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Useful Notes / Cambodia

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Less killing fields, more eco-tourism.

The place where everybody goes on vacation, Cambodia (Khmer: កម្ពុជា, Kampuchea), officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia (Khmer: ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា, Preăh Réachéanachăk Kămpŭchéa) is a Southeast Asian country full of tropical jungles, abandoned temples, guerilla warfare, and young women saying “Me love you long time” (Vietnamese women, mind you). Or at least that’s what the media wants you to think.

The Khmers, the dominant people of the country, built Southeast Asia's earliest civilization. Unlike the Thais, Lao, Bamars, or even the Kinh/Viet (who expanded to the Mekong Delta during the historical period), the Khmers are indigenous to the area, and they used to inhabit a much larger territory spanning much of Indochina. They also happen to be the first Southeast Asian ethnic group to adopt both a writing system (based on the Pallava script of Southern India), which was later borrowed by the aforementioned Thais and Lao, and the Dharmic religions Buddhism and Hinduism, which were proliferated with the expansion of said civilization. These combined factors are the reasons why Khmers always seem to pop up in the historiography of all Indochinese countries and why Old Khmer is considered a Sacred Language.


Even before the arrival of the Europeans, the Khmer Empire had to face against many regional rivals including the rapidly raising Thai kingdoms and the power-hungry House of Nguyễn, the latter of whom had destroyed and assimilated the Champa (a maritime people related to the Acehnese) buffer zone in the 19th century and started to colonize the southern coast (or Cochinchina, as the French called it), until the Khmers lost all of its Mekong Delta and Isan possessions, leaving a lot of Khmers outside the national territory at the mercy of the invaders. To prevent themselves from being wiped out completely, King Norodom formally invited the French in to make them a part of the French Indochina. When Norodom died, the French began to manipulate the elections of the next kings to ensure the Cambodian submission. Eventually they enthroned King Norodom Sihanouk, thinking they could manipulate him. Unfortunately for them, he was smart enough to realize it and achieved the country’s independence in 1953.


And then all hell broke loose. When The Vietnam War came, Cambodia found itself near the middle of the great tug of war between the Communists in the North and the anti-Communists in the South of Vietnam. Officially Cambodia was neutral, but it soon found itself dragged into the war. First the North Vietnamese and Vietcong guerrillas setting up a truly massive state within a state to serve as a springboard and supply base for the NVA, Vietcong, and the Cambodian Communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge to attacks in the South and the rest of Cambodia. In turn, the United States supported a state coup led by General Lon Nol before deciding to bomb Cambodia without warning to catch the communists unaware. They did, but they also caught the Cambodians and the US representatives in Cambodia off-guard. The result was a true nightmare that saw the Communists decide to openly seize power in between periodic bombings by the Allies. The last “official” battle of the Vietnam War for the USA took place in Cambodia during this time, from May 12-15th, 1975, when Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the American container ship SS Mayaguez in disputed waters and US Marines took the ship back by force, which was messy for both sides.

The civil war ended in 1975 with the victory of the Khmer Rouge rebels and their leader, Pol Pot. They renamed the country into Democratic Kampuchea and soon decided to move the population into the deep countryside on forced marches. Why? To destroy everything and start the nation from Year Zero. The harsh conditions, forced labor and famine caused millions of deaths. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed anything considered Western, including libraries and temples, and their death squads killed all the ethnic and religious minorities (Chinese, Vietnamese, Javanese, Buddhist monks, Muslims, Catholics), anyone with a connection with the old regime and anyone considered an intellectual (usually that meant teachers, anyone who used to work at libraries, universities or hospitals, and even anyone who wore eyeglasses since that was a sign of literacy).

The Khmer Rouge enjoyed broad popular support of the poor, uneducated peasant masses of village Khmers, who were envious towards "those city guys", which wasn't helped by the fact that a lot of city-dwellers were ethnically Chinese, and were overrepresented in the rich classes. But soon it turned out that Khmer Rouge in general, and the dictator Pol Pot in particular, didn't make any distinction between two populations. Their motto was "To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss," and they cheerfully applied it to anyone. Pol Pot's regime led to the death of around 2 million people out of a population of 8 million in the span of little less than four years. It's estimated that as many as 4 million died as a whole (according to the insane mathematics of the regime, they figured that they can whittle the Cambodian population down to 2 million people and still create their agrarian worker's paradise, which might explain the spectacular lack of concern the government showed to the carnage). The Cambodian Genocide has often been described as an auto-genocide, or in troper speak, a Genocide from the Inside.

Pol Pot was also kinda lousy with geography, despite studying in France, and believed that he could continue his mad rampages across the border, in the Khmer-speaking areas of Vietnam. Naturally, the Vietnamese (even Vietnamese Khmer, who, despite being a forgotten minority living in the middle of nowhere, and thus bearing the brunt of Vietnamese Communist mismanagement and oppression, at least weren't being exterminated with gardening hoesnote ) didn't take too kindly to this. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The ensuing chaos saw a large number of Khmer refugees fleeing into Thailand to get away from both sides, with many of them later making their way to the United States, where they mostly settled in southern California and central Massachusetts.

