Easter last year was completely dominated by the HKIFF. This year, it was taken up entirely by Cambodia. It was a mixed experience: surprise and shock. I was surprised at the level of its past civilization and architecture and shocked by the horror the country went through when it was terrorized by an ideologically driven Communist general Pol Pot who wiped out 2 of its 7 million local inhabitants in half a decade back in the 1970's. During this trip, Its history took on added authenticity for me because I could hear it with my own ears, through the mouths of two local tour guides both of whom were actual victims of those days of unbelievable atrocity. It is not as if I were reading a cold, objective and merely factual academic account of its history written by someone who had nothing personally to do with what he is writing about. They were part of the lives of our two guides who lost most members of their own immediate or extended families and friends.
It's practically impossible to understand what I saw on this trip in any meaningful way without first learning a bit of Cambodian history because its very complicated and checkered history is intricately and intimately related to the rise and fall of various dynasties ruling over different parts of the present day Malaysia, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand and one of the most horrible episodes in human history.
Cambodia ( Kampuchea) is now a constitutional monarchy of 24 provinces headed by King Norodom Sihamo occupying nearly 70,000 square miles in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula, bordered in the northwest by Thailand, in the northest by Lao, in the east by Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest. It now has a population of some 15 million, 95% of whom are Theravada Buddhists (some 4400 temples in the country), 1% Christian, of which Catholics make up the largest group (20,000) followed by Protestants like Baptists, Christian Missionary Alliance, Methodists, Jehoveh Witness, Apostolic or United Pentecostals, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. About 10% of its population are ethnic minorities: Vietnamese (740,000), Chinese (700,000 ).), Cham (220,000.) who are mostly Sunni Muslims, living mainly in the Kampong Cham Province, more than 300,000 Muslims.and Khmer Loeu (550,000) and another 20 odd minority hill tribes.
Its political, economic and cultural centre, its capital Phnom Penh (金邊) with a population of 2.2 million, however has only about 5 main streets. All political powers are now concentrated in the hands of Hun Sen, one of the former members of the Khmer Rouge previously led by its cold-blooded dictator Pol Pot,who was initially supported by both Mao Tse Tung and the North Vietnamese as fellow communists. Originally the Khmer Rouge's power base was in Northern Cambodia. At one time, power was shared between three rivals: Lon Nol, Sihanouk's cousin Sirik Matak, and National Assembly leader In Tam., After Pol Pot took control of Phnom Penh in 1975 following 117 days of fighting, he declared the establishment of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, a reign of terror began which did not end until 1979 when Pol Pot was overthrown by one of his former subordinates, Hun Sen,(who has Fukinese blood in his ancestral line) who disagreed with Pol Pot's hardline policies of racial genocide against the Cham Islamic population, the native Khmer tribes and Chinese. Pol Pot then fled to the jungles of northern Cambodia and died in April 1998. Historians estimate that Pol Pot killed off some 2 million people in various massacres all over Cambodia. Hun Sen has since remained the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia until today.
Brief History of Cambodia
Cambodia's ancient name is the Sanskrit word "Kambuja". Its formal name is "Khmer Preah Reacheanachak Kampuchea" and is popularly called called "Srok Khmer: (literally "the Land of the Khmers") or more formally "Prateh Kampuchea" ( literally "The Country of Cambodia", Cambodia being the Sanskrit transcription of the word "Kampuchea") and further shortened into Kampuchea and is now popularly known as Khmer (高棉).
According to Chinese chronicles, after Jayavarman I of Chenla died around AD 690, turmoil ensued which resulted in division of the kingdom into Land Chenla and Water Chenla which was loosely ruled by weak princes under the dominion of Java.The Khmer Empire grew out of these remnants of Chenla becoming firmly established in 802 when Jayavarman II (reigning c790-850) declared independence from Java and proclaimed himself a Devaraja. He and his followers instituted the cult of the God-king and began a series of conquests that built up an empire which flourished in the area from the 9th to the 15th centuries.
