National Gallery: Cambodia
The first in a new series exploring the history of a country in pictures begins with Cambodia.
Cambodian history, like that of its neighbour Vietnam, is often defined by a dark moment in the 20th century, the ‘3 Years, 8 Months, 20 Days’ (a phrase known to all Cambodians) during which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge carried out genocide. Liberated in 1979 by the Vietnamese, Cambodia’s status as a relatively weak nation surrounded by powerful neighbours and predatory colonial powers – Thailand, Vietnam, France – defines its past. Today, two of the country’s biggest tourist attractions relate to very different but defining historical periods: the Khmer Rouge ‘Killing Fields’ near the capital Phnom Penh and the temples at Angkor (themselves evidence of ancient Indian influence), the epicentre of Cambodia’s medieval Khmer empire.
Between 802 and 1431 the Khmer Empire was the most powerful kingdom in South-East Asia, extending across territory that today includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Its ruined capital, Angkor (meaning ‘city’), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though its management by a private company is controversial. Reliefs on the stone Bayon temple depict Khmer history, including war with the rival Champa kingdom.
Lost to the jungle?
Following the decline of the Khmer Empire, many of its cities were abandoned and subsumed by jungle as the population moved south. Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) technology used by the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative allows archaeologists to peer beneath the vegetation, revealing moats, waterways, structures and other hidden features of the urban medieval landscape.
Thoughts of Angkor Wat
A 12th-century temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the largest religious building in the world and holds a central place in Cambodian national identity, appearing on the national flag. Rival Thai claims over Angkor remain a source of resentment between the two nations. This style of print with portrait combination remains popular in Cambodia today. The Found Cambodia project specialises in finding such otherwise lost images.
French presence in Cambodia began with Catholic missionaries in the 18th century. A protectorate was established in 1863 making Cambodia part of French Indochina along with Vietnam and Laos. The Cambodian population quadrupled during colonial rule. Weakened by war in Europe and Vietnam, French control ended with Cambodian independence in 1953.
Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) ruled Cambodia for more than half a century, overseeing independence and a period of cultural prosperity (he was also a prolific filmmaker). He named and initially supported the Khmer Rouge, before fleeing to exile during the genocide. Despite this, his reputation remains high among Cambodians.
The Pearl of South East Asia
Under Sihanouk, culture, in particular pop music, flourished. Phnom Penh became known as the ‘Pearl of South East Asia’. In the 1960s and 1970s Cambodian musicians blended traditional music with western rock, producing stars such as ‘the Elvis of Cambodia’ Sinn Sisamouth and the ‘Queen with the Golden Voice’, Ros Sereysothea. Both perished in the Cambodian genocide.
Between 1975 and 1979, under the leadership of Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), the communist Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into what has been described as ‘a vast prison farm’, murdering around 1.7 million people (21 per cent of the population).
3 Years, 8 Months, 20 Days
Many of the genocide’s perpetrators, including Pol Pot, were never brought to justice. Rithy Panh’s award-winning documentary The Missing Picture reconstructs the events of the Khmer Rouge regime with clay figures as well as newsreel footage.
'Why are you always talking about the stones?'
Much contemporary Cambodian art wrestles with the country’s past. The artist Svay Sareth (b.1972) was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. His film I, Svay Sareth, Eat Rubber Sandals features the artist chewing footwear associated with the Khmer Rouge. Ruins references war, with its camouflage material, and the temples at Angkor, which dominate Cambodian history.
Gambling is illegal in Cambodia, though the prohibition applies only to Cambodian nationals. From the late 1990s onwards, the government has constructed casinos in towns near the borders with Vietnam and Thailand, encouraging foreign nationals to spend their money in Cambodia.
Rhys Griffiths is Assistant Editor at History Today. @rhyswgriffiths