The Birth of Khmer Civilization: A Khmer Pre-history
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Mekong Delta and the lower reaches of the river - in modern-day Cambodia - have been inhabited since at least 4000 BC. But the wet and humid climate has destroyed most of the physical remains of the early civilizations. Excavated remains of a settlement at Samrong Sen on the Tonle Sap show that houses were built from bamboo and wood and raised on stilts - exactly as they are today. Where these people came from is uncertain but anthropologists have suggested that there were two possible waves of migration; one from the Malay peninsula and Indonesia and a second from Tibet and China -- as evidenced by a mixture of multitude of facial complexions and features and the stark differences of the complexion of their skin colors: some Khmers retain dark skin color (from the Malay peninsula and Indonesia) and some Khmers retain light skin color (carrying from Tibet and China). These early migrants were mostly multiple ethnics tribal people who, for various reasons or maybe they just didn't want to live under someone's rules, migrated to seek a new land of their own. This is especially true in Tibet and China where there were constant fightings between dynasties. These were neither Chinese nor Tibetese but rather small multiple ethnics tribes who assimilated themselves into a single group; and these people were the original people who may have existed on the lands long before the modern Chinese and Tibetese were there. And the same is also true for the the migrants from Malay peninsula and Indonesia, and these people may have been the original people who existed on the lands long before the modern Malay and Indonesian people were there. Cambodia (or Kampuchea) was born as a nation that made up of multiple ethnics tribal people.
Generally ethnics tribes have a tendency to move around more frequently than non-ethnic people for various reasons that we don't really understand well. Could it be that they wanted to find a new environment undisturbed by vast human inhabitants? Could it be that they didn't like to live under someone's rule? Could it be that they were not as protective of their homeland as most non-ethnic people? It may be all of the above. Typically most ethnics tribes are not as protective of their homeland as non-ethnic people.
Early Known Khmer Civilization on Record: Rise of the Lunar and Solar Dynasties
For thousands of years Indochina was isolated from the rest of the world and was virtually unaffected by the rise and fall of the early Chinese dynasties. India and China 'discovered' Southeast Asia in the first millennium AD and trade networks were quickly established. The Indian influence was particularly strong in the Mekong basin. The Khmers adopted and adapted Indian script as well as their ideas about astrology, religion (Buddhism and Hinduism) and royalty (the cult of the semi-divine ruler). Today, several other aspects of Cambodian culture are recognizably Indian in origin, including classical literature and dance. Religious architecture also followed Indian models. These Indian cultural influences that took root in Indochina gave rise to a legend to which Cambodia traces its historical origins. An Indian Brahmin called Kaundinya, travelling in the Mekong Delta area, married Soma, daughter of the Naga (the serpent deity), or Lord of the Soil. Their union, which founded the 'Lunar Dynasty' of Funan (a pre-Angkorian Kingdom), symbolized the fertility of the kingdom and occupies a central place in Khmer cosmology. The Naga, Soma's father, helpfully drank the floodwaters of the Mekong, enabling people to cultivate the land.
The kingdom of Funan - the forerunner of Kambuja (Khmer Empire) - was established on the Mekong by tribal people from South China in the middle of the third century AD and became the earliest Hindu state in Southeast Asia. But recent discoveries by archaeologists and historians suggest that Funan civilization was establshed in Southeast Asia at least in the fourth century BC or even earlier. These early migrants were mostly ethnics tribes who for various reasons that we don't know migrated south to seek a land of their own. It may have been the constant fightings in Tibet and China between dynasties that caused them to migrate south, or it may have been other reasons unrelated to the political situations in those countries that caused them to migrate south. We just simply don't know. These were neither Chinese nor Tibetese but rather small multiple ethnics tribal people who assimilated themselves and called themselves Funan. These people were the original people who may have existed on the lands long before the Chinese and Tibetese were there. Funan was known for its elaborate irrigation canals which controlled the Mekong floodwaters, irrigated the paddy fields and prevented the incursion of seawater. By the fifth century Funan had extended its influence over most of present day Cambodia, as well as Indochina and parts of the Malay peninsula. Leadership was measured by success in battle and the ability to provide protection, and in recognition of this fact, rulers from the Funan period onward incorporated the suffix 'varman' (pronounce veik.raak.maan in Khmer, meaning protection or guardian of the land) into their names. In AD 250, two Chinese emissaries from the Wu Emperor visited what they called Funan. Eventually, they provided a detailed report documenting a civilization with a king and walled settlements: scholars identified ruins in Southeast Asia which match that description and called them Funan as well. The word Funan itself (according to scholars) appears to be a transliteration of the word Phnom, which means Mountain or Hill in modern Khmer language but it means Kingdom in ancient Khmer language and thus the word 'Phnom' forms part of many place names in Southeast Asia.
The Funan kingdom included large walled capitals at Oc Eo (Vietnam) and Angkor Borei (Cambodia), and the two Chinese visitors Kang Dai and Zhu Ying reported back to the Wu Emperor that Funan had a luxury tax on gold, silver, perfumes and pearls, and a legal system involving trial by ordeal. Records quoting the two Chinese embassy give an idea of what it was like: "There are walled villages, places and dwellings. The men ... go about naked and barefoot ... Taxes are paid in gold, silver and perfume. There are books and libraries and they can use the alphabet." Twentieth-century excavations suggest a seafaring people engaged in extensive trade with both India and China, and elsewhere. The reports from the two visitors also included the origin story of Funan, the dynastic lineages, and the presence at court of a representative of the Indian Murunda king. Craft specialists at Funan worked metal, engraved stone, and produced jewelry.
Funan houses were raised on stilts, and the region included an extensive canal system. Connections to the vast Silk Road trade network between Rome, India and China have been identified in the artifacts recovered from Funan sites, including Brahmin seals from India. Several Sanskrit scripts refer to a ruler named Jayavarman, who founded sanctuaries dedicated to Vishnu, a hermitage and reservoir, and fought many battles.
Funan was quite prosperous, and it flourished after its connections with China and India as a result of its control of the Mekong Delta until the 6th century AD, when that control was lost and the control of Southeast Asia moved to Chenla state.
The 'Solar Dynasty' of Chenla was a vassal kingdom of Funan, probably first based on the Mekong at the junction with the Mun tributary, but it rapidly grew in power, and was centred in the area of present day southern Laos. It was the immediate predecessor of Kambuja and the great Khmer Empire. According to Khmer legend, the kingdom was the result of the marriage of Kambu, an ascetic, to a celestial nymph named Mera. The people of Chenla - the Kambuja, or the sons and daughters of Kambu - lent their name to the country: Kampuchea, which is called Cambodia by westerners. In AD 540 a Funan prince married a Chenla princess, uniting the Solar and Lunar dynasties. The prince sided with his wife and Funan was swallowed by Chenla. The first capital of this fusion was at Sambor. King Ishanarvarman I (AD 616-635) established a new capital at Sambor Prei Kuk, 30 km from modern Kompong Thom, in the centre of the country (the monuments of which are some of the best preserved of this period). His successor, Jayavarman I, moved the capital to the region of Angkor Borei near Takeo.
Quarrels in the ruling family led to the break-up of the state later in the seventh century: it was divided into 'Land Chenla', a farming culture located north of the Tonle Sap (maybe centred around Champassak in Laos), and 'Water Chenla', a trading culture based along the Mekong. Towards the end of the eighth century Water Chenla became a vassal of Java's powerful Sailendra Dynasty and members of Chenla's ruling family were taken back to the Sailendra court. This period, from the fall of Funan until the eighth century, is known as the pre-Angkorian period and is a somewhat hazy time in the history of Cambodia. Some historians believed that there were revolts by possibly a new clan of the old Funan kingdom followers formed following the union of the Funan and the Chenla kingdoms. There were disagreements among historians the notion that the union of the two kingdoms resulted from an amicable agreement between the two kingdoms but instead resulted from a full out conquest of the Funan kingdom by the Chenla kingdom. They suggested that the marriage between the prince of Funan and princess of Chenla took place after the union, and not before the union, when the father of the Chenla princess--who orchestrated the conquest--reached out to his arch rival Funan clan ruler, whom he deposed in the conquest, in a gesture of friendship by offering his daughter to his arch rival's son as bride to harmonize the union. They argued that it may have worked for the most part until from the early to the middle of the eight century when it seemed to be some turmoil within the union--perhaps a new clan was founded by Funan loyalists who wanted to retake the Funan kingdom back. They suggested that the new and much weaker Funan clan may have asked Javanese ruler for help in their quest to retake the Funan kingdom back and Javanese ruler obliged. Historians believed that the Javanese would not have been able to conquer the union if the union was in tack and in harmony with each other because the Khmers were powerful when united. From the early to the middle of the eight century and possibly continued toward the end of the eight century there seemed to be turbulents and turmoil as the union was in disarrayed and fragmented. The union finally ended up being controlled by the Javanese sometimes between the middle of the eight century and toward the end of the eight century. The Khmers remained firmly under Javanese suzerainty until Jayavarman II (AD 802-850) returned to the land of his ancestors and his birthplace, perhaps at the age of between late 20s and early 30s, around AD 787 or AD 788 to change the course of Cambodian history.
