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date: 22 September 2017

Modern Cambodia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

Cambodia entered world history in 1863, when it became a French Protectorate. French intervention saved Cambodia from its predatory neighbors, but it lost its sovereignty. The French set out to “civilize” the Khmers, whom they regarded as backward and ignorant. Traditional Buddhist society sat uneasily with a dynamic European capitalist power. By the turn of the 19th century, the French were in full control. The people generally appeared docile, but nationalist sentiment was incubating below the surface and was accelerated by French humiliations during World War II. In 1953, King Sihanouk led his country to independence. The Cold War was intense in Southeast Asia at this time, but Sihanouk maneuvered adroitly to remain neutral. In 1970, he was deposed by U.S.-backed plotters who set up the anti-Communist Khmer Republic. The Republic leapt blindly into the Indochina conflict, and the country was devastated by civil war and American bombing. In 1975, the Republic fell to the ultra-left Khmers Rouge, and Cambodia entered a Dark Age. The regime forced the population to work on what were, in effect, huge prison farms, and probably 1.7 million people perished in the dystopian experiment. In late 1978, the Vietnamese liberated the country and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Hopes of peaceful reconstruction were soon dashed. The PRK was isolated internationally and harassed by insurgents backed by the West, China, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. After the Cold War ended, the United Nations brokered an accord between the PRK and its enemies, and Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. In 1993, a coalition government was elected. It did not last. The PRK’s successor party, the Cambodian People’s Party, had jettisoned its socialist goals but not its Stalinist methods. In 1997, it staged a coup, and since then Cambodia has been a corrupt quasi-democracy ruled by the strongman Hun Sen. It is at least at peace.