Around the 13th century, monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia.The religion spread and eventually displaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the popular religion of Angkor. In or about AD 802, Its most famous Emperor Jayavarman II declared himself king and then started Khmer Empire which lasted some 600 years, dominating much of Southeast Asia, including at its height parts of present day Malaysian, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Historians believe that it was during the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries that the Indianized states of Funan (扶南) and its successor, Chenla (暹羅), coalesced in present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. Even today, we see the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism in the architectural styles in many of the temples found in Angkor (meaning "capital city") Wat (meaning temple) and we can see much similarities in the written form of the language of Thailand and Cambodia.
After the fall of Angkor to Ayutthaya in the 15th century, Cambodia was ruled as a vassal between its neighbors. In 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world with an urban sprawl of 1,150 square miles.The city, which could have supported a population of up to one million people and Angkor Wat, the most well known and best-preserved religious temple at the site.Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and abandoned in 1432 because of ecological failure and infrastructure breakdown.This led to a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation when the kingdom's internal affairs came increasingly under the control of its neighbors.The Khmer court moved the capital to Longvek where the kingdom sought to regain its glory through maritime trade.
Cambodia was first mentioned in European documents in 1511 by the Portuguese. Portuguese and Spanish travelers described the city as a place of flourishing wealth and foreign trade. The attempt was short-lived however, as continued wars with Ayutthaya and the Vietnamese resulted in the loss of more territory. In 1594, Longvek was conquered and destroyed by King Naresuan the Great of Ayutthaya. In 1618, a new Khmer capital was established at Udong south of Longvek but its monarchs could survive only by entering into what amounted to alternating vassal relationships with the Siamese and Vietnamese for the next three centuries with only a few short-lived periods of relative independence. By this time, the Khmer penchant for monument building had ceased. Older faiths such as Mahayana Buddhism and the Hindu cult of the god-king were then supplanted by Theravada Buddhism for good.The empire, though in decline, remained a significant force in the region until its fall in the 15th century.
In the 19th century, a renewed struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia resulted in a period when Vietnamese officials attempted to force the Khmers to adopt Vietnamese customs. This led to several rebellions against the Vietnamese and the Cambodians appealed to Thailand for assistance. The Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–1845) ended with an agreement to place the country under joint suzerainty. In 1863, King Norodom, himself installed by Thailand, sought the protection of France from the Thai and Vietnamese control, after tensions grew between them. In 1867, the Thai king signed a treaty with France, whereby in return for for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces which officially ere part of Thailand, he renounced suzerainty over Cambodia. These two provinces were ceded back to Thailand by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1906. In 1941-1945, it was occupied by the Japanese but after the end of the WWII, it reverted to French as one of its colonies.
Cambodia only gained complete independence from France in on 9th November, 1953 when the French-educated King Norodom Sihanouk, was chosen to be king by the French because he was thought to be easy to control but they could not be more wrong. Sihanouk negotiated with them for independence, something he achieved when he signed the treaty in Paris. Two years later, Sihanouk abdicated his kingship in favor of his father in order to participate in politics and was elected prime minister. But upon his father's death in 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, taking the title of prince. As the Vietnam War progressed, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality in the Cold War although he was thought sympathetic to the communist cause. Thus he first allowed the Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and a supply route for their arms and other aid to their armed forces fighting in South Vietnam. But when he told an American journalist in 1968 that he would not object to
US bombing the Vietnamese communist sanctuaries provided that no
Cambodians were killed, the Americans started to do so, he caused widespread resentment in the government and army because of his vacillating policies. Therefore in 1970, whilst he was on a visit to the PRC, he was deposed by General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak in a military coup immediately after which he demanded the Vietnamese Communist army to leave Cambodia, much to the delight of USA.
Rise of Khmer Rouge & Civil War 1970-1975
In 1972, Cambodia
adopted a new constitution with an elected parliament and Gen Lon Nol
was "elected" President. But the new government was paralyzed by
disunity and widespread corruption and by the task of transforming a
30,000-man army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men.
