After independence from France in 1953,
Norodom Sihanouk came to dominate politics. He was
deposed in a US-backed coup in 1970. The Communist Red
Khmer who took power in 1975 wanted to transform society
into an agricultural-based ideal state. Instead, a
tyranny began that devastated the country, demanding the
lives of some 1.7 million Cambodians. The Red Khmer was
driven away when Vietnam invaded the country in 1979 but
continued as a guerrilla. Only after ten years did the
Vietnamese leave Cambodia and in 1993 democracy was
introduced. Government power has since been held by the
CPP party, whose leader Hun Sen has developed an
increasingly authoritarian regime.
Two years after independence, King Sihanouk
surrendered the throne to his father Norodom Suramarit
to work actively politically, but he withdrew the throne
when his father died in 1960. Sihanouk founded the mass
movement the Popular Socialist Society which came to
dominate the country.
List of most commonly used acronyms containing Cambodia. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
Sihanouk then ruled Cambodia until 1970. His years in
power gave the citizens some basic rights, but was
mainly characterized by the king's balance between
different political extremes. At the same time as
Sihanouk safeguarded king power and traditions, he
raised taxes, nationalized foreign trade and banks, and
included leftists in the government, among them several
future Red Khmer leaders.
Sihanouk pursued an active foreign policy aimed at
protecting Cambodia from US influence in the region. He
allowed North Vietnam together with the South Vietnamese
guerrilla FNL to establish bases in the country.
The fear of the Red Khmer
To expel the Communist troops from Cambodia, the
United States began bombing the country in 1969. Both
the left and the right became increasingly dissatisfied
with Sihanouk, who resorted to brutal methods of
silencing opposition on all fronts. While Sihanouk was
overseas in 1970, the deeply conservative Prime Minister
Lon Nol abolished the monarchy, with US support, and
renamed the country to the Khmer Republic. Civil war
Sihanouk was supported by North Vietnam and allied
with the Red Khmer. This was a guerrilla group with
roots in a communist movement formed in Paris in the
late 1950s by a group of students, among them Pol Pot.
When the Americans made peace with North Vietnam in
1973, they turned their offensive against the Red Khmer
with a bombing war that was devastating for the
Cambodian civilian population and drove the peasants
straight in the arms of the guerrillas. Between 500,000
and one million casualties were required in the
Despite US support, Lon Nol lost the civil war and in
April 1975 the Red Khmer marched into Phnom Penh. For
many Cambodians, they came as liberators. Sihanouk was
placed under house arrest in Phnom Penh. The Red Khmer
renamed the country the Democratic Kampuchea
and put its peasant revolutionary program into effect.
According to Prime Minister Pol Pot's vision, the
country would return to "year zero" and rebuild from the
The board soon evolved into a horror empire. The
towns were emptied of residents when the city dwellers
were forced to work in the countryside. Academics, civil
servants, police, military and teachers were arrested
and many of them executed. Among crimes that could be
punished with death were not to work hard enough, to
complain, to hoard food, to mourn dead relatives, and to
practice religion. Vietnamese and other minorities were
particularly hard hit.
Money was abolished, industry decayed and foreign
trade reduced to barter with friendly-minded nations.
The Red Khmerians had grand plans for irrigation systems
with ponds and canals, but since they had executed most
engineers, what was being built collapsed. The number of
people killed or killed by illness, starvation and
fatigue is debated, but a figure that is often mentioned
is about 1.7 million dead.
At the end of 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and
expelled Pol Pot. In January 1979, the People's
Republic of Kampuchea was proclaimed ,
organized according to Vietnamese socialist model. Both
China and the US wanted to weaken Cambodia in order to
access Soviet-supported Vietnam. The UN continued to
recognize first the Red Khmer and then an opposition
coalition as Cambodia's legal leader.
In Cambodia, industry, infrastructure and schooling
began to build up. It was slow, as the Red Khmer
continued with its guerrilla war and the Western world
had introduced a trade embargo following pressure from
the United States. The shortage of labor was another
major problem. Many Vietnamese came to Cambodia to work
and Vietnam also had 100,000 to 200,000 soldiers in the
When the east-west ice meltdown occurred in the late
1980s, the road to reconciliation was opened in
Cambodia. Hun Sen, prime minister of the Vietnam-backed
government, met Sihanouk in 1987. Two years later, the
Vietnamese troops left the country. Cambodia was given a
new constitution that no longer mentioned socialism and
a series of market economy reforms were implemented.
After extensive diplomatic efforts, a peace treaty was
signed in 1991 by four factions: the Phnom Penh
Government, the Red Khmer, Sihanouks Funcinpec and the
Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF).
Peace agreements and democratization
The agreement stipulated that the parties would be
disarmed and that in 1993 the UN would organize
elections for a parliament that would write a new
constitution. Now Cambodia's isolation was broken and
the 350,000 refugees began returning home from camps in
Thailand. However, the plans for disarmament first broke
the Red Khmer and then the others refused to disarm all
The election in May 1993 was mainly between the
royal-friendly Funcinpec, now led by Sihanouk's son
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and the Cambodian People's
Party (CPP), the heir to the 1980s state-carrying
Vietnam-supported Communist Party. Funcinpec received 45
percent of the vote and CPP 38 percent.
