Before long the fractured kingdoms of Cambodia would merge to become the greatest empire in Southeast Asia. Upon his return to Cambodia he instigated an uprising against Javanese control over the southern lands of Cambodia.
Jayavarman II then set out to bring the country under his control through alliances and conquests, the first monarch to rule most of what we call Cambodia today. Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who presided over the rise and fall of the greatest empire mainland Southeast Asia has ever seen, one that was to bequeath the stunning legacy of Angkor.
The first records of the massive irrigation works that supported the population of Angkor date to the reign of Indravarman I r —89 who built the baray reservoir of Indratataka. His rule also marks the flourishing of Angkorian art, with the building of temples in the Roluos area, notably Bakong. By the turn of the 11th century the kingdom of Angkor was losing control of its territories. Suryavarman I r —49 , a usurper, moved into the power vacuum and, like Jayavarman II two centuries before, reunified the kingdom through war and alliances, stretching the frontiers of the empire.
A pattern was beginning to emerge, and is repeated throughout the Angkorian period: dislocation and turmoil, followed by reunification and further expansion under a powerful king. Architecturally, the most productive periods occurred after times of turmoil, indicating that newly incumbent monarchs felt the need to celebrate, even legitimise their rule with massive building projects.
By Angkor was again riven by conflict, becoming the focus of rival bids for power. It was not until the accession of Suryavarman II r —52 that the kingdom was again unified.
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Suryavarman II embarked on another phase of expansion, waging costly wars in Vietnam and the region of central Vietnam known as Champa. Suryavarman II is immortalised as the king who, in his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu, commissioned the majestic temple of Angkor Wat. For an insight into events in this epoch, see the bas-reliefs on the southwest corridor of Angkor Wat, which depict the reign of Suryavarman II.
The following year a cousin of Suryavarman II rallied the Khmer troops and defeated the Chams in another naval battle. The new leader was crowned Jayavarman VII in However , Jayavarman VII is a figure of many contradictions.
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The bas-reliefs of the Bayon depict him presiding over battles of terrible ferocity, while statues of the king depict a meditative, otherworldly aspect. His programme of temple construction and other public works was carried out in great haste, no doubt bringing enormous hardship to the labourers who provided the muscle, and thus accelerating the decline of the empire.
He was partly driven by a desire to legitimise his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline, and partly by the need to introduce a new religion to a population predominantly Hindu in faith. Angkor was the epicentre of an incredible empire that held sway over much of the Mekong region, but like all empires, the sun was to eventually set.
There are indications that the irrigation network was overworked and slowly starting to silt up due to the massive deforestation that had taken place in the heavily populated areas to the north and east of Angkor. Massive construction projects such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom no doubt put an enormous strain on the royal coffers and on thousands of slaves and common people who subsidised them in hard labour and taxes. Another challenge for the later kings was religious conflict and internecine rivalries.
The state religion changed back and forth several times during the twilight years of the empire, and kings spent more time engaged in iconoclasm, defacing the temples of their predecessors, than building monuments to their own achievements. From time to time this boiled over into civil war. Angkor was losing control over the peripheries of its empire. At the same time, the Thais were ascendant, having migrated south from Yunnan to escape Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes. The Thais, first from Sukothai, later Ayuthaya , grew in strength and made repeated incursions into Angkor before finally sacking the city in and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court.
During this period, perhaps drawn by the opportunities for sea trade with China and fearful of the increasingly bellicose Thais, the Khmer elite began to migrate to the Phnom Penh area. The capital shifted several times over the centuries but eventually settled in present day Phnom Penh. From until the arrival of the French in , Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings beset by dynastic rivalries. In the face of such intrigue, they sought the protection — granted, of course, at a price — of either Thailand or Vietnam. In the 17th century, the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam came to the rescue of the Cambodian king in return for settlement rights in the Mekong Delta region.
The Khmers still refer to this region as Kampuchea Krom Lower Cambodia , even though it is well and truly populated by the Vietnamese today. In the west, the Thais controlled the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap from and held much influence over the Cambodian royal family. Indeed, one king was crowned in Bangkok and placed on the throne at Udong with the help of the Thai army. That Cambodia survived through the 18th century as a distinct entity is due to the preoccupations of its neighbours: while the Thais were expending their energy and resources in fighting the Burmese, the Vietnamese were wholly absorbed by internal strife.
The pattern continued for more than two centuries, the carcass of Cambodia pulled back and forth between two powerful tigers. The era of yo-yoing between Thai and Vietnamese masters came to a close in , when French gunboats intimidated King Norodom I r — into signing a treaty of protectorate. Ironically, it really was a protectorate, as Cambodia was in danger of going the way of Champa and vanishing from the map.
The French presence also helped keep Norodom on the throne despite the ambitions of his rebellious half-brothers. By the s French officials in Cambodia began pressing for greater control over internal affairs. In Norodom was forced into signing a treaty that turned his country into a virtual colony, sparking a two-year rebellion that constituted the only major uprising in Cambodia until WWII. The rebellion only ended when the king was persuaded to call upon the rebel fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for a return to the status quo.
During the following decades senior Cambodian officials opened the door to direct French control over the day-to-day administration of the country, as they saw certain advantages in acquiescing to French power.
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In the French were able to pressure Thailand into returning the northwest provinces of Battambang , Siem Reap and Sisophon in return for concessions of Lao territory to the Thais. This meant Angkor came under Cambodian control for the first time in more than a century. The French authorities assumed young Sihanouk would prove pliable, but this proved to be a major miscalculation. However, with many in France collaborating with the occupying Germans, the Japanese were happy to let their new French allies control affairs in Cambodia.