Angkor and the god-kings
Jayavarman II, the Khmer prince who had spent most of his life at the Sailendra court, claimed independence from Java and founded the Angkor Kingdom to the north of the Tonle Sap in AD 802, at about the same time as Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor in Europe. They were men cast in the same mould, for both were empire builders. His far-reaching conquests at Wat Phou (Laos) and Sambhupura (Sambor) won him immediate political popularity on his return and he became king in AD 790. In AD 802 he declared himself a World Emperor and to consolidate and legitimize his position he arranged his coronation by a Brahmin priest, declaring himself the first Khmer devaraja, or god-king, a tradition continued today. From then on, the reigning monarch was identified with Siva, the king of the Hindu gods. In the centuries that followed, successive devaraja strove to outdo their predecessors by building bigger and finer temples to house the royal linga, a phallic symbol which is the symbol of Siva and the devaraja. The god-kings commanded the absolute allegiance of their subjects, giving them control of a vast pool of labour that was used to build an advanced and prosperous agricultural civilization. For many years historians and archaeologists maintained that the key to this agricultural wealth lay in a sophisticated hydraulic - that is irrigated - system of agriculture which allowed the Khmers to produce up to three harvests a year. However, this view of Angkorian agriculture has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years and now there are many who believe that flood-retreat - rather than irrigated - agriculture was the key. Jayavarman II installed himself in successive capitals north of the Tonle Sap, secure from attack by the Sailendras, and he ruled until AD 850, when he died on the banks of the Great Lake at the original capital, Hariharalaya, in the Roluos area (Angkor).
Jayavarman III (AD 850-877) continued his father's traditions and ruled for the next 27 years. He expanded his father's empire at Hariharalaya and was the original founder of the laterite temple at Bakong. Indravarman (AD 877-889), his successor, was the first of the great temple-builders of Angkor and somewhat overshadowed the work of Jayavarman III. His means to succession are somewhat ambiguous but it is generally agreed that he overthrew Jayavarman III violently. Unlike his predecessor, Indravarman was not the son of a king but more than likely the nephew of Jayavarman's II Queen. That would makes Indravarman a distance cousin of King Jayavarman III. He expanded and renovated the capital, building Preah Ko Temple and developing Bakong. Indravarman is considered one of the key players in Khmer history. Referred to as the "lion among kings" and "prince endowed with all the merits," his architectural projects established precedents that were emulated by those that followed him. After Indravarman's death his sons fought for the King's title. The victor, at the end of the ninth century was Yasovarman I (AD 889-900). The battle is believed to have destroyed the palace, thus spurring a move to Angkor. He called his new capital Yasodharapura and copied the water system his father had devised at Roluos on an even larger scale, using the waters of the Tonle Sap. After Yasovarman's death in 900 his son Harshavarman I (AD 900-923) took the throne, until he died 23 years later. Harshavarman I was well regarded, one particular inscription saying that he "caused the joy of the universe." Upon his death, his brother Ishanarvarman II, assumed the regal status. In AD 928, Jayavarman IV, a descendant (or son) of king Jayavarman III who was ousted in a violent coup by Indravarman, emerged on the scene to reclaim his father's legacy and he set up a rival capital about 65 km from Angkor at Koh Ker to challenge king Ishanarvarman II who was still in control for most of the territories. Jayavarman IV won the battle and he ruled for the next 20 years while descendants of king Harshavarman I (or nephews and nieces of king Ishanarvarman II) kept a closer eye watching and waiting to reclaim their ancestor's legacy. After Jayavarman IV's death there was a period of upheaval as Harshavarman II, the son of king Harshavarman I, tried unsuccessfully to lead the empire. Rajendravarman (AD 944-968), Jayarvarman's nephew, managed to take control of the empire and moved the court back to Angkor, where the Khmer kings remained. He chose to build outside of the former capital Bakheng, opting instead for the region south of the East Baray. Many saw him as the saviour of Angkor with one inscription reading: "He restored the holy city of Yashodharapura, long deserted, and rendered it superb and charming." Rajendravarman orchestrated a campaign of solidarity - bringing together a number of provinces and claiming back territory, previously under Yasovarman I. From the restored capital he led a successful crusade against the Champa in what is now Vietnam. A devout Buddhist, he erected some of the first Buddhist temples in the precinct. Upon Rajendravarman's death, his son Jayavarman V (AD 968-1001), still only a child, took the royal reigns. Once again the administrative centre was moved, this time to the west, where Ta Keo was built. The capital was renamed Jayendranagari. Like his father, Jayavarman V was Buddhist but was extremely tolerant of other religions. At the start of his tenure he had a few clashes with local dissidents but things settled down and he enjoyed relative peace during his rule. The next king, Udayadityavarman I, lasted a few months before being ousted. For the next few years Suryavarman I and Jayaviravarman battled for the King's title.
The formidable warrior King Suryavarman I (1002-1049) won. He was a determined leader and made all of his officials swear a blood oath of allegiance. He undertook a series of military campaigns geared towards claiming Mon territory in central and southern Thailand and victoriously extended the Khmer empire into Lower Menam, as well as into Laos and established a Khmer capital in Louvo (modern day Lopburi in Thailand). Suryavarman holds the record for the greatest territorial expansion ever achieved in the Khmer Empire. The Royal Palace (Angkor Thom), the West Baray and the Phimeanakas pyramid temples were Suryavarman's main contributions to Angkor's architectural heritage . He continued the royal Hindu cult but also tolerated Mahayana Buddhism.
On Suryavarman's death, the Khmer Kingdom began to experience its first major Angkorian period upheaval within the Khmer Empire, with constant quarrels and turmoil within many ruling family members--and distance relatives and descendants of past Khmer rulers constantly jumping in wanting to get back into power and redeem or restore their ancestors' legacy--often quarreling each other that led to the Khmer Empire nation began to fragment and weakened. His three successors had short, troubled reigns and the Champa kingdom captured, sacked and razed the capital. When the king's (Suryavarman I's) son, Udayadityavarman II (1050-1066), assumed the throne, havoc ensued as citizens revolted against him and some of his royal appointments.
When Udayadityavarman II died, his younger brother, Harsharvarman III (1066-1080), last in the line of the dynasty, stepped in. During his reign, there were reports of discord and further defeat at the hands of the Cham.
In 1080 a new kingdom was founded by a northern provincial governor claiming aristocratic descent. He called himself Jayavarman VI (1080-1107) to give him more political stature and garner more political name recorgnition, and is believed to have led a revolt against the former king (Harsharvarman III). It is generally agreed among historians that he may have claimed to be a descendant of Jayavarman but in fact he wasn't even close. Nethertheless, he garnered enough Khmer support to oust King Harsharvarman III (1066-1080) and took control of the empire. He never settled at Angkor, living instead in the northern part of the kingdom. He left monuments at Wat Phou in southern Laos and Phimai, in Thailand. There was an intermittent period where Jayavarman's IV brother, Dharanindravarman (1107-1112) took the throne but he was overthrown by his grand- nephew Suryavarman II (1113-1150), who soon became the greatest leader the Angkor Empire had ever seen. He worked prolifically on a broad range of projects and achieved some of most impressive architectural feats and political manoeuvres seen within the Angkorian period. He resumed diplomatic relations with China, the Middle Kingdom [see footnote], and was held in the greatest regard by the then Chinese Emperor. He expanded the Khmer Empire as far as Lopburi, Siam, Pagan in Myanmar, parts of Laos and into the Malay peninsula. He attacked the Champa state relentlessly, particularly Dai Vet in Northern Vietnam, eventually defeating them in 1144-1145, and capturing and sacking the royal capital, Vijaya (Vietnam renamed it to Hanoi to this day). He left an incredible, monumental legacy behind, being responsible for the construction of Angkor Wat, an architectural masterpiece that represented the height of the Khmer's artistic genius, Phnom Rung temple (Khorat) and Banteay Samre. A network of roads was built to connect regional capitals.
[Footnote: the Middle Kingdom refers to China. Check the definition in the dictionary for more details. For historical purpose, it refers to China from the belief that it lay at the center or middle of the earth. The 18 inner provinces of China, taken collectively.]
However, his success was not without its costs - his widespread construction put serious pressure on the general running of the kingdom and major reservoirs silted up during this time; there was also an intensified discord in the provinces and his persistent battling fuelled an ongoing duel between the Cham and Khmers that was to continue (and eventually be avenged) long after his death.
Suryavarman II deposed the King of Champa in 1145 but the Cham regained their independence in 1149 and the following year, Suryavarman II died after a disastrous attempt to conquer Annam (northern Vietnam near today's Hanoi). The throne was usurped by Tribhuvanadityavarman in 1165, who died in 1177, when the Cham seized their chance of revenge and sacked Angkor in a surprise naval attack. This was the Khmer's worst recorded defeat - the city was completely annihilated. The 50-year-old Jayavarman VII - a cousin of Suryavarman II - turned out to be their saviour. He battled the Cham for the next four years, driving them out of the Kingdom. In 1181 he was declared king and seriously hit back, attacking the Chams and seizing their capital, Vijaya. He expanded the Khmer Kingdom further than ever before; its suzerainty stretched from the Malay peninsula in the south to Burma in the west and the Annamite chain to the northeast. Another way of saying is that the Khmer Empire under king Jayavarman VII consists of present day Cambodia, Vietnam, Loas, Thailand and Burma combined.
Jayavarman's VII's first task was to plan a strong, spacious new capital - Angkor Thom; but while that work was being undertaken he set up a smaller, temporary seat of government where he and his court could live in the meantime - Preah Khan meaning 'Fortunate City of Victory' . He also built 102 hospitals throughout his kingdom, as well as a network of roads, along which he constructed resthouses. But because they were built of wood, none of these secular structures survive; only the foundations of four larger ones have been unearthed at Angkor.
As was the case during Suryavarman II's reign, Jayavarman VII's extensive building campaign put a large amount of pressure on the kingdom's resources and rice was in short supply as labor was diverted into construction.
