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Like the majestic temple towers of Angkor breaking through the dense jungles that vie to smother the ancient city, Cambodia transcends its crippling history. Once the brilliant gem and artistic leader of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is now trying to resurrect its cultural tradition in an effort to heal the pain of the country's recent tragedy. During the Khmer Rouge's brief but interminable four-year reign, more than one million Cambodians were murdered.

   The Cambodian people have endured far more than their share of sorrow, and their legacy has wrought an inescapable, if not indelible, stain on the urban fabric. Crippled soldiers loll on the sidewalks, and far too many children have grown up parentless as a result of the Khmer Rouge genocide. 


   Cambodia sits near the southern tip of the Indochina's Peninsular, covering 181035sp.km, roughly the size of and Wales. The country is enclosed by mountains, and its lowland interior is one the savannas, dense forests, and rich, fertile alluvial plains. In the northeast, the Eastern Highlands rise to form the natural border with Thailand, while the Cardamom and Elephant Mountains can be found in the west and southwest of the country. The Mekong River flows 500kms through the east and curves by Phnom Penh, where it divides into the lower Mekong and Bassac Rivers. Also running by the capital is the Tonle Sap River, which flows 100km downriver from the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the largest fresh-water pond in Southeast Asia at 3000sq.km. During rainy season, between June and October, the Mekong usually floods, overflowing into the Tonle Sap River which then reverses its course and deposits the excess water into the Tonle Sap, doubling the lake's size.

Colonial rule and Independence

   For the next five centuries, known as the Cambodia's "dark ages", the remnants of Angkor struggled to maintain its existence, marked by economic, political, and cultural stagnation. By the mid-19th century, Cambodia had become hopelessly trapped in the territorial struggle between Thailand and Vietnam until France intervened by claiming the kingdom of itself.

   France was already heavily involved with Vietnam, and sought to expand its influence in the region to ultimately gain the control of the Mekong against the threat of the British in burma and the Thais next door. in 1863, the French annexed Cambodia as a protectorate to thwart its rivals. For the next two decades, the French colonists exploited Cambodia's people and natural resources, turning the country into a vast rubber plantation and rice market. When King Norodom blatantly refused to accept any more mistreatment from their oppressors in 1884, he was forced at gun point to surrender Cambodia completely to France as a colony. In order to gain royal support and a biddable ally, the French interfered with succession, passing over the crown prince in favor of Norodom's brother Sisowath, for whom they provided an extravagant life style. the new king's collaboration with French rule essentially halted any nationalist movements similar to those of its neighbors.

   When the Japanese seized Indochina during World War II, they allowed the French to remain in nominal control, while the Axis power continued on its military rampage through Southeast Asia. In 1941, the French crowned 18-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the grandson of Norodom, king of Cambodia. In their efforts to install a puppet government, the French underestimated Sihanouk. Japan's calls for "Asia for the Asiatics" kindled anti-European feelings and galvanized nationalist struggles throughout Indochina. In Cambodia, the Khmer Issarak (Freedom Front) arose as the foremost nationalist movement. with persuasion from Japan, Sihanouk declared independence for his country and dissolved all treaty with the French. Nevertheless, the new Democrat-controlled government represented the interests of a pro-French elite, intent on retaining its privileges.

   When the French returned in late 1945, they were compelled to keep promises made by the free French during the war. Consequently, Cambodia's colonial status was nullified and absolute monarchy abolished. Sihanouk, however, remained a figurative head of state, trying to negotiated with the French for full independence while attempting to placate supporters of the pro-communist Khmer Issarak and the Viet Minh who were suspicious of his relation with France.

   As the war between the French the Viet Minh intensified during the late 1940s, the turmoil spilled into Cambodia. Even though the Viet Minh had stirred anti-French sentiment, the French successfully managed to divide the Cambodians. Two faction of the Issarak emerged: the dominant was strongly pro-Viet Minh will the other was largely anti-communist and wary the Vietnamese. Under the auspices of the Viet Minh, the pro-commnunist Issarak formed Cambodia's first communist party, the Khmer People Revolutionary Party (KPRP). Meanwhile, in Paris, Cambodian students such as Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary-known as the "Paris Circle"-were introduced to Marxism and eventually joined the French Communist Party, the most militant and Stalinist in Western Europe. This group would come to play and important role in the development of communism in Cambodia, profoundly altering the course of its modern history.

   With increased anti-French activities in Vietnam and Laos, as well as the insurgent guerilla war waged by the Khmer Issarak, France eventually granted completely independence to Cambodia on November 9, 1953, less than two weeks before their defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords of 1954 recognized Sahanouk's Royal government as the sole legitimate authority in Cambodia. The Paris Circle remained, however, to shape the destiny of the communist movement in Cambodia.

