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Khmer Origins and History

Kampuchea, Cambodia, Khmer and Angkor are all names associated with a single Asian civilisation renowned for its art and architecture. Kambujadesa or Kambuja is a Sanskrit name for the modern country of Cambodia. The word derives from a tribe in north India and is associated with Kambu Svayambhuva, the legendary founder of the Khmer civilisation. Kampuchea, a modern version of the name, was part of the official title of the country as recently as 1989. European transliterations of Kambuja became Cambodge in French and Cambodia in English, which is the name of this South-East Asian country today. The modern capital of Cambodia is Phnom (“hill”) Penh, located in the Southern part of the country. The inhabitants are Khmer or Cambodians; the national language is Khmer; and in the past the country has also been called Khmer.

The name Angkor derives from the Sanskrit word nagara (“holy city”) which is nakhon in Thai and may have been pronounced nokor or ongkor in Khmer. Angkor was an ancient political centre situated 320 kilometres north of Phnom Penh in Siem Reap province. The town of Siem Reap (“the defeat of the Siamese”), the provincial capital, is six kilometres south of Angkor Wat.

The core of the Khmer Empire remained in the vicinity of Angkor for over 500 years, but the area of settlement and political domination fluctuated. At the height of territorial expansion, the Khmers claimed control over major parts of neighbouring areas. Evidence of a former Khmer presence in Thailand exists from as early as the seventh century. Control gradually spread to central and north-eastern Thailand and reached a peak in the 11th century under the leadership of Suryavarman I. Archaeological evidence can be seen today at Phimai, in Nakhon Ratchasima province, some 72 kilometres north of Korat. A laterite highway extending from 225 kilometres linked Phimai to Angkor. 

The distribution and diversity of languages related to Khmer indicate to linguists the prototype of the Khmer language may have developed several thousand yours ago. Predating Tai, another major language group in Southeast-Asia.

The indigenous people of Southeast Asia were familiar with bronze-working for at least 1500 years before India contact during the first centuries of the Christian Era. By 500 B.C archaeological evidence indicates there was a general trend towards the centralisation of people, requiring an increase in forms of social control and hierarchy. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D the social structure began to absorb theories and practices emanating from Indian and Chinese civilisations.

Chinese records of the 2nd century tell us of places such as Funan, which is thought to be on the lower reaches of the Mekong delta. Records from the 6th century tell of Zhenla (Chenla) based further inland in the Mekong basin. Evidence such as this coupled with information from inscriptions and archaeological remains, suggests the existence of pre-Angkorian kingdoms which may have collaborated or competed depending on their individual aims and circumstances.

During the 8th century Cambodia was weakened by internal divisions as rival factions struggled for power.  At the beginning of the 9th century King Jayavarman II unified Cambodia, initiating the classical period of Khmer history usually known as the Angkorian period. This continuous, yet often contested Angkorian monarchy was to dominate Cambodia, and intermittently parts of Laos, Thailand and Southern Vietnam, for over four centuries.

Angkorian Kings followed a general pattern of building construction. A temple was usually built to commemorate the king’s ancestors and by so doing legitimised his right to rule. A state temple was built to house a divinity, usually Shiva, who protected the Kingdom. This divinity was evidence of the god-given power of the king. A baray, or water reservoir, was often constructed for ritual purposes and for water management.

By the 15th century increased aggression from the Siamese forced the Kingdom to move southwards, first to Lovek and then Oudong. By the 18th century the Cambodian monarchy was constantly split by internal rivalry. Support for a contender’s accession to the throne was often gained from either Thailand or Vietnam, but at the cost of Khmer territory.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the capital shifted to Phnom Penh. In 1863 the French established a protectorate over Cambodia. This meant Cambodia continued to exist as a Kingdom, but governed by France.

Cambodia was granted independence from France in 1953. King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father in order to lead his own political party, the People’s Socialist Community, which ruled Cambodia until 1970, when he was deposed by the General Assembly and Lon Nol. The following civil war ended in 1975 with Phnom Penh surrendering to the Khmer Rouge. War broke out in 1978 between Cambodia and Vietnam and by 1979 a new government was installed in Phnom Penh, supported by Vietnam. Fighting continued between this government and opposition forces.

In 1993, assisted by the United Nations, elections were held in most of the country. King Norodom Sihanouk was returned to the throne as head of a constitutional monarchy.

After the general election in 1993, Cambodia received new government resulted in the Co-prime minister period. At that, Prince Norodom Ranarid as the first prime minister and Hun Sen as second prime minister.

Until 1998 the war is over and all the Khmer Rouge soldiers came back from along the border of Thailand into the Country some of the Khmer Rouge leader were put in to the politic jail in Phnom Penh and some of them were passed away as Pol Pot dead at the border of Thailand on 13 April 1998.

Now Cambodia stays in peace with Multiparty Democracy under a Constitutional Monarchy.



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