Jayavarman VII died in 1218 and once again turmoil set in with many factions of the ruling family and descendants of past Khmer rulers saw the chance to get back in power, with each faction staked a claim to the throne causing constant battles between the ruling family members and descendants of past Khmer rulers. The constant in-fightings among themselves further weakened the already fragmented Khmer Empire and it began to fall into progressive decline over the next two centuries as no single ruler seemed to be able to unite the Empire. Territorially, it was eroded by the eastern migration of the Siamese at a crucial time when the Khmer Empire was experiencing so much internal turmoil. [The Siamese came from China during the height of the Ming Dynasty conflict and following the fall of the Ming Dynasty. The Siamese is better known today as Thais when it changed its country name from Siam to Thailand in 1939] Some factions or distance relatives of the ruling family even sided with the Siamese to weaken the ruling king because of animosities between the ruling king and members of the opposition factions. The Khmers were badly weakened and fragmented and were unable to prevent this gradual incursion by the Siamese but the diversion of labor to the military rice farming helped seal the fate of Angkor but vast amount of territories have already been lost to the Siamese. Another reason for the decline was the introduction of Theravada Buddhism in the 13th century, which undermined the prestige of the king and the priests. There is even a view that climatic change disrupted the agricultural system and led to Khmer Empire's demise. After Jayavarman VII, no king seems to have been able to unify the kingdom by force of arms or personality because of constant battlings between the ruling families--and descendants of past rulers constantly jumping into the mixed of the quarrels - internal dissent increased while the king's extravagance continued to place a crippling burden on state funds. With its temples decaying and its once-magnificent agricultural system in ruins, Angkor became virtually uninhabitable. In 1431 the royal capital was finally abandoned to the Siamese, who drove the Khmers out and made Cambodia a vassal of the Thai Sukhothai Kingdom.
End of the first-half of a brief history of the Khmer Civilization.
Editorial Point of View: Explaining Angkor's decline
Why the Angkorian Empire should have declined has always fascinated scholars in the West - in the same way that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has done. Numerous explanations have been offered, and still the debate remains unresolved. As Anthony Barnett argued in a paper in the New Left Review in 1990, perhaps the question should be "why did Angkor last so long? Inauspiciously sited, it was nonetheless a tropical imperium of 500 years' duration."
There are essentially five lines of argument in the 'Why did Angkor fall?' debate. First, it has been argued that the building programs became simply so arduous and demanding of ordinary people that they voted with their feet and moved out, depriving Angkor of the population necessary to support a great empire. Second, some scholars present an environmental argument: the great irrigation works silted-up, undermining the empire's agricultural wealth. (This line of argument conflicts with recent work that maintains that Angkor's wealth was never based on hydraulic - or irrigated - agriculture.) Third, there are those who say that military defeat was the cause - but this only begs the question: why they were defeated in the first place? Fourth, historians with a rather wider view, have offered the opinion that the centres of economic activity in Southeast Asia moved from land-based to sea-based foci, and that Angkor was poorly located to adapt to this shift in patterns of trade, wealth and, hence, power. Lastly, some scholars argue that the religion which demanded such labour of Angkor's subjects became so corrupt that it ultimately corroded the empire from within.
The Spiraling down of the Khmer Empire: The Last Breath From Self Destruction
After Angkor - Havoc continued
The next 500 years or so, until the arrival of the French in 1863, was an undistinguished period in Cambodian history - and nothing seemed to go right for the Khmers with discord and turmoil within the ruling family and ongoing animosity from other factions of Khmer clans further battered the already fragmented nation, which inflicted itself and disintegrated itself to a point of endless deterioration and self-destruction. In 1434 the royal Khmer court under Ponheayat moved to Phnom Penh, where a replica of the cosmic Mount Meru was built. There was a short-lived period of revival in the mid-15th century until the Siamese invaded and sacked the capital again in 1473. One of the sons of the captured King Suryavarman drummed up enough Khmer support to oust the invaders and there were no subsequent invasions during the 16th century. The capital was established at Lovek (between Phnom Penh and Tonle Sap) and then moved back to the ruins at Angkor. But a Siamese invasion in 1593 sent the royal court fleeing to Laos; finally, in 1603, the Siamese released a captured prince to rule over the Cambodian vassal state. There were at least 22 kings between 1603 and 1848 but none had the stature nor the ability of the likes of Jayavarman, Suryavarman or Indravarman -- as further turmoil ensued during most of their reigns.
Politically, the Cambodian court tried to steer a course between its powerful neighbours of Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, seeking one's protection against the other. King Chey Chetta II (1618-1628), for example, declared Cambodia's independence from Siam and in order to back up his actions he asked Vietnam for help. To cement the allegiance he was forced to marry a Vietnamese princess of the Nguyen Dynasty of Annam, and then obliged to pay tribute to Vietnam. His successors - hoping to rid themselves of Vietnamese domination - sought Siamese assistance and were then forced to pay for it by acknowledging Siam's suzerainty. Then in 1642, King Chan converted to Islam, and encouraged Malay and Javanese migrants to settle in Cambodia. Considering him guilty of apostasy, his cousins ousted him - with Vietnamese support. But 50 years later, the Cambodian Ang Eng was crowned in Bangkok. This see-saw pattern continued for years; only Siam's wars with Burma and Vietnam's internal disputes and long-running conflict with China prevented them from annexing the whole of Cambodia, although both took territorial advantage of the fragmented Khmer state.
By the early 1700s the kingdom was centred on Phnom Penh (there were periods when the king resided at Ondong). By 1750 the Khmer royal family had split into pro-Siamese and pro-Vietnamese factions. Between 1794-1811 and 1847-1863, Siamese influence was strongest; from 1835-1837 the Vietnamese dominated. In the 1840s, the Siamese and Vietnamese armies fought on Cambodian territory, devastating the country. This provoked French intervention - and cost Cambodia its independence, even if it had been nominal for several centuries anyway. On 17 April 1864 (the same day and month as the Khmer Rouge soldiers entered Phnom Penh in the twentieth century) King Norodom Monivong, great grandfather of King Norodom Sihanouk, agreed to French protection. The establishment of Cambodia as a French protectorate probably saved the country from being split up between Siam and Vietnam. France honoured Siam's claim to the western provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon, which Bangkok had captured in the late 1600s. With Cambodia under French protection, Siam turned its attention to Laos and Laos was in danger of being swallowed up by Siam; while at the same time China renewed its rivalry with Vietnam and Vietnam was in danger of being swallowed up by China. And in 1884, King Norodom Monivong was persuaded by the French governor of the colony of Cochin China (Indochina) to sign another treaty that turned Cambodia into a French colony, along with Laos and Vietnam in the Union Indochinoise (or Union of Indochina) under French protectorate. The three countries (Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) remainded under French protection well into the second half of the 20th century, when Cambodia was the first of the trio to gain its independence from France on November 9, 1953; while at about the same time, Ho Chi Minh was fighting France and caused Vietnam to be splitted into two countries, marking the 17th parallel as the borderline between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Laos communist party also was gaining strength in their quest to gain control of the country from France in which it did in 1975.
French colonial period
The French did little to develop Cambodia, preferring instead to let the territory pay for itself. They only invested income generated from tax revenue to build a communications network and from a Cambodian perspective, the only benefit of colonial rule was that the French forestalled the total disintegration of the country, which would otherwise have been divided up between its warring neighbours. French cartographers also mapped Cambodia's borders for the first time and in so doing forced the Thais (formerly known as Siamese) to surrender the northwestern provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap.
For nearly a century the French alternately supported two branches of the royal family, the Norodoms and the Sisowaths, crowning the 18-year-old schoolboy Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1941. The previous year, the Nazis had invaded and occupied France and French territories in Indochina were in turn occupied by the Japanese - although Cambodia was still formally governed and administered by the French. It was at this stage that a group of pro-independence Cambodians realized just how weak the French control of their country actually was. In 1942 two monks were arrested and accused of preaching anti-French sermons; within two days this sparked demonstrations by more than 1000 monks in Phnom Penh, marking the beginning of Cambodian nationalism. In March 1945 Japanese forces ousted the colonial administration and persuaded King Norodom Sihanouk to proclaim independence. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the French came back in force; Sihanouk tried to negotiate independence from France and they responded by abolishing the absolute monarchy in 1946 - although the king remained titular head of state. A new constitution was introduced allowing political activity and a National Assembly elected.
The Mekong Delta and Khmer Krom
On June 4th, 1949, France sided with South Vietnam in a claim to the Mekong Delta territory when South Vietnam laid claim to the territory previously belonged to Cambodia. The handover of the Mekong Delta territory sparked an angry protest against the French that led to the creation of a movement called the Khmer Serei or Khmer liberation front (or Free Khmer) -- led by a Khmer Krom leader named Seng Ngoc Thanh and based its operation in Thailand. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh founded his communist party based in Hanoi, North Vietnam. The two movements fought France simultaneouly with Ho Chi Minh putting his offensive along the 17th paralell on the borders of North and South Vietnam; while Seng Ngoc Thanh was putting his offensive along the Thailand-Cambodia border stretching along the western border of Cambodia and all the way to northeast tip of Cambodia-Loas borders.