In the meantime, wanting to regain power, Prince Sihanouk encouraged the
Vietcongs and Khmer Rouge in northern Cambodia to attack the new
government and this led to civil war in Cambodia between 1970 and 1975
which ended only when the Khmer Rouge under General Pol Pot seized Phnom
Penh (who was initially supported by the North Vietnamese (whose armies
entered Cambodia at the request of the Lon Nol's second in command Nuon
Chea ) and Vietcongs, adopting their methods ideological warfare and
torture, But from 1973 on, the Communist Party of Kampuchea ("CPK)
armies were already fighting government forces with little or no North
Vietnamese support and Pol Pot and his second in command Ieng Sary were
already getting more and more independent from North Vietnamese control.
They purged many Vietnam-trained communists, the way Mao Tse Tung
purged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of Soviet influence in 1935 at Chun Yi. At that time, he already had 60% of the Cambodian
territories and a quarter the Cambodian population under his control.
stop the advance of the Vietcongs and Khmer Rouge upon Phnom Penh but
principally to weaken the North Vietnamese, South Vietnam and USA
carried out numerous bombings of Cambodia between 1969-1973 but met with
only limited success. To prevent full scale civil war, Gen. Lon Nol made
3 attempts to negotiate with Pol Pot but all such attempts failed. By
1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to the small enclaves in various
cities and the main supply routes. On New Year's Day 1975, the Khmer
Rouge launched their final attack on the capital, where about 2 million
refugees from Khmer Rouge were then living. After some 117 days of last
ditch resistance, on April 17th 1975 the Republic army under Gen. Lon
Nol surrendered to Khmer Rouge force, just 5 days after America
evacuated from Cambodia. Lon Lol fled to France. Pol Pot then announced the establishment of
After he gained power, Pol Pot started a Maoist
style Cultural Revolution, evacuated the cities, abolished the use of money, sent the entire
population on forced marches to rural work projects, attempted to
rebuild the country's agriculture on the model of the 11th century,
discarded Western medicine, and destroyed temples, libraries, and
anything considered Western and implemented a program of systematic
massacre and genocide against any one or any ethnic group whom he
suspected were against his regime of radical communism. He killed off
all fat people whom he thought must have grown fat because they
exploited the "people" ,and all people who wore glasses because they were
considered intellectuals whom he suspected of being petty bourgeoisie
siding with corrupt capitalists. About 25% the entire population of
Cambodia were exterminated in the process! Could that be one of the
reasons why we now seldom find any fat or short sighted people in Cambodia today? During those days of horror, more than half a million Cambodians fled to either South Vietnam or to Thailand but not many
made it. It is estimated that In the 1960s' there were over 420,000
Chinese and 250,000 to 300,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia but by 1984, only
slightly more 60,000 Chinese and slightly more than 56,000 Vietnamese
were left. Whether or not those figures are accurate, in 1993, after the downfall of Pol
Pot, who went back to the jungle between Thailand and Cambodia there were and still are some 20,000 mass graves all over Cambodia. About
600,000 left Cambodia for Thailand or South Vietnam as refugees.
the meantime, November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in
response to border raids by the Khmer Rouge. The People's Republic of
Kampuchea (PRK), a Pro-Soviet state led by the Kampuchean People's
Revolutionary Party (a party created by the Vietnamese in 1951) led by a
group of Khmer Rouge who had fled Cambodia to avoid being purged by Pol
Pot and Ta Mok, were headed by Heng Samrin. They relied upon the support of
the occupying Vietnamese army and were under direction of the Vietnamese
ambassador to Phnom Penh.
In 1981, a newly created state, a
"government-in-exile" called the Coalition Government of Democratic
Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed from three factions: the former Khmer Rouge,
a royalist faction led by Sihanouk, and the Khmer People's National
Liberation Front. Its credentials were recognized by the United Nations.
The Khmer Rouge representative to the UN, Thiounn Prasith, was
retained, but he had to work in consultation with representatives of the
non-Communist Cambodian parties. refusal of Vietnam to withdraw from
Cambodia led to economic sanctions by the U.S. and its allies. Peace
efforts began in Paris in 1989 for the entire Cambodia which resulted in
a comprehensive peace settlement in October 1989.
