The original inhabitants of the Cambodian region are believed to be Austroasiatic peoples who also inhabit the islands of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia today. These peoples settled the area beginning in 2000BC, with an economy based on rice growing, fishing, and domesticating animals; they worked iron and bronze and had excellent navigational skills. The ancestors of the modern Khmer people migrated from China and intermarried with or otherwise displaced many of these original inhabitants. Little is known about the early Khmer settlers until they established the first of a series of Indian-influenced kingdoms in the first century AD. Indian influences, brought by traders and Brahman priests, spread throughout Southeast Asia. A number of kingdoms were established over the centuries reflecting Indian religion, political thought, culture, literature, mythology and art. Thus, while these states had no political connection with India, they reflected Indian values and systems.
The first of these Indianized states, which would be found throughout Southeast Asia, was the state of Funan, established in the delta area of the Mekong River in the first century AD. A Cambodian legend asserts that the state was founded by an Indian Brahman priest, named Kaundinya, who followed a dream which led him to the Tonle Sap Lake area to find his fortune. He did so by marrying a local princess, Soma, who was the daughter of the Naga (snake) king of the lake. It was this union which produced the kingdom of Funan and it was Kaundinya who introduced Hindu religion and customs, legal traditions and Sanskrit to Cambodia. Funan expanded and ruled much of the area which is now Southern and Central Cambodia for about 500 years. Its economy was based on fishing, rice cultivation, and trade. The state maintained an extensive irrigation system which produced rice surpluses that formed the bulk of their trade. International trade is believed to have been vital to the kingdom. In the remains of the main port, Oc Eo, (now in Vietnam) artifacts from Rome, Greece and Persia have been found, as well as materials from India and neighboring states. The adoption of Indian culture was accelerated by the arrival of Indian immigrants, and the travel of merchants, diplomats and priests. By the 5th century, the elite culture, court ceremonies, political institutions, legal system (the Laws of Manu, the Hindu legal code) writing system with an alphabet based on Sanskrit, and language, were thoroughly Indian.
In the 6th century, the kingdom was the scene of dynastic rivalries resulting in civil wars and general disruption of the state and economy. One of the northern vassal states, the kingdom of Chenla, invaded, usurped the throne, and established a new kingdom which was dominant for three centuries. The conquest of Funan was only one step in a series of conquests for the new Khmer state of Chenla, which resulted in the union of Central and Northern Laos, Southern Thailand and portions of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta, into a single state. The Chenla royal families intermarried with Fuanese elites and preserved and extended the Indianized culture. Like its predecessor, the state relied heavily on international trade for its wealth. In the 8th century, rivalries at court resulted in the partition of Chenla into two kingdoms, a Northern and a Southern kingdom, known, according to Chinese chronicles as Land (upper) Chenla and Water (Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla remained stable but Water Chenla experienced a series of pirate attacks and invasions from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula; by the 9th century, it was effectively a vassal state of the Javanese Sailendra dynasty (another Indianized state, this one in Indonesia). The last Water Chenla king was killed around 790 AD by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended, resulting in civil war. The victor in this war was the ruler of a small Khmer state north of the Mekong Delta who had been held hostage in Java; upon his return to Chenla in 790, he assumed the throne and embarked on a 12 year struggle for independence from Javanese control.
In 802 AD, the ruler of the Khmer state moved his court inland to the plains area north of Tonle Sap Lake, took the name Jayavarman II, declared himself a deva-raja (god-king) in a second coronation ceremony, and pronounced his independence from Java. This began the reign of the Angkor Kingdom, the highpoint of Cambodian civilization which expanded and ruled the area until the 15th century. The use of the Indian Deva-raja (god-king or universal monarch) concept was to be one of the factors facilitating the expansion and maintenance of the Khmer Angkor kingdom. In the ceremony establishing himself as a deva-raja, Jayavarman worshipped the Indian deity, Shiva, who thus became the main protector god of the Angkor state. Succeeding kings continued to declare themselves deva-rajas and worshipped either Shiva or Vishnu. Shiva and Vishnu, along with Brahma, form a trinity of deities who are the highest and most powerful Indian gods; Brahma is the creator of the world, Vishnu the preserver of the world and Shiva the destroyer of the world. Thus, both Shiva and Vishnu are important protector deities and both became important in the new Khmer Empire, which took the name Kambuja, from which the current name, Cambodia, derives.
