The French colonisation of Indochina consolidated Cambodia into a unified territory. Nevertheless, in practical terms very little changed from the system that had been in place previously. Life in the countryside, where the majority of the population resided, continued as it had for centuries. In terms of development, the colonial administration was largely exploitative, exporting Cambodian rice and rubber with little or no return investment. Cambodia was seen as a colonial ‘backwater’, and very few improvements were made in infrastructure, systems of education or development.
The Kingdom of Cambodia (1953–70)
Cambodia became an independent nation. King Sihanouk took charge politically after abdicating from the monarchy and ruled the country up until the coup d’état in 1970. Cambodia’s entrance into the world as an independent nation was accompanied by a gradual entrance into the market.
Khmer Republic (1970–75)
The political right wing overthrew King Sihanouk in 1970, in response to his neutrality over the war in Vietnam, and proceeded to offer support to the US and open Cambodia for the use of US troops. This caused a civil war between the government and the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s ‘communist’ resistance, operating underground. These years of fratricide stand out for the scale of their tragedy and bloodiness, and for the near-total destruction of the Khmer Republic’s social and economic structure. At this time, two million rural Cambodians sought urban refuge. Rice production plummeted between 1970 and 1974. Thus, Cambodia’s second-largest export earner essentially ceased bringing in any revenue after 1970. Phnom Penh became a city of refugees, subsisting on airlifted food.
The Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea (1975–79)
In April 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge Communists, who renamed the nation Democratic Kampuchea (DK), setting a course of agrarian revolution. Money, markets, formal schooling, Buddhist practices and private property were abolished. The cities were emptied and the masses put to work in the fields. All basic freedoms were denied. Families were split up and collective eating halls and forced marriages were just some of the measures initiated in this experiment in collectivism. Malnutrition, chronic illness, starvation and summary executions all occurred. Some estimate that as many as two million people died.
People's Republic of Kampuchea – PRK (1979–89)
When the Vietnamese and Cambodian PRK forces took Phnom Penh in January of 1979, they found a country in ruins. Factories lacked the implements to resume even basic production. Of approximately 450 doctors who had resided in Cambodia before 1975, only 45 remained. Of 22,000 teachers, no more than 7,000 survived. Officials from previous regimes had, with few exceptions, been exterminated. With a hungry population and few resources, it was expected that starvation would begin to claim lives within months. The Vietnamese-headed PRK government continued to hunt down the Khmer Rouge regime until it handed over power.
State of Cambodia – SOC (1989–91)
The period from 1987 to 1991 was one of liberalisation. The Cambodian government abandoned its tenuous alliance with socialism. 1988 saw the restoration of Buddhism as the state religion. The collective agricultural system was abandoned and private land plots distributed in 1989. Private enterprise was encouraged and taxes collected. In May of 1989, the government announced cosmetic but conciliatory changes, renaming itself the State of Cambodia, which was still used after the Vietnamese withdrawal in late 1989.
United National Transitional Authority in Cambodia – UNTAC (1992–93)
A political settlement to the Cambodian conflict was finally reached, the ‘Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict’, known as the Paris Peace Accords. The UN Security Council formed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to oversee the peace process and the elections to be held in 1993. Signed as an integral part of the Paris Accords was the ‘Declaration on the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Cambodia’ to provide guidance for the absorption of external assistance in Cambodia.
Kingdom of Cambodia (1993 to present)
Cambodia is now under the constitutional monarchy of King Sihamony (since Sihanouk’s abdication through ill-health in late 2004), with Prime Minister Hun Sen continuing to be in charge of the government (after disputed elections in 2003). Cambodian leadership and independence must necessarily centre on the role of foreign aid until Cambodia further develops its own resources. This heavy reliance is itself a cause for concern. In Cambodia, the bulk of the national budget is provided by foreign aid. However, it is true that with donors, NGOs and international organisations, the Cambodian government’s capacity is progressively strengthening, and is making attempts to deal with the corruption that continues to cause concern.