Independence and neutrality
By the early 1950s the French army had suffered several defeats in the war in Indochina with Seng Ngoc Thanh and his Khmer Serei army mounting offensive at French forces while Ho Chi Minh also was gaining the upper hands on the French in South Vietnam. Sihanouk dissolved the National Assembly in mid-1952, which he was entitled to do under the constitution, and personally took charge of steering Cambodia towards independence from France. To publicize the cause, he travelled to Thailand, Japan and the United States, and said he would not return from self-imposed exile until his country was free. His audacity embarrassed the French into granting Cambodia independence on 9 November 1953 - and Sihanouk returned, triumphant. In late 1954 and early 1955, Norodom Sihanouk tried to negotiate with the Khmer Serei and invited Seng Ngoc Thanh to be a member of his government's cabinet, ending Seng Ngoc Thanh's quest to free his Khmer Krom people from South Vietnam, which was still colonized by France. Some political analysts diagree that Cambodia's indepdence was a result of Sihanouk's masterful political manoeuvres but instead a result of France having to fight two wars simultaneouly and experiencing defeats on both fronts. They believed Sihanouk had little to do with the outcome of Cambodia's indepdence even though he proclaimed that he was the one who orchestrated a masterful political manoeuvre to gain Cambodia independence. Political analysts pointed out that France was willing to give up colonizing Cambodia but was not ready to give up colonizing South Vietnam for an obvious reason when France handed the Mekong Delta to South Vietnam on June 4, 1949. After France gave up Cambodia and Sihanouk invited Seng Ngoc Thanh to join his cabinet, France quickly moved all of its troops from Cambodia, which were fighting the Khmer Serei and Seng Ngoc Thanh, to South Vietnam to concentrate on fighting Ho Chi Minh. In the mid 1950s, Laos communist party, with the help from Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, was gaining strength in their quest to take control of Laos from France. Once again, France had to deal with two wars simultaneously. In the late 1950s, France had enough in Indochina and France pulled out. France asked the United States to take over the matters in both South Vietnam and Laos. The U.S. took over the duties from France in the late 1950s and since then it was known as the Vietnam War.
The people of Cambodia did not want to return to absolute monarchy, and following his abdication in 1955, Sihanouk became a popular political leader. But political analysts believe that despite the apparent popularity of the former king's administration, different factions began to develop at this time, a process that was the root of the conflict in the years to come. During the 1960s, for example, there was a growing rift between the Khmer majority and other ethnic groups. Even in the countryside, differences became marked between the rice-growing lands and the more remote mountain areas where people practised shifting cultivation, supplementing their diet with lizards, snakes, roots and insects. As these problems intensified in the late 1960s and the economic situation deteriorated, the popular support base for the Khmer Rouge was put into place. With unchecked population growth, land ownership patterns became skewed, landlessness grew more widespread and food prices escalated.
Sihanouk managed to keep Cambodia out of the war that enveloped Laos and Vietnam during the late 1950s and 1960s by following a neutral policy. But when a civil war broke out in South Vietnam in the early 1960s, Cambodia's survival - and Sihanouk's own survival - depended on its outcome. Sihanouk believed the rebels, the National Liberation Front (NLF) would win; and he openly courted and backed the NLF. It was an alliance which cost him dear. In 1965-1966 the tide began to turn in South Vietnam, due to US military and economic intervention. This forced NLF troops to take refuge inside Cambodia. When a peasant uprising in northwestern provinces in 1967 showed Sihanouk that he was sailing close to the wind his forces responded by suppressing the rebellion and massacring 10,000 peasants.
Slowly - and inevitably - he became the focus of resentment within Cambodia's political elite. He also incurred American wrath by allowing North Vietnamese forces to use Cambodian territory as an extension of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ferrying arms and men into South Vietnam. This resulted in his former army Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Lon Nol masterminding Sihanouk's removal as Head of State while he was in Moscow in 1970. Lon Nol abolished the monarchy and proclaimed a republic. One of the most auspicious creatures in Khmer mythology is the white crocodile. It is said to appear 'above the surface' at important moments in history and is said to have been sighted near Phnom Penh just before Lon Nol took over.
Third Indochina War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge
On 30 April 1970, following the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, US President Richard Nixon officially announced Washington's military intervention in Cambodia- although in reality it had been going on for some time. The invasion aimed to deny the Vietnamese Communists the use of Sihanoukville port through which 85% of their heavy arms were reaching South Vietnam. The US Air Force had been secretly bombing Cambodia using B-52s since March 1969. In 1973, facing defeat in Vietnam, the US Air Force B-52s began carpet bombing Communist-controlled areas to enable Lon Nol's inept regime to retain control of the besieged provincial cities.
Historian David P Chandler wrote: "When the campaign was stopped by the US Congress at the end of the year, the B-52s had dropped over half a million tons of bombs on a country with which the United States was not at war - more than twice the tonnage dropped on Japan during the Second World War.
The war in Cambodia was known as 'the sideshow' by journalists covering the war in Vietnam and by American policy-makers in London. Yet the intensity of US bombing in Cambodia was greater than it ever was in Vietnam; about 500,000 soldiers and civilians were killed over the four-year period. It also caused about two million refugees to flee from the countryside to the capital."
As Henry Kamm suggested, by the beginning of 1971 the people of Cambodia had to face the terrifying realisation that nowhere in the country was safe and all hope and confidence in Cambodia's future during the war was lost. A year after the coup d'etat the country was shattered: guerrilla forces had invaded Angkor, the country's primary oil refinery, Lol Non had suffered a stroke and had relocated to Hawaii for months of treatment, Lol Non's irregularly paid soldiers were pillaging stores at gunpoint and extreme corruption was endemic.
By the end of the war, the country had become totally dependent on US aid and much of the population survived on American rice rations. Confidence in the Lon Nol government collapsed as taxes rose and children were drafted into combat units. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge increased its military strength dramatically and began to make inroads into areas formerly controlled by government troops. Although officially the Khmer Rouge rebels represented the Beijing-based Royal Government of National Union of Cambodia (Grunc), which was headed by the exiled Prince Sihanouk, Grunc's de facto leaders were Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan (who, after Pol Pot's demise, became the public face of the Khmer Rouge), Ieng Sary (later foreign minister) and Son Sen (Chief of General Staff) - all Khmer Rouge men. By the time the American bombing stopped in 1973, the guerrillas dominated about 60% of Cambodian territory, while the government clung tenuously to towns and cities. Over the next two years the Khmer Rouge whittled away Phnom Penh's defence perimeter to the point that Lon Nol's government was sustained only by American airlifts into the capital.
Some commentators have suggested that the persistent heavy bombing of Cambodia, which forced the Communist guerrillas to live in terrible conditions, was partly responsible for the notorious savagery of the Khmer Rouge in later years. Not only were they brutalized by the conflict itself, but they became resentful of the fact that the city-dwellers had no inkling of how unpleasant their experiences really were. This, writes US political scientist Wayne Bert, "created the perception among the Khmer Rouge that the bulk of the population did not take part in the revolution, was therefore not enthusiastic about it and could not be trusted to support it. The final step in this logic was to punish or eliminate all in these categories who showed either real or imagined tendencies toward disloyalty." And that, as anyone who has watched The Killing Fields will know, is what happened.
'Pol Pot time' building year zero
On 1 April 1975 President Lon Nol fled Cambodia to escape the advancing Khmer Rouge. Just over two weeks later, on 17 April, the victorious Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The capital's population had been swollen by refugees from 600,000 to over two million. The ragged conquering troops were welcomed as heroes. None in the crowds that lined the streets appreciated the horrors that the victory would also bring. Cambodia was renamed Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and Pol Pot set to work establishing a radical Maoist-style agrarian society. These ideas had been first sketched out by his longstanding colleague Khieu Samphan, whose 1959 doctoral thesis - at the Sorbonne University in Paris - analysed the effects of Cambodia's colonial and neo-colonial domination. In order to secure true economic and political independence he argued that it was necessary to isolate Cambodia completely and to go back to a self-sufficient agricultural economy.
Within days of the occupation, the revolutionaries had forcibly evacuated many of the inhabitants of Phnom Penh to the countryside, telling citizens that the Americans were about to bomb the capital; while rounding up Lon Nol's high official personnels and families and driven away for persecution. A second major displacement was carried out at the end of the year, when hundreds of thousands of people from the area southeast of Phnom Penh were forced to move to the northwest. Any sign of intellectuals or having served or associated with Lon Nol's regime high echelon were rounding up and driven away for execution. Any sign of intellectuals were rounding up and driven away for execution in an attempt to return the country to 'Year Zero'.
Prior to the Khmer Rouge coming to power, the Cambodian word for revolution (bambahbambor) had a conventional meaning, 'uprising'. Under Pol Pot's regime, the word pativattana was used instead; it meant 'return to the past'. The Khmer Rouge did this by obliterating everything that did not subscribe to their vision of the past glories of ancient Khmer culture. Pol Pot wanted to return the country to 'Year Zero' - he wanted to begin again. One of the many revolutionary slogans was "we will burn the old grass and new will grow"; money, modern technology, medicine, education and newspapers were outlawed. Khieu Samphan, who became the Khmer Rouge Head of State, following Prince Sihanouk's resignation in 1976, said at the time: "No, we have no machines. We do everything by mainly relying on the strength of our people. We work completely self-sufficiently. This shows the overwhelming heroism of our people. This also shows the great force of our people. Though bare-handed, they can do everything."
The Khmer Rouge, or Angkar Loeu ('The Higher Organization') as they touted themselves, maintained a strangle-hold on the country by dislocating families, disorientating people and sustaining a persistent fear through violence, torture and death. At the heart of their strategy was a plan to unfurl people's strongest bonds and loyalties: those that existed between family members. The term kruosaa, which traditionally means 'family' in Khmer, came to simply mean 'spouse' under the Khmer Rouge. In Angkar, family no longer existed. Krusosaa niyum, which loosely translated to 'familyism' (or pining for one's relatives) was a criminal offence punishable by death. Under heinous interrogation procedures people were intensively probed about their family members (sisters, brothers, grandparents and in-laws) and encouraged to inform on them. Those people who didn't turn over relatives considered adversaries (teachers, former soldiers, doctors, etc.) faced odious consequences, with the fate of the whole family (immediate and extended) in danger.
Memoirs from survivors detailed in the book Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields repeatedly refer to the Khmer Rouge dictum "to keep you is no benefit to destroy you is no loss." People were treated as nothing more than machines. Food was scarce under Pol Pot's inefficient system of collective farming and administration was based on fear, torture and summary execution. A veil of secrecy shrouded Cambodia and, until a few desperate refugees began to trickle over the border into Thailand, the outside world was largely ignorant of what was going on. The refugees' stories of atrocities were, at first, disbelieved. Jewish refugees who escaped from Nazi occupied Poland in the 1940s had encountered a similarly disbelieving reception simply because (like the Cambodians) what they had to say was, to most people, unbelievable. Some left wing academics initially viewed the revolution as an inspired and brave attempt to break the shackles of dependency and neo-colonial domination. Others, such as Noam Chomsky, dismissed the allegations as right wing press propaganda.
