Cambodia Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Cambodia is a country located in Southeastern Asia. With the capital city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia has a population of 16,718,976 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. 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.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: 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. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Cambodia.

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 broke out.

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 1970-1975 fighting.

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 ground up.

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.

Vietnam invades

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 country.

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 their troops.

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 escaped justice.

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 to imprisonment.

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 politically motivated.

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 office.

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 issue.

Violent protests

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 the summer.

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 National Assembly.

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.

Cambodia Modern History