Over a period of 300 years, between 900 and 1200 AD, the Khmer Kingdom
of Angkor produced some of the world's most magnificent architectural masterpieces
on the northern shore of the Tonle Sap, near the present town of Siem Reap.
The Angkor area stretches 15 miles east to west and 5 miles north to south.
Some 72 major temples or other buildings dot the area. Suryavarman II built
the principal temple, Angkor Wat, between 1112 and 1150. With walls nearly
one-half mile on each side, Angkor Wat portrays the Hindu cosmology with
the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer
walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond.
Angkor Thom, the capital city built after the Cham sack of 1177, is surrounded
by a 300-foot wide moat. Construction of Angkor Thom coincided with a change
from Hinduism to Buddhism. Temples were altered to display images of the
Buddha, and Angkor Wat became a major Buddhist shrine.
During the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned after Siamese
attacks. The exception was Angkor Wat, which remained a shrine for Buddhist
pilgrims. The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest
until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began a long restoration
process. France established the Angkor Conservancy in 1908 to direct restoration
of the Angkor complex. For the next 64 years, the conservancy worked to
clear away the forest, repair foundations, and install drains to protect
the buildings from their most insidious enemy: water. After 1953, the conservancy
became a joint project of the French and Cambodian Governments. Some temples
were carefully taken apart stone by stone and reassembled on concrete foundations.
Tourism is now the second-largest foreign currency earner in Cambodia's
economy, and Angkor Wat has helped attract international tourism to the
Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state
of Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-19th century the country
was on the verge of dissolution. After repeated requests for French assistance,
a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual
colony; soon after it was made part of the Indochina Union with Annam,
Tonkin, Cochin-China, and Laos. France continued to control the country
even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government. In 1945,
the Japanese dissolved the colonial administration, and King Norodom Sihanouk
declared an independent, anti-colonial government under Prime Minister
Son Ngoc Thanh in March 1945. The Allies deposed this government in October.
In January 1953, Sihanouk named his father as regent and went into self-imposed
exile, refusing to return until Cambodia gained genuine independence.
Sihanouk's actions hastened the French Government's July 4, 1953 announcement
of its readiness to grant independence, which came on November 9, 1953.
The situation remained uncertain until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva
to settle the French-Indochina war. All participants, except the United
States and the State of Vietnam, associated themselves (by voice) with
the final declaration. The Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality
of the three Indochinese states but insisted on a provision in the cease-fire
agreement that left the Cambodian Government free to call for outside military
assistance should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory.
Neutrality was the central element of Cambodian foreign policy during
the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia's eastern provinces
were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong (NVA/VC)
forces operating against South Vietnam, and the port of Sihanoukville was
being used to supply them. As NVA/VC activity grew, the United States and
South Vietnam became concerned, and in 1969, the United States began a
series of air raids against NVA/VC base areas inside Cambodia.
Throughout the 1960s, domestic politics polarized. Opposition grew within
the middle class and among leftists, including Paris-educated leaders such
as Son Sen, Ieng Sary, and Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot), who led
an insurgency under the clandestine Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).
The Khmer Republic and the War
In March 1970, Gen. Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk and assumed power.
On October 9, the Cambodian monarchy was abolished, and the country was
renamed the Khmer Republic. Hanoi rejected the new republic's request for
the withdrawal of NVA/VC troops and began to reinfiltrate some of the 2,000-4,000
Cambodians who had gone to North Vietnam in 1954. They became a cadre in
the insurgency. The United States moved to provide material assistance
to the new government's armed forces, which were engaged against both the
Khmer Rouge insurgents and NVA/VC forces. In April 1970, U.S. and South
Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying NVA/VC
base areas. Although a considerable quantity of equipment was seized or
destroyed, NVA/VC forces proved elusive and moved deeper into Cambodia.
NVA/VC units overran many Cambodian Army positions while the Khmer Rouge
expanded their smallscale attacks on lines of communication.