The Vietnamese got rid of the Khmer Rouge and put a puppet state in its place, run by former Khmer Rouge defectors. In the meantime Pol Pot and original Khmer Rouge tried to flee to the countryside or abroad, only for Pol Pot to be taken prisoner by a schismatic member of the Khmer Rouge and kept under house arrest until he died under questionable circumstances. But if you would think this would be the end of matters, it wasn't. With most of the hardline nutjobs forced into the background, the Khmer Rouge and the groups that were rapidly splintering off of it had control over chunks of the countryside and were in a position to contest the Vietnamese satellite government. In time a third faction of royalists called Khmer People’s National Liberation Front appeared on the scene. This civil war continued in a flurry of low level skirmishing, plenty of nasty business, man made famine, and other nightmares until 1991, when an agreement between the parts could be achieved. There remains some low-level Khmer Rouge activity in a few remote areas, but it tends less towards rebellion/terrorism and more towards petty banditry, and is treated accordingly by the authorities.

For reasons that could only make sense in The Cold War that we won't mention here, the United States and much of the United Nations sided with China to continue to recognize the Khmer Rouge groups descended from Pol Pot's regime as the legitimate government — even letting them keep the UN seat for Cambodia — as opposed to the invading, Soviet-backed, pro-Vietnamese but at least non-batguano crazy regime. One of the first states to break with this policy was Sweden, which withdrew its support after a groundswell of protest from Swedish voters angry that its elected representatives were helping to prop up Pol Pot's zombie.

Cambodia today is a constitutional monarchy (unusual for an ex-communist country, they not only restored the monarchy, but also restored the former monarchnote ) that, aside of a coup in 1997, has a steady government. Unfortunately, it is probably too steady as the Prime Minister appointed by the Vietnamese- Hun Sen- has ruled with an iron fist and has even admitted he wants to keep power well into old age while maintaining a play theater of constitutional government. To be specific, the guy outright stated on national TV that he intends to stay in power until he is 74 years old which will be in August 2026 . Why? Because the leaders of China and Vietnam don't retire until their 70s.

The most famous tourist traps landmarks are Angkor Wat (the building seen on the flag), a humongous temple complex, home of Buddhist tradition (formerly Hindu) and the killing fields, where the mass killings of the Khmer Rouge took place and the hundreds of skulls are displayed for the whole world to see the atrocities of Pol Pot and his followers.

Cambodia also has a dispute with Thailand about the Preah Vihear Temple, an Hindu temple built during the reign of the Khmer Empire. The temple was awarded by the International Court of Justice to Cambodia, who has claimed it because to its historical significance and the French border lines, but Thailand still refuses to let it go. Regular skirmishes tend to happen around the temple from time to time as a result; usually they try to aim to the other army and miss the temple, though.

Cambodia in fiction:

  • The Killing Fields, a British movie about a couple of journalists, an American and a Cambodian, whose friendship is suddenly torn apart by the Khmer Rouge regime.
  • The documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the S21 extermination camp.
  • Holly, about an American in Cambodia who discovers the sordid world of child prostitution, and decides to rescue a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl from that grim fate.
  • Holy Lola is about a French couple who come to Cambodia in order to adopt a baby. The director of the aforementioned documentary S-21 shows up As Himself to provide a bit of perspective on recent Cambodian history.
  • The Dead Kennedys song “Holiday in Cambodia”, the Trope Namer of the eponymous trope, deals in length with the usual stereotype of the zone. It also has mentions of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
  • Monsoon, one of the Winds of Destruction from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, is Cambodian and is heavily implied to have suffered extreme trauma during the days of the Pol Pot regime.
  • In Eternal Darkness, Mantorok's temple is found in the Angkor Thom region, and one of the playable characters, Ellia, is a Khmer slave girl in the year A.D. 1150. Later on, Dr. Edwin Lindsey, an archaeologist, returns to the same temple, now in ruin and riddled with plant life.
  • Psycho-Pass: The Movie takes place in Cambodia, which seems to be the center of the Southeast Asian Union. The province of Siem Reap is even namedropped at one point as the location of the rebel base.
  • A large portion of Oliver Stone's Nixon deals with the American invasion of Cambodia and its fallout.
  • In Code Geass, the FLEIJA warheads are developed at a research agency called the Tromo Institute in Cambodia. Late in the second season, Prince Schneizel and his supporters hide out in Cambodia to plan their next move after Lelouch usurps the throne of Britannia.
The Cambodian flag
Blue and red are traditional colors of Cambodia; at the center is the Angkor Wat, obviously the country's most iconic landmark. The Angkor War and the blue and red stripes symbolize Buddhism, the King and the people, respectively.

Example of: