Land of International Culture and a Recent Volatile History

By Liz Goldner

The name, Khmer, often associated with Cambodia, stretches back 1,400 years. Present-day Cambodia came under Khmer rule around 600. The majority of Cambodians (nearly 90%) are of Khmer heritage. An even greater proportion speaks Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. The word for Peace in the Khmer language is Santekphep. Other languages spoken include French, Chinese, Vietnamese and English. Cambodia is about 95% Theravada Buddhist, the remaining population following Islam, atheism or animism.

The golden age of Cambodia occurred between the 9th and 14th century, during the Angkor period when a powerful and prosperous empire flourished, dominating almost all of inland Southeast Asia. However, the Angkor empire eventually collapsed after much in-fighting between royalty and constant warring with increasingly powerful neighbors, Siam and Dai Viett.

Many temples from the golden age, such as Bayon and Angkor Wat, are scattered throughout Thailand. Cambodian, Laos, and Vietnam, a reminder of the grandeur of Khmer arts and culture. Cambodia's achievements in art, architectures, music, and dance have had a great influence on neighboring kingdoms, including Thailand and Laos. The affect of Angkorian culture can be seen today in those countries.


Khmers, descendants of the Angkor Empire, followed the Hindu religion and built a magnificent temple complex at Angkor. Buddhism was introduced into Cambodia in the 12th century during the rule of Jayavaram VII, becoming the predominant religion. But the kingdom known as Kambuja fell into decline after Jayavaram's reign and was nearly annihilated by Thai and Vietnamese invaders. Its power was further diminished through 1863 when France colonized the region, joining Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into a single protectorate known as French Indochina.

The French usurped all but ceremonial powers from Norodom (1834-1904), King of Cambodia from 1860 to 1904. He was the son of King Ang Duong, and the half-brother of Prince Si Votha and of Sisowath. When Norodom died, the French passed over his sons and handed the throne to Sisowath who ruled the country with his son until 1941. The coronation of King Sihanouk, along with the Japanese occupation during the war, reinforced the sentiment that the region should be free from outside control.

After World War II, Cambodians sought independence, but France was reluctant to part with its colony. Cambodia was granted independence within the French Union in 1949. But the French-Indochinese War provided an opportunity for Sihanouk to gain full military control of the country. He abdicated in 1955 in favor of his parents, remaining head of the government. When his father died in 1960, Sihanouk became chief of state without returning to the throne. In 1963, he sought a guarantee of Cambodia’s neutrality from all parties in the Vietnam War.

However, North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were using eastern Cambodia as a safe haven from which to launch attacks into South Vietnam. An indigenous Communist guerrilla movement, the Khmer Rouge, began to put pressure on the government in Phnom Penh. On March 18, 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, anti-Vietnamese riots broke out and Gen. Lon Nol overthrew Sihanouk. The Vietnam peace agreement of 1973 stipulated withdrawal of foreign forces from Cambodia, but fighting continued between Hanoi-backed insurgents and U.S.-supplied government troops.

Combat climaxed in April 1975 when Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, overthrew the Lon Nol regime. The four years of nightmarish Khmer Rouge rule led to the state-sponsored extermination of citizens by its own government. Between one and two million people were massacred on the “killing fields” of Cambodia or worked to death through forced labor. Pol Pot's radical vision of transforming the country into a Marxist agrarian society led to extermination of the country's professional and technical classes.

Vietnamese forces ousted Pol Pot on Jan. 8, 1979, and a new pro-Hanoi government led by Heng Samrin was installed. Pol Pot and 35,000 Khmer Rouge fighters fled into the hills of western Cambodia. They were joined by forces loyal to the ousted Sihanouk in a guerrilla movement to overthrow the Heng Samrin government. The Vietnamese plan originally called for a withdrawal by early 1990 and a negotiated political settlement. A United Nations agreement was signed in 1992, when Sihanouk was appointed leader of an interim Supreme National Council convened to run the country until elections could be held in 1993.

