A Brief History of Cambodia

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Cambodia

Cambodia has a rich and fascinating history. The first humans in Cambodia were Stone Age hunters and gatherers. However, farming was introduced into Cambodia in about 2,300 BC. The first farmers in Cambodia used stone tools but from about 1,500 BC the Cambodians used tools and weapons made from bronze. By about 500 BC they had learned to use iron.

The first civilization in the area arose about 150 AD in the Mekong River delta in South Vietnam. This civilization was known to the Chinese who called it Fu-nan.

While Fu-nan was trading with the Chinese Cambodian society grew more sophisticated. Settlements grew larger. So did kingdoms. By the beginning of the 7th century AD, all of Cambodia was highly civilized.

At first, Cambodia was divided into rival states. However, at the beginning of the 9th century, a king named Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire. (The empire included not just Cambodia but most of mainland Southeast Asia).

The Khmer Empire in Cambodia

Like all early civilizations, the Khmer Empire was an overwhelmingly agricultural society, Although there were many craftsmen the great majority of the people were farmers. Their staple diet was rice.

The Khmers were animists. They believed that spirits inhabited natural phenomena such as the earth and trees. Later Indian religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) were introduced but they co-existed with traditional beliefs. The rich and powerful built fine temples (the only stone buildings in Cambodia). They were richly decorated with fine stone carvings. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat which was built in the early 12th century.

The Khmer Empire was prosperous and powerful. Then about 1000 AD, King Jayavarman V was killed. Civil war followed until Suryavarman I founded another dynasty. By 1011 he was in control of Cambodia. However, his dynasty only lasted until 1080 when it was replaced by another.

In 1177 a people called the Chams from Champa (on the coast of Vietnam) invaded Cambodia. However, King Jayavarman VII managed to drive them out by 1183, and between 1203 and 1220 he was able to force the Chams to submit to him. Nevertheless, by the mid-13th century, the Khmer kingdom was in decline.

In 1431 the Thais captured the Cambodian capital, Angkor. Afterward, it was abandoned and a new capital was founded at Phnom Phen. By the mid-16th century, Angkor was overgrown by the jungle and it was accidentally re-discovered by a Cambodian king.

During the 16th century, Cambodian power continued to decline. At the end of the century, Cambodia fell under Thai suzerainty (loose control). In 1594 the Thais captured the capital. After that, they dominated the region.

From the middle of the 17th century, the power of Vietnam grew. In the early 17th century the Cambodians controlled parts of what is now South Vietnam. They held a port called Prey Nokor. (Later it was renamed Saigon). In the late 17th century Prey Nokor fell under Vietnamese rule.

During the 18th century, Cambodia found itself squeezed between two powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. The Thais invaded Cambodia several times in the 18th century and in 1772 they destroyed Phnom Phen. In the last years of the 18th century, the Vietnamese also invaded Cambodia. The Cambodian king was forced to look to the Thais for protection. In return, Thailand took northwest Cambodia.

Cambodia in the 19th century

In the early 19th century King Chan (1806-1834) turned to the Vietnamese for protection from the Thais! The Thais were annoyed by this policy and when a rebellion occurred in South Vietnam in 1833 they took advantage by invading Cambodia. However, the Vietnamese king crushed the rebellion and the Thai army retreated.

As a result, the Vietnamese emperor strengthened his control over Cambodia. When Cambodian King Chan died in 1834 one of his daughters was installed as Queen and Vietnamese people settled in Cambodia. The Vietnamese regarded the Cambodians as ‘barbarians’ and tried to ‘civilize’ them by teaching them Vietnamese customs.

The resentment of Vietnamese influence led to a rebellion in 1840-1841. The Thais invaded again to re-assert their control of Cambodia.

However, in the 1850s French missionaries arrived in Cambodia. The Cambodian king turned to the French to protect him from both the Thais and the Vietnamese. So in 1863, Cambodia became a French protectorate.

Cambodia in the 20th century

Under French rule, some economic development took place in Cambodia. Roads and railways were built and in the 1920s a rubber industry grew. However, the Cambodians were forced to pay heavy taxes and from the 1930s Cambodian nationalism grew.

