Cambodia History


Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state
of Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-19th century the
country was on the verge of dissolution. After repeated requests for
French assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884,
Cambodia was a virtual colony; soon after it was made part of the
Indochina Union with Annam, Tonkin, Cochin-China, and Laos.

France continued to control the country even after the start of World
War II through its Vichy government. In 1945, the Japanese dissolved
the colonial administration, and King Norodom Sihanouk declared an
independent, anti-colonial government under Prime Minister Son Ngoc
Thanh in March 1945. This government was deposed by the Allies in
October. Many of Son Ngoc Thanh's supporters escaped and continued
to fight for independence as the Khmer Issarak.

Although France recognized Cambodia as an autonomous kingdom
within the French Union, the drive for total independence continued,
resulting in a split between those who supported the political tactics of
Sihanouk and those who supported the Khmer Issarak guerrilla
movement. In January 1953, Sihanouk named his father as regent and
went into self-imposed exile, refusing to return until Cambodia gained
genuine independence.

Full Independence

Sihanouk's actions hastened the French government's July 4, 1953
announcement of its readiness to perfect the independence and
sovereignty of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Full independence came
on November 9, 1953, but the situation remained uncertain until a 1954
conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war.

All participants, except the United States and the State of Vietnam,
associated themselves (by voice) with the final declaration. The
Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality of the three Indochinese
states but insisted on a provision in the ceasefire agreement that left the
Cambodian government free to call for outside military assistance
should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory.

Neutral Cambodia

Neutrality was the central element of Cambodian foreign policy during
the 1950s and 1960s. By the mid-1960s, parts of Cambodia's eastern
provinces were serving as bases for North Vietnamese Army and Viet
Cong (NVA/VC) forces operating against South Vietnam, and the port
of Sihanoukville was being used to supply them. As NVA/VC activity
grew, the United States and South Vietnam became concerned, and in
1969, the United States began a series of air raids against NVA/VC
base areas inside Cambodia.

Throughout the 1960s, domestic politics polarized. Opposition grew
within the middle class and among leftists including Paris-educated
leaders such as Son Sen, Ieng Sary, and Saloth Sar (later known as Pol
Pot), who led an insurgency under the clandestine Communist Party of
Kampuchea (CPK). Sihanouk called these insurgents the Khmer
Rouge, literally the "Red Khmer." But the 1966 national assembly
elections showed a significant swing to the right, and Gen. Lon Nol
formed a new government, which lasted until 1967. During 1968 and
1969, the insurgency worsened. In August 1969, Gen. Lon Nol formed
a new government. Prince Sihanouk went abroad for medical
treatment in January 1970.

The Khmer Republic and the War

In March 1970, Gen. Lon Nol deposed Prince Sihanouk and assumed
power. Son Ngoc Thanh announced his support for the new
government. On October 9, the Cambodian monarchy was abolished,
and the country was renamed the Khmer Republic.

Hanoi rejected the new republic's request for the withdrawal of
NVA/VC troops and began to reinfiltrate some of the 2,000-4,000
Cambodians who had gone to North Vietnam in 1954. They became a
cadre in the insurgency.

The United States moved to provide material assistance to the new
government's armed forces, which were engaged against both the
Khmer Rouge insurgents and NVA/VC forces. In April 1970, US and
South Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at
destroying NVA/VC base areas. Although a considerable quantity of
equipment was seized or destroyed, NVA/VC forces proved elusive
and moved deeper into Cambodia. NVA/VC units overran many
Cambodian army positions while the Khmer Rouge expanded their
small-scale attacks on lines of communication.

The Khmer Republic's leadership was plagued by disunity among its
three principal figures: Lon Nol, Sihanouk's cousin Sirik Matak, and
National Assembly leader In Tam. Lon Nol remained in power in part
because none of the others was prepared to take his place. In 1972, a
constitution was adopted, a parliament elected, and Lon Nol became
president. But disunity, the problems of transforming a 30,000-man
army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men, and
spreading corruption weakened the civilian administration and army.

