No country in Southeast Asia has a more imposing early history than Cambodia. The temples of Angkor, erected between the 9th and 13th centuries, still testify to the creative energy, wealth and power of Khmer society in that era. But no country in the region has a more tragic present. Ravaged by war and revolution in the 1970s, a decade in which more than one in seven Cambodians died, Cambodia remained a victim of international Cold War rivalries in the 1980s. Today peace and even the most elementary economic security cannot be guaranteed in Cambodia.
One striking theme in Cambodia’s history is the country’s almost continuous entrapment in the rivalries of outside forces. Until the 19th century these forces were regional. Since then Cambodia has been tossed and tormented by world forces, to a degree that sometimes seems inexplicable given Cambodia’s small population and poverty. Cambodia’s population was assessed at 9.27 million in 1993 with a GDP per capita of less than US$200.
Another striking historical theme, intertwined with the first, concerns the perennial struggles for power within Cambodia at the expense of the country’s general well being. Traditionally a matter of ruling class rivalries, the power struggles have been grotesquely magnified by this century’s global ideological collisions. Cambodia has known peace, sometimes for extended periods, but always under rulers who enforced peace. French colonial rule achieved a kind of peace in Cambodia, as did King Sihanouk in the 1950s and 1960s. Today an internationally-backed Cambodian government is again trying to enforce peace. It remains to be seen if this government can achieve peace, and for how long.