On October 23, 1991,
the Paris Conference reconvened to sign a comprehensive settlement
giving the UN full authority under the name of United Nations
Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to supervise a cease-fire,
repatriate the displaced Khmer along the border with Thailand, disarm
and demobilize the factional armies, and prepare the country for free
and fair elections.The UN was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire and
deal with refugees and disarmament. In November 1991, Prince Sihanouk,
President of the Supreme National Council of Cambodia (SNC), and other
members of the SNC returned to Phnom Penh to begin the resettlement
process in Cambodia. UN Advance Mission for Cambodia (UNAMIC) was
deployed at the same time to maintain liaison among the factions and
begin demining operations to expedite the repatriation of approximately
370,000 Cambodians from Thailand .
On March 16, 1992, the UN
Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in Cambodia to begin
implementation of the UN Settlement Plan. The UN High Commissioner for
Refugees began full scale repatriation in March 1992. UNTAC grew into a
22,000-strong civilian and military peacekeeping force to conduct free
and fair elections for a constituent assembly. More than 4 million
Cambodians (about 90% of eligible voters) participated in the May 1993
elections, although the Khmer Rouge or Party of Democratic Kampuchea
(PDK) (whose forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized) barred
some people from participating. Prince Ranariddh's royalist FUNCINPEC
Party got 45.5% of the vote, followed by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's
Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, respectively. FUNCINPEC
then entered into a coalition with the other parties that had
participated in the election. The parties represented in the 120-member
assembly proceeded to draft and approve a new constitution.
Restoration of Monarchy
The new Cambodian constitution, promulgated on September 24, 1993, established a multiparty liberal democracy under the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers, respectively, in the Royal Cambodian Government (RGC). The constitution provides for a wide range of internationally recognized human rights.The new two tiered parliament consisted of a lower house, the 123-member National Assembly(Radhsphea) whose members were elected for a maximum of 5 years through a system of proportional representation and an upper house, the Senate or 61-member Senat, two of whom are appointed by the king and two others by the National Assembly, and the rest being elected by the commune councillors from 24 provinces of Cambodia for a term of six years. All power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. However political stability was shaken in 1997 by a coup d'etat led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen (a former Khmer Rouge Commander installed by the North Vietnamese Government) who has been in power since 1985 when he purged the government of noncommunist parties led by co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranardiddh whose powers were then increasing. Norodom Ranardiddh fled to Paris but many of his supporters were imprisoned and tortured and many noncommunist politicians were murdered by Hun Sen's forces.
On October 4, 2004, the Cambodian National Assembly ratified an agreement with the United Nations on the establishment of a tribunal to try senior leaders responsible for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. Donor countries have pledged the $43 million international share of the three-year tribunal budget, while the Cambodian government’s share of the budget was $13.3 million. The tribunal started trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders in 2008. Cambodia is also recovering from the land mines which were used heavily by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese; it will take approximately a decade to remove most of the land mines from Cambodia.
On October 14, 2004, King Norodom Sihamoni was selected by a special nine-member throne council, quickly put in place after the abdication of King Norodom Sihanouk a week earlier. Sihamoni's selection was endorsed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly Speaker Prince Norodom Ranariddh (the king's half brother and current chief advisor), both members of the throne council. He was enthroned in Phnom Penh on October 29, 2004.
In July 2010 Kang Kek Iew became the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp, which we visited during the trip He was sentenced to life in prison.However, Hun Sen has opposed any extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers because he thought this might cause political instability.
Currently the ruling political party is the The Cambodian People's Party (CPP), led by Hun Sun which controls both the lower and upper chambers of parliament, with 73 seats in the National Assembly and 43 seats in the Senate. The opposition Sam Rainsy Party is the second largest party in Cambodia with 26 seats in the National Assembly and 2 in the Senate. In addition to political oppression, the Cambodian government has been accused of corruption in the sale of vast areas of land to foreign investors resulting in the eviction of thousands of villagers] as well as taking bribes in exchange for grants to exploit Cambodia's oil wealth and mineral resources. Cambodia is consistently listed as one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Hun Sun is the effective commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces of some 210,000 members, formally under the under the supreme command of King Nordom Sihamoni but in practice by the Ministry of National Defense which itself is presided over by Hun Sun as the Prime Minister of Cambodia.
