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Cambodia, also known as Kmpcha, republic in southeastern Asia, bounded on the northeast by Laos, on the east and southeast by Vietnam, on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand (Siam), and on the west and northwest by Thailand. Cambodia covers a total area of 181,035 sq km (69,898 sq mi). The capital and largest city of Cambodia is Phnom Penh.

Land and Resources

Cambodia’s terrain is dominated by a large, low-lying alluvial plain that occupies most of the central part of the country. The main features of the plain are the Mekong River, which flows from north to south through Cambodia, and the Tnl Sap (Great Lake), which covers an area of about 2600 sq km (about 1000 sq mi) in the dry season to about 10,400 sq km (about 4015 sq mi) in the rainy season. The outlet of Tnl Sap is a river of the same name, which during the dry season flows south into the Mekong River. During the rainy season the floodwaters of the Mekong River back into the Tnl Sap, inundating the central part of the country. To the east of the alluvial plain lies an undulating plateau region. Mountain ranges fringe the plain on the southwest, where the Chur Phnum Krvanh form a physical barrier along the country’s coast, and on the north by the Chur Phnum Dngrk.

Known mineral resources are limited; phosphate and gemstones are most important. Cambodia has an enormous hydroelectric power potential, but since the 1970s, its development has been hindered by warfare, civil strife, and political unrest.


Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate. The average annual temperature is about 26.7 C (about 80 F). A rainy season extends from mid-April through mid-October. Average annual rainfall is about 1400 mm (about 55 in) on the central plains and more than 3800 mm (about 150 in) in mountainous areas and along the coast.

Plants and Animals

About 35 percent of Cambodia is forested. The densest forests are found in the mountains and along the southwestern coast. Savannas, covered with high, sharp grass, are present in the higher plains and plateaus. Such trees as rubber, kapok, palm, coconut, and banana are common.

Wildlife is varied and includes elephant, deer, wild ox, buffalo, panther, bear, and tiger. Cormorant, crane, pheasant, and wild duck are also found, as are poisonous snakes, including cobras.


About 94 percent of the people are Cambodians, ethnically known as Khmer. Minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cham-Malays (who inhabit the mountainous regions) make up most of the remaining 6 percent. The population is more than 85 percent rural.

Population Characteristics

The population of Cambodia (1996 estimate) is about 10,861,218. The overall population density is about 60 persons per sq km (155 per sq mi). During the late 1970s the larger cities were depopulated, with residents fleeing or being relocated to rural areas.

The capital and largest city, Phnom Penh, is situated at the junction of the Mekong and Tnl Sab rivers. Other major cities are Btdmbng, Kmpng Cham, and Kmpt. The major port is Kmpng Sam, formerly Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Thailand.

Language and Religion

The official language is Khmer, or Cambodian. French was formerly an important secondary language, but its use has been discouraged.

Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism is the dominant religion and is adhered to by about 90 percent of the population. Other religions include Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Mahayana Buddhism; the mountain tribes are animists.


About 48 percent of the Cambodian population is literate. All public education is free. In the 1990-1991 academic year about 1.3 million pupils attended some 4600 primary schools. Secondary and higher education remains limited, however. Institutions of higher education were closed due to warfare in the late 1970s, and many instructors were murdered or died of starvation or disease. By 1990 seven institutions of higher education were open, with a total enrollment of about 6600 students.


The cultural heritage of the Khmer dynasties is reflected in many facets of contemporary Cambodia. Many buildings, such as the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, are decorated in the Khmer architectural style and use such motifs as the garuda, a mythical symbolic bird in the Hindu religion. Handicraft items, often in woven gold or silver lam, also reflect ancient motifs. The classical Cambodian dance mimes in the most traditional style the legendary lives of ancient religious deities.

The ruins of the ancient Khmer empire, found in northwestern Cambodia, constitute one of the richest and most remarkable archaeological sites in the world. Particularly noteworthy are the temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon. These temples were both in the Khmer capital of ngkr, which existed from the 9th to the 15th century.


