Kingdom of Cambodia:

Capital: Phnom-Penh (429,000 (1995))

Language: Khmer (official) 95%, French, English

Currency: riel (KHR)

Religion: Theravada Buddhist 95%, other 5%

Economy: GDP per capita: $1555.83 per person; 36% of the population is below the poverty line

Cambodia’s economy slowed dramatically in 1997-1998 due to the regional economic crisis, civil violence, and political infighting. Foreign investment and tourism fell off. In 1999 – the first full year of peace in 30 years – progress was made on economic reforms and growth resumed at 5.0%. Despite severe flooding, GDP grew at 5.0% in 2000, 6.3% in 2001, and 5.2% in 2002. Tourism was Cambodia’s fastest growing industry, up 34% in 2000 and up another 40% in 2001 before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. Even given these promising growth estimates, the long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a very real challenge. The population lacks education and skills, particularly in the poverty-stricken countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. Fear of renewed political instability and corruption within the government discourages foreign investment and delays foreign aid. The government is working to address these issues with outside assistance.

Main industries include tourism, garments, rice milling, fishing, wood and wood products, rubber, cement, gem mining, and textiles. Export commodities include timber, garments, rubber, rice, and fish. Main export partners are the US 60.2%, Germany 9.1%, UK 7.1%, and Singapore 4.4%. Import commodities include petroleum products, cigarettes, gold, construction materials, machinery, and motor vehicles. Principal partners are Thailand 24.8%, Singapore 16.9%, China 12.1%, Hong Kong 10.9%, South Korea 5.5%, and Vietnam 5.2%. Inflation from 1970-79 was 7.5%, from 1990-99 was 6.3%, and from 2000-2003 was 1.6%.

Area: 176,520 sq km. (slightly smaller than Oklahoma)

Geography: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos; a land of paddies and forests dominated by the Mekong River and Tonle Sap; terrain: mostly low, flat plains; mountains in southwest and north; Climate: tropical; rainy, monsoon season (May to November); dry season (December to April); little seasonal temperature variation; Natural Hazards: monsoon rains (June to November); flooding; occasional droughts

Infant Mortality Rate: 64
Life Expectancy at Birth – overall: 57.92 years; female: 60.47 years; male: 55.49 years
Probability of not reaching 40: 24.4%
Maternal mortality: 4.4 per 1000
Children Underweight Rate: 13%
Probability of dying before age 5 – females: 12%

Population: 13,124,764 (estimates for this country take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS); Growth rate: 1.8%; Under 14 years old: 39.3%

Ethnic Groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%

Fertility Rate: 3.58 children born/woman

Education: Literacy – total 69.9%; female – 60.3%; male – 80.5%; School life expectancy – total: 7.3 years; female: 6.5 years; male – 7.9 years; Duration of Compulsory Education: 6 years

Government type: multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy established in September 1993; Status: pseudo-democracy

Independence: November 1953 (from France); Constitution: September 1993

Executive Branch – Chief of State: King Norodom SIHANOUK (reinstated 1993); Prime Minister: HUN SEN (since November 1998)

There are no elections. The monarch is chosen by a Royal Throne Council. Following legislative elections, a member of the majority party or majority coalition is named prime minister by the Chairman of the National Assembly and appointed by the king.

The legal System is based on French legal codes, royal decrees, and acts of the legislature, with influences of customary law and remnants of communist legal theory. There has been increasing influence of common law in recent years. Suffrage is 18 years of age and universal.

Food: Spoons, forks, and chopsticks are used; rice is the staple food; fruit such as the mangosteen, lychee, pineapple, coconut, banana; vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, peppers, pumpkin, eggplant; pork, chicken, beef, fish; soups, including noodle soup; omelettes; baguette-type bread; the food is not unsimilar to Thai food, but Cambodian food is not spicy; no food or drink is restricted by the religion; desserts and sweets are not commonly eaten


The Birth of Cambodia:
Not much is known about prehistoric Cambodia, but it is known that 6000 years ago, a large part of the country was underwater. The legend says that Cambodia was born from the union of a princess and an Indian Brahman priest. The princess was the daughter of a dragon-king who swallowed the water that covered his country and offered it to his wife’s new husband as a dowry. The new kingdom was called Kambuja. The legend tells a lot about Cambodia’s cultural roots and its relationship with India. In fact, its religion, social hierarchy, and writing all come from India, and it wasn’t until between the 1st and 4th centuries that it started to form its own individual cultural identity. During this time period, the Cambodians venerated the Hindu deities of Shiva and Vishnu, but also practiced Buddhism.

