On 11 August 1963, King Norodom signs a treaty acknowledging Cambodia as a French protectorate. French colonial rule persists for 90 years.
In October 1887, the new French colony, called the Indochinese Union or Indochina, is founded, covering Việt Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnamese resistance to French rule starts immediately thereafter.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk becomes King of Cambodia on 3 May 1941.
During World War II, Cambodia is occupied by Japan, which invades the French protectorate in August 1941. For a brief period, from 9 March - 10 October 1945, Cambodia delcares itself an independent nation, the Kingdom of Kampuchea, although its government is a puppet state for Japanese rule. Soon after Japan surrenders on 15 August 1945, the French government reimposes colonial rule on 10 October 1945.
Cambodia gains independence from France on 9 November 1953 and becomes the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Facing domestic opposition from the Democratic Party, Norodom Sihanouk abdicates on 2 March 1955, and becomes prime minister of Cambodia on 15 September 1955 after his political organization, Sangkum, wins 83% of the votes in a national election. His father, Norodom Suramarit, becomes king from 3 March 1955 until his death on 3 April 1960.
Following his father Suramarit’s death, Prince Sihanouk creates the new position of Head of State in Cambodia, and was formally appointed to that position on 20 June 1960.
Sihanouk declares a neutral position for Cambodia vis-à-vis the Vietnam War and breaks off diplomatic relations with the United States on 3 May 1965.
The United States Air Force begins “Operation Arc Light,” a three-year B-52 bombing campaign intended to support ground combat operations in Vietnam, on 18 June 1965. Ignoring Cambodia’s neutrality, the U.S. illegally bombs the nation’s countryside due to suspicions that North Vietnamese troops were stationed along the Cambodian-Vietnam border. Laos was also bombed illegally.
Former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy makes an unofficial visit to Cambodia and Angkor Wat from 2-8 November 1967. During the visit, Prince Sihanouk reiterates Cambodia’s neutral stance via the Vietnam War.
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon begins the policy of "Vietnamization," slowly withdrawing U.S. troops, while building up South Vietnamese troops and beginning to secretly bomb Communist supply lines in Cambodia and Laos.
The United States begins a covert carpet bombing campaign called Operation Menu (18 March 1969—26 May 1970). Although the missions were supposed to take place in South Vietnam, many of the planes crossed over into Cambodia. Such cluster bomb campaigns continued with Operation Freedom Deal until 15 August 1973. Overall, more than half a million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia. President Richard Nixon denied that these bombing campaigns took place.
There were numerous protests in the United States against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The most famous protest occurred at Kent State, where on 4 May 1970 the Ohio National Guard opened fire and killed four student protesters.
General Lon Nol, supported by the United States, overthrows Prince Sihanouk via a coup on 18 March 1970 and establishes the short-lived Khmer Republic on 9 October 1970. A vehement anti-communist, General Nol sends military forces to fight North Vietnamese on the Cambodian/Vietnam border; he also wages a campaign against the communist Khmer Rouge. A civil war ensues for the next five years. Bombings of Cambodia’s countryside, coupled with increased governmental instability, contribute to the rise of the Khmer Rouge as a viable political force.
In 1971, American and South Vietnamese forces attack Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and South Vietnamese forces begin incursions into Laos against the Hồ Chí Minh Trail in Operation Lam Sơn 719 (8 February-25 March 1971).
On 17 April 1975, Khmer Rouge forces roll into the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, signaling the start of the Cambodian genocide, or what many outside Cambodia know as the “Killing Fields” era. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot (Saloth Sar), rename the country “Democratic Kampuchea” and forcibly empty the nation’s cities. Intent on eliminating all “Western” influence, engendering an agricultural revolution, and turning the country back to “year zero,” the Khmer Rouge forced Cambodians to labor in countryside camps. The Khmer Rouge targeted those who had the most memory of the previous regime: teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, court musicians, court dancers, and intellectuals. Over the course of three years, eight months, and twenty days, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished as a result of starvation, forced labor, disease, and execution. This figure represents roughly 21 -25% of the extant population.
Việt Nam invades Cambodia on 25 December 1978 to topple Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and to expand Việt Nam's regional power. This brings on a new and costly cycle of war for Việt Nam. Although fighting largely ends by 8 January 1979, with the occupation of Phnom Penh by a pro-Vietnamese government, the war does not officially cease until 23 October 1991, with the Paris Peace Agreement.
On 7 January 1979, Vietnamese troops takeover Phnom Penh, marking the end of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Cambodia is renamed “The People’s Republic of Kampuchea” and is under Vietnamese control for the next decade (until 1989).
