Before the Civil War
Our intention is to provide a general overview of Cambodia’s history, from the earliest known records up until modern time. This is by no means a complete or scholarly report; it’s simply a summary of major points. Since the focus of our museum is the sad civil war that has done – and continues to do – damage to our people, that section will be the most extensively developed.
According to traditional stories, an Indian Brahman named Kaudinya was sailing by, and a princess, daughter of a dragon king, paddled out to meet him. He shot an arrow into her boat, scaring her into accepting his demand to marry her. To pay the dowry, her father swallowed up the waters of the land, and presenting them to Kaudinya, made him ruler over the land which would be named Kambuja.
Carbon dating shows that pottery left behind by cave dwellers in what is now Cambodia dates back to about 4300 BC. While it’s not clear if those peoples were ancestors of the modern Khmer, there is more evidence that by about 1500 BC, the ancestors of the modern people of Cambodia were present.
From about the 1st century to the 9th, various small kingdoms, with a large Indian influence, arose among the Khmers. As a major point on the trade route between India and China, it also participated in trade itself, mainly raw spices.
Funan was the Chinese name for one of these small states, and most likey occupied what is now southeast Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. It appears to have been the largest state in the region, and according to contemporary Chinese records, the people embraced both Buddhism as well as Hindu gods like Vishnu and Shiva.
By the 6th century population centers formed along the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers – which remains true today. This coincides with the development of wet-rice agriculture. Government during this period, known as the Chenla period – probably another large state like Funan – was by autocratic monarchs and seems to have been related to Indian-type caste systems.
The Angkor Empire
From about the 9th century, the Angkor empire begin to arise and unite the region and eventually make it Southeast Asia’s most powerful kingdom. At the mountain Phnom Kulen there is an inscription to Jayavarman II, who ruled the first half of the century, declaring him universal monarch and god-king. Through both peaceful and bellicose means, he united most of the current Cambodian territory.
Irrigation was the great technological development that allowed for the rise of this kingdom. The great reservoir of Indratataka was built in the 2nd half of the 9th century under Indravarman. At the same time art began to develop, like the Bakong temple.
Things weren’t always smooth sailing; the empire waxed and waned throughout the years. The greatest building projects were generally undertaken after periods of great stress, probably an effort by the rulers to both celebrate and legitimize their rule.
In the first half of the 12th century, Suryavarman II came to power and waged wars against regions of Vietnam. He also commissioned Angkor Wat, perhaps the best know of all the temples, and dedicated to Vishnu.
In 1177 the Chams – a people of central Vietnam who had been conquered by Suryavarman – rebelled, conquering even the city of Angkor and killing King Dharanindravaram. But a year later, a new leader rallied the Khmer and downed the Chams in a naval battle. This leader would become Jayavarman VII. It was he who would build Angkor Thom and embark on an aggressive campaign of construction. He is depicted in some art as a ferocious military leader, and yet in other places as meditative. He disposed of the caste system and sought to build schools, hospitals and roads. Yet he was probably overly aggressive in this regard, seeking rapid development and pressing workers and resources too hard, which led to decline.
The Decline of the Angkor Kingdom
Even while its greatest architectural achievements were being constructed, Angkor may have already been in decline. The irrigation system and deforestation were too great; religious conflicts entered, and overwork and taxes left the population worn out.
The more distant parts of the kingdom began to slip away, at the same time that the Thai kingdom began to grow. There were repeated Thai attacks on Angkor, and the city was overcome in 1431, and many intellectuals, dancers and artisans were taken away. Many Khmer elite moved to the area of Phnom Penh, which would eventually become the new capital.
From about the turn of the 17th century, internal weakness and infighting led to the Khmer people to alternately seek protect from Vietnamese or Thai powers. Of course the aid did not come freely; for instance, Vietnam was granted the rights of the Mekong Delta, which is still known as Lower Cambodia by the Khmer.
Cambodia, as a distinct entity, probably only survived because the Vietnamese were distracted by infighting, and the Thai by fighting with the Burmese.
In 1864 the French arrived and with their gunboat pressured Kong Norodom to accept the status of a French protectorate – in reality, the country may have succumbed to either their eastern or western neighbors otherwise. But already in 1870 the French demanded more control and in 1884 forced the king into signing the country into a colonial status. This led to a two-year rebellion and the king finally begged the rebels to set down their arms.
The French helped build the pomp of the royal Cambodian court, and even persuaded Thailand to return Siem Reap, Battambang, and Sisophon to Cambodian control, while some Lao territory would be ceded to Thailand. And so Angkor returned to Cambodia afteer more than a hundred years.
During World War II the Japanese conquest extended to Cambodia, but with many in France sympathetic to the Nazi allies of Japan, there remained French control in the country. But part of the deal was that parts of Siem Reap and Battambang were returned to Thailand (somewhat allied to Japan); they would become part of Cambodia once again in 1947.
When Paris fell, the Japanese took more direct control of Cambodian affairs, but after the war, the country was made an autonomous state of the French Union, but France definitely remained in control. The French were also at war within Laos and Vietnam, and its effects spilled into Cambodia as well.
The Era of Sihanouk
King Sihanouk sought and obtained recognition of Cambodia as an independent country by 1954, at the Geneva Conference. Shortly thereafter, he resigned the monarchy (to be succeeded by his father). He founded the People’s Socialist Community, and this new political party swept the 1955 parliamentary elections.
Sihanouk did not like the Vietnamese communists, but trusted even less the Thais and South Vietnamese. He declared the country neutral, refused further US aid, and nationalized the rice trade. He was convinced that the US was plotting against him, and therefore broke off diplomatic relations and began to align more with the Chinese and North Vietnamese.
This created obvious tension with conservative elements, but at the same time he was stifling political debate and that, along with high levels of corruption, was alienating the left. A rural rebellion broke out in 1967 and Sihanouk was convinced that it was the left that was the most serious threat, and more extreme measures were implemented to suppress such groups.
The year 1969 saw greater conflict between the armed forces and the rebels, greater intrusion by Vietnamese seeking refuge, and a decline in Sihanouk’s power. In March of 1970, General Lon Nol, and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, a cousin of Sihanouk, deposed Sihanouk, who was visiting France.
Sihanouk ended up in Beijing, leading a government in exile allied with an indigenous revolutionary movmement called the “Khmer Rouge” by the deposed leader. It was their loyalty to their leader – more than a political affinity for Mao or Marx – that apparently led to their allegiance.
And these were the dark moments that led the country into civil war.