Unless you’ve been to Cambodia you probably don’t know much about this nation. You may have heard of the famed Angkor Wat temple, a reminder of the once powerful Angkor empire (802-1431), but more likely you have heard of the tragic genocide of the “Killing Fields” of 1975-79. Cambodian history is lengthy and complex and, to fully understand it, requires more reading than what we can provide. Here’s a Reader’s Digest version.
Cambodia has a tumultuous past, despite being at one time perhaps the greatest empire in South East Asia. This was due mainly to an impressive irrigation system that allowed rice farming and trading, primarily along the mighty Mekong River. As with most countries, neighbouring lands want what’s not theirs and for two centuries (mid-1600s-mid-1800s), Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east played a tug-of-war with Cambodia, while French-ruled Laos to the north not seeming to take much interest.
The French came to Cambodia’s “rescue” in 1863 and the king at the time allowed France to provide protection, lasting 90 years, except for a short period in WWII when the country was occupied by the Japanese. Cambodia gained independence from the French in 1953.
Being so geographically close to Vietnam, the war with the US was always going to impact Cambodia in some way. So when they allowed the communist northern Vietnamese guerrillas to set up camp on Cambodian soil, it was inevitable the US militia would attack, which of course they did. This went on for four years, during which time communist Cambodian guerillas rallied supporters, collectively known as the Khmer Rouge, and in 1975 their leader Pol Pot overthrew the then king. It was Pol Pot’s vision to return Cambodia to “Year Zero” creating a peasant-dominated agricultural utopia. Educated citizens – teachers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, politicians and the like, were systematically executed, while the remaining inhabitants were forced into hard labour in the fields. Many more died of sickness or exhaustion. Cities were evacuated and infrastructure dismantled.
Although the exact number of deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during their three year and eight month rule is uncertain, it is thought that 1.7 million is considered a reliable estimate. Ironically it was Vietnam that eventually became the hero of the ordinary Cambodians. When the Khmer Rouge started killing Vietnamese civilians, Vietnam fought back and Pol Pot was toppled within two weeks, in 1979. The rebels disappeared into the jungle and ten years of Vietnamese occupation followed.
Despite several years of UN intervention, Khmer Rouge activity bubbled below the surface until Pol Pot died a natural death in 1998, and by 1999 the remaining leaders had surrendered. Tribunals for war crimes continued into the 2000s during which time Cambodia experienced peace, relative only to the era they left behind, and with only comparatively minor violent incidents.
Cambodia has barely started to heal from a brutal dictatorship that included the cleansing of an entire generation. They are a country destroyed spiritually, physically and emotionally. With others’ help, they are a people determined to make their future a better one. They have dreams of a thriving country, a better life and to rebuild what was lost. Reign Foundation’s purpose is to help the people of Cambodia by investing in its future, the children.
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