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Cambodia was once the center of the Khmer empire that ruled much of central Southeast Asia for five centuries. The history can be traced back to the sixth century when Cambodia was part of the Kingdom of Funan. The Khmer people broke away from the Funans and established their own state, Chinla. The Khmer continued to expand their influence until by the end of the tenth century they controlled what are now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
The next several centuries brought a succession of wars as the Khmers fought off invaders, and the empire began a gradual decline. Asian control over the region ended in 1863 when Cambodia became a protectorate of France; French administrative, financial, and education systems were installed.
By 1953, King Sihanouk, had risen to power with the Khmer and sought independence for his country. King Sihanouk was a masterful politician and succeeded in bringing independence to Cambodia. After abdicating the throne to pursue a political career, Sihanouk became the country’s first prime minister. He managed to keep Cambodia neutral in the Vietnam War until 1965, when he allowed North Vietnam and the Vietcong to use Cambodian territory. This led to the bombing of Cambodia by United States forces.
Sihanouk was deposed in 1970 and fled to China, where he set up an exile government that supported the Cambodian revolutionary movement known as the Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, United States, and South Vietnamese forces attempted to eliminate Vietcong forces. For the next five years, the Khmer Rouge gained land and power. In 1975, the capital at Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge; their leader, Pol Pot, became Cambodia’s leader.
What followed for the next three years remains one of the most horrific incidents in world history. The Khmer Rouge forced the entire population of Phnom Penh and other cities to evacuate to the countryside where they were placed in slave labor units to do manual work until they dropped from exhaustion. Pol Pot and his followers began a campaign of systematic genocide against their own people.
Finally in 1978, Vietnam, invaded and chased Pol Pot and his followers out of the cities and into the mountains. By 1979, Pol Pot had been ousted and the Vietnamese installed a new government.
Throughout the 1990s United Nations peacekeeping efforts helped stabilize the country. By 1997, a government amnesty convinced most Khmer Rouge partisans to cease fighting, and on October 4, 2004, the Cambodian National Assembly agreed with the U.N. to set up an international war crimes tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge officials for the genocide of the 1970s. The first trial began in 2009 against the former head of S-21 prison; more leaders are expected to be tried over the next decade.
Another stabilizing influence during recent decades has been the return of the monarchy in 1993, when King Sihanouk was restored to the throne. In 2004, ill health forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, who currently reigns as a constitutional monarch (similar to the system in Great Britain).