Agriculture is the mainstay of the Cambodian economy. Before the onset of warfare and civil disorder in the 1970s, Cambodia was largely self-sufficient in food products, and in spite of low yields per unit area and the planting of only one crop a year, the country exported sizable amounts of rice. By 1974 rice had to be imported. Production of rubber, the other major crop, also fell. In 1975 the new Khmer Rouge government nationalized all means of production, and agriculture was collectivized. Crop production rose slightly until warfare in 1978 and 1979 disrupted the harvesting and planting of rice. Widespread famine followed. Fighting also disrupted the manufacturing sector and destroyed transportation and communication links. By the mid-1980s both agriculture and manufacturing had begun to recover from the effects of years of warfare. In 1989 the government began to allow private ownership of land. Nonetheless, in the early 1990s, Cambodia’s economy was performing at only 40 to 50 percent of its prewar capacity, and the country remained one of the world’s poorest nations. In the early and mid-1990s Cambodia’s per-capita gross national product (GNP) was about $225, among the lowest in the world. Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 1995 was estimated at $2.8 billion.


Rice is the most important crop of Cambodian agriculture. In peacetime some 80 percent of the cultivated land is planted in rice; annual production during the early 1990s was estimated at 2.25 million metric tons. Rubber, the other leading crop, is primarily grown in the eastern plateaus. Other important agricultural products include corn, cassava, soybeans, sesame, palm sugar, and pepper. Mangoes, bananas, and pineapples are grown for local consumption.

Forestry, Fishing, and Mining

Until 1995 timber was one of Cambodia’s principal exports; however, exports of logs and timber were banned after problems with deforestation. Before the ban, the annual timber harvest was about 6.4 million cu m (226 million cu ft). Deforestation continues to be a problem in Cambodia because of an active illegal timber trade.

Fishing is an important economic activity; most of the annual fish catch (111,100 metric tons in the early 1990s) is consumed locally. The Tnl Sap provides one of the largest freshwater fishery resources in Southeast Asia. Carp, perch, and smelt are the principal varieties of fish caught.

Zircons, sapphires, and rubies are mined in limited amounts in the west, and salt is found in the central provinces. Other mineral resources include bauxite and phosphates. In the early 1990s Cambodia launched petroleum exploration projects with foreign investors.


Cambodia’s limited industry was severely damaged during the 1970s and has been only partially rebuilt since that time. Manufactured products in the 1990s included cement, processed rubber, and clothes.

Currency and Banking

The unit of currency is the new riel, consisting of 100 sen. The exchange rate for the new riel has been unstable. The average exchange rate in 1991 was 700 riels per U.S.$1; in March 1995 about 2625 riels equaled U.S.$1. The National Bank of Kmpcha (1980) is the sole bank of issue.

Commerce and Trade

In peacetime the principal Cambodian exports were rice and rice products, rubber, and corn. The total annual value of exports dropped from about $60 million in the early 1970s to about $12 million in the mid-1980s. By the late 1980s, however, exports had risen to about $32 million annually. The chief imports were metals, machinery, textiles, mineral products, and foodstuffs.


In the late 1980s Cambodia had about 14,500 km (about 9000 mi) of roads of all types; some one-fifth of these were paved. A modern highway links Phnom Penh with the port of Kmpng Sam. A railway between the capital and Btdmbng also extends northeast to the Thai frontier. Another rail line connects Phnom Penh and Kmpng Sam. The entire railway system extended about 600 km (about 370 mi) in the mid-1990s. Inland waterways, including navigable sections of the main rivers, total about 1400 km (about 870 mi) in the rainy season and less than 650 km (less than 400 mi) at other times. An international airport is near Phnom Penh.


All major Cambodian communications systems are controlled by the government. Radio services link the large cities; telephone, telegraph, and postal services were resumed in 1979.


Nearly 75 percent of the Cambodian labor force is engaged in agriculture. The Cambodian Federation of Trade Unions is the leading labor organization.


In April 1975, Cambodia came under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, as Democratic Kmpcha, thus ending its 600-year-old monarchy. In 1979 a rebel organization, the Kmpchan National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), deposed the Khmer Rouge government with the backing of Vietnamese troops and established the People’s Republic of Kmpcha.

The KNUFNS established a 14-member People’s Revolutionary Council to govern the country. A draft constitution was promulgated in March 1981, and in May elections were held for the 117 seats of the National Assembly. Executive power was vested in the chairman of the Council of State and the chairman of the Council of Ministers (the premier). Remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other groups organized the Coalition Government of Democratic Kmpcha in opposition to the Vietnamese-backed regime and were able to retain Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations (UN). Continued armed conflict between these factions made it virtually impossible to govern the country effectively.