Then in 1941, Cambodia was occupied by the Japanese. However, at first, they allowed French officials to remain in their posts but in March 1945 as the Japanese were losing the war they desperately tried to curry favor with the Cambodians. They arrested French officials and declared Cambodia independent. However, when the Japanese surrendered the French took over again. They arrived in October 1945.

This time the French did allow the Cambodians to have political parties and a constitution. By a treaty of 1949 Cambodia was made semi-independent. Then in 1952 King Sihanouk dismissed the government and took personal control of the country. Events then moved swiftly. On 9 November 1953, the French finally allowed Cambodia to become fully independent, and in 1955 Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father, and elections were held.

Sihanouk formed his own political movement. From 1955 to 1970 he dominated politics in Cambodia so much so that it is sometimes called the ‘Sihanouk era’. In 1960, when his father died, he named himself ‘Chief of State’. Sihanouk called his movement ‘Buddhist Socialism’. However, it was not socialist at all.

Sihanouk’s reign began to crumble in 1968 when the communists began a civil war. In 1970 Sihanouk left the country. While he was away the National Assembly voted to remove him as chief of state. Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic.

However, the communists slowly made headway. The Americans bombed Cambodia to try and stop the communists. Nevertheless, they captured Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975.

The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia

In 1975 a horrific and tragic era of Cambodian history began in the reign of the Khmer Rouge. They were led by Pol Pot (or Saloth Sar) also known as ‘Brother Number One’. How many people were killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is not known for certain but it was probably at least 1.5 million and it may have been as many as 3 million. Pol Pot declared that history would begin again in Cambodia. The first year of the revolution was now the first year of history.

In 1975 Cambodia was a mainly agricultural country. Pol Pot decided it should be completely agricultural. This meant all the people from the towns and cities were forced to move to the countryside. Pol Pot also decided that agricultural output should double in 4 years (a totally unrealistic target). Private property was banned and collective farms were formed. They were supposed to grow 3 tonnes of rice per hectare (again a completely unrealistic target). People were made to work very long hours to try and grow the extra rice. They were given insufficient food and many fell ill and died from a combination of exhaustion and malnutrition.

That was not all. Religion was banned in Cambodia (people caught practicing Buddhism were executed). Family relationships were banned (on the grounds that parents exploited their children).

Furthermore, the smallest infringement of the rules resulted in execution. Although they were half-starved people caught foraging for food were executed. People were also executed for being lazy. Needless to say, anyone who complained was executed.

Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge murdered intellectuals. Soon people who could speak a foreign language or who wore glasses were executed. This nightmarish situation was only ended by a war with Vietnam. The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and quickly prevailed. Unfortunately, Pol Pot escaped and he did not die until 1998.

Pol Pot’s soldiers fled to Thailand and they were welcomed by the Thai who feared a Vietnamese invasion. The Khmer Rouge continued a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese. However, the Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.

Afterward, negotiations began among several different parties. The result was the Paris Peace Accords of 1991. Communism was abandoned in Cambodia and a provisional government ruled until 1993 when elections were held and a constitution was framed. Sihanouk was made a constitutional monarch.

However, the Khmer Rouge refused to take part in the elections and they continued their guerrilla war. Fortunately, Pol Pot’s second in command Ieng Sary defected in 1996. Many Khmer Rouge troops followed him. Pol Pot himself died in 1998 and peace returned to Cambodia.

In 1999 Cambodia joined ASEAN.

Cambodia in the 21st century

In 2004 King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated. His son became King Norodom Sihamoni in his place.

Today Cambodia is still a poor country but there is every reason to be optimistic about its future. In the early years of the 21st Century, the Cambodian economy grew rapidly.

Today the economy of Cambodia is growing strongly. The textile industry in Cambodia is booming so is tourism. Cambodia is growing more and more prosperous.

In 2005 oil was discovered in the sea off Cambodia and it holds great promise for the future. In 2024 the population of Cambodia was 17 million.


Last revised 2024