There is little evidence for a Pleistocene human occupancy in modern-day Cambodia, including quartz and quartzite pebble tools discovered in terraces along the Mekong River, in the provinces of Stung Treng and Kratié, and in Kampot Province, but their date is questionable. Some archaeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer tribes lived in the area throughout the Holocene epoch: the oldest ancient archaeological discovery site in Cambodia is thought to be the cave of L’aang Spean in Battambang Province, which dates from the Hoabinhian era. Excavations in its lower levels yielded a range of radiocarbon dates ranging from 6000 BC to 6000 BC. Upper strata at the same site showed signs of Neolithic transition, including the oldest dated earthenware pottery in Cambodia.
Archaeological data from the Holocene through the Iron Age are also scarce. The gradual infiltration of the first rice farmers from the north, which started in the late third millennium BC, was a watershed moment in Cambodian prehistory. The most intriguing ancient evidence in Cambodia is a series of “circular earthworks” found in the red soils near Memot and in the neighboring area of Vietnam in the late 1950s. Their purpose and antiquity are still being disputed, although some of them may date back to the second millennium BC.
Samrong Sen (near the ancient city of Oudong), where the first excavations started in 1875, and Phum Snay, in the northern province of Banteay Meanchey, are two more prehistoric sites of unknown age. An excavation at Phum Snay uncovered 21 burials with iron weapons and brain injuries, perhaps indicating previous battles with bigger towns in Angkor. Prehistoric artifacts are often discovered during mining operations in Ratanakiri.
Iron was being wrought about 500 BC, according to evidence from the Khorat Plateau in modern-day Thailand. Some Iron Age villages were discovered under Baksei Chamkrong and other Angkorian temples in Cambodia, while circular earthworks were discovered beneath Lovea, a few kilometers north-west of Angkor. Burials, which are more wealthier than other kinds of discoveries, attest to an increase in food supply and commerce (even over great distances: trade connections with India were already established in the 4th century BC), as well as the presence of a social structure and labor organization. Glass beads are another significant evidence among Iron Age artifacts. Glass beads found from numerous sites throughout Cambodia, including the Phum Snay site in the northwest and the Prohear site in the southeast, indicate that there were two major trade networks at the period. The two networks were divided by time and geography, indicating that there was a switch from one to the other during the 2nd–4th centuries AD, most likely due to shifts in socio-political power.
Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian era
The Indianised kingdoms of Funan and its successor, Chenla, merged in present-day Cambodia and southern Vietnam throughout the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. For almost 2,000 years, what would become Cambodia absorbed Indian influences, passing them on to other Southeast Asian civilisations that are today Thailand and Laos. Little further is known about some of these polities, although they are mentioned in Chinese histories and tribute records. The region of Funan is said to have contained the port known as “Kattigara” to Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. According to Chinese chronicles, when Jayavarman I of Chenla died about 690, the kingdom was divided into Land Chenla and Water Chenla, which were loosely governed by weak rulers under the sovereignty of Java.
The Khmer Empire arose from these Chenla remnants, being firmly established in 802 when Jayavarman II (reigned c790-850) gained independence from Java and called himself a Devaraja. He and his followers established the God-king religion and started a series of conquests that created an empire that thrived in the region from the 9th to the 15th century. During the reign of Jayavarman VIII, the Angkor kingdom was invaded by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army, but the monarch was able to purchase peace. Monks from Sri Lanka brought Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia in the 13th century. The religion flourished and ultimately replaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the most popular religion in Angkor; nevertheless, it was not designated as the official state religion until 1295, when Indravarman III seized control.
During the 12th century, the Khmer Empire was Southeast Asia’s greatest empire. The empire’s power center was Angkor, where a succession of capitals were built at the empire’s peak. An multinational team of academics determined in 2007 that Angkor was the world’s biggest pre-industrial metropolis, with an urban sprawl of 1,150 square miles, utilizing satellite photos and other contemporary methods (2,978 square kilometres). The city, which might have housed up to a million people, and Angkor Wat, the best-known and best-preserved religious temple at the site, remain as memories of Cambodia’s history as a significant regional power. Despite its collapse, the empire remained a major influence in the area until its demise in the 15th century.
Dark ages of Cambodia
Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and abandoned in 1432 due to ecological collapse and structural breakdown after a lengthy series of conflicts with neighboring kingdoms. This resulted in a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation during which the kingdom’s internal affairs were progressively taken over by its neighbors. By this time, the Khmer propensity for monument construction had waned. Theravada Buddhism has replaced older religions such as Mahayana Buddhism and the Hindu worship of the god-king.
The capital was relocated to Longvek, where the kingdom hoped to reclaim its grandeur via marine commerce. The Portuguese were the first to reference Cambodia in European records in 1511. Travelers from Portugal characterized the city as a center of thriving riches and international commerce. The effort, however, was short-lived, as continuous conflicts with Ayutthaya and the Vietnamese led in the loss of additional land and Longvek being captured and destroyed in 1594 by King Naresuan the Great of Ayutthaya. In 1618, a new Khmer capital was built at Oudong south of Longvek, but its kings could only endure through rotating vassal ties with the Siamese and Vietnamese for the following three centuries, with only a few brief periods of relative independence.