In October 1991 an agreement was signed providing for the UN and a 12-member Supreme National Council to share power until the election of a 120-member constituent assembly. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was elected council chairman. The popular election, in May 1993, eventually resulted in a new coalition government after a few months of turmoil. The newly elected officials, called together by Prince Sihanouk, determined that Sihanouk would become king and head of state, and that there would be two prime ministers—one from each of the major parties in the coalition—upon ratification of the constitution. In September 1993 the government ratified the new constitution, which provided for a democratic government with a limited monarchy; the constituent assembly was converted to a legislature whose members serve 5-year terms.

Political Parties

More than 20 political parties participated in the 1993 election; however, two parties—the royalist FUNCINPEC (French acronym for National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia) and the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP)—obtained more than 85 percent of the vote. As a result, Prince Norodom Ranariddh of FUNCINPEC occupied the position of first prime minister and the CCP’s Hun Sen took the position of second prime minister of Cambodia. The Buddhist Liberal Democratic party (BLDP) and MOLINAKA (National Liberation Movement of Cambodia) also secured seats in the election.


In late 1995 Cambodia had an estimated 88,000 people in the armed forces. A force of about 140,000 Vietnamese troops occupied the country from 1979 to 1989.


The Mon and the Khmer peoples moved into Southeast Asia before the Christian era, probably from the north, arriving before their present neighbors—the Vietnamese, Lao, and Thai. The early Cambodian kingdom was transformed by Indian culture, which provided a writing system, architectural styles, religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), the concept of the god-king (deva-raja), and a highly stratified class system.

The Khmer Kingdoms

Funan, the first kingdom to occupy the present area of Cambodia, was formed in the 1st century AD, probably by Mon-Khmer peoples. Funan’s culture, however, came mainly from India. Its port, Oc Eo, on the Gulf of Thailand, was a major trade link between China and India. Chenla, located northeast of the Tnl Sap, was originally a vassal state of Funan, but in the 6th and 7th centuries it conquered that kingdom. In 706, however, Chenla was split in two. The northern half, Land Chenla, was in Laos, and the southern half, called Water Chenla, in the area of modern Cambodia, fell under the sovereignty of Java. See Chenla, Kingdom of.

ngkr Era

The reign of Jayavarman II (reigned about 802-850) began the ngkr era in Khmer history. In the early 9th century he returned from exile in Java, rejected Javanese pretensions, and strengthened the cult of the god-king. The great temples of the ngkr era were built by his successors to house their royal lingas, the phallic emblems of the Hindu god Shiva. The kings of ngkr ruled over much of the Southeast Asian mainland until the early 15th century. Their capital was the center of a network of reservoirs and canals that controlled the supply of water for rice farming and enabled the people to produce a surplus of wealth to finance wars and monumental construction. One king, Jayavarman VIII, built hospitals and rest houses along the roads that crisscrossed his kingdom during the 12th and early 13th centuries.

Early signs of imperial weakening could be seen in the rebellions of the 1100s. These were caused by the rulers’ excessive demands on their people and by neglect of the irrigation system. Epidemics of malaria, plague, and other diseases undermined the population. The introduction of Theravada Buddhism—which taught that all could hope for spiritual advancement through meditation—may also have upset ngkr’s imperial drive and its rigid social order. Loss of control in the Chao Phraya Valley in present-day Thailand signified further weakening of the ngkr Empire.


After Thailand—or Siam, as it was then called—defeated ngkr in 1431, the Cambodian court was moved southeastward to Phnom Penh. Despite almost constant fighting with Siam in the west, everyday life in Cambodia’s interior was little changed until Siam took Phnom Penh in 1594 and established a degree of political control. Vietnam’s slow advance southward reached the Mekong Delta a few years later. In 1620 the Khmer king Chetta II married a Vietnamese princess and allowed Vietnam to set up a customs collection house on the site of present Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Thereafter, Siam and Vietnam each tried to control the Khmer kingdom by military occupation and the enthronement of puppet monarchs.

French Rule

In 1863 France, by then rapidly expanding its penetration of Indochina, intervened to slow the process of Cambodia’s dismemberment by Vietnam and Siam, proclaiming a protectorate over the country. French rule in Cambodia, nominally indirect, was exercised through advisers whose word was final on major subjects. The Cambodian monarchy was retained, and a Khmer civil service was gradually trained. Roads, port facilities, and other public works were built, with emphasis on internal security and the export of rubber and rice. The restoration of the vast temple complex at Angkor Wat in the 1930s helped rekindle the Khmer people’s pride in their past. During World War II (1939-1945), when Japanese forces entered Indochina in 1940, they left in place the compliant French administration. On the verge of defeat in 1945, the Japanese removed their French collaborators and installed a nominally independent Khmer government under the young king, Norodom Sihanouk. France quickly reestablished control after the war, but Sihanouk gained full independence for his country in 1953.

