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The Ancient Khmer Empire

History of Cambodia

To understand Cambodia today, it's important to understand it's history and how that lead to the present day challenges it faces.


In 802 AD,  the Khmer people seceded from the kingdom of Chenia under the reign of King Jayavarman II. This marked the beginning of what some have called The Great Khmer Empire - the greatest empire in the history of Southeast Asia. The 600 years that followed saw powerful Kings dominate much of present-day Southeast Asia, from the borders of Myanmar east to the South China Sea and north to Laos. It was during this period that the Khmer kings built the most extensive concentration of religious temples in the world – the Angkor Wat temple complex. This complex covers  155 sq miles in the province of Siem Reap and remains one of the most visited historic tourist sites in in the world.   Recently, through laser scanning technology, entire underground cities were discovered under the jungles surrounding Angkor Wat, making the enormity of Angkor Wat far larger than archaeologists and historians ever thought possible.   

As the Angkor period ended, Cambodia's capital eventually moved south to the present-day capital of Phnom Penh. It was during the post-Angkorean era that there was a widespread conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism, as illustrated on the temple carvings of Angkor Wat and temples throughout the country. The 15th to 17th centuries represented a time of foreign influence when expansionist Siam (modern day Thailand) and Vietnam fought over Cambodia. By the mid-1800s, Cambodia, like most other countries in Asia, came under increasing pressure from European colonial powers. In 1863, King Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty with France to keep his country safe from the regional claims to Cambodian land by neighboring Vietnam and Siam. The influence of France can be seen even today in architecture located in the capital city , Phnom Penh.   In 1941 during WWII, the Japanese occupied Cambodia and briefly ousted the French from the country (the Japanese remained until their surrender to Allied forces October of 1945).  During the occupation, the Cambodians did not experience the usual harsh treatment inflicted by the Japanese, and with the French gone, the reigning king of Cambodia, King Sihanouk, began mounting an intensive campaign to persuade the French government to grant complete independence and Cambodian self-government. In 1953, less than 10 years later, he succeeded in winning independence for Cambodia, effectively ending 90 years under the power of the French protectorate. King Sihanouk then abdicated the throne to his father and took the reins of government himself as head of state. Throughout the remaining 1950s and on into the 1960s, Cambodia was self-sufficient and prospered in many areas. 

But storm clouds were gathering.                                                                    

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Christian Mininsty,

Angkor Wat, in the province of Siem Reap, Cambodia  

The Reign of Terror

In 1975 a despicable Cambodian leader, Pol Pot, who had studied Marxist ideology abroad, returned to Cambodia and eventually seized power.

In 1970 a military coup toppled then head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk.  He was forced to enter into a political coalition with Pol Pot, who started to gain increasing support from the people.  A bloody civil war followed that lasted 5 years, killing a million Cambodians (but the worst was still to come). In 1975, when the country was at its weakest, Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodian military) overthrew the government, seized control of the capital and thereby the nation.  During a brief window of time, many Cambodians escaped to nearby Thailand, preferring life in a refugee camp over what they saw coming. Pol Pot's vision was simple: eradicate all Western influence and turn the nation's  clock back to the Middle Ages - reducing it to a nation of peasant rice farmers under his dictatorship. He declared that the nation would start over at "Year Zero".  He immediately evacuated the cities and closed the borders, isolating Cambodia from the rest of the world.. Those citizens who were not slaughtered were relocated to labor camps.  He forcefully abolished money, private property, religion - destroying anything that even hinted of Western culture- taking particular aim at intellectuals and anyone with any education. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners, artists, musicians, even those wearing eye glasses or who knew a foreign language - all, once identified, were arrested and brutally executed.  Some historians regard the Pol Pot regime as one of the most  barbaric and murderous of the 20th century.  

In 1979, Pol Pot overreached and invaded Vietnam in an attempt to expand his borders and ideology. In response, Vietnam fought back and successfully invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh and eventually ending the Reign of Terror. Pol Pot and most of his leaders, fled to the jungle where they continued as an insurgent guerrilla force and part of a government in exile until 1990. Unbelievably, the United Nations at that time recognized them as Cambodia's only legitimate representative.  Even the United States, in it's determined commitment to stop Vietnam at all cost, supplied finances to Pol Pot and his army. Eventually the influence of the Khmer Rouge began to decrease following a 1991 ceasefire agreement, and the movement completely collapsed by the end of the decade. In 1997 a Khmer Rouge splinter group captured Pol Pot and placed him under house arrest.  He died in his sleep on April 15, 1998 at the age of 72 due to heart failure.  He was never brought to justice.  Forty years later, a United Nations-backed tribunal convicted only three Khmer Rouge leaders. The rest were never brought to justice - and the wound they inflicted on Cambodia  hasn't healed to this day. 


Tuol Sleng 

The Khmer Rouge was particularly brutal, and from  1975 - 1979 , an estimated  2.5 million Cambodians - and many thousands of foreigners -  were starved to death, worked to death in labor camps, or were held in prisons where they were detained, interrogated, then savagely tortured and executed.  Some estimates place the death toll even higher.  Pol Pot converted  schools, civic buildings and pagodas into torture and execution centers.  The most notorious of these was Tuol Sleng (known as SR-21). SR-21 was located in the capitol city of Phnom Penh and the classrooms in this former high school became a nightmarish  slaughterhouse for over 20,000 Khmer, many of them woman and children.  


Only 7 prisoners are known to have survived.           


For more please see:

For more please read:

"Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot" by David P. Chandler

"First they Killed my Father" by Loung Ung 

"Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide" by Nawuth Keat with Martha E. Kendall

"Survivor: The Triumph of an Ordinary Man" by Chun Mey 

Also, consider renting the 1984 film "The Killing Fields"  by Goldcrest Films



Death Of A Nation: The Khmer Rouge's Cambodia

Check out Rare Earth's video that gives deeper insight into how Cambodia's genocide came about 


Healing a Nation

In 1979, as the borders re-opened, the world caught their first glimpse of the horror that was Cambodia. On arriving in Phnom Penh after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, journalist James Pringle wrote in the New York Times:       "I had known Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge takeover. In less than four years, it seems to have regressed to the 14th century, at least in the countryside. As for Phnom Penh, it was still largely devoid of people; civilians who did manage to enter were facing starvation, picking up odd rice grains in the street". In 1979 there were maybe 100,000 living people in Phnom Penh.  A German journalist who visited  Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge left, told National Geographic there were so many corpses lying around that helicopters flew overhead spraying disinfectants. Even so, slowly people began to move back. The years that followed were heart wrenching, as survivors sought out the living and grieved over their dead.                       


Cambodia today

"As long as it is day... "

Today, Cambodia's political climate and record on human rights is concerning.  The country is ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (formally the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party) and a figure head king, His Royal Highness Norodom Sihamoni. The country's younger generation, sheltered from the country's troubled past by family who never speak of the Khmer Rouge, are looking ahead - not back. But the wound remains largely unhealed - particularly in the countryside. Foreign investment from China, Japan, Korea and the European Union are Cambodia's leading providers of development and assistance, and tourism has helped the economy grow. But any gains in the economy are largely lost on the Cambodian people themselves. This is the backdrop for the emerging church there today. The hope in all of this is that, although the government restricts direct proselytizing and the passing out of Christian literature, it currently has an otherwise Laizez faire stance on the Christian church and the good work being done to help the Cambodian people. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for Christians to make a difference - while the door remains open. 

Jesus said:

"As long as it is day, we must do the works of Him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work..."   Gospel of John 9:4