The area that is present-day Cambodia came under Khmer rule about 600, when the region was at the center of a vast empire that stretched over most of Southeast Asia. Under the Khmers, who were Hindus, a magnificent temple complex was constructed at Angkor. Buddhism was introduced in the 12th century during the rule of Jayavaram VII. However, the kingdom, then known as Kambuja, fell into decline after Jayavaram’s reign and was nearly annihilated by Thai and Vietnamese invaders. Kambuja’s power steadily diminished until 1863, when France colonized the region, joining Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into a single protectorate known as French Indochina.
The French quickly usurped all but ceremonial powers from the monarch, Norodom. When he died in 1904, the French passed over his sons and handed the throne to his brother, Sisowath. Sisowath and his son ruled until 1941, when Norodom Sihanouk was elevated to power. Sihanouk’s coronation, along with the Japanese occupation during the war, worked to reinforce a sentiment among Cambodians that the region should be free from outside control. After World War II, Cambodians sought independence, but France was reluctant to part with its colony. Cambodia was granted independence within the French Union in 1949. But the French-Indochinese War provided an opportunity for Sihanouk to gain full military control of the country. He abdicated in 1955 in favor of his parents, remaining head of the government, and when his father died in 1960, Sihanouk became chief of state without returning to the throne. In 1963, he sought a guarantee of Cambodia’s neutrality from all parties in the Vietnam War.
The Funan Kingdom, believed to have started around the first century BC, is the first known kingdom of Cambodia. The kingdom was strongly influenced by Indian culture by shaping the culture, art and political system.
An alphabetical system, religions and architectural styles were also Indian contributions to the Funan Kingdom. There is archeological evidence of a commercial society in the Mekong Delta that prospered from the 1st to 6th centuries.
Returning from abroad, a Khmer prince declared himself the ruler of a new kingdom during the 9th century. Known as Jayavarman II, he started a cult that honored Shiva, a Hindu god, as a devaraja (god-king) which then linked the king to Shiva.
He also began the great achievements in architecture and sculpture while his successors built an immense irrigation system around Angkor.. His successors (26 from the early 9th to the early 15th century), built a tremendous number of temples – of which there are over a thousand sites and stone inscriptions (on temple walls).
By the 12th century, Cambodia had spread into other areas, now known as Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia (the peninsula). There is actually still evidence of Khmer inhabitance in Thailand and Laos to this day.
Although officially they were just advisors, it was known that the French had final say on all topics of interest. Although the French built roadways and made other improvements regarding trade and transportation, they sadly neglected the Cambodian educational system, which is still not effective to this day.
In 1953, Cambodia managed to gain their independence in spite of World War II and the First Indochina War. Their independence was obtained through the political savvy of King Sihanouk. Wanting to be released from the pressures of the monarchy, Sihanouk abdicated the throne and became a full time politician.
He started a political faction called the People’s Socialist Community (Sangkum Reastr Niyum) which then won by a landslide in the 1955 national elections. In part the success was due to his popularity, but also from police brutality at the polling stations.