The present day ruins of Kambuja's capital city, which spread over 40 square miles, were built during the next several hundred years, by various rulers, each of whom attempted to expand the wealth and control of the kingdom. At its high point, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the kingdom ruled parts of what are now Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Burma. Extensive Khmer ruins can still be found in Eastern Thailand today. The wealth of the empire rested in part on the extensive irrigation system, with many canals dikes, and huge reservoirs which were built by the early kings. This system freed farmers from reliance on the unpredictable seasonal monsoons by giving them a constant source of water, thus producing large agricultural surpluses used to finance building projects as well as armies.
The temple city complex known as Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II who ruled from 1113-1150 and whose reign is considered to be one of the high points of the Kingdom. In addition to extending the boundaries of conquest and control, he had this temple city, considered to be one of the largest and greatest religious monuments in Southeast Asia, constructed. His death, however, was followed by 30 years of dynastic struggle which allowed the neighboring Cham kingdom (in present day Vietnam) to revolt and destroy the city. The Cham were driven out and Jayavarman VII who ruled form 1181-1218 embarked on a building frenzy, completing the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a wonderful temple whose towers depict 216 facts of Buddhas, gods and kings. While his predecessors had been followers of Hinduism, he was an advocate of Mahayana Buddhism and his buildings reflect this change. Along with statues of Shiva and Vishnu, various Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are depicted. Following in the footsteps of the first Buddhist ruler, Asoka of 3rd century BC India, Jayavarman VII had over 200 rest houses and hospitals built throughout his kingdom and maintained an excellent system of roads throughout the empire.
The great stone buildings of Angkor, constructed by both Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist kings, were the focus of Hindu or Buddist cults to celebrate the divinity or Buddhahood of the royal family. Their construction reflected the Hindu mythological universe, both in their architecture and in the many carvings which adorn them. The society of this empire was hierarchical, with the divine king owning both the land and the subjects. The Brahman priesthood and the official class constituted the elite; the remaining population consisted of the peasants who grew the crops and were subject to high taxes and labor services and a large slave class which did most of the heavy work of building the temples and other buildings.
The downfall of the Kambuja kingdom began in the middle of the 14th century with the invasions of a Thai army which captured Angkor. While the Khmers retook their capital, a series of wars continued and the empire fragmented, until, in 1431, another Thai army captured Angkor Thom and ended the Khmer empire. Reasons for the loss of the empire are still being discussed by scholars but include the collapse of the irrigation system due to the wars. With the destruction of this system, upon which much of the wealth of the empire depended, the government had insufficient funds to defend itself. The magnificent roads built by the great emperors rebounded on the collapsing kingdom by affording routes which invading armies used for attack. Some scholars believe that another factor in the slow collapse was the introduction of Therevada Buddhism from Sri Lanka. This form of Buddhism, which rejected the Hindu/Mahayana Buddhist conception of the god-king, opposed the extravagant life style of the rulers and the existence of the large slave class. Instead, Theravada Buddhism stressed the rejection of worldly things and the seeking of one's own salvation; it stressed the simple and monastic life. As this religion, brought by sincere and simple monks, took hold of the people, they came to reject the god-king ideal which had sustained the royal family for so long and thus contributed to lack of support for the dynasty.
Many historians of Cambodia see the 4 centuries following the collapse of Angkor as a "dark age" in the country's history. It is seen as a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation in which the area came under the control of the powerful kingdoms emerging in Thailand and Vietnam. While there were several bright periods during this time, when native Khmers established control, by the middle of the 19th Century, Cambodia had become almost a pawn in the power struggles between Thailand and Vietnam. French intervention in the mid-19th century prevented its absorption by these nations. The theme of racial and cultural extinction spurred by these events, has persisted as a factor in Cambodian life and may help explain some of the Khmer Rouge xenophobia during the 1970s. The French interest in Cambodia (and in Laos and Vietnam as well, the three being lumped together by 1887 as "French Indo-China") was triggered by its rivalry with Britain and the British success in establishing India as well as Burma and Malaya as colonies, as well as in dominating the China trade. In addition to wanting commerce and the prestige of colonies, the French wanted to spread Catholicism and to end the persecution of Catholics by the Vietnamese government. The beleaguered Cambodian royal family needed French help in fending off the Thais and the Vietnamese. This resulted in the establishment of a French protectorate (colony) over Cambodia in 1887.