Angkor Period:
Cambodia was divided into several rival kingdoms between the 6th and 8th centuries, but was united under one kingdom in 802 by Jayavarman II under a series of alliances and conquests. This was the beginning of the Angkor period, which lasted until the 14th century. Jayavarman II was a self-proclaimed god-king and was worshiped by the people as such. Subsequent rulers followed suit, mostly following the Hindu cult of Shiva and more rarely that of Vishnu or of Buddha.

Possessing enormous influence, the kingdom at its apogee encompassed most of modern-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
Hundreds of Angkorian temples were built over the centuries, and the richest epochs on the architectural plan followed troubled periods, signaling that the new monarchs needed to legitimize their power by important works. For example, the Angkor Wat temple – still the largest religious building in the world to this day – was built after the Chams of Vietnam pillaged and destroyed Angkor. The site of Angkor is today considered to be the most beautiful architectural and archaeological site in Southeast Asia.

Although the empire was at its apogee during the building of Angkor Wat, historians affirm that this was the beginning of the empire’s decline. Large projects weighed heavily on the royal finances and the people, who were suffering from the work and the high taxes. As its influence waned, the Ayuthaya kingdom of Thailand advanced twice upon Angkor and the ruling elite migrated towards Phnom Penh. For the next 1-½ centuries, Cambodian history was dominated by dynastic rivalries and an almost permanent war against the Thais.

French Colonization:
From 1600 until 1863, Cambodia’s weakened kings had to ask for protection from either Thailand or Vietnam. It only survived as a distinct entity during the 18th century because of the preoccupation of the Thais or Vietnamese during this period in fighting either internally or against the Burmese.

This double protectorate from Thailand and Vietnam ceased in 1864, when the French forced the Cambodian king to sign a protectorate treaty. Twenty years later, the king was forced to sign a treaty making his country a virtual colony. This situation remained until WWII, when Japan took control of the country. As the French government at this time collaborated with the Germans, the Japanese allowed the French to continue ruling Cambodia. However, the liberation of Paris in 1944 prompted the Japanese to take direct control of Cambodia. The French came back after the war and once again took control of the country. Instability followed, especially because of the French war in Indochina (Laos and Vietnam).

Cambodia proclaimed its independence from France in 1953 and was recognized as an independent country by the international community in 1954. King Sihanouk dominated the political scene for the next 15 years, first as king and then as Prime Minister, installing an authoritarian regime, nationalizing many activities, refusing aid from the United States and then breaking off diplomatic relations with them. He allowed the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong to use Cambodia as a base to fight against South Vietnam and the U.S.

All of these things alienated him not only from the Cambodia right, the army, and the urban elite, but also the left, who disliked his internal policies. Internal conflict in the late 1960’s led to a coup d’etat in 1970 by General Lon Nol when Sihanouk was traveling in France. He installed himself in Beijing, where he established a government in exile under the control of a revolutionary movement that he named the Khmer Rouge. He sided with the communists, who wished to overthrow the Lon Nol government.

The Lon Nol Regime, 1970-1975:
In the same year, American and South Vietnamese forces invaded the country with the objective of chasing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers from the country. This led to a large penetration of North Vietnamese communists in the country, and the small Cambodian army of Lon Nol had no chance. Within several months, the Vietnamese troops and their Khmer Rouge allies controlled almost half of the country.

