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History of Cambodia

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The word Kampuchea (the Cambodian name for Cambodia) comes from the Kingdom of Kambuja, an empire established by Indian settlers more than 1,800 years ago. From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, the Khmer Empire flourished and reigned over much of Southeast Asia. In the 12th century, the Khmer built the Angkor Wat (Angkor Temple), which remains the world’s largest religious building and is Cambodia’s most cherished national symbol.

The region was colonized by France in the 1860s and remained under French control (except during the Japanese occupation in World War II) until 1953, when Cambodia was granted independence. In 1970, the monarchy under Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown. In 1975, the radical communist organization Khmer Rouge (Red Khmer) began a violent, forced restructuring of the entire society. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, wanted to create a completely agrarian, communal society. During the Khmer Rouge’s four year rule, nearly two million people were killed or died of starvation and disease. The educated and business classes were all but eliminated, and the economy was completely destroyed.

After invading Cambodia in 1978, Vietnam forced Pol Potto flee and replaced the Khmer Rouge with a government led by Heng Samrin as president. Hun Sen was later (1985) named prime minister. The invasion, while halting the genocide, was condemned by Western nations. Vietnamese troops fought guerrillas opposed to the Hun Sen government until 1989.During Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, the United Nations recognized a coalition of three guerrilla groups(Khmer Rouge, Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, and Sihanouk’s National United Front) as a government in exile (the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea).After Vietnam withdrew, the United Nations urged Hun Sen and the opposing groups to engage in peace talks.

In 1991, after the United States and other nations withdrew support for the coalition government, all four parties signed the Paris Peace Accords and created a Supreme National Council (SNC) as an interim government. The United Nations sent 26,000 peacekeepers, police, and civilians to run the administration and organize elections. Prince Sihanouk returned to Cambodia as head of the SNC. Violence between the government, Sihanouk’s supporters, and the Khmer Rouge frequently threatened to halt the peace process. Yet Khmer Rouge threats did not deter voters from casting ballots in 1993.

When a royalist coalition (loyal to Sihanouk) won the election, Hun Sen threatened to reject the results. Sihanouk, who was not a candidate, helped create a temporary co-presidency between his son, Prince Ranariddh, and Hun Sen. The newly elected National Assembly then approved a constitution that provided for Sihanouk’s return to the throne as king. He lacked executive authority but was greatly revered by nearly all Cambodians. King Sihanouk ratified the constitution and named the crown prince, Norodom Ranariddh, as first prime minister. Hun Sen became second prime minister.

When UN peacekeepers left after the elections, the Khmer Rouge resumed its civil war. By 1996, however, thousands of rebel soldiers had defected to the government, leaving only Pol Pot and other hard-line leaders in hiding with a few thousand guerrillas. In 1999, the remaining Khmer rebels surrendered after their leaders had died or been captured.

By 1996, the government was paralyzed. Hun Sen launched a de facto coup and drove Ranariddh from the country in 1997.Fighting broke out in some rural areas as Hun Sen moved against royalist supporters to consolidate his power. Intense international pressure and negotiations led Hun Sen to agree to new elections and to allow Prince Ranariddh to return in1998 and run for office. When Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won, Ranariddh and others protested the vote count and refused to take their seats in parliament. A compromise was reached that allowed the opposing leaders to form a functioning government.

In July 2003, Hun Sen’s CPP again won general elections, but it failed to win the majority required to govern alone. A year of political deadlock followed. It was not until July 2004that the CPP and the royalists reached an agreement that secured Hun Sen’s reelection as prime minister. Citing health reasons, King Sihanouk abdicated in October 2004 and his son Norodom Sihamoni took the throne. Although Cambodia’s progress has been hindered by political upheavals, the country remains focused on improving its social and economic institutions and overcoming the legacy of its long civil war.

References:

“Kingdom of Cambodia.” CultureGrams World Edition. 2008.

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