The History of Cambodia

The good, the bad and the ugly is a simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly, as a brutal civil war culminated in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), from which Cambodia is still recovering. Read more

Key Facts

  • USA carpet bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War
  • The Khmer Rouge ruled for only 3 years 8 months & 20 days from 1975 but 2 million died
  • The Vietnamese ruled Cambodia from 1979 to 1989
  • The Khmer Rouge continued guerrilla warfare until 1998
  • The Khmer Rouge was backed by the west until 1991
  • The UN brought 'peace' in 1992 with the arrival of  UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) 
  • The UN opened the door to a significant number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who have helped build civil society
  • Democratic elections began on 25 May 1993, elections were held with an 89.6% turnout.
  • Cambodia is a Constitutional Monarchy and the successor is elected from the Royal Family by the Royal Council of the Throne
  • King Norodom Sihanouk, who abdicated in 2004, died in October 2012 in Beijing at age 89. The current reigning monarch is King Norodom Sihamoni.
  • Cambodia is still infested with countless land mines, indiscriminately planted by all warring parties during the decades of war and upheaval


Khmer Rouge & the Killing Fields

Upon taking Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructuring of a society ever attempted; its goal was a pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. The country cut itself off from the outside world.

It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the three years, eight months and 20 days of their rule. The Vietnamese claimed three million deaths, while foreign experts long considered the number closer to one million. Yale University researchers undertaking ongoing investigations estimated that the figure was close to two million.

Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of famine and disease. Meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the fields. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families; death was a relief for many from the horrors of life. Some zones were better than others, some leaders fairer than others, but life for the majority was one of unending misery and suffering in this ‘prison without walls’.