Four years of American bombardment caused thousands of civilian deaths and hundreds of thousands of refugees, leading many to join the Khmer Rouge. Between 1970 and 1975, combats led to hundreds of thousands of victims, and the Khmer Rouge carried out many executions. Despite massive military and economic support from the United States, Lon Nol was not able to vanquish the Khmer Rouge and their North Vietnamese allies, who took the city in April 1975, two weeks before the fall of Saigon.

The Khmer Rouge Regime:
After the fall of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge embarked upon the most brutal and most radical restructuring campaign that any society has ever seen. The objective was to transform the country into a Maoist agricultural cooperative dominated by farmers. Within two short weeks, they emptied the capital and all provincial towns of all of their inhabitants, including the sick, infirm, and elderly. They were forced into the countryside and grouped into mobile work teams; in reality forced into slave labor, working in the fields or on irrigation projects for between 12 and 15 hours per day. Any disobedience meant immediate execution. The year of their takeover was proclaimed “Year Zero” and they took the money out of circulation. With the exception of one flight to Beijing every 15 days, the country was completely cut off from the outside world. King Sihanouk came back to Phnom Penh in 1975, but was taken prisoner in his palace – allowed to live only because the Chinese insisted upon it.

The name of Pol Pot, the head of the Khmer Rouge (Brother #1), is today synonymous with the bloody Khmer Rouge regime and the name alone invokes images of suffering, misery, cruelty, and death. Pol Pot saw the Khmer Rouge as being an ensemble of factions that needed purification. This started with the assassination of Khmer Rouge partisans that had been trained by the Vietnamese or had been followers of Sihanouk. All high government and army officials associated with Lon Nol were executed cruelly. The central powers decided to “cleanse” the countryside and “purify” the people. No one knows for sure how many Cambodians were massacred during the 3 years and 8 months that the Khmer Rouge remained in power, but it is estimated at upwards of 2 million. Hundreds of thousands of others died of starvation and disease. Sickness reigned in the work camps, where malaria and dysentery carried off entire families. Even family meals were prohibited, deemed too individualistic! Community meals were imposed, and those who protested were killed.

Vietnamese Intervention and the 1980’s:
The Khmer Rouge started a series of fights along the Vietnamese border between 1976-78, which led to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. They overthrew the Khmer Rouge government two weeks later. Allies of the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese launched attacks on the Vietnamese border, but failed and withdrew after two weeks.

Social and economic collapse followed the Vietnamese invasion and the destruction of stocks of rice provoked a lack of rice at the beginning of 1979. Famine followed, and the United Nations launched an international food aid campaign. Through bribery and intimidation, the Thai army insisted that they take charge of the aid distribution. They took advantage of the situation to mask the reconstruction of the Khmer Rouge forces, in the effort to resist the Vietnamese. Thailand imposed as a condition of the passage of international food aid into Cambodia that a part be reserved for the Khmer Rouge combatants located along the Thai border. In addition to arms furnished by the Chinese and distributed by the Thai army, the international aid permitted the Khmer Rouge to regroup militarily. Thus regrouped, fed, and lodged by international aid, the Khmer Rouge was able to continue fighting for another 20 years.

Many nations had a hand in the ongoing war. In 1982, under pressure from China, Sihanouk directed a military and political front against the government defended by 170,000 Vietnamese soldiers. The coalition included members from three political parties, including the Khmer Rouge, which was by far the most powerful. Several countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, furnished weapons to both camps. The British Special Air Service (SAS) trained combatants to set mines. Although officially intended for the minor factions, the Khmer Rouge, of course, benefited as well from their new tactics. The United States aided the coalition and also helped the Khmer Rouge to keep their seat at the United Nations.

Cambodia was closed to the Western world during most of the 1980’s. With their government controlled by the Vietnamese, Cambodia was integrated into the eastern bloc and became a sort of laboratory for Vietnamese economic experiments. In 1985, the Vietnamese invaded the principal adversary camps, forcing the Khmer Rouge to take refuge in Thailand. The Khmer Rouge responded by engaging in guerilla warfare. They used several tactics, including attacking transport trucks and bridges, kidnapping village chiefs, assassinating local officials, and setting thousands of mines along roads and rice fields. In order the keep them at bay, the Vietnamese installed the longest mine field in the world, the K-5, from the Gulf of Thailand to the Laotian border. Cambodia remains to this day the country with the highest concentration of land mines in the world. Victims and amputees can be seen across the country.