The Khmer People's National Liberation Front (or KPNLF).
The Khmer People's National Liberation Front was founded in 1976 by Khmers (Cambodians) in exile in Thailand and elsewhere, led by its leader named Son Sann, to liberate Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. The KPNLF main strategy was to convince rank and file Khmer Rouge soldiers and its divisional leaders to either defect to the liberation front or overthrow the Pol Pot regime. The KPNLF soldiers and secret agents regularly travelled as deep as they could into Cambodia and dropped and planted massive and massive leaflets and pamphlets urging the Khmer Rouge soldiers and divisional leaders to use common sense and think before they commit murder of their own people. The literatures contained facts of what was happening under Pol Pot's rule and pointed out how destructive Pol Pot's policy was, in an attempt to wake them up and motivate them to defect or overthrow the Pol Pot regime. The massive and massive droppings and plantings of leaflets and pamphlets had a desirable effect as thousands and thousands of rank and file Khmer Rouge soldiers and divisional leaders of the northern and western divisions defected to Thailand and to the KPNLF. By 1977, Pol Pot himself felt the pressures put on by the KPNLF and by his own divisional leaders of the northern and western divisions who were turning against him and his regime. Pol Pot quickly implemented a new policy to purge his own troops, starting with divisional leaders of the northern and western divisions because he didn't trust them and he wanted to eliminate the possibility of these divisional leaders overthrowing him and his regime. By mid 1977, when Pol Pot finished with his new policy of purging his own divisional leaders of the northern and western divisions and installed new leaders, he turned to the rest of the divisions--more specifically the eastern and southern divisions where Heng Samrin and Hun Sen were the leaders of those divisions. Heng Samrin and Hun Sen quickly realized that they were being purged and they quickly defected with their troops to Vietnam and urged Vietnam to invade Cambodia, which Vietnam did on January 7, 1979.
It was not until the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 that the scale of the Khmer Rouge carnage emerged and the atrocities witnessed by the survivors became known. The stories turned the Khmer Rouge into international pariahs - but only until 1982 when, remarkably, their American and Chinese sympathizers secured them a voice at the United Nations. During the Khmer Rouge's 44-month reign of terror, it had hitherto been generally accepted that around a million people died. This is a horrendous figure when one considers that the population of the country in 1975 was around seven million. What is truly shocking is that the work undertaken by a team from Yale University indicates that this figure is far too low and a revised upward figure to almost three million people died.
Although the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia may have been a period of unprecedented economic, political and human turmoil, they still managed to keep meticulous records of what they were doing. In this regard the Khmer Rouge were rather like the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, or the Nazis in Germany. Using Australian satellite data, the team was expecting to uncover around 200 mass graves; instead they found several thousand. The Khmer Rouge themselves have claimed that around 20,000 people died because of their 'mistakes'. The Vietnamese have traditionally put the figure at two to three million, although their estimates have generally been rejected as too high and politically motivated (being a means to justify their invasion of the country in 1978/1979 and subsequent occupation). The Documentation Center of Cambodia, involved in the heavy mapping project, said that 20,492 mass graves were uncovered containing the remains of 1,112,829 victims of execution. In addition, hundreds of thousands more died from famine and disease; frighteningly, the executions are believed to only account for about 30-40% of the total death toll.
How such a large slice of Cambodia's people died in so short a time (1975-1978) beggars belief. Some were shot, strangled or suffocated; many more starved; while others died from disease and overwork. The Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into what the British journalist, William Shawcross, described as: “a vast and sombre work camp where toil was unending, where respite and rewards were non-existent, where families were abolished and where murder was used as a tool of social discipline ... The manner of execution was often brutal. Babies were torn apart limb from limb, pregnant women were disembowelled. Men and women were buried up to their necks in sand and left to die slowly. A common form of execution was by axe handles to the back of the neck. That saved ammunition”.
The Khmer Rouge revolution was primarily a class-based one, fed by years of growing resentment against the privileged elites. The revolution pitted the least-literate, poorest rural peasants (referred to as the 'old' people) against the educated, skilled and foreign-influenced urban population (the 'new' people). The 'new' people provided an endless flow of numbers for the regime's death lists. Through a series of terrible purges, the members of the former governing and mercantile classes were liquidated or sent to work as forced labourers. But Peter Carey, Oxford historian and Chairman of the Cambodia Trust, argues that not all Pol Pot's victims were townspeople and merchants. "Under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention, the Khmer Rouge stands accused of genocide," he wrote in a letter to a British newspaper in 1990. "Of 64,000 Buddhist monks, 62,000 perished; of 250,000 Islamic Chams, 100,000; of 200,000 Vietnamese still left in 1975, 100,000; of 20,000 Thai, 12,000; of 1800 Lao, 1000. Of 2000 Kola, not a trace remained." American political scientist Wayne Bert noted that: "The methods and behaviour compare to that of the Nazis and Stalinists, but in the percentage of the population killed by a revolutionary movement, the Khmer Rouge holds an unchallenged record."
It is still unclear the degree to which these 'genocidal' actions were controlled by those at the centre. Many of the killings took place at the discretion of local leaders, but there were some notably cruel leaders in the upper echelons of the Khmer Rouge and none can have been ignorant of what was going on. Ta Mok, who administered the region southwest of Phnom Penh, oversaw many mass executions for example. There is also evidence that the central government was directly involved in the running of the Tuol Sleng detention centre in which at least 20,000 people died. It has now been turned into a memorial to Pol Pot's holocaust.
In addition to the legacy left by centres such as Tuol Sleng, there is the impact of the mass killings upon the Cambodian psyche. One of which is - to Western eyes - the startling openness with which Khmer people will, if asked, matter-of-factly relate their family history in detail: this usually involves telling how the Khmer Rouge era meant they lost one or several members of their family. Whereas death is talked about in hushed terms in Western society, Khmers have no such reservations, perhaps because it touched, and still touches, them all.
The first border clashes over offshore islands between Khmer Rouge forces and the Vietnamese army were reported just a month after the Khmer Rouge came to power. These erupted into a minor war in January 1977 when the Phnom Penh government accused Vietnam of seeking to incorporate Kampuchea into an Indochinese federation. Hanoi's determination to oust Pol Pot only really became apparent however, on Christmas Day 1978 when 120,000 Vietnamese troops invaded. By 7 January (the day of Phnom Penh's liberation) they had installed a puppet government which proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK): Heng Samrin, a former member of the Khmer Rouge, was appointed president. The Vietnamese compared their invasion to the liberation of Uganda from Idi Amin - but for the Western world it was unwelcome. The new government was accorded scant recognition abroad, while the toppled government of Democratic Kampuchea retained the country's seat at the United Nations.
The country's 'liberation' by Vietnam did not end the misery; in 1979 nearly half Cambodia's population was in transit, either searching for their former homes or fleeing across the Thai border into refugee camps. American political scientist Wayne Bert wrote: "The Vietnamese had long seen a special role for themselves in uniting and leading a greater Indochina Communist movement and the Cambodian Communists had seen with clarity that such a role for the Vietnamese could only be at the expense of their independence and prestige."
Under the Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge regimes, Vietnamese living in Cambodia were expelled or exterminated. Resentment had built up over the years in Hanoi - exacerbated by the apparent ingratitude of the Khmer Rouge for Vietnamese assistance in fighting Lon Nol's US-supported Khmer Republic in the early 1970s. As relations between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese deteriorated, the Communist superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, polarized too - the former siding with the Khmer Rouge and the latter with Hanoi. The Vietnamese invasion had the full backing of Moscow, while the Chinese and Americans began their support for the anti-Vietnamese rebels.
Following the Vietnamese invasion, three main anti-Hanoi factions were formed. In June 1982 they banded together in an unholy and unlikely alliance of convenience to fight the PRK and called themselves the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK), which was immediately recognized by the United Nations. The Communist Khmer Rouge, whose field forces recovered to at least 18,000 by the late 1980s. Supplied with weapons by China, they were concentrated in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwest and were also in control of some of the refugee camps along the Thai border. The National United Front for an Independent Neutral Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia (Funcinpec) - known by most people as the Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste (ANS) was headed by Prince Sihanouk although he spent most of his time exiled in Beijing. The group had fewer than 15,000 well-equipped troops - most of whom took orders from Khmer Rouge commanders. The anti-Communist Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) was founded in 1976 and headed by Son Sann, a former prime minister under Sihanouk. Its 5000 troops were reportedly ill-disciplined in comparison with the Khmer Rouge and the ANS, but its main strategy was to urge the Khmer Rouge soldiers and divisional leaders to either defect or overthrow Pol Pot regime.
The three CGDK factions were ranged against the 70,000 troops loyal to the government of President Heng Samrin and Prime Minister Hun Sen (previously a Khmer Rouge cadre). They were backed by Vietnamese forces until September 1989. Within the forces of the Phnom Penh government there were reported to be problems of discipline and desertion. But the rebel guerrilla coalition was itself seriously weakened by rivalries and hatred between the different factions: in reality, the idea of a 'coalition' was fiction. Throughout most of the 1980s the war followed the progress of the seasons: during the dry season the PRK forces with their tanks and heavy arms took the offensive but during the wet season this heavy equipment was ineffective and the guerrilla resistance made advances.
