Cambodian history

Migrations into the mainland regions of Southeast Asia from the north continued well into historic times. The ancestors of the Cambodians came with earlier waves that followed in the wake of the proto-Malays. The Cambodians are closely related to the Mon who settled further to the west but of whom only small pockets survive in Thailand and Burma.

According to conventional history based largely on Chinese sources, when the Cambodians arrived in presentday Cambodia, two powerful states had already been established there by people of the Malay stock--Champa, controlling part of central and southern Vietnam, and Founan (Funan), sited in the southernmost part of Vietnam and most of presentday Cambodia. Founan was at the height of its power at the end of the fifth century A.D. Some scholars, such as Nasuruddin, believe that the court of Founan had Indian dance and music which spread to the other parts of the Kingdom (1992:2), but Chandler (1992:13ff) casts doubt on the reliability of the Chinese sources.

It is believed that one of Founan's vassals was the Cambodian state of Chenla, situated in presentday northern Cambodia and southern Laos. By about the middle of the sixth century A.D., Chenla overcame Founan and reversed the pattern of overlord and vassal. About A.D. 627, Chenla completely absorbed Founan, during the reign of Isanvarman I who married a princess of the neighboring kingdom of Champa, and extended his domains westward until it bordered the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (Cambodia 1969:104). Before the end of Jayavarman I's reign, Chenla was showing signs of breaking up. Civil war followed his death, and the country split into two parts: Land Chenla (northern part) and Water Chenla (southern part), and Cambodian power suffered an eclipse for more than a century.

The Cambodians, like the people of Founan and Champa, absorbed many aspects of Indic culture, including the Hindu-based concept of the Sivite Deva Raja (God-King) and the great temple as a symbolic holy mountain. Although Cambodian kingdoms waxed and waned and were eventually eclipsed, the Cambodian penchant for building temples of stones throughout their kingdoms left monuments by which today's people can sense the power and cosmic order of their ancient forebears. Though he did not found the city of Angkor, Jayavarman II (802-830), revived Cambodian power and built the foundation for the Angkorean empire, founding three capitals--Indrapura, Hariharalaya, and Mahendraparvata--the archeological remains of which reveal much about his times.

The first great expansion of Cambodian power occurred during the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-1050). After winning a long civil war, he turned his force eastward and subjugated the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati. Consequently, he ruled over the greater part of presentday Thailand and Laos, as well as the northern half of the Malay Peninsula. This period, during which Angkor Vatt was constructed, is considered the apex of Cambodian civilization. Cambodia became a great empire, and the great temples of Angkor, an archeological treasure replete with detailed stone bas-reliefs showing many aspects of the culture, including some musical instruments, remain as monuments to the greatness of Cambodia's culture. After the death of Suryavarman II (1113-1150), Cambodia lapsed into chaos until Jayavarman VII (1181-1218) ordered the construction of a new city. He was a Buddhist, and for a time, Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia. As a state religion, however, it was adapted to suit the Deva Raja cult, with a Buddha Raja being substituted for the former Shiva Raja or Vishnu Raja.

The Siamese Tai became increasingly powerful in the valley of the Chao Phraya River. In 1238 they captured Sukhothai and soon established a powerful, independent kingdom (Cambodia 1969:105). The rise of the Tai kingdoms of Sukhothai (1238) and Ayuthaya (1350) resulted in almost ceaseless wars with the Cambodians and led to the destruction of Angkor in 1431 when the forces of Ayuthaya captured Angkor itself through the treachery of two Buddhist monks. They are said to have carried off 90,000 prisoners, many of whom were likely dancers and musicians (Thailand 1969:151, Blanchard 1958:27). The period following 1432, with the Cambodian people bereft of their treasures, documents, and human culture bearers, was one of precipitous decline. In 1434 King Ponhea Yat made Phnom Penh his capital, and Angkor was abandoned to the jungle. During the following century, King Ang Chan (1516-1566) transferred the capital to Lungvek (lovek), but it was taken in 1594 by the Siamese. Due to continued Siamese and Vietnamese agression Cambodia appealed to France for protection in 1863 and became a French protectorate in 1864. During the 1880s, along southern Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was drawn into the French-controlled Indochinese Union. For nearly a century, the French exploited Cambodia commercially, and demanded power over politics, economics, and social life.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the political situation in Cambodia became chaotic. King Norodom Sihanouk (later, Prince, then again King), proclaimed Cambodia's independence in 1949 (granted in full in 1953) and ruled the country until March 18, 1970, when he was overthrown by General Lon Nol, who established the Khmer Republic. On April 17, 1975, the genocidal Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot (alias Saloth Sar) came to power and virtually destroyed Cambodian people, their health, morality, education, physical environment, and culture. On January 7, 1979, Cambodian forces under Heng Samrin together with Vietnamese forces, ousted the Khmer Rouge. After more than ten years of painfully slow rebuilding with only meager outside help, the United Nations intervened resulted in the Paris Peace Accord on October 23, 1992 and created the conditions for general elections in May 1993, which led to the formation of the country's current government and the restoration of Prince Sihanouk to power as King in 1993. Nonetheless, the Khmer Rouge continue to control portions of western and northern Cambodia, and security outside the capitals remains problematic.

Home page