The Kingdom of Cambodia

 Key facts:

  • Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia and bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand
  • Cambodia gained its independence in 1953 and is a member of the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN)
  • Cambodia is officially a democracy under a constitutional monarchy
  • Capital: Phnom Penh
  • Language: Khmer
  • Religion: Buddhism (97%), Islam (2%), Christianity (0,3%)
  • Currency: Khmer Riel (KHR) and US Dollars
  • Population: 17 Million
  • Life expectancy: 69
  • Expected poverty rate in 2021: 20% (defined as living on 1$ or below a day)
  • More than 5 million lack access to water & sanitation


Cambodia has a long history of wars, cross-border conflicts, and foreign leadership for many centuries.

From the 13th to the 15th century, borders were repeatedly pushed and relocated during conflicts with the Thai. In the 15th century, for instance, the then capital Angkor was occupied and overruled by the Thai. Angkor Wat is globally known nowadays for its pompous temples.

To avoid further losses of border areas, the then king Norodom I concluded a protection treaty with France. In 1883, in addition to Cambodia, the protectorate areas of France also included South Vietnam, Central Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, under the name of French Indochina.

During World War II, the group of the “Free Khmer“ was formed. This group wanted to take action against the reign of France. Through an alliance with the communist-oriented Viet Minh, the rebellion against the French leadership grew stronger and France granted Cambodia limited sovereignty in 1949. Cambodia’s independence was eventually recognized by France in 1954 at the Geneva Indochina Conference.

During the Vietnam War, Cambodia played a neutral role. However, in the 1960s, the border areas between Cambodia and Vietnam were bombed by the USA because communist Viet Cong camps were set up there.

In 1966, the group of the Khmer Rouge was formed and received support from North Vietnam and China. With the help of the USA, they organized a coup and overthrew King Norodom Sihanouk and his government in 1970. The „Khmer Republic“ was established.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian Civil War when they captured Phnom Penh and overthrew the pro-American Khmer Republic. Following their victory, the Khmer Rouge immediately set about forcibly evacuating the country’s major cities. They renamed the country „Democratic Kampuchea“.

The Khmer Rouge capturing Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh citizens being evacuated

The horrific Pol Pot regime, which radically pushed Cambodia towards communism, lasted until 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime was highly autocratic, totalitarian, xenophobic, paranoid, and repressive. Its goal was to re-establish an agrarian society, but the regime’s attempts at agricultural reform through collectivization led to widespread famine. They murdered hundreds of thousands of their political opponents, and their racist emphasis on national purity resulted in the genocide of Cambodian minorities. Furthermore, anyone who had previously lived in big cities was considered a „class enemy“ and was executed alongside teachers and other intellectuals. Ultimately, the Cambodian genocide led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, which was a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. Execution sites and mass graves can be visited today.


An end to this terror came with the help of the troops of Vietnam, which overthrew the regime in 1979. Cambodia began the process of recovery under the Vietnam-backed regime of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (1979–89).

In 1993, free elections were held for the first time under the supervision of the UN peacekeeping forces. Under the new constitution, Cambodia became a monarchy again, ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk.

The Independence Monument in Phnom Penh

In 1998, parliamentary elections were held, which the CPP party won with a majority. Hun Sen became prime minister and has been holding this position ever since, making him the 5th longest-running leader in the world. The civil war, which continued underground even after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, ended after the death of Pol Pot and the surrender of the Khmer Rouge in December 1998.


Cambodia is a one-party system. In the 2013 elections, the opposition (CNRP, „Cambodia National Rescue Party“) won almost half of the popular vote. These narrow election results were crucial for the events of the following years. The CNRP was dissolved, and there is currently no opposition party to Hun Sen’s party due to various reasons.

Prime Minister Hun Sen


97% of all Cambodians are Buddhist and follow Theravada Buddhism. They believe in reincarnation, which is rebirth on this earth. However, the goal of this belief is to escape the cycle of reincarnation. This is achieved through sin-free living, free from selfishness, greed, envy, deception, and other negative qualities. If one succeeds, one is granted entry into Nirvana.

While the general public is spiritual, religion itself plays a less important role in everyday Cambodian life. It is handled in a similar way to that of Europe. Most people attend services at the local pagodas, follow Buddhist traditions during holidays and help the monks clean the prayer rooms.

Buddhist monks


There is no universal healthcare system in Cambodia. There is still a noticeable wealth gap between urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, circumstances have been improving significantly in recent years. There are clinics with generally trained doctors who can operate and treat their patients accordingly in big and smaller cities. Many rural Cambodians, however,  lack access to treatment.

The physician density, which describes the number of medical doctors per 1.000 of the population, is considerably low.

Cambodia: 0,19 physicians / 1.000 population (2014)

Austria: 5,17 physicians / 1.000 population (2017)

Japan: 2,41 physicians / 1.000 population (2017)

USA: 2,61 physicians / 1.000 population (2017)

A Cambodian hospital ward

Economy and population

The terror regime of the Khmer Rouge, which is still not openly discussed amongst Cambodians, affects society to this day. Domestic violence is common, even amongst younger people that did not experience the genocide. 

Another reason for the high case numbers in domestic violence is the hopelessness that Cambodia’s unstable economy brings for many citizens. Low wages and little education in the past make it difficult for the country to regenerate, even if there have been improvements in recent years. Development aid in the state budget fell from about 60% in 2012 to about 20% in 2018.

Phnom Penh
Rice field in rural Cambodia

written by Leonie Seemann