Khmer empire, Khmer Rouge or ethnic Khmer?

Cambodia biggest city and country’s capital is Phnom Penh. However, the biggest flow of foreign visitors (about 5 million in 2009) arrives via another point of entry: Siem Reap. It is the airport of a charming former French colonial city, and the nearest to Cambodia’s landmark, the ruins of Angkor Wat.

When visiting this country, you have mixed feelings. The big number of tourists at Angkor Wat and the ever quiet and smiling Cambodians contrasts with the very poor living standards of most inhabitants. Moreover, the population has paid a terrible price during the recent Khmer rouge power. To grasp some understanding of the Cambodia history, let’s have a look on how the Cambodians lived one of the biggest human tragedy of the 20th century and why the Khmer rouge took Angkor Wat as their emblem.

Today, Cambodia has a population of 15 million inhabitants. The majority belongs to a group called ethnic Khmers, who find their roots in the great 9th century Khmer empire. They speak a language called Khmer. By the way, it is important to note that all countries in South Asia differ by their main ethnic population.

In the 19th century, tensions over frontiers between Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam pushed Cambodia to ask help from France, governing a part of the nearby Indochina administrative region (territories of current Laos and Vietnam). Cambodia becomes then a protectorate of France from 1863 until 1953. After WWII, the wave of independence around the globe as well as the lack of true involvement of France for Indochina let the King of Cambodia Sihanouk to claim independence in 1953. A decade later, war in Vietnam brought unexpected consequences. The King’s sympathy (or at least not his opposition) for the Viet Cong made that the United States considered him as a potential enemy. He was overthrown in 1970 by a military coup with the support of the US. Between 1969 and 1973 U.S. forces bombed and briefly invaded Cambodia in order to fight the Viet Cong and their “spiritual” supporters in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge. Millions of Cambodians were killed during the bombing campaigns; most of crop reserves and cattle were destroyed. As a result, the bombing pushed peasants to support the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Their leader, Pol Pot, a fervent admirer of Stalin and Mao repression, sent by force the entire population to work in the fields. He has prohibited Western medicine, destroyed temples, libraries… Doctors, lawyers, teachers were considered as enemy of the nation because they were seen as intellectuals and not workers. Even wearing eyeglasses was highly suspicious. It is estimated that two million of Cambodians (about a quarter of the population) out of 8 million, died from executions, overwork, and starvation. This time of unpunished terror lasted till 1978, when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. After that, the country faced a long civil war between Vietnam, Khmers rouge, royalist supporters of Sihanouk. Peace was reached only in 1991 with the help of the United Nation, when the King Sihanouk regained the throne. War left Cambodia thousands of mines. Over 60,000 people were killed by mines since 1970. The majority of the victims are children.

children at Angkor

This tragic part of the history becomes more and more occulted in booklets on Cambodia, and is replaced ubiquitously by the true jewel of Cambodia: Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat means city-temple. Khmer king Suryavarman II began its construction in about 1115. During that time, the temple, dedicated to Vishnu, was Hindu. After the Theravada buddhism pervaded Khmer empire in 1300, Angkor Wat was transformed into a buddhist temple. Angkor Wat is designed like a mountain to represent Mount Meru in Hindu mythology. Unlike many other Khmer temples built of bricks, Angkor Wat is built of solid sandstone. The most typical decorative elements on its walls are apsaras; graceful bas-reliefs of dancing Hindu women.

Angkor Apsaras

Actually, Angkor Wat is only ONE temple among others, part of a much bigger complex called Angkor, the size of the whole New York City, and comprising many other temples and sites. In the Angkor complex, there is also a big fortified city: Angkor Thom. Its shape is square and its walls are 3 km long. At the center of Angkor Thom lays the famous palace of the Bayon, which most distinctive feature are its towers flanked with huge stone faces.

bayon entrance

Another interesting site in Angkor is Ta Prohm, the picturesque temple lost in the jungle. It is now totally inhabited by giant fig trees, whom snake-like roots penetrate every little crack, braking massive walls. Ta Phrom was built in the same style as the Bayon and served as a buddhist monastery and university. Ta Prohm most famous apparition in cinema was in Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie.

Ta Phrom angkor

Angkor’s beauty, admired by the whole world, unites above all Cambodians. Angkor Wat is represented on their national flag. That’s why the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to destroy all signs of past religion to build a new society, never dared to threaten Angkor.


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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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