The insurgency continued to grow, with supplies and military support
provided by North Vietnam. But inside Cambodia, Pol Pot and Ieng
Sary asserted their dominance over the Vietnamese-trained
communists, many of whom were purged. At the same time, the
Khmer Rouge forces became stronger and more independent of their
Vietnamese patrons. By 1973, the Khmer Rouge were fighting major
battles against government forces on their own, and they controlled
nearly 60% of Cambodia's territory and 25% of its population.

The government made three unsuccessful attempts to enter into
negotiations with the insurgents, but by 1974, the Khmer Rouge were
operating as divisions, and virtually all NVA/VC combat forces had
moved into South Vietnam. Lon Nol's control was reduced to small
enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2
million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities.

On New Year's Day 1975, Communist troops launched an offensive
which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, destroyed the
Khmer Republic. Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom
Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other Khmer Rouge units
overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route.
A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress
refused additional aid for Cambodia. Phnom Penh and other cities
were subjected to daily rocket attacks causing thousands of civilian
casualties. Phnom Penh surrendered on April 17--5 days after the US
mission evacuated Cambodia.

Democratic Kampuchea

Many Cambodians welcomed the arrival of peace, but the Khmer
Rouge soon turned Cambodia--which it called Democratic Kampuchea
(DK)--into a land of horror. Immediately after its victory, the new
regime ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the
entire urban population out into the countryside to till the land.
Thousands starved or died of disease during the evacuation. Many of
those forced to evacuate the cities were resettled in new villages, which
lacked food, agricultural implements, and medical care. Many starved
before the first harvest, and hunger and malnutrition--bordering on
starvation--were constant during those years. Those who resisted or
who questioned orders were immediately executed, as were most
military and civilian leaders of the former regime who failed to
disguise their pasts.

Within the CPK, the Paris-educated leadership--Pol Pot, Ieng Sary,
Nuon Chea, and Son Sen--was in control. A new constitution in
January 1976 established Democratic Kampuchea as a Communist
People's Republic, and a 250-member Assembly of the Representatives
of the People of Kampuchea (PRA) was selected in March to choose
the collective leadership of a State Presidium, the chairman of which
became the head of state.

Prince Sihanouk resigned as head of state on April 4. On April 14,
after its first session, the PRA announced that Khieu Samphan would
chair the State Presidium for a 5-year term. It also picked a 15-member
cabinet headed by Pol Pot as prime minister. Prince Sihanouk was put
under virtual house arrest.

The new government sought to restructure Cambodian society
completely. Remnants of the old society were abolished and Buddhism
suppressed. Agriculture was collectivized, and the surviving part of the
industrial base was abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia
had neither a currency nor a banking system. The regime controlled
every aspect of life and reduced everyone to the level of abject
obedience through terror. Torture centers were established, and
detailed records were kept of the thousands murdered there. Public
executions of those considered unreliable or with links to the previous
government were common. Few succeeded in escaping the military
patrols and fleeing the country.

Solid estimates of the numbers who died between 1975 and 1979 are
not available, but it is likely that hundreds of thousands were brutally
executed by the regime. Hundreds of thousands more died of
starvation and disease (both under the Khmer Rouge and during the
Vietnamese invasion in 1978). Estimates of the dead range from 1 to 3
million, out of a 1975 population estimated at 7.3 million.

Democratic Kampuchea's relations with Vietnam and Thailand
worsened rapidly as a result of border clashes and ideological
differences. While communist, the CPK was fiercely anti-Vietnamese,
and most of its members who had lived in Vietnam were purged.
Democratic Kampuchea established close ties with China, and the
Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict became part of the Sino-Soviet
rivalry, with Moscow backing Vietnam. Border clashes worsened
when Democratic Kampuchea's military attacked villages in Vietnam.
The regime broke relations with Hanoi in December 1977, protesting
Vietnam's attempt to create an Indochina Federation. In mid-1978,
Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, advancing about 30 miles
before the arrival of the rainy season.