The Cambodian hill tribes were “constantly pursued and taken off as slaves by the Siamese (Thai), Anamites (Vietnamese), and Cambodians.”
A renewed battle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia in the nineteenth century culminated in a time when Vietnamese authorities tried to compel Khmers to adopt Vietnamese traditions. This resulted in numerous rebellions against the Vietnamese and requests for help from Thailand. The Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–1845) concluded with a treaty establishing shared suzerainty over the nation. This resulted in King Norodom Prohmborirak signing a contract for French protection of Cambodia.
In 1863, Thailand’s newly appointed King Norodom requested French protection from Thai governance. The Thai monarch signed a contract with France in 1867, relinquishing suzerainty over Cambodia in return for sovereignty of the Battambang and Siem Reap provinces, which became legally part of Thailand. A boundary deal between France and Thailand in 1907 returned the provinces to Cambodia.
Cambodia was a French protectorate from 1867 to 1953, governed as part of the French Indochina colony, despite being invaded by the Japanese empire from 1941 to 1945. The overall population grew from about 946,000 to 5.7 million between 1874 and 1962. Following King Norodom’s death in 1904, France controlled the succession process, and Sisowath, Norodom’s brother, was installed on the throne. With the death of Monivong, Sisowath’s son, in 1941, the throne became empty, and France passed over Monireth, Monivong’s son, believing him to be too independent-minded. Norodom Sihanouk, a maternal grandson of King Sisowath, was crowned instead. The French expected Sihanouk to be simple to manage as a young man. They were mistaken, and Cambodia won independence from France on November 9, 1953, under the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk.
Independence and Vietnam War
Under King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. When French Indochina gained independence, Cambodia gave up hope of reclaiming control of the Mekong Delta, which was handed to Vietnam. Previously a part of the Khmer Empire, the region had been under Vietnamese authority since 1698, with King Chey Chettha II giving Vietnamese permission to settle there decades earlier. With over one million ethnic Khmers (the Khmer Krom) still residing in this area, this remains a diplomatic stumbling block. The Khmer Rouge launched invasions to reclaim the region, which led to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge’s deposition.
Sihanouk abdicated in order for his father to engage in politics and be elected prime minister in 1955. Following his father’s death in 1960, Sihanouk ascended to the throne once again, assuming the title of prince. As the Vietnam War proceeded, Sihanouk established an official stance of Cold War neutrality. Sihanouk let the Vietnamese communists to utilize Cambodia as a safe haven and a supply route for weapons and other supplies to their military troops fighting in South Vietnam. Many Cambodians saw this approach as degrading. Sihanouk told Washington Post writer Stanley Karnow in December 1967 that if the US decided to attack the Vietnamese communist strongholds, he would not oppose until Cambodians were murdered.
In January 1968, the identical message was sent to US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s envoy, Chester Bowles. However, in public, Sihanouk denied the US’ right to use air strikes in Cambodia, and on 26 March, Prince Sihanouk said, “These criminal attacks must immediately and definitively stop…” On 28 March, a press conference was held, and Sihanouk appealed to the international media, saying, “I appeal to you to publicise abroad this very clear stand of Cambodia—that is, I will in any case oppose all bombings on a civilian population.” Nonetheless, Sihanouk’s public appeals were disregarded, and the bombings persisted.
Members of the government and army became dissatisfied of Sihanouk’s authoritarian manner, as well as his antipathy against the United States.
Khmer Republic (1970–75)
Sihanouk was deposed on a visit to Beijing in 1970 by a military coup headed by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. The US government’s assistance for the coup has yet to be proved. However, after the revolution was accomplished, the new government, which promptly demanded that the Vietnamese communists leave Cambodia, received political backing from the US. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, anxious to preserve their safe havens and supply routes from North Vietnam, began violent assaults on the new administration right once. The monarch encouraged his subjects to aid in the fall of this administration, hastening the outbreak of civil war.
Soon after, Khmer Rouge insurgents started to use him to garner sympathy. However, from 1970 to early 1972, the Cambodian war was primarily fought between the Cambodian government and army and the military forces of North Vietnam. As the Vietnamese communists took control of Cambodian land, they established a new political infrastructure that was ultimately controlled by the Cambodian communists known as the Khmer Rouge. Between 1969 and 1973, the Republic of Vietnam and the United States bombarded Cambodia in an attempt to destabilize the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge.
According to documents discovered in Soviet archives after 1991, the North Vietnamese effort to invade Cambodia in 1970 was undertaken at the express request of the Khmer Rouge and arranged by Pol Pot’s then-second-in-command, Nuon Chea. Many Cambodian army outposts were overrun by NVA troops, while the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) increased its small-scale assaults on communication links. In reaction to the North Vietnamese invasion, US President Richard Nixon said that US and South Vietnamese combat troops had invaded Cambodia in a mission to eliminate NVA base locations. Despite the fact that US and South Vietnamese troops captured or destroyed a large amount of weaponry, containing North Vietnamese forces remained difficult.
