The Rise of the Khmer Empire
Cambodia’s history is long and convoluted with few sources of information regarding its origin. During the 6th century, Cambodia’s population was mainly concentrated around the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers where they still remain today. Between the 6th and 8th centuries, Cambodia was filled with numerous competing kingdoms and ruled by a social hierarchy similar to the caste system in India. However, the various kingdoms gradually came together after declaring independence from the Javanese and formed the vast Khmer Empire which ruled the region for four centuries of dominance. King Jayaverman II was the first king of Cambodia and created a strong foundation for the great empire by controlling territory through alliances and conquests. The height of productivity was during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, the greatest king of Angkor, when several massive monuments were constructed, caste systems were abolished, and education was implemented in society. Between the 10th and 13th century, Angkor was the capital of the most powerful and opulent empire of Southeast Asia and its influence extended from Myanmar to the China Sea. However, this powerful empire slowly declined due to an overworked irrigation system, religious conflict, the rise of powerful, neighboring countries.
The Cambodian Genocide
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Cambodia prospered and was self-sufficient after gaining independence from the French. However, many people were displeased by Prince Sihanouk’s government and regarded his administration as corrupt and self-serving which highlighted the socioeconomic divide between their citizens. Various nationalistic groups, including the Khmer Rouge, rallied for justice and revolution. When the Vietnam war spread to Cambodia and the United States secretly bombed Cambodia’s borders, this chaos allowed the Khmer Rouge to gain support from the peasants and farmers who yearned for social reform. In 1975-1979, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown and the Khmer Rouge seized Cambodia, leading to one of the worst mass killings of the twentieth century against two million people. The radical communist group murdered countless professionals, political enemies, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities to restructure society and create “equality.” Pol Pot was a radical communist leader who led the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the Khmer Republic and renamed the country the Democratic Kampuchea. Within hours of his victory in 1975, his armed soldiers forcefully gathered the 2,000,000 residents out of Phnom Penh, the capital city, and sent them to labor camps, prisons, killing fields, and farms with meager rations. Pol Pot destroyed any representation of capitalism and pre-revolutionary society, including hospitals, schools, Buddhist temples, and hotels. In addition to this, Pol Pot murdered the educated and anyone who showed signs of intellect, such as people who wore glasses. The people of Cambodia endured immense suffering and died from torture, starvation, and disease. Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese freed Cambodia from Pol Pot’s reign after he killed 2 to 3 million people which accounted for at least 25% of the population.
The Aftermath and Rebuilding
Despite the arrival of peace in 1993, the cataclysm of the Cambodian Genocide led to horrifying effects which still linger in Cambodia today. The genocide has left Cambodia in ruins and this once powerful country is currently one of the poorest countries in the world. People across the nation have dealt with trauma and poverty due to memories of the war and their devastating loss of family members, wealth, and success. The Cambodian people are still rebuilding their fragile nation and are working towards restoring their economy and recovering from their immense loss. Throughout the nation, there is a significant loss of culture since 1/5th of the population has been wiped out and generations of art, stories, history, and tradition have been forgotten and lost over time. 90% of the artists and intellectuals were murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s reign and traditional monuments, literature, murals, paintings, and sculptures were destroyed during the war. According to UNESCO, Cambodia received a 0% in arts education since it is not compulsory and there is a low level of public priority given to the arts and culture subjects. Additionally, UNESCO reports that heritage vocational training is centered around tourism and hospitality, but not in the aspects of preservation, archiving, and cataloging. At CRAFT, we believe that the preservation of art and history is very important to keeping Cambodian culture alive and we hope to preserve it for future generations to come.
Way of Life
Food, faith, and family are what Cambodian lives are centered upon. Cambodian food combines strong flavors and a distinct set of ingredients to create a unique cuisine. Lemon grass, turmeric, tamarind, kaffir limes and leaves (which are more aromatic than regular limes and are used in curries and soups), and palm sugar (which comes in golden blocks and can be easily crumbled or melted) are commonly found in dishes to add an extra dimension of flavor.
Cambodian lives are also centered around faith and the vast majority of inhabitants are Theravada Buddhist with very few members of Christianity, Islam, atheism, and animism. During the Khmer Rouge, people were forbidden to practice religion of any kind, so religious institutions and symbols were defaced, and monks and scholars were murdered or forced into labor camps. However, Cambodia is slowly rebuilding and many temples spread throughout the nation can be seen.
The most important element of Cambodian culture is family and the strong sense of community. Throughout the villages, people treat each other like extended family, depend on one another, and form tight bonds that last for generations. People come together for times of joy such as festivals and successes and for times of mourning and loss and have preserved a tight-knit community despite the lingering shadow of the Khmer Rouge’s reign.