Where is Cambodia now – political, social, economic and historical summary

This post should be read in conjunction with the one about ‘I learned a lot…’ to get a fuller contemporary as well as historical picture.

I have started reading David Chandler’s classic basic ‘History of Cambodia’.  Here is an abbreviated timeline:

Prehistoric: bronze age civilisation; archaeological evidence suggests that there may have been a trading city at the mouth of the Mekong – some Roman coins found:  stopping off point between India and China?

Up to c800: tributes paid by small tribal leaders to China; wet rice cultivation increased population; Sanskrit script introduced;

Ankor period: c800 – c1430.  Growing population supports more military success.  Khmer Kings conquer Chams, and, under Javayarman VII (1181-1218) conquer all of the Indochinese peninsula, Thailand, Malay archipelago and parts of Java.  Angkor Wat and the surrounding area is the basis of their power, where they build fabulous stone temples and palaces to celebrate / give thanks for their success – buildings from throughout this whole period.  Buddhism overtakes Hinduism as main religion although Hinduism continues to influence.

”Dark Ages” (c1500-1860s): internal squabbles, military defeats lead to steady decline, reduction in size of empire, fragmentation of political power;  economic centre moves to Phonm Penh (at confluence of three rivers (with Mekong broad and navigable to the sea) – it is a trading post for exotic items from interior jungles; people living in PP are a mix from all over SE Asia (Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer).  Brief period (early 1600s) when Spain may have considered conquest but no gold / silver so did not do so.  Thai/Vietnamese incursions / conquests throughout this period.  Later on, Chinese traders set up Saigon as an alernative trading centre leading to PP diminishing in importance.  Khmer territory reduced;  Cambodian people still today resent Vietnamese 19th Century take-over of Mekong delta (many Khmer speakers still live there) – they consider that this part of South Vietnam is really part of Cambodia.

French Protectorate (1863 on): French offer protection from the Thais.  They ‘discover’ Angkor Wat (which was still a functioning Buddhist centre) and make it a focal point of the Paris Exhibition 1889 – to rival and better anything the British had in India.  French colonial power gradually takes over governance, negotiating the return of the Western provinces (including Siem Reap) from Thailand and developing massive rubber plantations at Kampong Cham which provide material for Michelin tyres.  French ‘loot’ rather than develop their colony.  Little interest in the hinterland still living as in the middle ages.   French make a big thing of Angkor as focus of Khmer identify (initially they consider that this was a different civilisation, since they do not believe the Khmer people could have created so many splendid buildings).

World War 2: After French defeat (1940), the colony comes under a Vichy French regime. Thailand invades and takes back Western provinces including Siem Reap.  1945, an independent Cambodia is declared in PP under Son Ngoc Than (supported by Japanese).  After Japanese defeat, French assert continuing power but significant competing political forces mean that independence becomes inevitable.   French negotiate Thai withdrawal from Western provinces which revert to Cambodia.

Post WW2: small clique of Khmer students in Paris form ‘circle marquiste’, including Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), Ieng Sary and Khieu Sampan.  In Cambodia, nationalist sentiment is rising. King Sihanouk stages a coup with French backing (they see him as more moderate) after republican party wins majority in elections, and he signs independence treaty with French (1953) against background of Viet Minh war against France and final defeat of French in IndoChina (after defeat at Dien Bien Phu 1954).  Cambodian communist party has had some success in countryside but is isolated by Sihanouk’s successes in bringing independence/outflanking the democratic parties.  Sihanouk abdicated as King, installing is father in the honorific position and uses his influence to control elections which give him elected power as ”Prince Sihanouk”.  First elections give overwhelming endorsement to Sihanouk’s Buddhist regime (many middle class Cambodians who survived the Killing Fields see this as a ‘golden age’).  Sihanouk was lionised by some of the Western press and the visit of de Gaulle in 1966 emphasized his international image as a leader of the ‘non aligned” movement, but Sihanouk was trying to control potentially runaway forces:

*   US unhappy with him because of links to Mao’s China – unhappy with the fact that he shifts position and is ‘non-aligned’ – they were right to do so as Sihanouk had signed a secret treaty with North Vietnam, allowing them access to ports / movement of supplies in return for guarantees of Cambodian freedom;

*   Independent Communist Party of Kampuchea under Pol Pot takes leadership of left, which is attracting more support because of Vietnam war polarisation – after 1966 aligned to China rather than Russia;

*   Right Wing, under General Lon Nol, becoming more powerful;

*    Domino theory dominates US thinking – communist insurgencies in Malaya, Indonesia are defeated militarily (British ‘emergency’ in Malaysia, extermination of Communist Party members (some sources say almost 1 million) in Indonesia;

*    Cultural revolution increases revolutionary fervour and CPK starts guerrilla attacks / campaign in remote mountainous areas of C-ia;

*    within Cambodia, the 1966 elections to the National Assembly brought in members of his party who owed less to him than to local allegiances.

It was an illusion that Sihanouk had created a stable neutral state.  His personal style, running the country as a fiefdom, lacked sufficient breadth and depth to resist the internal and external forces which later brought Cambodia down.