The French proclaimed the establishment of the Union Indochinoise, composed of Cambodia and the three regions of Vietnam (Tonkin, Cochinchina and Annam) in October, 1887. They added Laos in 1893, having separated it from Thailand at that time. During the French rule, the Cambodian royal family increasingly became figureheads with little real power; under the colonial bureaucracy, all top jobs were held by French and many intermediate jobs by Vietnamese imported by the French. The Cambodians were relegated to being second class citizens in their own country. The use of Vietnamese civil servants further increased the Cambodian fear of cultural and national absorption and fueled further resentment of Vietnam.
The economic policies of the French rulers further impoverished the Cambodians. The French did little to develop new towns and industries but instead encouraged farmers to grow rice for export; in addition, rubber trees were tapped and rubber was another important export. Commerce became increasingly dominated by Chinese, who were encouraged by the French government because of their ties to other overseas Chinese communities in China and throughout Asia; they also came to control the banks in Cambodia. Vietnamese immigrated as laborers in the rubber plantations and as clerks in the businesses in the cities. While the French did build a few roads and railroads to speed the transportation of rice and rubber to the ports, they made no attempt to provide services (education, medical) to the majority of Cambodians in the countryside. The difficulties of the peasants were further compounded by high taxes and usurious interest rates which reduced many of them to the status of landless laborers.
Due to low literacy levels, and the domination of the economy and politics by Chinese and Vietnamese, Cambodian resistance to French rule was slower to begin than in neighboring Vietnam. However, resentment over favoritism shown to Vietnamese, coupled with the re-discovery of the ancient civilization of Angkor, stimulated pride in their nation and its past among a handful of educated Cambodians who began a nationalist movement, including the publication of newspapers. It was the Japanese occupation that stimulated the nascent nationalist movement. Like neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia remained under Vichy French rule during the Japanese occupation and escaped many of the hardships imposed on other occupied countries. However, the Japanese call of "Asia for the Asians" encouraged Cambodian intellectuals to resist Vichy French rule, only to find themselves jailed or exiled. The new king, Norodom Sihanouk was chosen by the French for his youth (19 in 1941) and hoped for pliability. However, with the collapse of the Vichy government when Allies were victorious in Europe, the Japanese called for the Indochinese nations to declare independence within the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". Thus, Sihanouk, on March 13, 1945, decreed the formation of an independent Kampuchea. On August 15, with the surrender of the Japanese, the king, and his Prime minister, Son Ngoc Thanh, established a new and independent government. The government was dissolved by the returning French and a struggle for independence ensued. Various parties participated in this struggle both for independence from the French and to gain power in Cambodia.
The history of Cambodia after gaining independence from the French with the Geneva Convention in 1954 is one of war, struggle and tragedy. Sihanouk ruled until being ousted in 1970; but he seldom enjoyed support and spent much of his time fighting insurrections and revolts from populists and leftist guerilla groups. Both sides in this struggle used genocide and torture to attain or retain control. Sihanouk was ousted in 1971 by a coup led by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol, who declared an end to the monarchy; Sihanouk fled to China where he continued to work for his return. The fall of Sihanouk dragged Cambodia into war with the United States, thus creating civil war and stimulating the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and their eventual takeover of the country in 1975. The ensuing years were notable for genocide against the Khmer population, resulting in about 2 million deaths and the creation of a virtual slave country.
For an excellent site with detailed articles and interviews with survivors of this period, please visit the Mekong Network Project website on Cambodia.
Cambodia's recovery from the isolation of the "reign of terror" and its destruction of family and village life imposed by the Khmer rouge has been slow and it remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. However, progress is being made in rebuilding the economy, restoring the infrastructure, fostering education, and recreating the traditional way of life.
For a site that gives more detail on all aspects of history, please visit this Country Studies website.