Two thousand years of Cambodian history

From the sacred statues of ancient Funan to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s history charts the rise, fall and rebirth of a wondrous civilisation

Bayon temple in Siem Reap, one of the many achievements of the mighty Khmer Empire Photo: Vittorio Velasquez for Discover

Before Angkor

Fixed between the ancient empires of India and China, the sprawling Kingdom of Funan rose to prominence in the first century CE as a major trading hub between East and West. Stretching across much of modern Cambodia, as well as portions of what is now Vietnam and Thailand, at its peak, this kingdom was swallowed up by its former vassal state Chenla in the early 7th century CE. The exact circumstances of its decline remain a source of speculation among historians, with some suggesting the kingdom tore itself apart through civil war. Others maintain that, like its successor, Funan was never truly united – merely a collection of city-states smudged together by the careless brush of a Han dynasty archivist.

Reign of the god-kings

When the man who would become Jayavarman II returned to his native Cambodia from exile in Java, he was greeted by a civilisation in deep decline. Throwing off the shackles of his Javanese masters, Jayavarman’s apotheosis to devaraja, or god-king, in 802CE marked the dawn of the mighty Khmer Empire, which would reign supreme over much of Indochina until the fall of the sacred city of Angkor in 1431 at the hands of Thai marauders. His descendant Jayavarman VII, a devout Buddhist, oversaw the construction of more than 100 hospitals across the empire and raised the now-famous Mahayana temple of Bayon in a move that would cement Buddhism as Cambodia’s national religion.

A colony created

With the remnants of the Khmer Empire now little more than a vassal state fought over by the resurgent Thai and Vietnamese kingdoms, the desperate poet-king Ang Duong reached out to France for support. Although he died before he could establish the terms of this new alliance, the French wasted little time in seizing control of Cambodia through his son, Norodom, in 1863. The once-proud kingdom was declared a French protectorate for almost a century, subservient to its political and economic whims as the Western power grew rich on the resources of Indochina. Cambodia wouldn’t regain its independence until 1953, after years of campaigning by the young King Sihanouk.

Enter chaos

Devastated by a secret US bombing campaign as the disastrous war for Vietnam spilled across its borders, Cambodia’s descent into nearly four years of madness under the Khmer Rouge began with the overthrow of Sihanouk in 1970. With general-turned-dictator Lon Nol enjoying the support of the anti-communist US, the exiled royal urged his largely agrarian subjects to swell the ranks of the insurgency in the fight against imperialism. Just days after the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh in 1975, the Kingdom’s cities were emptied and countless people marched to the fields to fuel the country’s ‘rebirth’ – or die in the attempt. Almost two million lost their lives, before a Vietnamese-backed vanguard of defectors drove the Khmer Rouge from power.

When the war was over

When the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia descended on the Kingdom a year after the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, the peacekeeping operation found itself presiding over a three-way power struggle for command of the Kingdom – including the remnants of the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border. The 1993 elections saw the royalist Funcinpec party win a majority of seats but also forced into a grudging coalition with now-Prime Minister Hun Sen’s runner-up Cambodian People’s Party – only to fall to an armed takeover by Hun Sen’s faction four years later. The next threat to his power, the popular Cambodia National Rescue Party would be crushed more easily, with its leadership imprisoned and forced into exile until the entire party was finally dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017.

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