In 2000, control of the armed forces was reorganized, the defence ministry formed three subordinate general departments responsible for logistics and finance, materials and technical services, and defence services under the High Command Headquarters (HCHQ) headed by General Tea Banh as the minister of National Defense, a post he occupied since 1979. The Secretaries of State for Defense are Chay Saing Yun and Por Bun Sreu. The new Commander-in-Chief of the RCAF was replaced by his deputy General Pol Saroeun, who is a long time loyalist of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Army Commander is General Meas Sophea and the Army Chief of Staff is Chea Saran.
Country Afflicted by landmines
UNICEF has designated Cambodia the third most landmined country in the world, attributing over 60,000 civilian deaths and thousands more maimed or injured since 1970 because of the unexploded land mines left behind in rural areas.The majority of the victims are children herding animals or playing in the fields. Adults that survive landmines often require amputation of one or more limbs and have to resort to begging for survival.However, the number of landmine casualties has sharply decreased, from 800 in 2005 to less than 400 in 2006 and 208 in 2007 (38 killed and 170 injured), 271 landmine and unexploded ordnance casualties were recorded by the Cambodian Mine/UXO Victim Information System in 2008, 243 in 2009, and 286 in 2010. This rise is partly due to two major anti-tank landmine accidents in 2010 – in Palin province in May, and in Battambang province in November – that between them killed or injured 30 people. There were 211 total casualties in 2011, and the statistics for January–June 2012 numbered 104. 27% of the casualties in 2011–12 occurred in Battambang.
After decades of war, Cambodia concentrated on
economic development, focusing on agriculture, mining of precious
stones, construction, garments, and tourism and attracted plenty of
foreign investments and international trade. In 2005, oil and natural
gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters and it is
expected to start commercial extraction this year. Based on the
Economist, IMF: Annual average GDP growth for the period 2001–2010 was
7.7% making it one of the world's top ten countries with the highest
annual average GDP growth. Tourism was Cambodia's fastest growing
industry, with arrivals increasing from 219,000 in 1997 to over 2
million in 2007. In 2004, inflation was at 1.7% and exports at $1.6
billion US$. China is Cambodia's biggest source of direct foreign
investment. China planned to spend $8 billion in 360 projects in the
first seven months of 2011. It is also the largest source of foreign
aid, providing about $600 million in 2007 and $260 million in 2008.
After textiles, tourism (more than 2 million a year) is now the second
largest foreign currency earner: Japanese, Chinese, Americans, South
Koreans and French more than half arrived through Siem Reap (Ankor Wat)
and the balance through Phnom Penh and other destinations. Other
tourist destinations include Sihanoukville in the southwest which has
several popular beach resorts and the area around Kampot and Kep
including the Bokor Hill Station. The majority of the tourist souvenirs
are imported from China, Thailand and Vietnam. but some are produced
locally like Krama (traditional scarf), Ceramic works, Soap, candle,
spices, Wood carving, lacquerware, silverplating, painted bottles
containing infused rice wine. Cambodia is among the top 10 Kiwifurit
producers and the top 12 rice producers
Language and Education
The Khmer language is a member of the
Mon–Khmer subfamily of the Austroasiatic language group. French, once
the language of government in Indochina, is still spoken by many older
Cambodians and is also the language of instruction in some schools and
universities funded by the French government. Cambodian French, a
remnant of the country's colonial past, is a dialect found in Cambodia
and is sometimes used in government, particularly in court but English
is fast catching up. The civil war and subsequent genocide markedly
affected the Cambodian population; 50% of the population is younger than
22 years old. At a 1.04 female to male ratio, Cambodia has the most
female-biased sex ratio in the Greater Mekong Subregion. In the
Cambodian population over 65, the female to male ratio is 1.6:1. About
78% of the population are illiterate but 90% of boys (86% girls) those
between 15-24 are literate because the state now provides 9 year of
compulsory free education. According to our tourist guide, students who
don't attend special private tuition organized by the teachers seldom
got good grades. The average life expectancy is 60 years for men and 65
for women as at 2010.