Mankind is known to have lived in the region known as modern day Cambodia as early as 6000 to 7000 years ago. It wasn’t until 500 B.C. and later that the Funan Kingdom came to prominence with its trading as far afield as the Roman Empire. Additional trading with India led the region to adopt Hinduism and that trading continued well into the third century.
By the 6th Century the area had been conquered by the Chenla Kingdom, but after the death of Jayavarman I in 681 the kingdom started to break up into smaller principalities. By the early 800s Jayavarman II rose to prominence and the period of the Khmer Empire was born. The Khmer were to grow strong under a succession of Kings and expanded aggressively across the region from their capital at Angkor. It was the death of Jayavarman VII in 1218 that the territorial expansion stopped and gradual attacks by the Siamese (Thais) led to gradual deterioration of the kingdom.
In 1431 the Thais captured Angkor Thom, the Cambodian king fled and the country entered a period of decline. Increasingly the region now known as Cambodia was subject to power struggles between Siam and Vietnam.
From around 1500 onwards a series of weak kings ruled a gradually diminishing territorial area and with the decline of Angkor the capital has shifted south to Phnom Penh. In 1863 King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to turn his kingdom into a French protectorate although their main interests were in neighbouring Vietnam. By 1884 Cambodia had become, in effect, a French colony and a series of kings continued to rule albeit under French control. Gradually land seized by the Thais and Vietnamese was restored by the French.
In 1941 Prince Norodom Sihanouk was placed on the throne by the French and at the same time the Japanese invaded much of Asia. Cambodia was left by the Japanese to be run by a Vichy France based government; although with the fall of Paris in 1944 the Japanese took direct control. It wasn’t until after World War Two that the French returned making Cambodia an autonomous state within the French Union.
The next few years brought welcome peace and the country flourished but in 1952 King Sihanouk dissolved the new parliament and sought international support for independence for his country. This was granted reluctantly by the French and Cambodia received its independence on 9th November 1953. Sihanouk abdicated from the throne in 1955 and was replaced by his father whilst he entered into a political career, winning the election of that year easily; his Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community) took every seat in the parliament and Sihanouk went on to dominate parliament for the next 15 years.
A series of poor policy decisions in the 1960s saw Sihanouk allow the Vietnamese Communists to use Cambodian territory to attack the Americans in South Vietnam whilst he decided to allow his army to take on the left in his own country. In March 1970 whilst on a trip to France Sihanouk was ousted as chief of state and the National Assembly voted to remove him from office on 18th March.
General Lon Nol as Prime Minister led the new government and then in 1972 became President of the Khmer Republic. His government became increasingly destabilised especially as American and South Vietnamese troops ventured deep into Cambodia to oust the Viet Cong and Lon Nol’s army fought against the communist Khmer Rouge. Eventually Lon Nol’s government could not hold back the Khmer Rouge and on 17th April 1975 the capital, Phnom Penh fell to the rebels.
From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, entered into a mass cleansing of the population. No-one knows how many people died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge but the highest estimate stands at 3 million from executions, starvation and disease and at least 1.5 million are said to have been found in mass graves.
The Khmer Rouge didn’t just pick fights with its own people, throughout their tenure they also fought with the Vietnamese which eventually led to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia on 25th December 1978. Two weeks later the Khmer Rouge regime had fallen and the Vietnamese installed a new government partially made up of former Khmer Rouge officers including the current Prime Minister Hun Sen who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. The Khmer Rouge went back to fighting from the jungle.
Hun Sen and his Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) went on to rule as the sole legal party in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the first two years of the State of Cambodia from 1978 until 1993.
Vietnam remained in Cambodia until 1989 despite a massive attack on northern Vietnam by the Chinese in 1979 in support of the Khmer Rouge. The withdrawal of the Vietnamese in 1989 gave the rebels, still partially led by the Khmer Rouge to attack the isolated government and eventually diplomatic efforts brought both sides to the negotiating table. In 1990 a peace plan was accepted by both sides whilst a United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) would supervise the administration of the country for two years with the goal of creating free and fair multi-party democratic elections.
The royalist Funcinpec party won a narrow majority over Hun Sen’s newly named Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in 1993 and a year after the election the Constituent Assembly was formed into the National Assembly. Meanwhile the CPP threatened secession of the eastern part of Cambodia and as a result the country ended up with two prime ministers, Norodom Ranariddh of Funcinpec as first Prime Minister and Hun Sen of the CPP as second Prime Minister.
In an amazing turnaround of fortunes Norodom Sihanouk was installed once more as King of Cambodia in 1993 and eventually abdicated in favour of his son Norodom Sihamoni the current King in 2004.
Before that, in 1997, Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen had gradually drifted apart and as Ranariddh tried to complete a deal with the Khmer Rouge to end the civil war fighting took place between Funcinpec and CPP troops. The CPP won the battle and Ranariddh was ousted in what most people saw as a military coup. Hun Sen took a different line with the Khmer Rouge and carried out an intense offensive against their northern strongholds and their leaders were forced to flee.
In 1998 new elections were held and the CPP won with 64 of the 122 seats in the National Assembly. Funcinpec came in second with 43 seats and the Sam Rainsy Party came third with 15 seats. The CPP went on to win the 2003 and 2008 elections in elections that were not seen as free or fair. The Funcinpec party has slowly disintegrated and the Sam Rainsy Party joined forces with the Human Rights Party in 2012 to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
In the 2013 general election the opposition came to its closest ever chance of toppling the CPP, taking 56 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. Nevertheless Prime Minister Hun Sen is now expected to complete 33 years in power by the time of the next general election in 2018.
King Norodom Sihamoni is Head of State.
The bicameral parliament has a Senate with 61 seats where 2 members are appointed by the monarch, 2 elected by the National Assembly and 57 elected by parliamentarians and commune councils and members serve five-year terms. The National Assembly has 123 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Cambodia at joint 156th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 21 (where 100 is least corrupt).