The Khmer Republic's leadership was plagued by disunity among its members,
the problems of transforming a 30,000-man army into a national combat force
of more than 200,000 men, and spreading corruption. The insurgency continued
to grow, with supplies and military support provided by North Vietnam.
But inside Cambodia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their dominance over
the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were purged. At the same
time, the Khmer Rouge forces became stronger and more independent of their
Vietnamese patrons. By 1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves
around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees
from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities.
On New Year's Day 1975, communist troops launched an offensive that,
in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the Khmer Republic.
Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican
forces, while other Khmer Rouge units overran fire bases controlling the
vital lower Mekong resupply route. A U.S.-funded airlift of ammunition
and rice ended when Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia. Phnom
Penh surrendered on April 17, 1975--5 days after the U.S. mission evacuated
Many Cambodians welcomed the arrival of peace, but the Khmer Rouge soon
turned Cambodia--which it called Democratic Kampuchea (DK)--into a land
of horror. Immediately after its victory, the new regime ordered the evacuation
of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population out into the
countryside to till the land. Thousands starved or died of disease during
the evacuation. Many of those forced to evacuate the cities were resettled
in new villages, which lacked food, agricultural implements, and medical
care. Many starved before the first harvest, and hunger and malnutrition--bordering
on starvation--were constant during those years. Those who resisted or
who questioned orders were immediately executed, as were most military
and civilian leaders of the former regime who failed to disguise their
Within the CPK, the Paris-educated leadership--Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon
Chea, and Son Sen--was in control, and Pol Pot was made Prime Minister.
Prince Sihanouk was put under virtual house arrest. The new government
sought to restructure Cambodian society completely. Remnants of the old
society were abolished, and Buddhism suppressed.
Agriculture was collectivized, and the surviving part of the industrial
base was abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia had neither
a currency nor a banking system. The regime controlled every aspect of
life and reduced everyone to the level of abject obedience through terror.
Torture centers were established, and detailed records were kept of the
thousands murdered there. Public executions of those considered unreliable
or with links to the previous government were common. Few succeeded in
escaping the military patrols and fleeing the country. Solid estimates
of the numbers who died between 1975 and 1979 are not available, but it
is likely that hundreds of thousands were brutally executed by the regime.
Hundreds of thousands more died of starvation and disease--both under the
Khmer Rouge and during the Vietnamese invasion in 1978. Estimates of the
dead range from 1.7 million to 3 million, out of a 1975 population estimated
at 7.3 million.
Democratic Kampuchea's relations with Vietnam and Thailand worsened
rapidly as a result of border clashes and ideological differences. While
communist, the CPK was fiercely anti-Vietnamese, and most of its members
who had lived in Vietnam were purged. Democratic Kampuchea established
close ties with China, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict became part
of the Sino-Soviet rivalry, with Moscow backing Vietnam. Border clashes
worsened when Democratic Kampuchea's military attacked villages in Vietnam.
In mid-1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, advancing about 30
miles before the arrival of the rainy season. In December 1978, Vietnam
announced formation of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation
(KUFNS) under Heng Samrin, a former DK division commander. It was composed
of Khmer communists who had remained in Vietnam after 1975 and officials
from the eastern sector--like Heng Samrin and Hun Sen--who had fled to
Vietnam from Cambodia in 1978. In late December 1978, Vietnamese forces
launched a full invasion of Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7,
1979 and driving the remnants of Democratic Kampuchea's army westward toward
The Vietnamese Occupation
On January 10, 1979, the Vietnamese installed Heng Samrin as head of
state in the new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The Vietnamese Army
continued its pursuit of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge forces. At least 600,000
Cambodians displaced during the Pol Pot era and the Vietnamese invasion
began streaming to the Thai border in search of refuge.
The international community responded with a massive relief effort coordinated
by the United States through the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World
Food Program. More than $400 million was provided between 1979 and 1982,
of which the United States contributed nearly $100 million. At one point,
more than 500,000 Cambodians were living along the Thai-Cambodian border
and more than 100,000 in holding centers inside Thailand.