The country was given a new constitution and a new
parliament. Government formation led to a coalition, led
by two prime ministers. Ranariddh became the first prime
minister and the second prime minister became Hun Sen.
Sihanouk was reinstated as king.
The control over the ministries was also divided
evenly between the two parties. But the CPP controlled
the administration and the armed forces, which would
prove crucial when the political violence escalated in
the following years.
An important element of the power play was the Red
Khmer, who remained in pockets in the border regions
between Cambodia and Thailand. In the mid-1990s, the
government began to respond to the Red Khmer warfare
with generous promises of amnesty to defeated
guerrillas. The tactics were successful. Funcinpec also
wanted to gain some of the hard warrior's skills, and
both sides came to negotiate well with various phalanxes
within the guerrillas. This meant that war criminals
Ranariddh is deposited in a coup
In the spring of 1997, Funcinpec lost its majority in
Parliament after a number of its members resigned,
boosted by Hun Sen. The following summer became
dramatic. Ranariddh had negotiated a collaboration with
the Red Khmer, which Hun Sen wanted to put an end to.
Fighting between the two prime ministers' forces broke
out in Phnom Penh and Hun Sen deposed Ranariddh in a
coup in July 1997. About 100 people, including some 40
from Funcinpec's leadership, were killed during and
after the coup according to the UN. For the rest of the
year, sporadic fighting in northwestern Cambodia raged
between CPP and Funcinpec in alliance with the
increasingly decimated Red Khmer.
Assistance and investment from abroad were halted
after the coup and the administration became paralyzed
when corrupt public servants turned their loyalty from
the state to the parties that increasingly came to
resemble mafia organizations.
A Japanese peace plan poured oil on the waves in the
spring of 1998. CPP and Funcinpec initiated a ceasefire,
but Ranariddh was sentenced in his absence to 35 years
in prison and $ 50 million in damages for arms smuggling
and conspiracy. However, he was pardoned by his father
King Sihanouk and was able to return to Cambodia to
prepare for the summer 1998 elections.
The hope was to regain confidence in the world after
the coup, but the months before the election came
repeated reports of irregularities. Hun Sens CPP
dominated both the mass media and the National Election
Commission. Local government officials threatened
opposition, opposition politicians at the local level
were murdered and the murders remained unsolved.
Nevertheless, the UN, the EU and other foreign observers
were relatively satisfied with the election.
The Red Khmer is defeated
According to the Election Commission, the CPP won a
scarce majority in Parliament. Funcinpec became the
second largest party, but the newly formed Sam Rainsy
party (SRP) also got some mandate. Since the
Constitution required at least a two-thirds majority to
form a government, the CPP had to seek support. After
some hesitation, Funcinpec agreed to rejoin a coalition
government. Hun Sen now became the sole Prime Minister
and Prince Ranariddh Parliament's President.
Red Khmer leader Pol Pot died of a heart attack in
April 1998 in the guerrilla attack Anlong Veng and in
early 1999 capitulated the last of the Red Khmer
guerrillas. About 1,700 of them were integrated into the
government army and others received financial help to
start a new life. At the same time, domestic and
international demands were growing that the former
leaders of the guerrillas would be brought to justice.
The government, albeit reluctantly, agreed with the UN
to set up a special tribunal. The UN wanted an
independent international court, but Hun Sen managed to
get US support for the majority of lawyers to be
Cambodians. Only in the autumn of 2004 was an agreement
reached (see also Political system).
In the 2003 election, the CPP became by far the
largest party with well over half of the mandate.
Funcinpec and SRP split on the rest and became
approximately equal in size. This time it took almost a
year to negotiate a coalition with Funcinpec. She Sen
remained as head of government.
In 2004, King Sihanouk left the throne and one of his
sons, Norodom Sihamoni, was elected new king.
Hun Sen strengthens his power
The political climate hardened gradually and the
government used the justice system to silence the
opposition. In early 2005, Sam Rainsy and two other SRP
members were deprived of their parliamentary immunity,
which meant they could be prosecuted. Rainsy, who was
suspected of slander, left the country to avoid being
arrested but was later sentenced to 18 months in prison
for his absence. One of the other two, Chea Channy, was
tried and sentenced to seven years in prison, accused of
trying to build up a military force.
At the end of 2005, several journalists and human
rights activists were arrested who protested against a
border agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam. Among
them were Kem Sokha, founder of a human rights committee
and the Human Rights Party (HRP). Several other regime
critics left the country to avoid prosecution.
In early 2006, the government gave in to
international pressure. Rainsy and Channy were pardoned
by King Sihamoni on the advice of Hun Sen. A few days
later, Rainsy returned from exile. In May of that year,
the law was amended so that slander could no longer lead
Just before the July 2008 elections, battles erupted
at the border with Thailand. The reason was a conflict
over the right to temple ruins at Preah Vihear (see also
Foreign Policy and Defense). The government's way of
handling the conflict strengthened the CPP's already
strong position before the election.
