A Brief Historical Overview
Human settlement in Cambodia dates back at least 7,000 years, and probably much farther.
Chinese sources from the first century A.D. describe a powerful kingdom called "Funan" in Cambodia, which was strongly influenced by India.
Funan went into decline in the 6th century A.D., and was supplanted by a group of ethnically-Khmer kingdoms that the Chinese refer to as "Chenla."
The Khmer Empire
In 790, Prince Jayavarman II founded a new empire, the first to unite Cambodia as a political entity. This was the Khmer Empire, which lasted until 1431.
The crown-jewel of the Khmer Empire was the city of Angkor, centered around the temple of Angkor Wat. Construction began in the 890s, and Angkor served as the seat of power for more than 500 years. At its height, Angkor covered more area than modern-day New York City.
Fall of the Khmer Empire
After 1220, the Khmer Empire began to decline. It was attacked repeatedly by the neighboring Tai (Thai) people, and the beautiful city of Angkor was abandoned by the end of the 16th century.
Thai and Vietnamese Rule
After the fall of the Khmer Empire, Cambodia came under the control of the neighboring Tai and Vietnamese kingdoms.
These two powers competed for influence until 1863, when France took control of Cambodia.
The French ruled Cambodia for a century but viewed it as a subsidiary of the more important colony of Vietnam.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Cambodia but left the Vichy French in charge. The Japanese promoted Khmer nationalism and pan-Asian ideas. After Japan's defeat, the Free French sought renewed control over Indochina.
The rise of nationalism during the war, however, forced France to offer increasing self-rule to the Cambodians until independence in 1953.
Prince Sihanouk ruled newly-free Cambodia until 1970 when he was deposed during the Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975). This war pitted communist forces, called the Khmer Rouge, against the US-backed Cambodian government.
In 1975 the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, and under Pol Pot set to work creating an agrarian communist utopia by exterminating political opponents, monks and priests, and educated people in general. Just four years of Khmer Rouge rule left 1 to 2 million Cambodians dead- about 1/5 of the population.
Vietnam attacked Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh in 1979, withdrawing only in 1989. The Khmer Rouge fought on as guerrillas until 1999.
Today, though, Cambodia is a peaceful and democratic nation.