Road towards peace
In the late 1980s the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - for which the Cambodian conflict had almost become a raison d'être - began steps to bring the warring factions together over the negotiating table. ASEAN countries were united primarily in wanting the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. While publicly deploring the Khmer Rouge record, ASEAN tacitly supported the guerrillas. Thailand, an ASEAN member-state, which has had a centuries-long suspicion of the Vietnamese, co-operated closely with China to ensure that the Khmer Rouge guerrillas over the border were well-supplied with weapons.
After Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the Soviet Union, Moscow's support for the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia gradually evaporated. Gorbachev began leaning on Vietnam as early as 1987, to withdraw its troops. Despite saying their presence in Cambodia was 'irreversible', Vietnam completed its withdrawal in September 1989, ending nearly 11 years of Hanoi's direct military involvement. The withdrawal led to an immediate upsurge in political and military activity, as forces of the exiled CGDK put increased pressure on the now weakened Phnom Penh regime to begin power-sharing negotiations .
In September 1989, under pressure at home and abroad, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia. The immediate result of this withdrawal was an escalation of the civil war as the rebel factions tried to take advantage of the supposedly weakened Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh. The government committed itself to liberalizing the economy and improving the infrastructure in order to undermine the political appeal of the rebels - particularly that of the Khmer Rouge. Peasant farmers were granted life tenancy to their land and collective farms were substituted with agricultural co-operatives. But because nepotism and bribery were rife in Phnom Penh, the popularity of the Hun Sen regime declined. The rebel position was further strengthened as the disparities between living standards in Phnom Penh and those in the rest of the country widened. In the capital, the government became alarmed; in a radio broadcast in 1991 it announced a crackdown on corruption claiming it was causing a "loss of confidence in our superb regime ... which is tantamount to paving the way for the return of the genocidal Pol Pot regime."
With the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, the continuing civil war followed the familiar pattern of dry season government offensives, and consolidation of guerrilla positions during the monsoon rains. Much of the fighting focused on the potholed highways - particularly Highway 6, which connects the capital with Battambang - with the Khmer Rouge blowing up most of the bridges along the road. Their strategy involved cutting the roads in order to drain the government's limited resources. Other Khmer Rouge offensives were designed to serve their own economic ends - such as their capture of the gem-rich town of Pailin.
The Khmer Rouge ran extortion rackets throughout the country, even along the strategic Highway 4, which ferried military supplies, oil and consumer goods from the port of Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) to Phnom Penh. The State of Cambodia - or the government forces, known as SOC - was pressed to deploy troops to remote areas and allot scarce resources, settling refugees in more secure parts of the country. To add to their problems, Soviet and Eastern Bloc aid began to dry up.
Throughout 1991 the four warring factions were repeatedly brought to the negotiating table in an effort to hammer out a peace deal. Much of the argument centred on the word 'genocide'. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, insisted that the wording of any agreement should explicitly condemn the former Khmer Rouge regime's 'genocidal acts'. But the Khmer Rouge refused to be party to any power-sharing deal which labelled them in such a way. Fighting intensified as hopes for a settlement increased - all sides wanted to consolidate their territory in advance of any agreement.
Rumours emerged that China was continuing to supply arms - including tanks, reportedly delivered through Thailand - to the Khmer Rouge. There were also accusations that the Phnom Penh government was using Vietnamese combat troops to stem Khmer Rouge advances - the first such reports since their official withdrawal in 1989. But finally, in June 1991, after several attempts, Sihanouk brokered a permanent ceasefire during a meeting of the Supreme National Council (SNC) in Pattaya, South Thailand. The SNC had been proposed by the United Nations Security Council in 1990 and formed in 1991, with an equal number of representatives from the Phnom Penh government and each of the resistance factions, with Sihanouk as its chairman. The following month he was elected chairman of the SNC, and resigned his presidency of the rebel coalition government in exile. Later in the year, the four factions agreed to reduce their armed guerrillas and militias by 70%. The remainder were to be placed under the supervision of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which supervised Cambodia's transition to multi-party democracy. Heng Samrin decided to drop his insistence that reference should be made to the former Khmer Rouge's 'genocidal regime'. It was also agreed that elections should be held in 1993 on the basis of proportional representation. Heng Samrin's Communist Party was promptly renamed the Cambodian People's Party, in an effort to persuade people that it sided with democracy and capitalism.
Paris Peace Accord
On 23 October 1991, the four warring Cambodian factions signed a peace agreement in Paris which officially ended 13 years of civil war and more than two decades of warfare. The accord was co-signed by 15 other members of the International Peace Conference on Cambodia. There was an air of unreality about the whole event, which brought bitter enemies face-to-face after months of protracted negotiations. There was, however, a notable lack of enthusiasm on the part of the four warring factions. Hun Sen said that the treaty was far from perfect because it failed to contain the word 'genocide' to remind Cambodians of the atrocities of the former Khmer Rouge regime and Western powers obviously agreed. But in the knowledge that it was a fragile agreement, everyone remained diplomatically quiet. US Secretary of State James Baker was quoted as saying "I don't think anyone can tell you there will for sure be lasting peace, but there is great hope."
Political analysts ascribed the successful conclusion to the months of negotiations to improved relations between China and Vietnam - there were reports that the two had held secret summits at which the Cambodia situation was discussed. China put pressure on Prince Norodom Sihanouk to take a leading role in the peace process, and Hanoi's new understanding with Beijing prompted Hun Sen's participation. The easing of tensions between China and Moscow - particularly following the Soviet Union's demise - also helped apply pressure on the different factions. Finally, the United States had shifted its position: in July 1990 it had announced that it would not support the presence of the Khmer Rouge at the UN and by September US officials were talking to Hun Sen.
On 14 November 1991, Prince Norodom Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to an ecstatic welcome, followed, a few days later, by Son Sen, a Khmer Rouge leader. On 27 November Khieu Samphan, who had represented the Khmer Rouge at all the peace negotiations, arrived on a flight from Bangkok. Within hours mayhem had broken out, and a lynch mob attacked him in his villa. Rumours circulated that Hun Sen had orchestrated the demonstration, and beating an undignified retreat down a ladder into a waiting armoured personnel carrier, the bloodied Khmer Rouge leader headed back to Pochentong Airport. The crowd had sent a clear signal that they, at least, were not happy to see him back. There were fears that this incident might derail the entire peace process - but in the event, the Khmer Rouge won a small public relations coup by playing the whole thing down. When the Supreme National Council (SNC) finally met in Phnom Penh at the end of December 1991, it was unanimously decided to rubberstamp the immediate deployment of UN troops to oversee the peace process in the run-up to a general election.
Yasushi Akashi, a senior Japanese official in the United Nations, was assigned the daunting task of overseeing the biggest military and logistical operation in UN history. UNTAC comprised an international team of 22,000 peacekeepers - including 16,000 soldiers from 22 countries; 6000 officials; 3500 police and 1700 civilian employees and electoral volunteers. The first 'blue-beret' UN troops began arriving in November 1991, even before the SNC had agreed to the full complement of peacekeepers. The UN Advance Mission to Cambodia (UNAMIC) was followed four months later by the first of the main peacekeeping battalions. The odds were stacked against them. Shortly after his arrival, Akashi commented: "If one was a masochist one could not wish for more."
UNTAC's central mission was to supervise free elections in a country where most of the population had never voted and had little idea of how democracy was meant to work. The UN was also given the task of resettling 360,000 refugees from camps in Thailand and of demobilizing more than a quarter of a million soldiers and militiamen from the four main factions. In addition, it was to ensure that no further arms shipments reached these factions, whose remaining forces were to be confined to cantonments. In the run-up to the elections, UNTAC also took over the administration of the country, taking over the defence, foreign affairs, finance, public security and information portfolios as well as the task of trying to ensure respect for human rights.
Khmer Rouge pulls out
At the beginning of 1993 it became apparent that the Khmer Rouge had no intention of playing ball, despite its claim of a solid rural support base. The DK failed to register for the election before the expiry of the UN deadline and its forces stepped up attacks on UN personnel. In April 1993 Khieu Samphan and his entire entourage at the Khmer Rouge compound in Phnom Penh left the city. It was at this stage that UN officials finally began expressing their exasperation and anxiety over the Khmer Rouge's avowed intention to disrupt the polls. It was well known that the faction had procured fresh supplies of Chinese weapons through Thailand - although there is no evidence that these came from Beijing - as well as large arms caches all over the country.
By the time of the elections, the group was thought to be in control of between 10% and 15% of Cambodian territory. Khmer Rouge guerrillas launched attacks in April and May 1993. Having stoked racial antagonism, they started killing ethnic Vietnamese villagers and settlers, sending up to 20,000 of them fleeing into Vietnam. In one particularly vicious attack, 33 Vietnamese fishermen and their families were killed in a village on the Tonle Sap. The Khmer Rouge also began ambushing and killing UN soldiers and electoral volunteers.
The UN remained determined that the elections should go ahead despite the Khmer Rouge threats and mounting political intimidation and violence between other factions, notably the Cambodian People's Party and Funcinpec. In the event, however, there were remarkably few violent incidents and the feared coordinated effort to disrupt the voting failed to materialize. Voters took no notice of Khmer Rouge calls to boycott the election and in fact, reports came in of large numbers of Khmer Rouge guerrillas and villagers from areas under their control, turning up at polling stations to cast their ballots.