The 1990’s:

Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. After their departure, the opposition, comprised mostly of Khmer Rouge members, launched a series of offensives, causing more deaths and refugees. Diplomatic efforts started to show some progress in 1990. An election held in 1993 led to two Prime Ministers, but the dispersion of central authority meant that real power lay with provincial officials, whose loyalty was with the People’s Party of Cambodia and the communists (the Khmer Rouge rejected the peace process and boycotted the elections). Sihanouk also came back in 1993, opting one more time for the role of King.

The temporary United Nations authority that was set up to oversee the elections and the restoration of stability to the country left shortly after the elections. The UN considered it a success, but the Khmer Rouge still had political power!
In addition, the UN disarmament program took arms from local militias who had helped to protect the people from the Khmer Rouge, while the Khmer Rouge used their new legitimacy from the peace process to build a guerilla network across the country. In the mid-1990’s, the Khmer Rouge formed a security threat just as great for the country as they had in the 1970’s! To make matters worse, the United Nations presence greatly accelerated the spread of HIV/AIDS because the well-paid officers largely encouraged prostitution. Cambodia is today one of Asia’s worst hit countries.

The Khmer Rouge threat continued throughout the 1990’s. High military officers sold large quantities of arms to the Khmer Rouge, and attacked the Khmer Rouge positions at the same time! In 1994, the Khmer Rouge decided to attack tourists, kidnapping and executing several. Although the Cambodian government decided in the 1990’s to encourage Khmer Rouge combatants to change camp by turning themselves in in exchange for amnesty and a place in the governmental army, the situation remained in an impasse. Only in 1996, when Pol Pot denounced Brother #3 in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy for corruption, did massive defections take place.

One year later, the second Prime Minister overthrew the first Prime Minister and street clashes took place in Phnom Penh. The PPC took control of the country, and the UN froze all financial aid, the effects of which were felt for two years. The killing of political and military leaders continued. The same year, Pol Pot executed his ex-Minister of Defense and his family. A sort of rebellion took place and Ta Mok, a hard-line leader of the Khmer Rouge, took over the organization and decided to bring Pol Pot to justice. This was seen as an attempt to blame the genocide on only one man. Although it was rumored that Pol Pot would appear before an international tribunal, it never happened, and he died of natural causes in 1998. Just afterwards, the three highest leaders of the Khmer Rouge had to flee to the jungle along the Thai border.

The Fall of the Khmer Rouge:
An election took place in 1998, the second after the war. The Khmer Rouge only troubled the process one time with a deadly attack. It took place with intimidation, and the opposition loudly denounced the vote, causing a crisis of confidence. Although the PPC received the majority of votes, it did not receive two-thirds, the amount needed to have their hands completely free. Demonstration and revolts took place in the capital and the country seemed to degenerate into a new period of instability.

A coalition was reached by the end of the year and allowed politicians to concentrate on the end of the war. By December 1998, almost all of the Khmer Rouge members had joined the regular army in exchange for amnesty, putting an effective end to the movement. Nuon Chea, Brother #2 of the Khmer Rouge, presented his excuses to the Cambodian people in a press conference in Phnom Penh. It lacked so much conviction that even the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Khmer Rouge reproached him.

The international community started to apply pressure to create a War Crimes Tribunal. After much controversy, it was decided that the tribunal would be composed of three international judges and four Cambodian judges. However, the UN withdrew from the process in 2002, and many doubt that the old Khmer Rouge leaders will ever be judged.

Cambodia is on a fragile road to peace after 3 decades of war, and some wonder if a tribunal implicating the old leaders will cause the ex-combatants to worry about their vulnerability and lead them to once again take up arms. The surviving leaders put all blame on Pol Pot. Whether or not the leaders are ever judged, one thing remains certain: this is the first time that the majority of Cambodians have ever tasted peace.