In Context

With a long history of political instability, from the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the 13th century to a 13 year civil war after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has been able to keep violence minimal in recent years, but still struggles economically.

With a population of approximately 15 million, present-day Cambodia struggles to overcome a history of political instability. Most Cambodians trace their roots to the Khmer Empire, which ruled a significant part of Southeast Asia until the 13th century. Invaders, whose descendants now constitute majority populations in Thailand and Vietnam, staged a seven-month siege on Angkor, the capital of the empire, leading to a period often referred to by historians as the "dark ages."

When French explorers arrived in Cambodia in the early 1860s to expand their commercial interests, Cambodians welcomed protection from continued civil wars and rebellions. However, protection soon turned into extensive political and economic control, and Cambodia declared its independence in 1953, creating a constitutional monarchy.

The Cambodian communist movement emerged from the country's struggle against French colonization. Instability surfaced as the region found itself in a clash between communist China and the Cold War containment policies of the United States. In 1975, after a five-year insurgency, Pol Pot and communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh and, in celebration of ethnic nationalism, named their new state Democratic Kampuchea. A Vietnamese invasion that lasted from 1978 to 1979 eventually drove out the Khmer Rouge, but not before almost 2 million Cambodians had died in what came to be known as Cambodia's "killing fields."

Rather than stabilizing the country, the ongoing Vietnamese occupation sparked a 13-year civil war. Many Cambodians fled and escaped to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. More than 100,000 refugees later resettled in the United States, where over 250,000 people of Cambodian descent live today.

The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement officially ended the war, though skirmishes continued. Two years later, the United Nations aided Cambodia in conducting national elections that established a multiparty democracy led by King Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge military commander. In 1999, after continued factional fighting and more disputed elections, the last of the Khmer Rouge were captured and the movement collapsed. In 2004, King Sihanouk abdicated and his son Prince Norodom Sihamoni succeeded him. Subsequent years have seen minimal violence during elections and some degree of stability, though the nation still struggles economically and is heavily dependent on foreign aid.

Photo Caption: Suon with his family
Credit: Courtesy of Enemies of the People

» BBC News. "Cambodia Country Profile"
» Cambodia Tribunal Monitor. "Historical Overview of the Khmer Rouge."
» CIA World Factbook. "Cambodia."
» Frontline. "Cambodia -- Pol Pot's Shadow."
» Independent Lens. "War and Cambodia."
» Keller, Lucy. "UNTAC in Cambodia -- from Occupation, Civil War and Genocide to Peace." Inquiry 9 (2005): 127-178.
» Kierman, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008