The Khmer Republic’s leadership was divided between its three main figures: Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s cousin Sirik Matak, and National Assembly chairman In Tam. Lon Nol stayed in power in part because no one else was willing to take his position. A constitution was established in 1972, a parliament was chosen, and Lon Nol was elected president. However, discord, the difficulties of converting a 30,000-man army into a national fighting force of more than 200,000 men, and widespread corruption undermined the civilian government and army.
The Communist insurgency in Cambodia grew, backed by supplies and military assistance from North Vietnam. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary established their authority over the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were exterminated. Simultaneously, the CPK troops became stronger and more independent of their Vietnamese sponsors. By 1973, the CPK had fought fights against government troops with little or no North Vietnamese military assistance, and they controlled almost 60% of Cambodia’s land and 25% of its people. The government made three failed efforts to negotiate with the rebels, but by 1974, the CPK were openly functioning as divisions, and some NVA combat troops had crossed into South Vietnam. Lon Nol’s influence was limited to tiny pockets surrounding cities and major transit lines. More than 2 million war refugees resided in Phnom Penh and neighboring cities.
On New Year’s Day 1975, Communist forces began an assault that, after 117 days of the worst combat of the war, brought the Khmer Republic to its knees. Simultaneous assaults on Republican troops surrounding Phnom Penh held them back, while other CPK units overran fire positions controlling the critical lower Mekong resupply route. When Congress declined to provide further assistance to Cambodia, a US-funded airlift of weapons and rice came to a stop. On April 17, 1975, the Lon Nol regime in Phnom Penh surrendered, only five (5) days after the US mission left Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge regime
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh and seized control. They altered the country’s name to Democratic Kampuchea, led by Pol Pot. The new government, modeled after Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, quickly evacuated cities and marched the whole populace to rural labor projects. They tried to reconstruct the country’s agriculture on the 11th-century model, rejected Western medicine, and demolished temples, libraries, and everything deemed Western.
Estimates of how many people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge government vary from one to three million, with two million being the most frequently quoted number (about a quarter of the population). The name “Killing Fields” was coined during this period, and the jail Tuol Sleng became infamous for its history of mass killings. Hundreds of thousands of people fled into neighboring Thailand. The government attacked ethnic minority groups disproportionately. The Cham Muslims were subjected to severe purges, with up to half of their population being killed. Pol Pot was adamant about retaining control and disenfranchising any opponents or possible threats, thus he intensified his harsh and aggressive acts against his people.
Forced repatriation in 1970 and fatalities during the Khmer Rouge period decreased the Vietnamese population in Cambodia from 250,000 to 300,000 in 1969 to 56,000 in 1984. However, the majority of Khmer Rouge victims were ethnic Khmer, not ethnic minorities. Professionals such as physicians, attorneys, and teachers were also singled out. According to Robert D. Kaplan, “eyeglasses were as lethal as the yellow star” since they were seen as a symbol of intellectualism.
Vietnamese occupation and transition
In reaction to Khmer Rouge border incursions, Vietnamese soldiers entered Cambodia in November 1978. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) was founded as a pro-Soviet state headed by the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, a Vietnamese-created party led by a handful of Khmer Rouge who had left Cambodia to escape being purged by Pol Pot and Ta Mok. It was completely dependent on the invading Vietnamese army and was led by the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh. It received its weapons from Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
In opposition to the newly established state, three groups formed a government-in-exile known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) in 1981. The Khmer Rouge, a royalist group headed by Sihanouk, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front were among those involved. The United Nations acknowledged its credentials. Thiounn Prasith, the Khmer Rouge’s UN envoy, was retained, although he had to meet with members of Cambodia’s noncommunist parties. The reluctance of Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia resulted in economic penalties imposed by the United States and its allies.
Peace operations under the State of Cambodia started in Paris in 1989, concluding two years later in October 1991 in a Paris Comprehensive Peace Settlement. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia was established with the mission of enforcing a cease-fire, dealing with refugees, and promoting disarmament (UNTAC).
Restoration of the monarchy
Norodom Sihanouk was reinstated as King of Cambodia in 1993, although full authority remained in the hands of the government formed after the UNTAC-sponsored elections. The post-conflict calm was shattered in 1997 by a coup orchestrated by co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the government’s non-communist parties. Reconstruction efforts have advanced in recent years, resulting in some political stability via a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member to be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his position as former commander of the S21 extermination camp, and he was sentenced to life in prison in July 2010. Hun Sen, on the other hand, has been adamantly opposed to lengthy prosecutions of former Khmer Rouge mass killers.
In August 2014, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal, sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue, to life in prison on war crimes charges for their roles in the country’s terror period in the 1970s. The trial started in November of 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was declared unable to face trial in 2012 due to dementia. Pol Pot, the group’s senior commander, died in 1998.