The Modern State

Two years later King Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father. As Prince Sihanouk he retained an aura of majesty but was much freer to manipulate the urban elite, who constantly jockeyed for high-status jobs. Sihanouk controlled them by organizing a popular movement that centered on village notables. Foreign powers, such as the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and China, seeking influence in the region, courted Sihanouk, who drew them into competition for the privilege of aiding Cambodia’s development. His success in diplomacy abroad enhanced Sihanouk’s political control at home. Sihanouk tried to keep Cambodia somewhat isolated from the turmoil raging in neighboring Vietnam. In 1965, however, he allowed the Communist government of North Vietnam to set up military base camps in Cambodia. That same year, the United States sent ground troops to Vietnam to support the South Vietnamese government, escalating the war in Vietnam (see Vietnam War). Increasing numbers of National Liberation Front (NLF) guerrillas, who were allied with North Vietnam, entered Cambodia. In 1969 U.S. President Richard Nixon authorized bombing Cambodia in an effort to destroy NLF sanctuaries.

Coup of 1970

In March 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, his prime minister, General Lon Nol, seized power and sent his army to fight the NLF in the border areas. In April 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops entered Cambodia, supporting Lon Nol’s army. The United States continued the bombing campaign in Cambodia until 1973. Meanwhile, Khmer Communist Party guerrillas, called the Khmer Rouge, were battling Lon Nol’s regime. They were aided by the North Vietnamese and by Prince Sihanouk, who had found asylum in China.

Vietnamese Domination

In April 1975, just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. Their subsequent regime, headed by Pol Pot, forced the entire population into rural communes, where death was the penalty for disobeying orders or even for revealing middle-class status. The Khmer Rouge tried to isolate Cambodia from all foreign influence. Their brutality, which led to the deaths of about 1.7 million people, gave Vietnam (now united under the Communists) a pretext for invading in December 1978. The main towns and highways were quickly brought under the control of a Vietnamese-backed puppet regime led by Heng Samrin, as head of the Council of State, and Hun Sen, first as foreign minister, then as prime minister. This government restored much of the pre-1970 way of life, including Buddhism, but not the monarchy. Khmer Rouge remnants, meanwhile, with some support from non-Communists, continued resistance, especially in areas on the Thai border, and they retained Cambodia’s UN seat.

Almost all Vietnamese troops were pulled out by September 1989, leaving the Hun Sen regime in a precarious position. In October 1991 the warring parties signed a peace treaty that provided for the UN and a Supreme National Council, which included most factions, to govern until a constituent assembly could be elected. Sihanouk returned to Cambodia and was named president. Sporadic violence continued in 1992, with UN peacekeepers often under attack.

In May 1993 elections for a constituent assembly were held. The elections were the nation’s first multiparty elections since 1972. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, even though they had signed the 1991 peace treaty. Although the royalist FUNCINPEC party won the elections, several provinces run by Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which had received the next largest majority, threatened to secede and the two parties formed a fragile coalition government. In September 1993, after a new constitution instituting a parliamentary monarchy was ratified, Sihanouk again became king and head of state. Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of FUNCINPEC and the son of Sihanouk, was named first prime minister; and Hun Sen of the CPP was named second prime minister.

However, tensions within the coalition government became apparent in November 1995 when Prince Norodom Sirivudh, secretary general of FUNCINPEC and Sihanouk’s half-brother, was accused of plotting to have Hun Sen assassinated. Sirivudh, who had been openly critical of the CPP, maintained the charges were politically motivated. He was allowed to go into exile in France after Sihanouk intervened on his behalf, and in February 1996 he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. In March 1996 Ranariddh threatened to withdraw FUNCINPEC from the coalition, thus forcing a national election, unless Hun Sen and the CPP agreed to an equal power-sharing arrangement at the district level. Hun Sen threatened to call out the military, which was dominated by CPP loyalists, if an attempt was made to deprive him of power. By mid-1997 the government was effectively paralyzed, with elected officials not having met for months. In July, when Ranariddh was out of the country, Hun Sen staged a bloody coup and took control of the government.

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