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(2) Timeline: Cambodia


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.

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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 (KPRP)–a pro-Vietnamese party–wins parliamentary elections in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) on 1 May 1981. 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.



On 14 January 1985, 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.



On 26 September 1989, the last Vietnamese troops withdraw from Cambodia.


1991 – 1992

After the remaining warring parties in Cambodia sign the Paris Peace Accords on 23 October 1991, the UN authorizes the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), a peacekeeping operation which officially deploys on 15 March 1992. The UNTAC works to orchestrate a peaceful resolution to conflicts among various factions in Cambodia, including the Khmer Rouge.



General elections are held in Cambodia on 28 May 1993, and the royalist Funcinpec Party wins a plurality of governmental seats. Funicinpec’s Prince Norodom Ranariddh becomes prime minister and forms a coalition government with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, while Sen is relegated to deputy prime minister. On 23 September 1993, 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.



After Cambodia adopts the Law on the Outlawing of the Democratic Kampuchea Group on 7 July 1994, thousands of Khmer Rouge begin surrendering and seek amnesty from Cambodia’s government. The six-month amnesty period officially ended on 7 January 1995 and was not meant to cover Khmer Rouge leaders, but on 17 September 1996, the Cambodian government extends amnesty to Ieng Sary, and thousands more Khmer Rouge members defect.

In the United States, Congress passes the “Cambodian Genocide Justice Act” (22 U.S. Code §2656, Sec. 571-574) on 30 April 1994, which provides funding for a Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University. Eventually, this organization becomes the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), an independent NGO which will provide most of the prosecutorial evidence for the UN/Khmer Rouge Tribunal, known officially as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), which is established in 2003.



On 5-6 July 1997, Hun Sen mounts a coup against Prince Ranariddh, who goes into exile in Paris. Many Fucinpec party members are shot or forced to flee following the coup. Ung Huot replaces Ranariddh as the first Prime Minister on 6 August 1997.

Remaining Khmer Rouge members put Pol Pot on trial on 25 July 1997 and sentence him to life imprisonment. International observers condemn the trial as merely a show trial. 



While under house arrest by Ta Mok, a senior Khmer Rouge military chief, Pol Pot dies of a heart attack on 15 April 1998, just as plans were being made to capture him and bring him to trial.

On 26 July 1998, Hun Sen, via the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), wins the general election in Cambodia and become prime minister. On 28 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 “clean slate,” as two more high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, defect to Hun Sen’s government.



On 2 January 2001, Cambodia’s National Assembly unanimously passes a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. After a lengthy series of negotiations between the Cambodian government and the United Nations, an agreement is signed on 6 June 2003 approving a hybrid tribunal that combines Cambodian penal code with international law. That tribunal, officially called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), does not begin operations until 2006, with the appointment of its first staff members, judges, and prosecutors.



In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the United States orchestrates a repatriation agreement with Cambodia on 22 March 2002 to facilitate the deportation of Cambodian Americans. The U.S. had passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act on 30 September 1996 that allowed for the deportation of legal residents who had committed aggravated felonies, but at the time did not report Cambodians or other refugee populations. However, after the 2002 agreement, Cambodian Americans were deported for crimes ranging from writing bad checks to murder. An estimated 1,600 Cambodian Americans – most of whom do not speak Khmer and consider themselves U.S. citizens – have been slated for deportation. Over 400 have been deported. By the end of the Obama administration (2013), deportations of all ethnicities and races have more than doubled since 2001.



Ta Mok, the highest-ranking Khmer Rouge general who was also known as “the Butcher,” dies of natural causes on 21 July 2006. He had been captured in 1999 by the Cambodian army and, at the time of his death, had been in government custody awaiting trial by the newly formed ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal.



On 19 September 2007, the most senior ranking Khmer Rouge official, Nuon Chea – “Brother Number Two” – is arrested and charged with crimes against humanity.



The first trial of the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal—Case 001, that of Kaing Guek Eav (a.k.a. Comrade Duch)—begins on 17 February 2009. 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.



The first verdict from the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal is issued against a Khmer Rouge official. On 26 July 2010, Comrade Duch is found guilty of crimes against humanity and initially receives a nineteen-year sentence. Duch appeals this verdict and receives a life sentence on 3 February 2012.

Deliberations begin for Case 002 at the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal, 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 woman in international tribunal history to be charged with genocide). The four Khmer Rouge leaders are indicted for crimes against humanity and genocide on 15 September 2010, and the trial begins on 21 November 2011.



On 16 September 2012, Ieng Thirith is deemed unfit to stand trial at the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal due to her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.



While awaiting a verdict on his case before the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal, Ieng Sary dies on 13 March 2013, at age 87.



On 7 August 2014, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan both receive life sentences from the ECCC / Khmer Rouge tribunal for crimes against humanity. They are presently facing charges of genocide, and this second trial is scheduled to conclude in 2016 or 2017.


Timeline © 2015 Cathy J. Schlund-Vials and Sylvia Chong

(2) Timeline: Cambodia