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
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
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
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