In December 1978, Vietnam announced formation of the Kampuchean
United Front for National Salvation (KUFNS) under Heng Samrin, a
former DK division commander. It was composed of Khmer
Communists who had remained in Vietnam after 1975 and officials
from the eastern sector--like Heng Samrin and Hun Sen--who had fled
to Vietnam from Cambodia in 1978. In late December 1978,
Vietnamese forces launched a full invasion of Cambodia, capturing
Phnom Penh on January 7 and driving the remnants of Democratic
Kampuchea's army westward toward Thailand.

The Vietnamese Occupation

On January 10, 1979, the Vietnamese installed Heng Samrin as head of
state in the new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The
Vietnamese army continued its pursuit of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge
forces. At least 600,000 Cambodians displaced during the Pol Pot era
and the Vietnamese invasion began streaming to the Thai border in
search of refuge. The international community responded with a
massive relief effort coordinated by the United States through UNICEF
and the World Food Program. More than $400 million was provided
between 1979 and 1982, of which the United States contributed nearly
$100 million. At one point, more than 500,000 Cambodians were
living along the Thai-Cambodian border and more than 100,000 in
holding centers inside Thailand.

Vietnam's occupation army of as many as 200,000 troops controlled the
major population centers and most of the countryside from 1979 to
September 1989. The Heng Samrin regime's 30,000 troops were
plagued by poor morale and widespread desertion. Resistance to
Vietnam's occupation continued, and there was some evidence that
Heng Samrin's PRK forces provided logistic and moral support to the

A large portion of the Khmer Rouge's military forces eluded
Vietnamese troops and established themselves in remote regions. The
non-communist resistance, consisting of a number of groups which had
been fighting the Khmer Rouge after 1975--including Lon Nol-era
soldiers--coalesced in 1979-80 to form the Khmer People's National
Liberation Armed Forces (KPNLAF), which pledged loyalty to former
Prime Minister Son Sann, and Moulinaka (Movement pour la
Liberation Nationale de Kampuchea), loyal to Prince Sihanouk. In
1979, Son Sann formed the Khmer People's National Liberation Front
(KPNLF) to lead the political struggle for Cambodia's independence.
Prince Sihanouk formed his own organization, FUNCINPEC, and its
military arm, the Armee Nationale Sihanoukienne (ANS) in 1981.

Warfare followed a wet season/dry season rhythm after 1980. The
heavily-armed Vietnamese forces conducted offensive operations
during the dry seasons, and the resistance forces held the initiative
during the rainy seasons. In 1982, Vietnam launched a major offensive
against the main Khmer Rouge base at Phnom Melai in the Cardamom
Mountains. Vietnam switched its target to civilian camps near the Thai
border in 1983, launching a series of massive assaults, backed by armor
and heavy artillery, against camps belonging to all three resistance
groups. Hundreds of civilians were injured in these attacks, and more
than 80,000 were forced to flee to Thailand. Resistance military forces,
however, were largely undamaged. In the 1984-85 dry season
offensive, the Vietnamese again attacked base camps of all three
resistance groups. Despite stiff resistance from the guerrillas, the
Vietnamese succeeded in eliminating the camps in Cambodia and
drove both the guerrillas and civilian refugees into neighboring
Thailand. The Vietnamese concentrated on consolidating their gains
during the 1985-86 dry season, including an attempt to seal guerrilla
infiltration routes into the country by forcing Cambodian laborers to
construct trench and wire fence obstacles and minefields along
virtually the entire Thai-Cambodian border.

Within Cambodia, Vietnam had only limited success in establishing its
client Heng Samrin regime, which was dependent on Vietnamese
advisors at all levels. Security in some rural areas was tenuous, and
major transportation routes were subject to interdiction by resistance
forces. The presence of Vietnamese throughout the country and their
intrusion into nearly all aspects of Cambodian life alienated much of
the populace. The settlement of Vietnamese nationals, both former
residents and new immigrants, further exacerbated anti-Vietnamese
sentiment. Reports of the numbers involved vary widely with some
estimates as high as 1 million. By the end of this decade, Khmer
nationalism began to reassert itself against the traditional Vietnamese

In 1986, Hanoi claimed to have begun withdrawing part of its
occupation forces. At the same time, Vietnam continued efforts to
strengthen its client regime, the PRK, and its military arm, the
Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF). These
withdrawals continued over the next 2 years, although actual numbers
were difficult to verify. Vietnam's proposal to withdraw its remaining
occupation forces in 1989-90--the result of ongoing international
pressure--forced the PRK to begin economic and constitutional reforms
in an attempt to ensure future political dominance. In April 1989,
Hanoi and Phnom Penh announced that final withdrawal would take
place by the end of September 1989.

The military organizations of Prince Sihanouk (ANS) and of former
Prime Minister Son Sann (KPNLAF) underwent significant military
improvement during the 1988-89 period and both expanded their
presence in Cambodia's interior. These organizations provide a
political alternative to the Vietnamese-supported People's Republic of
Kampuchea [PRK] and the murderous Khmer Rouge. The last
Vietnamese troops left Cambodia in September of 1989.

Peace Efforts

From July 30 to August 30, 1989, representatives of 18 countries, the
four Cambodian parties, and the UN Secretary General met in Paris in
an effort to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. They hoped to
achieve those objectives seen as crucial to the future of post-occupation
Cambodia: a verified withdrawal of the remaining Vietnamese
occupation troops, the prevention of the return to power of the Khmer
Rouge, and genuine self-determination for the Cambodian people.

The Paris Conference on Cambodia was able to make some progress in
such areas as the workings of an international control mechanism, the
definition of international guarantees for Cambodia's independence and
neutrality, plans for the repatriation of refugees and displaced persons,
the eventual reconstruction of the Cambodia economy, and ceasefire
procedures. However, complete agreement among all parties on a
comprehensive settlement remained elusive until August 28, 1990,
when after eight months of negotiations, a framework for
comprehensive political settlement was agreed upon.

Cambodia's Renewal

On October 23, 1991, the Paris Conference reconvened to sign a
comprehensive settlement giving the UN full authority to supervise a
ceasefire, repatriate the displaced Khmer along the border with
Thailand, disarm and demobilize the factional armies, and to prepare
the country for free and fair elections

Prince Sihanouk, President of the Supreme National Council of
Cambodia (SNC), and other members of the SNC returned to Phnom
Penh in November, 1991, to begin the resettlement process in
Cambodia. The UN Advance Mission for Cambodia (UNAMIC) was
deployed at the same time to maintain liaison among the factions and
begin demining operations to expedite the repatriation of
approximately 370,000 Cambodians from Thailand.

On March 16, 1992, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia
(UNTAC), under UNSYG Special Representative Yasushi Akashi and
Lt. General John Sanderson, arrived in Cambodia to begin
implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. The UN High
Commissioner for Refugees began full-scale repatriation in March,
1992. UNTAC grew into a 22,000 strong civilian and military
peacekeeping force to conduct free and fair elections for a constituent
assembly. Over four million Cambodians (about 90% of eligible
voters) participated in the May 1993 elections, although the Khmer
Rouge or Party of Democratic Kampuchea (PDK), whose forces were
never actually disarmed or demobilized, barred some people from
participating in the 10-15 percent of the country (holding six percent of
the population) it controls. Prince Ranariddh's FUNCINPEC Party was
the top vote recipient with 45.5% vote followed by Hun Sen's
Cambodian People's Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party,
respectively. FUNCINPEC then entered into a coalition with the other
parties that had participated in the election. The parties represented in
the 120-member Assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new
Constitution, which was promulgated September 24. It established a
multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional
monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King. Prince
Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers,
respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RCG). The
Constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized
human rights.

source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1996

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