Civil War

   For the people of Cambodia, the independence meant freedom from an absolute monarchy. Sihanouk was pressured to abdicate in 1955, although he remained a popular leader. Using his influence, Sahanouk played a neutrality card that kept his country out of the war raging in Vietnam and Laos in the 1960s.When civil war broke out in South Vietnam, Sihanouk gave his support to the north Vietnam  revels. In an effort to thwart American involvement in Cambodia, Sihanouk broke all diplomatic relation with the U.S. in 1965. Much to the indignation of the U.S., Sihanouk also allowed the Viet Cong to run the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia. His ambiguity and constant shifting between right and left incurred resentment from the political elite in Cambodia. This and his refusal to cooperate with the U.S. prompted the American back coup of 1970 by army Commander-in-Chief Lon Nol, who immediately abolished the monarchy and declared the Khmer Republic.

   Sihanouk fled into Exile and his revolutionary troops joined forces with the communist Khmer Rouge (a term Sihanouk used for all leftist groups, but later signified Pol Pot and his supporters, who gained control of the KPRP on 1960) to incite revolts throughout the country while the North Vietnamese burrowed further into Cambodia in its clamdestine activities. In April 1970, B-52 and fighter bombers dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on eastern Cambodia as a prelude to invasion by American and South Vietnamese troops. Sihanouk setup a government-in-exile, was immediately recognized by the communist regimes of Beijing and Hanoi and attracted the support of Khmer Rouge leaders. Civil War broke out Between the two government soon after.

   During the next two years, revolutionary forces were successful in their guerilla attacks, isolating Phnom Penh from the rest of the Country. At times, it was believed that they held 80% of Cambodia territory. By 1973, they would be ready to launch  an immediate, and probably successful coup on the capital. However, the US increased bombing that year, pushing revolutionary forces back and killing most of Sihanouk's supporters. As a result, the Khmer Rouge emerged as the dominant faction of the rebel insurgents.

Reign Of Terror

   In 1975, the Khmer Rouge increased their offensive to gain control of Cambodia, finally seizing Phnom Penh on April 17, and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. Thus began one of the wold's most brutal reigns of terror. The leader of the Khmer Rouge, the so-called Paris Circle, were perhaps the most intellectually elite of Asia's communist leaders and took drastic actions toward state-building as a result of strong communist convictions. Many of these men blamed western oppression for impeding development in their country and contended that modernization could be achieved without industrialization.

   As a means to creating an agrarian society, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces exterminated their opposition and the Cambodian people to the Countryside, where they were pressed into slave labor. Cities were destroyed, modern facilities were sabotaged, and currency use was terminated. For the Khmer Rouge, it was no longer 1975, but year Zero. People who wore glasses or spoke foreign languages were executed without remorse. During their reign, the Khmer Rouge massacred an estimated 1.4 million people (other estimates reach as high as 2.3 million) in a horrific holocaust unknown since Adolf Hilter's gas chambers. There was no room in the new society for personal expression of any sort. People were forced to work diligently, accept poor living conditions and food rations, refrain from lavish displays of wealth, swallow their grief over the loss of loved ones, and reject their religion. Violation of these rules meant imminent execution. To avoid such a fate, about two million people fled their homeland; many died along the way.

The Vietnamese Intervention

   For nearly four years, the world sat back and watched the death of the Cambodian people. Finally, on December 25, 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded the country, successfully driving out the Khmer Rouge within two weeks. Nevertheless, the United Nations condemned Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea; nobody else, however, was willing to intervene. A new government was setup for the people's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) under president Heng Samrin and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Many different factions resisted Vietnamese rule, including Thailand, China, and Democratic Kampuchea, represented by Sihanouk( even though he had previously distance himself from the Khmer Rouge) before the UN Security Council. In an unbelievable move in September 1979, the UN General Assembly passed over the PRK, instead, recognizing the Khmer Rouge as the representative government of the Cambodian People in the United Nations. By the next year, 25 countries ( mostly communist regimes) had recognized the PRK as the new legitimate government, but more than 80 countries continued to regard the Khmer Rouge as the sole authority. The Heng Samrin government, despite its unpopularity among the Cambodian Peole and the rest of the world, tried to restored the social and economic order of Kampuchea in face of daunting odds.

The New Kingdom Of Cambodia

   After more than ten years of keeping the Khmer Rouge at bay, Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia in September 1989 under harsh criticism and embargo. The Paris peace agreement in October 1991 allowed the UN to deploy the United Nations Transit Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), by far their largest peacekeeping force to date, to monitor the ongoing civil war and resettle refugees back into the country. The oversaw the elections for a coalition government in May 1993, ensuring for the first time that all Cambodians had a chance to vote. In September, Sihanouk returned to his country and was crowned king of Cambodia again. That some year, the PRK was renamed Cambodia in an attempt to erase the horror and pain of the Khmer Rouge era from the memories of the people.



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revised: 01/07/18 16:19:42