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Our knowledge of Cambodia’s very early history is limited. From the discoveries that have been made, we know that the earliest inhabitants of Cambodia came to Indochina in several great waves of migration over a period of at least a thousand years.
One wave of people came northward from the island chains that are now called Malaysia and Indonesia. They were brown-skinned people whose way of life involved fishing and growing rice. Another great wave came southward from Tibet and China. These yellow-skinned people possessed metal-working skills and the tradition of domesticating animals. By about 350 B.C., these two waves of migrating people had met in Indonesia and blended to form a cluster of new people and cultures. The Khmer, who lived in present-day northern Cambodia, were one of these people.
These early Khmer lived in small settlements along waterways. They fished, farmed, and raised cattle and pigs. They also hunted, using spears and bows and arrows. In the first century A.D., the first great Khmer civilization arose in Cambodia. It was called Funan. Although the Funanese left no written records and no great buildings, we know of them through the writings of Chinese travelers who visited the country. About 245 A.D. a Chinese ambassador named K’ang T’si traveled to Funan. Upon returning to China, he described Funan as a land so hot that the people wore no clothing, and so rich that taxes were paid in gold, jewels, and precious perfumes.
Although the people of Funan were Khmers, much of the Funanese culture was borrowed from India. Traders and wandering scholars from India had reached Southeast Asia as early as 100 B.C. Along with trading goods, the Indian travelers brought Sanskrit, the language of their country. In Funan, Sanskrit began to be used for religious writings and court ceremonies (the Khmer language continued to be used for everyday business). The Indians also brought the two great religions of their country: Hinduism and Buddhism. Some Khmers were attached with Buddhism, but Hinduism won so many followers that it became the state religion of Funan. Hindu gods and rituals became part of Khmer culture.
Late in the sixth century, Chenla grew strong and threw off Funan’s overlordship. Then, in 598, a king named Bhavavarman claimed rulership of both Funan and Chenla. From that time on, Funan ceased to exist as a separate state. It was absorbed into Chenla. The quarrels among members of ruling family led to the break-up of the state in the 7th century. It was divided into Land Chenla, a farming culture located north of the Tonle Sap, and Water Chenla, a trading culture along the southern Mekong River. The rulers of Java, an island kingdom in what is now Indonesia, acquired some control over Chenla and took members of the Khmer royal family to live in Java.
In the late 8th century, Khmer princes returned from Java to establish a new kingdom in Cambodia. This new state dominated Indochina for many centuries. It was called Kambuja (from which the name “Cambodia” is taken), and one of its first great rulers was Jayavarman II, who gained the throne about 802. Jayavarman’s actions set the patterns for Kambujan society for years to come. He united the country and was worshiped as a god-king. The people living during that period devoted much of their time to building magnificent temples and court buildings for the glory of their god-king. Jayavarman declared Kambuja free of all control by Java or any other state, and he moved the capital from the banks of the Mekong River to a site called Mahendraparvata, northeast of the Tonle Sap. At Mahendraparvata, Jayavarman started a tradition of royal temple building that reached its peak several centuries later in nearby Angkor.
King Yasovarman I moved the capital a few miles from Mahendraparvata to Angkor in the late 9th century. The new capital was a center of scholarship, government and worship. All of these aspects of Khmer culture continued to be influenced by India. parts of Champa, Under Yasovarman’s successors, Kambuja expanded by conquering Annam (northern Vietnam), and Siam (Thailand). It became a powerful state called the Khmer Empire. About 1130, King Suryavarman II honored the Hindu god Vishnu with a huge new temple at Angkor.
It was the beginning of a great cluster of temples that came to be called Angkor Wat.

Between 1603 and 1848, Cambodia had at least 22 kings. Some of them held the throne more than once. By the late 18th century, Siam dominated Cambodia and controlled Battambang and Siem Reap. The French arrived in 1864 and signed a treaty of protectorate with King Norodom as the start of their bid to take control of the country. In 1884 King Norodom was forced by the French to sign another treaty, and Cambodia became a French colony. In 1941 France installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the throne. When the Japanese occupied the country during World War II, the French left, only to return after the war to declare the country an autonomous state under French rule. In 1953 King Norodom Sihanouk declared martial law and asked for international recognition as an independent country. Independence was granted in the same year and recognized by the Geneva Conference in the following year. King Sihanouk dominated politics for the next seventeen years. King Sihanouk was deposed in March 1970 by General Lon Nol and subsequently fled to Beijing, China, to set up a government in exile. In April of 1970, the United States and South Vietnam invaded Cambodia and drove the communist forces deep into the jungles. These forces joined a revolutionary group and became Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers fighting against the government as a guerilla force for the next few years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and took control of Phnom Penh in April 1975. Thus began one of the most terrible events in the history of the world. The Khmer Rouge proceeded to destroy every part of Khmer society; millions of people were killed.

At that time, the events were largely unknown to the rest of the world, as the country was effectively cut off from the outside world. The Khmer Rouge brought about their own downfall by conducting frequent border raids on Vietnam. Many Vietnamese innocent people were killed. On 25 December 1978, Vietnam Army came to Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in two weeks. Vietnam installed leaders of the ex-Khmer Rouge, who had previously defected to Vietnam, as the heads of the new government.

In 1989, Vietnam, withdrew all of its troops, and the Khmer Rouge continued to fight the government. In 1990, two thousand Cambodians were killed in the civil war. In September 1990, the UN Security Council produced a plan to end the fighting and hold free elections, with the resulting Paris Peace Accords signed in 1991. A United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) basically ran the country until elections were held in 1993. The FUNCINPEC Party won fifty-eight seats in the National Assembly, as opposed to fifty-one seats won by the Cambodian People’s Party. Hun Sen refused to step down and Cambodia ended up with two prime ministers, with Norodom Ranariddh as first prime ministers and Hun Sen as second prime minister. Both sides struggled for power in the next few years, and the Khmer Rouge continued to control the northwest.

The Cambodian government outlawed the Khmer Rouge in 1994 and the Thai government stopped supporting the rebels. In 1996, Khmer Rouge number 3 leader, Ieng Sary, worked out a surrender of autonomy deal and aligned with the Phnom Penh government. This took a lot of the wind out of the Khmer Rouge’s sails. The beginning of 1997 saw several worrisome incidents, such as a grenade attack on a political meeting. Rumors of an imminent coup flooded the capital. In July of the same year Hun Sen seized control of the government in a bloody two-day fight. Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy both fled the country.

The year 1998 brought a brokered deal to bring the prince and Sam Rainsy back to Cambodia to compete in the election scheduled for July of that year. The internationally monitored elections saw Hun Sen’s ruling party win and hold their lock on power. Sam Rainsy and FUNCINPEC protested the election results. A deal was worked out after massive demonstrations and protests by the forces and sympathizers of the two combined parties.

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