlled by the foreigners. The image of Cambodia during French rule that most likely springs to mind in western observers is of a peaceful backwater filled with charming peasants. But, there was also a dark side to the period as the French allowed the police to use brutal methods, squeezed the population through heavy taxes, and brought in Vietnamese civil servants to run much of the day-to-day government operations, therefore lessening the opportunities for Khmers to advance professionally and gain skills while under French rule. While it is popular these days to demonize all aspects of the colonial rule in Asia and other locations, the population of Cambodia probably increased fourfold during the period of French rule, which would appear to indicate the country made significant “progress” in the fields of health, agriculture, and other areas that were needed to support a larger population during this period (Chandler 2000: 4; Tully 2005: 89, 97, 99, 103). World War II was obviously a turning point for colonialism in Asia, and this was also true in Cambodia. The Japanese controlled Indochina through the existing French administration until March 9, 1945 when the Japanese military government easily crushed the French resulting in the Japanese government
decreeing the independence of the Asian nations under its control, possibly to gain allies in a final attempt to come to some form of victory, or at least a stalemate in the war. King Sihanouk was placed on the throne in 1941 because the French believed they could easily manipulate this young and inexperienced member of the royal family. In 1945, he declared Cambodia’s independence as directed by Tokyo. However, after the war finally ended, the French quickly returned (Chandler 2000: 167; Tully 2005: 104, 109-10). The defeat of the British, French, and American colonial powers by the Japanese, albeit temporary, destroyed the myth of the superiority of the “white man.” However, this was not immediately evident to the government leaders in Europe. The French attempted to reestablish their position as colonial master in Indochina after the end of World War II; however, resistance to a return to the old order was fierce and, following the French military defeat by Vietnamese forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French reluctantly agreed to the conditions of the peace conference held in Geneva in 1954. The Franco-Khmer treaty of 1949 established Cambodia as an independent nation within the French Union; however, Cambodia’s sovereignty was severely restricted under this treaty. Sihanouk began his royal crusade for independence in March 1953 and, by October of the same year, the French approved the right of the king to have authority over Cambodia’s armed forces, judiciary, and foreign affairs. On November 9, 1953, the last French troops left Cambodia and independence was finally recognized on July 21, 1954 (Chandler 2000: 172, 177, 185; Tully 2005: 81, 103, 117, 119, 121). A limited form of democratic-style politics began in Cambodia prior to independence and King Sihanouk was an active participant. The political party called the Democrats won a resounding victory in 1951 over the Liberals, who were supported by the King and the French. Shortly after this first attempt at democracy in Cambodia, a coup was launched against the Democrat government of Huy Kanthoul, who was removed from power, and Sihanouk again became the dominant figure in Cambodia’s political life. Afterwards, Sihanouk was able to take the lion’s share of the credit for Cambodia gaining its independence from France and Sihanouk leveraged this popularity into political power. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated his throne in order to be able to directly run the country and the next period of political life in Cambodia was dominated by this single larger than life figure (Chandler 2000: 188-9; Tully 2005: 114, 117, 121, 128-9, 132). Independence most probably meant little to the average person residing in Cambodia’s villages. Life went on pretty much the same as before, and the common man believed politics were the concerns of the city and elites, and who ran the country had little to no effect on the lives of the vast majority. However, this was about to change, and the worldwide competition between the forces of market economies and democracies and the forces of communist ideology soon affected the entire population of the country. Initially, Sihanouk accepted US military aid but, in a major shift in policy in 1963, stopped receiving US aid in an attempt to appear neutral. Although some of the funding gap was picked
up by China, this decision had major economic consequences for the nation. Sihanouk broke off diplomatic relations with the United States in 1965 and then entered into a secret alliance with the North Vietnamese in 1966. Slowly Sihanouk’s iron grip on the nation began to slip and, on March 17, 1970, a coup took place that overthrew the government and a new government with Lon Nol as the head was formed. The National Assembly quickly made the change in government official and Sihanouk was no longer in control (Chandler 187, 191, 194, 200, 204; Tully 2005: 145, 148; 151). Sihanouk, Communist China, and Communist North Vietnam quickly placed the blame for the coup on the United States and labeled Lon Nol as nothing but a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) puppet. The coup opened a major rift in Cambodian society between those who supported the coup and opposed communism, and those who opposed the coup, mostly because of support for Sihanouk and the institution of the royal family, not necessarily because of support for Sihanouk’s communist allies. By 1970, the influence of the communist party of Cambodia had increased rapidly and it was at the time controlling around 20 percent of the nation’s territory. Only a week after the coup that caused his ouster, Sihanouk announced the formation of the National United Front of Kampuchea, which joined forces with the Khmer Rouge in the battle for the country. Although the leadership of the Khmer Rouge was dominated by hard-line communists, most support for the removal of the Lon Nol government was due to support for Sihanouk. The Lon Nol government had a number of weaknesses and, when a stroke robbed the government of the full facilities of its leader, problems mounted (Chandler 2000: 202, 296; Tully 2005: 154-8). The war began to go badly for the Lon Nol Government and Phnom Penh fell to the communists on April 17, 1975. Within hours of taking over the city, the Khmer Rouge ordered the entire population of approximately 2 million in Phnom Penh to leave their homes and go to the countryside to begin growing rice. Democratic Kampuchea was formed and the Khmer Rouge ruled, or more accurately misruled, the country from April 1975 until January 1979. Prince Sihanouk was made the first head of state under the Khmer Rouge but was given no real power and, by 1976, he was forced to retire. On the day of the conquest of the Cambodian capital, Pol Pot issued the following eight points that emphasized the radical nature of the new rulers: evacuate people from all towns, abolish all markets, abolish the use of the Lon Nol regime’s currency (and delay the issuing of the revolutionary currency that had already been printed), defrock all Theravada Buddhist monks and force them to labor alongside all others, execute all leaders of the old regime, establish cooperatives with communal eating as a major feature, expel all Vietnamese from the country, and dispatch troops to the Vietnamese border. It is impossible to know exactly how many people died due to the policies of the Khmer Rouge, but Tully believed 1.7 million was a reasonable estimate (Chandler 2000, 208-11; Tully 2005, 172, 178). The brutality of the Khmer Rouge has been well documented, and it is felt there is no need to go into all the details in this volume. Furthermore, the debate about the cause of the Khmer Rouge’s brutality has been an intensely emotional
topic of debate with many with rather leftist political orientations placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the US bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia prior to the Khmer Rouge’s takeover (for an example, see Model 2005). Taking an opposing view, Eanes (2002) thought it was the mixture of a radical and untested communist ideology alongside various domestic factors that led to such awful consequences. Ear (1995) exposed the strong support many members of Western academia gave to the Khmer Rouge during the initial stages of its rule and speculated this support may have contributed to the outside world failing to respond rapidly to this tragedy. It is unlikely that any one factor can be singled out as the cause of this horrible period in time and it appears unlikely that the causes of the massacres and misguided policies can be identified to the satisfaction of all individuals at the present. Although the Khmer Rouge attempted to isolate the country from the outside world, international political struggles would again change the country’s history. Because of the constant purges of members of the Cambodian communist party, many members of the military and government, including Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, fled to Vietnam and began working with the Vietnamese to affect regime change back in Cambodia. Vietnam and its main ally, the Soviet Union, felt threatened by the expansion of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia (China was the Khmer Rouge’s major backer) and on Christmas Day 1978 the Vietnamese military launched a well-planned and well-executed, lightening-quick attack that overran the Khmer Rouge’s military forces and resulted in Vietnamese control of most of the country within three weeks (Chandler 2000: 222-5; Pribbenow 2006; Stuart-Fox 2003: 199; Tully 2005: 192-3). While the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge ended this nightmarish period, the Vietnamese occupation of the country did not create the conditions needed for rapid economic growth and expansion. The establishment of a pro-Soviet Vietnamese regime in Cambodia upset the balance of power in Southeast Asia, which alarmed the United States, Thailand, China, and other ASEAN countries. This alarm resulted in outside influences keeping the Khmer Rouge alive as well as providing international support to opponents of the Vietnamese-backed government, including the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, in order to weaken the Vietnamese position in Southeast Asia. The new Vietnamese-controlled government led by Heng Samrin attempted to rebuild the country and actually spent considerable sums of money, even though this was a drain on Vietnam as at the time the Vietnamese economy was in disarray (Jeldres 1993: 105; Stuart-Fox 2003: 201; Tully 2005: 202, 209, 216). In 1982, two non-communist groups joined with the Khmer Rouge to create the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, which was supported, both financially and diplomatically, by the United States, China, and ASEAN, and occupied Cambodia’s United Nations (UN) seat despite being controlled by Khmer Rouge leadership. However, over time, the power of the Khmer Rouge faded away. The Vietnamese control over Cambodia also gradually declined throughout the 1980s and, with the ending of the cold war, led to the UN (UNTAC) mission that began in the country in 1992. The UNTAC mission was
to help in the transfer of control from the Vietnamese-dominated government to a democratically elected Khmer government. This mission had a significant number of problems, attributed to the bureaucratic nature of the UN, the lack of Asian and Cambodian experience of the UN staff, and the perception of the locals of the arrogant and extravagant behavior of the UN staff, largely due to the huge income difference between the UN-paid foreigners and the local population (Chandler 2000: 228; Jeldres 1993). The UN sponsored elections and the results could be considered unique and somewhat confusing. In 1993, over four million Cambodians went to the polls, but no single party gained a majority. FUNCINPEC, a loose coalition centered around a royalist theme, won the most votes but not a majority, while the party in power, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), finished in second place. However, the ruling CPP refused to give up power. In a compromise that can only be considered bizarre, the UN approved a power-sharing plan where there were two governments, one led by First Prime Minister Ranariddh and FUNCINPEC, and another government led by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP. The UN, after spending so much money and time to rebuild the country, moved out with Cambodia still divided and left it up to the Khmer people to sort out the situation. Hun Sen and the CPP controlled the military and therefore it is not surprising that in the end the Second Prime Minister was able to oust the First Prime Minister and take control of the nation (Tully 2005: 221-6). Since that time, the CPP and Hun Sen have strengthened their grip on power and have won elections that appear to reflect the will of the people. While Hun Sen and the CPP have been targets of extreme criticism in the Western media, they have been able to guide the country through extremely turbulent times toward something resembling peace and stability, and they will likely be the dominant political force in the country for some time to come (Chandler 2000: 244; Downie and Kingsbury 2001; Header 2005).