However, with the fall of Paris in and French policy in disarray, the Japanese were forced to take direct control of the territory by early The Vietnamese, as they were also to do 20 years later in the war against Lon Nol and the Americans, trained and fought with bands of Khmer Issarak Free Khmer against the French authorities. Phnom Penh grew in size and stature, the temples of Angkor were the leading tourist destination in Southeast Asia and Sihanouk played host to a succession of influential leaders from across the globe.
However, dark clouds were circling, as the American war in Vietnam became a black hole, sucking in neighbouring countries. Independence was proclaimed on 9 November and recognised by the Geneva Conference of May , which ended French control of Indochina. In , Sihanouk abdicated, afraid of being marginalised amid the pomp of royal ceremony. He vowed never again to return to the throne.
Meanwhile his father became king. It was a masterstroke that offered Sihanouk both royal authority and supreme political power. He also nationalised many industries, including the rice trade. In Sihanouk, convinced that the USA had been plotting against him and his family, broke diplomatic relations with Washington and veered towards the North Vietnamese and China. In addition, he agreed to let the communists use Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and the USA.
Sihanouk was taking sides, a dangerous position in a volatile region.
A Short History of Cambodia
These moves and his socialist economic policies alienated conservative elements in Cambodian society, including the army brass and the urban elite. At the same time, left-wing Cambodians, many of them educated abroad, deeply resented his domestic policies, which stifled political debate. Although most peasants revered Sihanouk as a semidivine figure, in a rural-based rebellion broke out in Samlot, Battambang , leading him to conclude that the greatest threat to his regime came from the left.
Bowing to pressure from the army, he implemented a policy of harsh repression against left-wingers. By the conflict between the army and leftist rebels had become more serious, as the Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing , where he set up a government-in-exile in alliance with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had nicknamed the Khmer Rouge.
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This was a definitive moment in contemporary Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge exploited its partnership with Sihanouk to draw new recruits into their small organisation. The lines were drawn for a bloody era of civil war. Sihanouk was condemned to death in absentia, an excessive move on the part of the new government that effectively ruled out any hint of compromise for the next five years. Lon Nol gave communist Vietnamese forces an ultimatum to withdraw their forces within one week, which amounted to a virtual declaration of war, as no Vietnamese fighters wanted to return to the homeland to face the Americans.
As a result of the invasion, the Vietnamese communists withdrew deeper into Cambodia, further destabilising the Lon Nol government. The ultimate humiliation came in July when the Vietnamese occupied the temples of Angkor. In the USA had begun a secret programme of bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia.
For the next four years, until bombing was halted by the US Congress in August , huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed by US Bs, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees.
Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. The flight of up to one million North Vietnamese, many of them Catholics, to the south after the country was divided in , fleeing in boats provided in part by the US navy, captured the imagination of Americans and Europeans. The evacuation made US folk heroes of such people as Tom Dooley, a handsome, Kennedyesque American Catholic priest who helped with the refugee exodus and then wrote a bestseller about it.
Some western liberals, in turn, saw Catholics and other religious minorities as somehow unrepresentative of Vietnam — an idea punctured by the fact that Ngo Dinh Diem, the brutal South Vietnamese leader, was a Catholic. But Goscha adds complexity here as well. He shows that Catholics, reformist Buddhists and many powerful local religions enjoyed vast public support, and were just as often modernising forces as retrograde ones. And French and American policies were not always simply pro-Catholic. Goscha also adds to the growing pile of evidence showing that virtually all of the policy mistakes made by the US during the Vietnam war had been made, in almost all the same ways, by France in its Indochina war between and Of course, the US military dramatically stepped up the asymmetrical warfare when joined in the Vietnam war, as Goscha notes.
Its bombing campaigns were of a very different scale. Yet US policy-makers insisted then — and some still insist — that they acted differently, that America was not a colonial power in Vietnam and the US could succeed, they thought, by working with local nationalist leaders. The Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia and removed its former ally the Khmer Rouge in Hanoi fought a border war with China in the same year. Then the country struggled through decades of grinding poverty. Since it opened in , the CKS Library has seen its collection grow from a few hundred to over 14, titles.
With a very modest budget allocation, the CKS Library owes its development to the dynamism of its Cambodian team and to the generosity of individual donors. Situated in Wat Damnak, a living Buddhist monastery in the heart of Siem Reap, the Library is the largest public academic library in Cambodia outside of Phnom Penh, and the second most important for the social sciences and humanities in the whole country. Our collection, managed by two CKS-trained Cambodians, serves as an invaluable information resource to scholars and researchers from Cambodia and overseas, local students, monks and the general public.
The Library is open to everyone, free of charge, from Monday through Saturday. The majority of Cambodian visitors are high school teachers and students, researchers, Buddhist monks and professional tour guides. Young Cambodians drop by daily and read alongside international scholars and researchers. The collection also contains unique out-of-print publications from local and overseas libraries, a wide selection of M. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, bibliographies, directories, maps, guidebooks and daily national newspapers in English, French and Khmer are also available for reference.
We offer public computers with internet access and a performing arts media station featuring traditional Cambodian music. We appreciate support for our library collection.
Please consider making a book donation from our wish list. Online Catalogue. Kampuja Soriya Buddhist Institute. A short wooden stairway outside is littered with pairs of shoes which are removed before entering. The collection has Khmer, English, and French items, out of print periodicals and tomes, plus dissertations and theses from CKS fellows and Cambodians studying abroad. Her English was excellent and she was so hospitable and friendly as she gave me a tour.
She and Daraneth manage the collection with an assistant. In the Reading Room, an elegant donation box on spindly leg stands by a huge nature themed mural covering one wall. A surface contains a mini booksale and long two sided tables conveniently sport electrical plugs and a row of double reading lamps.