China, in support of Cambodia, retaliates and attacks Việt Nam at the northern border, starting the Sino-Vietnamese War (17 February-16 March 1979). China's effort fails and the 300,000 ethnic Chinese living in Việt Nam face persecution. Most flee Việt Nam into China or escape by sea.
The Vietnamese-occupied Cambodian state stages a trial charging Pol Pot and Ieng Sary (Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister) in absentia. On 19 August 1979, the tribunal finds the two leaders guilty of genocide and sentences them to death, but many regard the trial as invalid because of the lack of due process.
With no infrastructure, faced with poverty and famine, 510,000 Cambodians flee to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Almost 150,000 Cambodian refugees, aided by the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, find asylum in the United States.
The Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party – a pro-Vietnamese party – wins parliamentary elections. The international community, guided by the United States’s postwar anti-Vietnam policy, refuses to recognize the new government. The Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk, in exile, retain their recognized status with the United Nations.
By the end of September, the United States has received approximately 659,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, close to two-thirds of whom entered the U.S. between 1979-82, during the period of the refugee crisis. Vietnamese refugees accounted for about two-thirds of all Southeast Asian refugees in United States, while Cambodians and Laotians made up 14% and 21% of the Southeast Asian refugee population.
Hun Sen becomes Cambodia’s prime minister, but the Khmer Rouge continue to embark on a guerrilla warfare campaign in-country, prompting even more Cambodians to flee the country.
The Vietnamese withdraw from Cambodia.
1991 – 1993
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) works to orchestrate a peaceful resolution to conflicts among various factions in Cambodia, including the Khmer Rouge.
General elections are held and the royalist Funcinpec Party wins the majority of governmental seats. Funicinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh is prime minister and Hun Sen is relegated to deputy prime minister. The monarchy is restored and Prince Sihanouk becomes king again. The country is renamed the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge loses its recognition with the United Nations.
Thousands of Khmer Rouge begin surrendering and seek amnesty from Cambodia’s government. In the United States, Congress passes the “Cambodian Genocide Act,” which establishes the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Known as DC-Cam, this entity will provide most of the prosecutorial evidence for the U.N./Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known officially as “the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia,” or “ECCC.”
Hun Sen mounts a coup against Prince Ranariddh. Remaining Khmer Rouge put Pol Pot on trial and sentence him to life imprisonment.
Pol Pot dies peacefully while under house arrest. Hun Sen, via the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) wins elections and become prime minister. In December 1998, Hun Sen stresses that the Khmer Rouge should be “welcomed with a bouquet of flowers” and that the country should begin the 21st-century with a blank slate.
Serious discussions occur involving the possibility of a U.N./Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Finally, after a series of back-and-forths, the U.N. approves a hybrid tribunal, one that combines Cambodian penal code with international law.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the United States orchestrates a repatriation agreement with Cambodia. This facilitates the deportation of Cambodian Americans who have committed aggravated felonies, which range from writing bad checks to murder. As refugees, many Cambodians – who were toddlers or young children – were not naturalized citizens but instead permanent residents. In 1996, the United States passed an immigration reform that allowed for the deportation of those residents who had committed aggravated felonies. An estimated 1600 Cambodian Americans – most of whom do not speak Khmer and consider themselves U.S. citizens – have been slated for deportation. Almost 400 have been deported. During the Obama administration, deportations (inclusive of all ethnicities and races) have increased by 400%.
Ta Mok, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge general known as “the Butcher,’ dies of old age.
The most senior ranking Khmer Rouge official, Nuon Chea – “Brother Number Two” – is arrested and charged with crimes against humanity.
The trial of Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a. Comrade Duch) begins. Eav was head warden for Tuol Sleng Prison – known as S-21 – which detained an estimated 12,000 prisoners. Little more than two hundred survived their detention.
July 26, 2010
The first verdict is issued against a Khmer Rouge official. Comrade Duch is found guilty of crimes against humanity and initially receives a nineteen-year sentence (based on time served). Duch eventually appeals this verdict and receives a life sentence. Deliberations soon begin for a second case, which involves Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan (Khmer Rouge Foreign Prime Minister), Ieng Sary (Khmer Rouge Deputy Prime Minister), and Ieng Thirith (Khmer Rouge Minister of Culture/Social Affairs and the second women in international tribunal history to be charged with genocide).
Ieng Thirith deemed incompetent to stand trial due to Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
March 13, 2013
Ieng Sary dies at age 87.
August 7, 2014
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan both receive life sentences for crimes against humanity. They are presently facing charges of genocide and the tribunal is scheduled to conclude by the end of 2015.