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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 Chinese, North Vietnamese, and Vietcong guerrillas provided shelter and supplied weapons to a little group they helped found that would later be called the Khmer Rouge, which waged a small but stubborn insurgency against the government starting in 1967. Then, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong started setting up a truly massive state within a state in the Cambodian borderlands 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. Getting sick of this arrangement (the government had expected its pro-communist position to stop foreign intervention, not welcome it via violations of sovereignty and support for insurgents), the Cambodian National Assembly voted to depose the pro-communist monarchy (which was completely legal constitutionally) and requested that all Vietnamese forces leave the country. The North Vietnamese... disagreed, and responded by invading Cambodia, mauling its army, seizing about half of its territory, setting up more bases, and massively stepping up support for the Khmer Rouge. Almost overnight, thanks to North Vietnamese intervention the Khmer Rouge went from a few thousand militia in the boonies to several tens of thousands of trained full-time guerrillas, who in addition to having more arms than they could ever use, were also effectively untouchable thanks to being able to base in the NVA-occupied zones and Laos. The Americans and South Vietnamese, which had previously respected Cambodian neutrality, saw this as the last straw and chased the NVA into Cambodia during the Cambodian campaign; they inflict heavy losses on the NVA, but failed to dislodge them totally and withdrew. The Americans followed this by providing material and air support for the forces of the newly-proclaimed Khmer Republic, while the North Vietnamese continued to provide weapons, training, shelter, and multiple divisions worth of combat troops for the Khmer Rouge. What followed was a brutal civil war between the Republic and the Rouge in which some 300,000 people died. 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 North Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge rebels and their leader, a cruel man named 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 an estimated two million deaths. Considering Cambodia's population at the beginning of Khmer Rouge rule was only about seven million... yeah. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed anything considered Western, including libraries and temples, and their death squads targeted 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 from among 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 could 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. A border war quickly erupted and the previous cooperation between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese communists evaporated. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, defeating its army and reaching the capital in two weeks. 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.

Fittingly, yet another Vietnamese communist invasion resulted in yet another civil war. The Vietnamese got rid of the Khmer Rouge government 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, which saw heavy participation of Vietnamese forces on the side of their client, 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. Another 300,000 people had died violent deaths in Cambodia from 1979 to 1989, with countless others perishing from disease and famine. 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 context of 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 monarch, Norodom Sihanouknote ). The current monarch is Sihanouk's son Norodom Sihamoni, who succeeded his father upon his abdication in 2004. Interestingly, Cambodia counts as an Elective Monarchy, as Sihamoni did not became king because his father was one, instead being selected by the Royal Council of the Throne from among the male descendants of King Ang Duong who are at least 30 years old. It is also a constitutional monarchy in the absolute sense; Sihamoni has zero role in politics, and is mainly seen as a figure of reverence among the people. The real power is in the hands of the Prime Minister, who effectively rules the country as a dictator. The Prime Minister appointed by the Vietnamese, Hun Sen, even once admitted that he wanted to keep power well into old age while maintaining a play theater of constitutional government. However, in 2023, Hun Sen unexpectedly announced his resignation, having appointed his son Hun Manet as his successor. Since 1979, the parliament has been dominated by the Cambodian People's Party, which originated as a revisionist Marxist organization allied with Vietnam and the Soviet Union (in contrast to the Khmer Rouge's pro-China stance) but shifted to right-wing nationalism in 1991, concurrently with the Soviet Union's collapse and the end of the Cold War. Cambodia would abandon the one-party system that had been in place since 1955 the following year, but remains a dominant-party state under the CPP.

The most famous 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, a 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 media and fiction:

  • The Missing Picture: A Cambodian documentary about the Khmer Rouge genocide.
  • 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 Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran, was played by a genuine survivor of the genocide, Haing S. Ngor.
  • 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 two main characters of Sanctuary are Japanese expats who were born and raised in Cambodia, and had to survive the killing fields of Pol Pot's regime.
  • SCP-800, one of the artifacts of the SCP Foundation, is an East Asian scroll bearing a picture which allegorically represents the current geopolitic situation of the region (and changes on its own over the course of history). Here's how it looks at the time of the Khmer Rouge regime:
    800-9 (1975-1979): unknown style of painting resembling Khmer stone carving, [DATA EXPUNGED]note 
  • A part of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider happens in Angkor, Cambodia.

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.

The Cambodian national anthem

សូមពួកទេព្តា រក្សាមហាក្សត្រយើង
ឱ្យបានរុងរឿង ដោយជ័យមង្គលសិរីសួស្តី
យើងខ្ញុំព្រះអង្គ សូមជ្រកក្រោមម្លប់ព្រះបារមី
នៃព្រះនរបតីវង្ស ក្សត្រាដែលសាងប្រាសាទថ្ម
គ្រប់គ្រងដែនខ្មែរ បុរាណថ្កើងថ្កាន។

ប្រាសាទសិលា កំបាំងកណ្តាលព្រៃ
គួរឱ្យស្រមៃ នឹកដល់យសស័ក្តិមហានគរ
ជាតិខ្មែរដូចថ្ម គង់វង្សនៅល្អរឹងប៉ឹងជំហរ
យើងសង្ឃឹមពរ ភ័ព្វព្រេងសំណាងរបស់កម្ពុជា
មហារដ្ឋកើតមាន យូរអង្វែងហើយ។

គ្រប់វត្តអារាម ឮតែសូរស័ព្ទធម៌
សូត្រដោយអំណរ រំឭកគុណពុទ្ធសាសនា
ចូរយើងជាអ្នក ជឿជាក់ស្មោះស្ម័គ្រតាមបែបដូនតា
គង់តែទេវតា នឹងជួយជ្រោមជ្រែងផ្គត់ផ្គង់ប្រយោជន៍ឱ្យ
ដល់ប្រទេសខ្មែរ ជាមហានគរ។

May the Angels save our king
Granting him happiness and prosperity
We, his servants, wish to refuge under his completeness
Of sovereign's line, ones being to build temples
Reigning over old Khmer's glorious land.

Temples of stone, hidden amid forests
Bethought of the mighty great kingdom triumphs
Khmer race stands tough and solid as eternal stone
We pray for the best upon Kampuchea's destiny
A grand nation've ever occurred for.

Dharma risen, up from monasteries
Chant with joy, commemorate of Buddhism
Let us be faithful to our ancestors' belief
Assuredly, Angels will grant its bounty
Toward Khmer's, the grand nation.

  • Unitary dominant-party parliamentary elective constitutional monarchy
    • Monarch: Norodom Sihamoni
    • Prime Minister: Hun Manet
    • Senate President: Say Chhum
    • National Assembly President: Khuon Sudary

  • Capital and largest city: Phnom Penh (ភ្នំពេញ, Phnum Pénh)
  • Population: 15,552,211
  • Area: 181,035 km² (69,898 sq mi) (88th)
  • Currency: Cambodian riel (៛) (KHR)
  • ISO-3166-1 Code: KH
  • Country calling code: 855
  • Highest point: Phnom Aural (1810 m/5,938 ft) (138th)
  • Lowest point: Gulf of Thailand (85 m/279 ft) (-)