1968-70: Lon Nol becomes Defence, then Prime Minister;  N. Vietnam and China both try to restrain CPK from guerrilla attacks (Vietnam wants peaceful Cambodia) but Ho Chi Minh trail develops in East Cambodia to service Vietcong fighting guerrilla war against S Vietnam and USA.

1970-1975: Corrupt Lon Nol regime established in a military coup with US support. Sihanouk flees to China and supports CPK (Khmer Rouge) in their guerrilla campaign.  Khmer Rouge liquidate cadres who are Vietnamese trained; Cambodia carpet-bombed by US B52 bombers to destroy support for Vietcong (after US has withdrawn from South Vietnam) – almost twice as many bombs are dropped by the US on Laos and Cambodia as were used in the entire US Pacific and Atlantic campaigns of World War II.  This increased recruitment to KR and disrupted civilian life; thousands killed by bombing and agriculture destroyed in many parts.  Altogether 500,000 die in the civil war, 1970-5;  barbaric warfare and brutalisation of population in rural areas paves the way for the civil barbarism to follow.  17.4.75, PP falls, after a long siege, to the Khmer Rouge and Year Zero begins.

1975-1979 Khmer Rouge: 33/4 years of brutal barbaric regime, with casual murder, torture of internal enemies and centrally planned economic suicide leading to up to 2 million deaths, with as many as 350,000 executions – others through famine, abandonment of all medical care and breakdown of civil society.  Read First they killed my father ( http://www.amazon.com/First-They-Killed-Father-Remembers/dp/0060856262/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1284217175&sr=1-1) or Someth May’s autobiography Cambodia Witness (http://www.amazon.com/Cambodian-Witness-Autobiography-Someth-May/dp/0394548043 ) – required to get a feel for what this was like for those who experienced it.

This was possibly the most barbaric regime of modern times – the leaders thought that they could eradicate the past and make a  better future through violence:  this story is an important testament to the whole world of the importance of human rights / checks and balances in political power / compromises in political decision making.   Even very good ‘ends’ would never have justified these ‘means’, but the ends envisaged by the Khmer Rouge were petty and unachievable: pickled political radicalism, preserved and fed by the massive injustices of the corrupt Lon Nol government and the Cold War, allowed them to persuade people that a new start would be better.  As in Russia in 1917, strong decisive and vicious (when necessary) actions will, where civil order has broken down, trump ‘soft’ attempts to ‘reach agreement’.

1979-1992: Vietnam defeats Khmer Rouge after KR invade V, expecting some Chinese support, and establishes a V-backed Communist regime led by Heng Samrin and Hun Sen and other former KR defectors, who had escaped from the East to Vietnam after they realised they would be ‘purged’ by Pol Pot.  KR pushed back to the Thai border but are supported by Thai govt and US / UK backers as a bulwark against growing Vietnamese influence.  Khmer Rouge still recognised in UN as legit govt of Cambodia due to China/US/UK using influence – not one of our most glorious diplomatic stands, but justified with reference to Cold War and ‘domino theory’.  Vietnam-backed govt of Cambodia boycotted and subjected to sanctions.  Desperate famine in Cambodia, but UN boycott of aid leads to mass starvation.  John Pilger’s documentary leads Oxfam to break the UK blockade and send Food Aid (1980).

Civil war till 1991/2 – massive no. of mines laid, making agriculture even more difficult.   Collapse of Soviet Empire after Berlin Wall comes down leads to V having to pull back;  Hun Sen negotiates a new settlement – UN accepts role in arranging free elections and Sihanouk comes back as honorific head of state.  22000 UN troops in C-ia leading to election where Hun Sen and the Sihanouk party are evenly matched;  KR continue fighting in the West.

1997: Hun Sen cements his position with military backed ‘mini coup’; dissension within KR leads to Pol Pot’s arrest – he dies of natural causes as does Ta Mok.  Khieu Sampan and Ieng Sary and other key KR commanders submit and agree terms. KR are given control of SW province.

1997-2010: Hun Sen and his supporters are able to strengthen their grip on power through patronage, efficiency, maintenance of peace and strong economic growth (esp. In Phonm Penh) – 1997-2007, 10 years of double digit growth in GDP, but after economic problems of 2008-10, growth stalls;  Cambodia still desperately poor and near bottom of the league table of ‘transparency/corruption’ in public life;  landmines and unexploded ordinance all over the countryside – slow clearance programme underway.

2009-2010: first international ‘crimes against humanity’ trials begin to reach a conclusion. Comrade Duch (commandant of Camp21) found guilty and sentenced to 23 years.   Chinese investment begins to pay off as roads they have built into remote  allow faster exploitation of natural materials; NGO industry flourishes in Phonm Penh, with VSO making a significant contribution.   Cambodia stumbling into the global economy;  over 50% of population teenagers or younger, with brighter view of future.   There is a desparate need to rebuild core aspects of civil society – education, health, transport, postal service, good governance – if progress towards a more sustainable, stable and prosperous future is to be maintained.


One thought on “Where is Cambodia now – political, social, economic and historical summary

  1. Pingback: Cambodia’s war crimes trial – where is it going next? | Danny Murphy's Blog

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