A Slightly Potted History of the Country

Between the 9th and 14th Centuries Cambodia was a powerful country controlling much of the entirety of South East Asia or Indo-China to use a slightly different term.  The wealth and power during this period led to the construction of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat towards the end of this period.  The construction of these and other temples required significant engineering – not only in construction but also in the planning and design of the enormous waterways and use of water to stabilise the otherwise light soils.  Surrounding the entire area was a huge capital city and one of the largest cities of the age anywhere in the world.

A long period of drought(30 years) undermined much of the water flow and the basic design was compromised to work with lower water levels.  When they returned to normal the water levels could not be managed and led to flooding.  The capital moved further south.  The name Siem Reap came from a major defeat of Siam (Siem) troops in about 1550 but subsequently the power of Cambodia declined and the area came under Siam (Thailand) control until 1907 when it became part of French Indo-China.

This led to the rediscovery of the temples when the French funded exploration and to various new borders being drawn which re-instated a much larger Cambodia.

Cambodia was an elective monarchy and making use of the system the French were able to arrange for King  Norodom Sihanouk to take the throne – allegedly he was extremely pliable and in his younger years physically attractive.  Following independence he abdicated and was then able to participate in Government itself – and  he set about trying to bring a more modern country into existence.  However to support North Vietnam there came into existence the “Sihanouk Trail” which tooks arnaments from the port through to the Viet Cong troops.  There were significant elements of right wing who did not welcome communists on their territory or the movement of supplies.

This continued until 1970 when Prime Minister (and General) Lon Nol and others  took advantage of the absence of Prince Sihanouk to mount a coup.  Largely against his own wishes Lon Nol was appointed as President of the newly declared Khmer Republic.  A Government in exile was formed in Beijing.

Meanwhile the communists within Cambodia were in hiding – but gathering significant support among the farmers and peasants and staying hidden from the authorities.  For Lon Nol the worsening economic conditions and the extensive US bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail within the Cambodia borders was making the political position impossible despite significant US aid.  Steadily the communists were gaining control of the country and they took the capital Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, leading to the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.

The Angkar took control of the country and edicts were issued that the towns must be emptied and all of the people must return to ther villages to work the land; the new Government did not bring in the new currency which was waiting in Beijing and instead instituted a barter based economy.  Those displaced from towns were ill treated and locally power was assumed by Khmer Rouge soldiers and supporters and there are many stories of the subsequent events – but essentially 2m were executed in horrendous ways over the next three and a half years (out of a population of 8m) as the Angkar became increasingly suspicious and believed that anyone with knowledge or education should be removed.  Reading one personal account (“And First They Killed My Father”) is extremely moving and this is matched by similar stories heard on the audio guides at the Killing Fields site we visited near Phnom Penh.

The Angkar dealt heavily with those of different racial origin.  Vietnamese were expelled, Chinese and other minorities executed.  Food was rationed and Pol Pot was not continuously the leader as there are were internal strife within the regime.  There was continuing antagonism with Vietnam and eventually the Vietnamese working with dissident groups inside Cambodia invaded and brought the regime to an end.

Civil war continued however until 1991 – when a Peace Settlement was reached and Prince Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh and the UN effectively took control of the country to bring proper elections to the country.   Prince Sihanouk eventually retired from politics and became king and a more stable country emerged.

Uner the skin perhaps the country still has some way to go.  The Prime Minister is Hun Sen and is a former Khmer Rouge member and there are also KR members in the armed forces as steps were taken to try and integrate them into power.  He has been in power since 1985 – and there is really only one political party.  He has therefore served a very long period and is described by Wikipedia as a dictator.

What we saw of the country showed a very young population – although life expectancy is now 71 – we have to remember that this is influenced by the heavy losses incurred through the wars.  It was under 60 as recenly as 2000.  This is similar in the other adjacent countries.

What remains unclear and our guide did not address was how the period of peace (now 20 years long) has enabled recovery.  Indeed the guide concerned tended to want to avoid the issue of the current situation.  From other sources it is clear that aspects of administration remain dysfunctional and allegedly corrupt (no personal proof).  There is obviously good food production capabilities and tourists are welcomed.  A move to a market based economy took place in 1989 and this follows similar steps in adjacent countries.

We did not see the really rural areas and there no doubt remains excessive poverty and a lack of education in those areas.  There has been significant inward investment and the economy has seen many textile factories built due to outside companies and these must be generating money (although transport may not be safe).  Tourism – particularly around Siem Reap – must be bringing in significant money.

So why a musing – well first to get the above into some sort of order.  And there remains a question – it is not entirely clear how some of those responsible for the activities of the Khmer Rouge were able to manage the transition into remaining in suitable positions without reprisals after the fall of the regime – but perhaps the existence of Hun Sen meant that people were able to disassociate themselves from their pasts in a way which permitted re-integration.

The growing and ageing population will be hard to sustain – particularly with the Chinese abstracting water upstream on the major rivers.  Perhaps people have to work so hard but stand to benefit that they are able to move forward.  I hope the country does not dissolve into a further civil war but there will be difficult pressures in the years ahead.