Vietnam's occupation army of as many as 200,000 troops controlled the
major population centers and most of the countryside from 1979 to September
1989. The Heng Samrin regime's 30,000 troops were plagued by poor morale
and widespread desertion. Resistance to Vietnam's occupation continued.
A large portion of the Khmer Rouge's military forces eluded Vietnamese
troops and established themselves in remote regions. The non-communist
resistance, consisting of a number of groups which had been fighting the
Khmer Rouge after 1975--including Lon Nol-era soldiers--coalesced in 1979-80
to form the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), which
pledged loyalty to former Prime Minister Son Sann, and Moulinaka (Movement
pour la Liberation Nationale de Kampuchea), loyal to Prince Sihanouk. In
1979, Son Sann formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF)
to lead the political struggle for Cambodia's independence. Prince Sihanouk
formed his own organization, National United Front for an Independent,
Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), and its military
arm, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne (ANS) in 1981.
Within Cambodia, Vietnam had only limited success in establishing its
client Heng Samrin regime, which was dependent on Vietnamese advisers at
all levels. Security in some rural areas was tenuous, and major transportation
routes were subject to interdiction by resistance forces. The presence
of Vietnamese throughout the country and their intrusion into nearly all
aspects of Cambodian life alienated much of the populace. The settlement
of Vietnamese nationals, both former residents and new immigrants, further
exacerbated anti-Vietnamese sentiment. Reports of the numbers involved
vary widely, with some estimates as high as 1 million. By the end of the
decade, Khmer nationalism began to reassert itself against the traditional
Vietnamese enemy. In 1986, Hanoi claimed to have begun withdrawing part
of its occupation forces. At the same time, Vietnam continued efforts to
strengthen its client regime, the PRK, and its military arm, the Kampuchean
People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF). These withdrawals continued
over the next 2 years, and the last Vietnamese troops left Cambodia in
From July 30 to August 30, 1989, representatives of 18 countries, the
four Cambodian parties, and the UN Secretary General met in Paris in an
effort to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. They hoped to achieve those
objectives seen as crucial to the future of post-occupation Cambodia--a
verified withdrawal of the remaining Vietnamese occupation troops, the
prevention of the return to power of the Khmer Rouge, and genuine self-determination
for the Cambodian people. A comprehensive settlement was agreed upon on
August 28, 1990.
On October 23, 1991, the Paris Conference reconvened to sign a comprehensive
settlement giving the UN full authority to supervise a cease-fire, repatriate
the displaced Khmer along the border with Thailand, disarm and demobilize
the factional armies, and prepare the country for free and fair elections.
Prince Sihanouk, President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia
(SNC), and other members of the SNC returned to Phnom Penh in November
1991, to begin the resettlement process in Cambodia. The UN Advance Mission
for Cambodia (UNAMIC) was deployed at the same time to maintain liaison
among the factions and begin demining operations to expedite the repatriation
of approximately 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand.
On March 16, 1992, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)
arrived in Cambodia to begin implementation of the UN Settlement Plan.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees began fullscale repatriation in March
1992. UNTAC grew into a 22,000-strong civilian and military peacekeeping
force to conduct free and fair elections for a constituent assembly.
Over 4 million Cambodians (about 90% of eligible voters) participated
in the May 1993 elections, although the Khmer Rouge or Party of Democratic
Kampuchea (PDK), whose forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized,
barred some people from participating. Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC Party
was the top vote recipient with a 45.5% vote, followed by Hun Sen's Cambodian
People's Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively.
FUNCINPEC then entered into a coalition with the other parties that had
participated in the election. The parties represented in the 120-member
assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new constitution, which was promulgated
September 24, 1993. It established a multiparty liberal democracy in the
framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk
elevated to King. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second
Prime Ministers, respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC).
The constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized