In the context of Southeast Asia, the history of Cambodia is atypical. The Khmers have seen them all: foreign occupation; tributes to more powerful kings; strange turns in their political and ethnical status; the light of an empire; and the sad realities of dictatorship and genocide.
The Dawn of Times
Much is known about the early formation and development of the Khmers in the area. Due to the highly diverse relief, the first clans and kingdoms (i.e. Funan and Chenla) were initially spread over the territory, but soon gathered along the two main rivers – Tonlé Sap and the Mekong Delta.
Agriculture proved effective and the peaceful Khmers soon experienced economic growth, which led to various shifts of power from one ruler to another. Thus, in the 9th century, the Khmer civilization was already consistent enough to move to a new level.
The Unique Angkor Empire
For more than half a millennium, the Angkor civilization flourished, as a counterpart to other societies and empires (Indians, Mongols and Chinese). Their strength in the region is still visible today: the Angkor complex near Siem Reap is a place of historical interest today, as the center that embodies the essence of this lost civilization.
From roughly the 15th century to 1863, the Khmers were ruled either by local kings with very limited power, or, alternatively, by the Thai and the Vietnamese. This increased the instability in the area, not only at a political level, but also ethnical, social, and even cultural. The Khmers weren’t bound together anymore.
The French Protectorate – Influences and Repercussions
In 1863, the Khmers obtained the protection of the French and became officially part of the French Indochina. However, even if this implied a new wave of impoverishment, it proved rather effective for what was later to become Cambodia: local intellectuals had now better access to vast knowledge and the economy of the region could be shaped in a more effective manner.
The Red Khmers, the Monarchy and Present Days
After the WWII and the Japanese occupation in French Indochina, Cambodia returned to monarchy. In the seventh decade, the society faced a rapid transition and drastic social changes which led, in 1975, to the Khmer Rouge rule and, later, to war with the Vietnamese. This period was marked by famine and massive genocide, and it is regarded as one of the most dramatic ages in the history of the country. The last decade of the 20th century brought a relative stability in Cambodia. Assisted by international organizations, Cambodia has experienced in the past two decades a fast and effective economic growth.
Timeline of Cambodian History
- -800 – Various kingdoms in the area of today’s Cambodia
- 802 – Jayavarman II declares himself “universal monarch”
- 889 – The Capital is moved to Angkor
- 1219 – The Death of Jayavarman VII destabilizes the empire
- 1431 – Angkor is conquered by the Thais
- 1431-1863 – Various foreign rulers impose tributes and taxes to the Khmer kings
- 1863 – The French Protectorate begins
- 1941-1945 – The Japanese occupation
- 1953 – King Sihanouk unifies the country
- 1970-1975 – Civil War
- 1975-1979 – The Khmer Rouge Rule
- 1979- – Transition and reconstruction of the country, now a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.
- 2004 – King Norodom Sihanouk abdicates in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni