History and Government
Little is known of the early history of Cambodia, although there is evidence of habitation in parts of the country as far back as 4000BC. It is also known that Chinese and Indian traders exchanged goods with people living on the coasts of present-day Cambodia and Vietnam in the early AD centuries. According to Chinese chroniclers, a kingdom known as ‘Funan’ flourished between AD300–600. A dynasty founded by the prince Jayavarman – possibly descended from the rulers of Funan – ruled from settlements in the eastern part of the country between around AD790 and the 11th century. Cambodian power spread westwards during this period into parts of Thailand.
The succeeding dynasty, which ruled throughout the 12th and early-13th centuries, was based at the famous temple complex of Angkor Wat. Under King Suryavarman, the Cambodians extended their influence still further into southern Vietnam and northern Thailand. However, from 1220 onwards, Angkor came under concerted military pressure from the Chinese to the north and the newly emergent kingdoms of northern Thailand. By the end of the 15th century, Angkor had been abandoned and fell into ruin. It has remained unoccupied ever since, with the exception of a brief period during the early-16th century.
French involvement in Cambodia came about through its colonial engagement in Vietnam, and was largely intended to forestall possible British or Thai incursions along the Mekong river. The unstable ruling family in Cambodia at the time, headed by King Norodom, needed little persuasion to accept French protection and control over its foreign and security policies. A brief attempt to reassert Cambodia’s independence in the 1880s was put down by the French, who then absorbed Cambodia into what became French Indochina. It became an Associated State of the French Union in 1949, achieving full independence in 1953.
In 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father, Norodom Suramarit, to allow himself to enter politics. Using the title Prince Sihanouk, he founded a mass movement, the Popular Socialist Community, which held power between 1955–1966. Prince Sihanouk became Head of State in 1960, following the death of his father. The overspill of the Vietnam war, in particular the massive secret bombing campaign conducted by the Americans against Vietnamese guerrilla bases inside Cambodia, served to destabilise the Sihanouk government. In March 1970, two years after the bombing began, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by a right-wing coup, which proclaimed a Khmer Republic under the rule of General Lon Nol. Khmer Rouge Communist guerrillas, allied with their Vietnamese counterparts, stepped up their military campaign against the government. In 1975, they took control.
The real power behind the Khmer Rouge was the new Prime Minister Pol Pot, who had manufactured a unique ideology based on elements of Maoist thought and Medieval quasi-mysticism, rooted in the history of the Angkor state. The practical effect was the establishment of ‘Year Zero’ (in 1975), under which Cambodia was to be converted into a pure Communist state centred on basic agricultural production. Currency was abolished, intellectuals purged, churches and temples destroyed and thousands of urban dwellers driven into the countryside for ‘re-education’ and primitive agricultural labour. The outcome was a regime of horrific brutality, which was responsible for another of the 20th century’s genocides – it is estimated that one third of the population died during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule.
Cambodia drifted in a state of penury and semi-chaos throughout the 1980s, until a UN-led effort began to stabilise the country. In 1991, a political settlement was reached, which included all parties except the now much-diminished Khmer Rouge. Under the terms of the 1991 settlement, the UN provided a 16,000-strong peacekeeping force and extensive administrative support (under the rubric of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, UNTAC). The operation was widely perceived as a success and sufficient political stability was created to allow a general election in 1993. This produced a narrow victory for FUNCINPEC, the party led by Prince Sihanouk, who had returned to the country from exile to assume the presidency. FUNCINPEC entered into a government of national unity with its main opponent, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Hun Sen.
The two parties squabbled continuously over policy, development, aid, commercial contracts and dealing with the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen and the CPP then moved to exclude FUNCINPEC from government. This brought down the wrath of the international community – international aid was suspended and Cambodia’s application to join ASEAN was postponed indefinitely. In 1998, the CPP gained a small overall majority at National Assembly elections but, mindful of international reaction, now chose to form a coalition government with FUNCINPEC. ASEAN duly relented and Cambodia is now a full member of the organisation. More importantly, Cambodia finally had a government which enjoyed undisputed international recognition. The two parties also agreed an international tribunal format, similar to that used for former Yugoslavia, under which Khmer Rouge leaders will be tried for genocide. The KPK remained in government following the 2003 elections, suggesting that Cambodia was, to some extent, still dominated by an authoritarian regime hiding behind the veneer of democratic practice. Further symptoms of turbulence include the recent abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk in late 2004, who abdicated due to old age and frail health, but also, he claimed, because of the worry of more violence in a land still traumatised by Pol Pot's brutal rule in the 1970s, without a clear succession. This event diagnosed the nation's widespread and continuing fears and frictions. Last-minute legislation had to be administered since the constitution did not permit abdication and, eventually, the nine-member throne council appointed his son, Norodom Sihamoni, as the new king. King Norodom Sihamoni has vowed to remain politically neutral and open to ideas from all Cambodians. Only time will tell if the succession marks a new, more optimistic, era for Cambodia.
Legislative power belongs to the 120-member National Assembly, which is popularly elected for a term of five years. Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The King holds the post of Head of State.