During free elections in May, Heng Samrin's successor, Hun Sen, was defeated, but refused to accept the outcome of the vote. In early July, Hun Sen took advantage of the country's political turmoil deposed Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the country's only popularly elected leader.

Hun Sen later launched a brutal purge, executing more than 40 political opponents. After that coup, the Khmer Rouge organized a show trial of leader, Pol Pot who had not been seen by the West in more than two decades. He was sentenced to house arrest for his crimes against humanity, and then died on April 15, 1998. In the July 1998 election, Hun Sen defeated opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh, but the opposition parties accused him of voter fraud. Cambodia regained its United Nations seat, lost nearly a year earlier as a result of Hun Sen's coup.

Elections in July 2003 resulted in a stalemate, as none of the parties won the two-thirds majority required to govern. In June 2004, Ranariddh and Hun Sen agreed to form a coalition with Hun Sen, the remaining prime minister. In August, Cambodia's parliament ratified the country's entry into the World Trade Organization.

In March 2003 the United Nations and Cambodia announced that they had agreed on a special tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge officials on charges of genocide. In April 2005, the UN agreed to a funding arrangement for the tribunal. Prosecutors made their first indictment in July 2007, charging Kaing Guek Eav with crimes against humanity. In September 2007, Nuon Chea, second-in-command to Pol Pot, was arrested and charged with war crimes. King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated his throne in October 2004 to his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni. Prince Sihamoni, a ballet dancer and choreographer, lived in France and had kept a distance from Cambodian politics.

In Feb. 2005, opposition leader Sam Rainsy was stripped of parliamentary immunity. He fled to France and was convicted in December in absentia of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen. He received a royal pardon in 2006. Hun Sen has used defamation laws to crack down on political opponents and human rights groups, having seven activists and critics arrested in 2005 and 2006. Later, he withdrew charges against four of the activists.


The Culture of Cambodia is rich and varied, dating back many centuries. Its culture has also been greatly influenced by Thailand, Laos and especially by the Indian religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as by Indian culture and civilization. Indian language and arts reached mainland Southeast Asia around the 1st century A.D., probably brought there by seafaring merchants. Cambodia culture also absorbed elements from Javanese and Chinese cultures.

Architecture is especially important in the country, as Angkorian architects and sculptors created temples that mapped the cosmic world in stone. Khmer decorations drew inspiration from religion, carving mythical creatures from Hinduism and Buddhism on the walls. Temples were built according to ancient Khmer dictates, each with a basic temple layout that included a central shrine, a courtyard, an enclosing wall, and a moat. Khmer motifs use many creatures from Buddhist and Hindu mythology, such as the garuda, a mythical bird.


Cambodia is located in Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. About 75% of the country consists of the Tonle Sap Basin and the Mekong Lowlands. To the southeast is the Mekong Delta, which extends through Vietnam to the South China Sea. The basin and delta regions are rimmed with mountain ranges to the southwest (the Cardamom Mountains the Elephant Range) and to the north (Dangrek Mountains). Higher land to the northeast and to the east merges into the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam.

The soil for Gary Simpson’s Common Ground 191 Project was collected in Wat Phnom, the historical site of the founding of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Jeff Daigle, who collected the soil wrote in an email. “According to legend, a lady named Penh found a tree floating in the water after a great flood. In the tree were several Buddha statues. Madame Penh built a temple (wat in Khmer) to house the statues on a nearby hill (Phnom in Khmer. The hill became known as Phnom Penh (Penh’s hill), from which the city that grew around the hill took its name.”

Cambodia is dominated by monsoons, caused by annual alternating high pressure and low pressure systems over the Central Asian landmass. In summer, moist southwest monsoons are drawn landward from the Indian Ocean. The flow is reversed during the winter, as the northeast monsoon sends back dry air. The southern third of the country has a two-month dry season; the northern two-thirds, a four-month one. Temperatures are fairly uniform throughout the Tonle Sap Basin area, averaging around 25°C. Typhoons, tropical cyclones that often devastate coastal Vietnam, rarely cause damage in Cambodia.



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