Contested election victory for CPP
According to the Election Commission, the CPP won as
many as 90 of the 123 seats in Parliament, but the
government side was accused of electoral fraud and
manipulation. The SRP claimed, among other things, that
several thousand of its supporters in Phnom Penh were
missing in the voting lists and therefore could not
vote. International election observers said the
electoral process did not meet international standards,
but that the election was the least violent in the
country since 1993. Observers also emphasized that the
CPP's victory was so great that the irregularities had
affected the outcome of the election.
Sam Rainsy was indicted in late 2009 for the rioting
and destruction of property after moving in a political
protest at some markings at the Vietnam border.
Parliament again asserted his prosecution immunity and
Rainsy was sentenced, in two separate convictions in
2010, to a total of twelve years in prison. However,
Rainsy had left the country and was in exile in France.
International judges considered the judgments to be
In October 2012, Norodom Sihanouk died in Beijing
after a long illness.
Hun Sen's power holdings are threatened
Ahead of the July 2013 elections, the CPP was assumed
to sit securely in the saddle after steadily moving
forward in four straight elections. The party had
control over both the state apparatus and radio and TV.
But instead, Hun Sen and his party came to face the
toughest resistance to date and the election came to
shake up Cambodian politics.
An important reason was that the opposition managed
to gather before the elections. In July 2012, one year
before Election Day, SRP and HRP formed the joint
opposition front of Cambodia's National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The chairman was Sam Rainsy and the HRP leader Kem Sokha
became vice chairman. In October, the CNRP was
registered as a political party.
Shortly before the election, Rainsy was pardoned by
King Sihamoni on the advice of Hun Sen. The exiled
opposition leader returned to Cambodia a week before
Election Day, but did not have the right to run for
The election result was unexpectedly even as the
opposition went strong. The CPP claimed to have received
68 of 123 seats, after which Hun Sen proclaimed himself
victorious. CNRP had won 55 mandates according to CPP.
No other parties had a seat in the National Assembly.
However, the CNRP claimed that the party won 63 seats
against 60 for the CPP. Rainsy accused the government of
"stealing the victory" through gross election fraud.
Among other things, one million deceased persons would
have been included in the voting lists and hundreds of
thousands of names would have been duplicated.
Independent election monitors also reported that many
irregularities had occurred. Both the EU and the US
questioned the result and supported the opposition's
demand that the Election Commission investigate the
The CNRP decided not to take its seats in Parliament.
Some negotiations followed, with no results. Despite
major demonstrations and the opposition boycott, the
Election Commission approved the result and the newly
elected parliament took office in September. A half-full
parliament, consisting only of CPP members, elected Hun
Sen as prime minister for a new five-year term.
The protests grew in strength in the fall of 2013.
They were organized by CNRP, which also cooperated with
dissatisfied textile workers who demonstrated against
poor working conditions and low wages. Hundreds of
thousands of Cambodians participated in dissatisfaction
statements that also targeted CPP's power monopoly,
corruption, human rights violations and land
confiscation. In January 2014, the protests led to
violence where several protesters were killed by police
and many more injured.
Compromise is reached
The strikes in the important textile industry also
continued, which put special pressure on the government.
Many of the major international clothing chains that
have invested in the country have been troubled by
reports of violence against workers, which could disrupt
consumers in the western world. Negotiations with the
opposition took place in the spring and an agreement
reached by Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy jointly was reached in
According to the settlement, the opposition got
several representatives in the electoral commission,
which was previously completely controlled by the ruling
party. Eight recently arrested CNRP politicians were
released and the party was promised to appoint a Vice
President and launch its own TV channel.
One year after the election, in July 2014, opposition
members took their seats in parliament. Among them was
also Sam Rainsy who was prepared by another member
resigning. Thus, the point seemed to be set for the
acute political crisis in the country.
Hun Sen more and more authoritarian
During the subsequent term of office, Hun Sen and the
CPP increasingly used their influence to strengthen the
grip on their own power. Restrictions on independent
media, opposition politicians and other regime critics
became increasingly severe. Not least, the government
used the judiciary to weaken its opponents.
In March 2015, Parliament passed two new electoral
laws, one that allows fining and banning
non-governmental organizations that "offend" political
parties and candidates during election campaigns, which
were simultaneously cut from 30 to 21 days, and a law
that states that boycotts work in Parliament may lose
its seats there.
A month later, a new electoral commission was
appointed in accordance with the compromise between CPP
and CNRP. It consisted of four representatives from the
CPP, four from the CNRP and an independent member.
A setback for CNRP came in July 2015 when eleven
party members were sentenced to prison for rioting
during regime-critical protests in Phnom Penh in July
2014. The next blow came in September 2016 when Vice
President Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in
prison for refusing to appear for interrogation after
being accused of participating in a sex scandal. As a
consequence, the CNRP boycotted parliamentary work until
November, when they agreed to resume their seats in the
In December of that year, Sam Rainsy was sentenced to
five years in prison for posting on Facebook about the
delicate issue of the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Rainsy
was in France again when the verdict fell.