The days following the election saw a political farce - Cambodian style - which, as Nate Thayer wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review “might have been comic if the implications were not so depressing for the country's future”. In just a handful of days, the Phnom Penh-based correspondent went on, Cambodia "witnessed an abortive secession, a failed attempt to establish a provisional government, a royal family feud and the manoeuvres of a prince [Sihanouk] obsessed with avenging his removal from power in a military coup more than 20 years [previously]." The elections gave Funcinpec 45% of the vote, the CPP 38% and the BLDP, 3%. The CPP immediately claimed the results fraudulent, while Prince Norodom Chakrapong - one of Sihanouk's sons - announced the secession of the country's six eastern provinces. Fortunately, both attempts to undermine the election dissolved. The CPP agreed to join Funcinpec in a power sharing agreement while, remarkably, the Khmer Rouge were able to present themselves as defenders of democracy in the face of the CPP's claims of vote-rigging. The new Cambodian constitution was ratified in September 1993, marking the end of UNTAC's involvement in the country. Under the new constitution, Cambodia was to be a pluralistic liberal- democratic country. Seventy-year-old Sihanouk was crowned King of Cambodia, reclaiming the throne he relinquished in 1955. His son Norodom Ranariddh was appointed First Prime Minister and Hun Sen, Second Prime Minister, a situation intended to promote national unity but which instead lead to internal bickering and dissent.
An uncivil society?
Almost from day one of Cambodia's rebirth as an independent state espousing the principles of democracy and the market, cracks began to appear in the rickety structure that underlay these grand ideals. Rampant corruption, infighting among the coalition partners, political intrigue, murder and intimidation all became features of the political landscape - and have remained so to this day. There are three bright spots in an otherwise pretty dismal political landscape. First of all, the Khmer Rouge - along with Pol Pot - is dead and buried. Second, while there have been coups, attempted coups, murder, torture and intimidation, the country does still have an operating political system with an opposition of sorts. And third, the trajectory of change in recent years has been upwards. But, as the following account shows, politics in Cambodia makes Italy seem a model of stability and common sense.
From the elections of 1993 through to 1998, relations between the two key members of the ruling coalition, the CPP and Funcinpec, went from bad to quite appalling. At the end of 1995 Prince Norodom Sirivudh was arrested for plotting to kill Hun Sen and the prime minister ordered troops and tanks on to the streets of Phnom Penh. For a while the capital had the air of a city under siege. Sirivudh, secretary-general of Funcinpec and King Norodom Sihanouk's half brother, has been a vocal critic of corruption in the government, and a supporter of Sam Rainsy, the country's most outspoken opposition politician and the bane of Hun Sen's life. The National Assembly voted unanimously to suspend Sirivudh's immunity from prosecution. Few commentators really believed that Sirivudh had plotted to kill Hun Sen. In the end Hun Sen did not go through with a trial and Sirivudh went into self-imposed exile.
In 1996, relations between the CPP and Funcinpec reached another low. First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh joined his two exiled brothers - princes Chakkrapong and Sirivudh - along with Sam Rainsy, in France. Hun Sen smelled a rat and when Ranariddh threatened in May to pull out of the coalition his worries seemed to be confirmed. Only pressure from the outside prevented a meltdown. Foreign donors said that continuing aid was contingent on political harmony, and ASEAN sent the Malaysian foreign minister to knock a few heads together. Some months later relations became chillier still following the drive-by killing of Hun Sen's brother-in-law as he left a restaurant in Phnom Penh.
Things, it seemed, couldn't get any worse - but they did. In February 1997 fighting between forces loyal to Ranariddh and Hun Sen broke out in Battambang. March saw a grenade attack on a demonstration led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy outside the National Assembly leaving 16 dead and 150 injured - including Rainsy himself who suffered minor injuries. In April, Hun Sen mounted what became known as the 'soft coup'. This followed a complicated series of defections from Ranariddh's Funcinpec party to the CPP which, after much to-ing and fro-ing overturned Funcinpec's small majority in the National Assembly. In May, Hun Sen's motorcade was attacked and a month later, on 16 June, fighting broke out between Hun Sen and Ranariddh's bodyguards leaving three dead. It was this gradual decline in relations between the two leaders and their parties which laid the foundations for the coup of 1997.
In July 1997 the stage was set for Cambodia to join ASEAN. This would have marked Cambodia's international rehabilitation. Then, just a month before the historic day, on 5-6 June, Hun Sen mounted a coup and ousted Norodom Ranariddh and his party, Funcinpec, from government. It took two days for Hun Sen and his forces to gain full control of the capital. Ranariddh escaped to Thailand while the United Nations Centre for Human Rights reported that 41 senior military officers and Ranariddh loyalists were hunted down in the days following the coup, tortured and executed. In August the National Assembly voted to withdraw Ranariddh's immunity from prosecution. Five months later, in January 1998, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited Cambodia and pressed for an investigation into the deaths - a request that Hun Sen rejected as unwarranted interference. ASEAN, long used to claiming that the Association has no role interfering in domestic affairs, found it had no choice but to defer Cambodia's accession. The coup was widely condemned and on 17 September the UN decided to keep Cambodia's seat vacant in the General Assembly.
Following the coup of 1997 there was some speculation that Hun Sen would simply ignore the need to hold elections scheduled for 26 July. In addition, opposition parties threatened to boycott the elections even if they did occur, claiming that Hun Sen and his henchmen were intent on intimidation. But despite sporadic violence in the weeks and months leading up to the elections, all parties ended up participating. It seems that intense international pressure got to Hun Sen who appreciated that without the goodwill of foreign aid donors the country would simply collapse. Of the 4.9 million votes cast - constituting an impressive 90% of the electorate - Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won the largest share at just over 41%.
Hun Sen offered to bring Funcinpec and the SRP into a coalition government, but his advances were rejected. Instead Rainsy and Ranariddh encouraged a series of demonstrations and vigils outside the National Assembly - which quickly became known as 'Democracy Square', à la Tiananmen Square. At the beginning of September 1998, following a grenade attack on Hun Sen's residence and two weeks of uncharacteristic restraint on the part of the Second Prime Minister, government forces began a crack down on the demonstrators. A week later the three protagonists - Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen - agreed to talks presided over by King Sihanouk in Siem Reap. These progressed astonishingly well considering the state of relations between the three men and two days later the 122-seat National Assembly opened at Angkor Wat on 24 September. In mid-November further talks between the CPP and Funcinpec led to the formation of a coalition government. Hun Sen became sole prime minister and Ranariddh chairman of the National Assembly. While the CPP and Funcinpec took control of 12 and 11 ministries respectively, with Defence and Interior shared, the CPP got the lion's share of the key portfolios. Sam Rainsy was left on the opposition benches. It was only after the political détente that followed the elections that Cambodia was given permission to occupy its UN seat in December 1998. At a summit meeting in Hanoi around the same time, ASEAN also announced that they had agreed on the admission of Cambodia to the grouping - which finally came through on 30 April 1999.
A return to some kind of normality
The year 1997 was the low point in Cambodia's stuttering return to a semblance of normality. The Asian economic crisis combined with the coup to rock the country back on its heels. On 3 February 2002 free, fair and only modestly violent local commune elections were held. The CPP won the vote by a landslide and although there is little doubt that Hun Sen's party used a bit of muscle here and there, foreign election observers decided that the result reflected the will of the 90% of the electorate who voted. The CPP, despite its iron grip on power, does recognize that democracy means it has to get out there and make a case. Around one third of the CPP's more unpopular commune chiefs were replaced prior to the election. Funcinpec did badly, unable to shake off the perception that it sold out its principles to join the coalition in 1998. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party did rather better, largely for the same reason: the electorate viewed it as standing up to the might of the CPP, highlighting corruption and abuses of power.
In July 2002 Hun Sen took on the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN and used a round of high-profile meetings to demonstrate to the region, and the wider world, just how far the country has come. Hun Sen, who hardly has an enviable record as a touchy-feely politician, used the chairmanship of ASEAN to polish his own as well as his country's credentials in the arena of international public opinion. But despite the PR some Cambodians are concerned that Hun Sen is becoming a little like Burma's Ne Win. Like Ne Win, Hun Sen seems to be obsessed with numbers. His lucky number is nine; in 2002 he brought the local elections forward by three weeks so that the digits in the date would add up to nine. In 2001 he closed down all Cambodia's karaoke bars. With over 20 years as prime minister there is no one to touch Hun Sen and he seems to revel in his strongman reputation. Judges bow to his superior knowledge of the judicial system; kings and princes acknowledged his unparalleled role in appointing the new king; many journalists are in thrall to his power. If even the most fundamental of rights are negotiable then it would seem that only Cambodia's dependence on foreign largesse constrains his wilder impulses.
Compared to its recent past, the last 10 years has been a period of relative stability for Cambodia. Political violence and infighting between parties continues to be a major problem - by international standards the elections were borderline unacceptable, although most of the major parties were reasonably satisfied with the results which saw Hun Sen's landslide victory. The 2003 election wasn't smooth-sailing either. Prior to the June 2003 election the alleged instructions given by representatives of the CPP to government controlled election monitoring organizations were: "If we win by the law, then we win. If we lose by the law, we still must win." Nonetheless a political deadlock arose, with the CPP winning a majority of votes but not the two-thirds required under the constitution to govern alone. The incumbent CPP-led administration assumed power and took on a caretaker role, pending the creation of a coalition that would satisfy the required number of National Assembly seats to form government. Without a functioning legislature, the course of vital legislation was stalled. After almost a year-long stalemate, the National Assembly approved a controversial addendum to the constitution, which allowed a new government to be formed by vote. The vote took place on July 15 2004, and the National Assembly approved a new coalition government, an amalgam of the CPP and FUNCINPEC, with Hun Sen at the helm as prime minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh as president of the national assembly.
The government's democratic principles came under fire once again in February 2005, when opposition leader Sam Rainsy fled the country after losing his parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Rainsy is perceived as something of a threat due to his steadily gaining popularity with young urban dwellers, whose growing disenchantment with the current government he feeds off. On the one hand, his 'keep the bastards honest' style of politics has added a new dimension of accountability to Cambodian politics, but on the other, his nationalist, racist rantings, particularly his anti-Vietnamese sentiments, could be a very bad thing for the country. In May, 2005 Hun Sen said that Sam Rainsy would have to wait until the "next life" before he would guarantee his safety. However, having received a pardon in February 2006, he returned to the political fray soon after.
