What Is The Brief History Of Cambodia?

A look through Cambodia’s fight for self-identity and control. 

When you think of the colonization and cultural compulsion throughout history, you likely imagine older European nations and empires setting out to conquer people on other continents. Arguably, this is how it has happened throughout time. But for countries like Cambodia, even your neighbors are liable to exert control over you.

Though Cambodia is officially a relatively young country in regards to its independence, the history of the land is ancient and complex. Since its founding land predates Khmer, the country’s dominant language, written records from Chinese cartologists and nobles must be referenced to get a complete timeline.

In addition to these ancient records, archaeological methodology and technological improvements can help describe what life was like for ancient Cambodians. Radiocarbon dating and other methods have uncovered evidence of human presence as far back as the Neolithic period of the Stone Age.

Items excavated by scientists suggest that the settlers were not only technologically advanced for their time but also lived in small, organized groups. In addition to their impressive grasp of metalwork, these settlers cultivated irrigated rice and domesticated animals.

This mastery of agriculture would build a shared economy between some of these scattered groups. As time went on, shared cultural practices and leadership led to the foundation of the Funan Kingdom.

history of cambodia
Image by Vicky T on Unsplash

The first significant outside cultural influence would come from India, around 5th and 6th centuries, according to Asia Society. Civilization was arising in India, which caused a reaction throughout southeast Asia. Although there would not be any direct rule of India over the inhabitants; Indian religion, politics, literature, mythology, and art gradually became integral elements in local Southeast Asian cultures.

A couple of things need to be established to fully appreciate this early history. First, India and China are two of the oldest countries in Asia, and their early civilizations had farther borders than what we recognize today. Second, India had such a deep-rooted impact and hold on this region culturally and religiously because of its proximity and Funan’s access to the Indian Ocean Trade route.

Over the next few centuries, the kingdom would expand its territory and strengthen its economy until its fall somewhere either during the latter half of the 6th century or the early 600s. Historians are contesting the exact date to this day.

Soon after, a successor polity arose. The history of the Chinese Sui dynasty contains records that a state called Chenla sent an embassy to China in 616 or 617 CE. Because of current day disputes over the writings describing the country, it is difficult to assert whether or not Chenla was an independent state or a vassal of Funan.

The most notable event of this state’s existence was that the central land of Chenla was split somewhat horizontally into “Land Chenla” and “Water Chenla” due to some disputes in the royal court. As a result, the southern half was attacked by pirates from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula.

The last of the Water Chenla kings reportedly was killed around 790 CE by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. A battle for control of the land ensued, and the ultimate victor was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His claim to the throne as Jayavarman II marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese authority and marked the beginning of a unified Khmer nation.

This kingdom lasted from 802 CE until 1431 CE and saw many technological and artistic advancements. Jayavarman II would have a steady line of successors, most of whom were successful and popular. Each accomplished something spectacular, from building temples to expanding the kingdom into an empire, and many would consider this the golden age of Khmer civilization.

Jayavarman VII
Bronze replica of one of the twenty-three stone images King Jayavarman VII sent to different parts of his kingdom in 1191. The Walters Art Museum. Photo: Wikipedia

After Jayavarman VII’s death, Cambodia entered a long period of decline that led to its eventual disintegration.

In 1431, the Thai captured Angkor Thom. After that, the Angkorian region did not again possess a royal capital, except for a brief period in the sixteenth century.

From this point, there is much more direct influence and control exerted from outside countries on the Khmer people.

Before the country became a French protectorate in 1863, Cambodia entered a period of stagnation and occupation by Vietnam called the Post-Angkor Period of Cambodia. To prevent the Khmer kingdom from going from vassal to part of Vietnam, the king enlisted the aid of the French to help drive out the occupying forces.

Though signing the protectorate was done to preserve Cambodia’s sovereignty, France continually minimized the king’s power until Prince Norodom Sihanouk was given the throne. This move by the French marked the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Cambodia.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Sihanouk in his coronation regalia, November 1941. Photo: Wikipedia

Japanese control of Cambodia only lasted from 1953 to 1970, but there were some critical choices made by this government that are still in place to this day. The new government did away with the romanization of the Khmer language and officially reinstated the Khmer script.

The country was also able to regain some of its former independence and was even able to declare neutrality in response to the conflict in Vietnam, but this neutrality decree didn’t prevent the country from becoming involved in the Vietnam war. The U.S. eventually became engaged in Cambodian politics because of its shared border with North Vietnam.

Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak in March of 1970. By April, the U.S. and South Vietnam entered Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese bases.

Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak
Sirik Matak walks with US Admiral John S. McCain upon his arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport in 1971. Photo: Wikipedia

Cambodia had to endure numerous bombings and other acts of violence from the U.S., which eventually led to the collapse of the Khmer Republic and the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

When the Vietnam War ended in 1955, the Communist Party of Kampuchea had total control of the country and attempted to completely restructure it. Citizens were forced to evacuate cities to become farmers, religion was suppressed, and the country did not have a currency or a banking system. To make matters worse, targeted violence and chaos befell Cambodians because of the evacuations and continued conflict with Vietnam.

Ceasefire and democracy wouldn’t be established until the UN became involved in 1992.

After centuries of near-constant conflict, Cambodia finally has a chance at reconstruction. Tourism has helped drive the country’s economic growth, with the industry contributing to a significant portion of the gross domestic product.

Despite the rough road it has taken to realize the country’s independence fully, the country finally has the space to establish itself.

Jade Hargrove

Jade is a Georgia native who has enjoys trying new foods, podcasts, and long car rides with friends. She hopes to one day travel to every French-speaking country in the world to experience the different dialects and cultures that can be found around the world.

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