The lingering death of the Khmer Rouge
What many outsiders found hard to understand was how the Khmer Rouge enjoyed such popular support among Cambodians - even after the massacres and torture.
The Khmer Rouge was not, of course, just a political force. Its political influence was backed up and reinforced by military muscle. And it has been the defeat of the Khmer Rouge as an effective fighting force that seems to have delivered the fatal blow to its political ambitions.
In mid-1994 the National Assembly outlawed the Khmer Rouge, offering a six month amnesty to rank and file guerrillas. By the time the six months was up in January 1995, 7000 Khmer Rouge had reportedly defected to the government, leaving at that time somewhere between 5000 and 6000 hardcore rebels still fighting. A split in this core group can be dated to 8 August 1996 when Khmer Rouge radio announced that former 'brother number two', Ieng Sary, had betrayed the revolution by embezzling money earned from mining and timber contracts, and branded him a traitor.
This was the first evidence available to Western commentators that a significant split in the Khmer Rouge had occurred. In retrospect, it seems that the split had been brewing for some years - ever since the UN-sponsored elections had revealed a division between 'conservatives' and 'moderates'. The latter, apparently, wished to co-operate with the UN, while the former group desired to boycott the elections. In 1996 the moderate faction, headed by Ieng Sary, finally broke away from the conservatives led by Pol Pot and hardman General Ta Mok. Hun Sen announced soon after the radio broadcast in August 1996 that two Khmer Rouge commanders, Ei Chhien and Sok Pheap had defected to the government. At the end of September Ieng Sary held a press conference to declare his defection. On 14 September King Norodom Sihanouk granted Ieng Sary a royal pardon.
The Cambodian government's conciliatory line towards Ieng Sary seemed perplexing given the man's past. Although he cast himself in the mould of 'misguided and ignorant revolutionary', there are few who doubt that he was fully cognisant of what the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot were doing even if, as Michael Vickery argues, he was not Brother Number Two, just Brother Number Four or Five. Indeed he has admitted as much in the past. Not only is he, as a man, thoroughly unpleasant - or so those who know him have said - but he was also a key figure in the leadership and was sentenced to death in absentia by the Phnom Penh government. Stephen Heder of London's School of Oriental & African Studies was quoted as saying after the September press conference: "It's totally implausible that Ieng Sary was unaware that people were being murdered [by the Khmer Rouge]." The split in the Khmer Rouge and the defection of Ieng Sary deprived the Khmer Rouge of 3000-5000 men - halving its fighting force - and also denied the group important revenues from key gem mining areas around Pailin and many of the richest forest concessions.
The disintegration of the Khmer Rouge continued in 1997 after a complicated deal involving Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen and Ta Mok, as well as members of Funcinpec, collapsed. In early June Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge, was thought to be on the verge of brokering an agreement with Funcinpec that would give Pol Pot and two of his henchmen immunity from prosecution. This would then provide the means by which Khieu Samphan might enter mainstream Cambodian politics. It seems that Hun Sen, horrified at the idea of an alliance between Khieu Samphan and Funcinpec, mounted the coup of June 1997 to prevent the deal coming to fruition. Pol Pot was also, apparently, less than satisfied with the terms of the agreement and pulled out - killing Son Sen in the process. But before Pol Pot could flee, Ta Mok captured his erstwhile leader on June 19th at the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng.
A little more than a month later the 'Trial of the Century' began in this jungle hideout. It was a show trial - more like a Cultural Revolution lynching. A crowd of a few hundred people were on hand. Pol Pot offered the usual Khmer Rouge defence: the revolution made mistakes, but its leaders were inexperienced. And, in any case, they saved Cambodia from annexation by Vietnam. (There is an argument purveyed by some academics that the Khmer Rouge was essentially involved in a programme of ethnic cleansing aimed at ridding Cambodia of all Vietnamese people and influences.) Show trial or not, few people had any sympathy for Pol Pot as he was sentenced by the Khmer Rouge 'people's' court to life imprisonment for the murder of Son Sen. A Khmer Rouge radio station broadcast that with Pol Pot's arrest and sentencing, a 'dark cloud' had been lifted from the Cambodian people.
Confirmation of this bizarre turn of events emerged in mid-October when journalist Nate Thayer of the Far Eastern Economic Review became the first journalist to interview Pol Pot since 1979. He reported that the former Khmer Rouge leader was "very ill and perhaps close to death." Even more incredibly than Ieng Sary's defence, Pol Pot denied that the genocide had ever occurred and told Nate Thayer that his 'conscience was clear'.
In March 1998 reports filtered out of the jungle near the Thai border that the Khmer Rouge was finally disintegrating in mutinous conflict. The end game was at hand. The government's amnesty encouraged the great bulk of the Khmer Rouge's remaining fighters to lay down their arms and in December 1998 the last remnants of the rebel army surrendered to government forces, leaving just a handful of men under hardman 'The Butcher' Ta Mok still at large. But even Ta Mok's days of freedom were numbered. In March 1999 he was captured near the Thai border and taken back to Phnom Penh.
The death of Pol Pot
On 15 April 1998 unconfirmed reports stated that Pol Pot - a man who ranks with Hitler, Stalin and Mao in his ability to kill - had died in a remote jungle hideout in the north of Cambodia. Given that Pol Pot's death had been announced several times before, the natural inclination among journalists and commentators was to treat these reports with scepticism. But it was already known that Pol Pot was weak and frail and his death was confirmed when journalists were invited to view his body the following day. Pol Pot was reported to have died from a heart attack. He was 73.
A new era?
The question of what to do with Ieng Sary was the start of a long debate over how Cambodia - and the international community - should deal with former members of the Khmer Rouge. The pragmatic, realist line is that if lasting peace is to come to Cambodia, then it may be necessary to allow some people to get away with - well - murder. As one Western diplomat pondered: "Do you owe fealty to the dead for the living?" This would seem to be Hun Sen's preferred position.
By late 1998, with the apparent end of the Khmer Rouge as a fighting force, the government seemed happy to welcome back the rank and file into mainstream Cambodian life while putting on trial key characters in the Khmer Rouge like Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. While the government was considering what to do, former leaders of the Khmer Rouge were busy trying to rehabilitate their muddied reputations. After years of living pretty comfortable lives around the country, particularly in and around Pailin, by the end of 2007 the old guard of the Khmer Rouge were finally being brought to book. This turn of events was finally set in motion in March 2006 with the nomination of seven judges by the then Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan for the much anticipated Cambodia Tribunal. With Ta Mok dying in prison in early July 2006 the first charges were laid against the notorious head of the Tuol Sleng prison, Khang Khek Ieu - aka 'Comrade Duch'. Indicted on 31 July with crimes against humanity and after spending eight years behind bars, Duch is due to go on trial soon. Yet it was with the arrests in late 2007 of Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan that the tribunal finally began to flex its muscles. Each of these arrests made international news and it seems, almost 30 years after the Vietnam invasion ended the abhorrent Khmer Rouge regime, that Cambodia may finally be coming to terms with its horrific past.
However, with only the few living key Khmer Rouge figures standing trial most of the minor - and probably equally murderous - cadre are still in circulation. It could be argued that the Tribunal is purely a diversion that allows this coterie of killers and Hun Sen's nefarious past to remain hidden from scrutiny.
What is obvious is that as the Tribunal progressed, many of the old divisions that have riven Cambodian society for generations where taking hold again. In late 2007 Cambodia was officially and internationally recognised as one of the most corrupt countries in history. Spend five minutes in Phnom Penh and this air of corruption is staring you in the face - Toyota Land Cruisers, giant, black Lexus SUVs and Humvees plough through the streets without regard for anyone or anything. When these vehicles do crush or kill other road users, the driver's well-armed body guards hop out, pistols waving, and soon dissuade any eager witnesses. This kind of event is commonplace and the poorer locals know this. Speak to a moto or tuk-tuk driver and you'll soon sense the resentment, "We hate the corrupt and we'd be happy to see them die," is a frequent comment reminiscent of Cambodia's darker times. The establishment of a new, rich elite is not leading to the trickle down of wealth but the entrenchment of certain groups who have no regard at all for building a new society. Even the aid community is complicit in this - one senior worker made this damning off-the-record comment, "We view corruption as the only stabilising factor in Cambodian society. It is awful but what else is there?"
The July 2008 general election changed little. Hun Sen was returned with an enlarged majority after a campaign that drew both praise and criticism from EU observers. On the upside the election was seen as being 'technically proficient' and possibly the best-run vote in Cambodia's history. Not that that's saying much - Hun Sen's ruling CPP was seen to have abused its position and not only dominated the media but also disenfranchised tens of thousands of opposition voters. Yet the same EU observers also felt the CPP would have won despite any machinations by Hun Sen and the vote was accepted in the international community. At the same time the election was taking place a row began to brew with Thailand over the contested Preah Vihear temple near the Thai/Cambodian border. In early July the Cambodian-led effort to turn the revered Preah Vihear into a UNESCO World Heritage Site was greeted by huge celebrations in Phnom Penh. For the Cambodians this meant that the long-contested temple was now firmly recognized as being in their territory. By early October 2008 a troop build-up escalated into an exchange of fire that led to a tense two-week stand and resulted in several deaths. Eventually, after pressure from the international community, both sides backed down but the dispute is still not settled and, at present, one of the region's most spectacular sites is off-limits.
It wasn't all bad news though as on 17 February 2009, thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, the first trial against one of its former commanders began when Comrade Duch, the infamous commander of the Tuol Sleng death camp finally began. With a chance to finally deal with the demons at the heart of the Cambodian experience the country may, at last, be able to move on.