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  • Geoff Donald

Cambodia: The Kingdom of Wonder

Part 1

Cambodia today is a country of almost seventeen million people that shares borders with Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia is geographically small, it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia despite recent economic growth, and its political system is dominated by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

To understand what Cambodia is today and where it can go in the future, we must look at its history.

History of Cambodia

The basic state of Cambodia has its roots in the Khmer Empire which at its peak dominated the Southeast Asia peninsula covering much of what today is Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Vietnam. The Khmer Empire was founded by the Khmer people and last from 800AD to the 1430s when it finally faded away after repeated wars with its neighbors.

The Khmers capital city of Angkor covered an area of a thousand square kilometers and was the largest city in the world at its peak. It was here that Angkor Wat – the world’s largest religious complex – was built.

From the mid-1400s to the mid-18th century, the Khmer empire shrunk as the predecessors to Thailand and Vietnam began to assert their influence, taking territory and at times occupying Cambodia. In 1863, King Norodom of Thailand signed a treaty placing the Khmer kingdom under the protection of the French government. Going forward Cambodia was administered by the French government as part of the French Indochina colony.

Cambodia stayed a part of the French empire until World War 2 when the Japanese defeated the French and occupied the country in 1941. The Japanese occupation lasted until 1945 at which point the French returned to administer the country. During the Japanese occupation, King Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea at the encouragement of the Japanese and the French begrudgingly agreed to Cambodian impendence on November 9, 1953.

With the outbreak of the Vietnam War, Cambodia was and remained officially neutral, but the country was used by the Vietnamese communist forces as supply route and staging area to support fighting in South Vietnam. On October 9, 1970, a successful coup was conducted against the Kong and the Cambodian government. The coup led to the founding of the Khmer Republic.

Against this backdrop of the Vietnam War and a coup was an ongoing civil war between the government forces and the Communist Party of Kampuchea who are known as the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, who received considerable support from North Vietnam and China, conducted a successful insurgency that ended in April 1975 with the fall of the Phnom Penh and the Khmer Republic.

For Cambodians, Year Zero had begun.

From 1975 to 1978 under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1.5 and 2 million people died. The Khmer Rouge directly murdered hundreds of thousands of people for simply having an education, for wearing glasses, for belonging to a minority and many other reasons. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge attacked Vietnam who responded with full force, invaded Cambodia, and overthrew the existing regime. The remnants of the Khmer Rouge pulled back to territory along the Cambodia/Thailand border where with support from Thailand, China, and Western governments they conducted an ongoing insurgency until 1999 when their final leaders and troops surrendered. Despite the atrocities they committed, the Khmer Rouge were viewed as useful pawns in the Cold War by different actors who hoped use them to either expand Communism, to function as a buffer between states or to function as a brake on potential Vietnam expansion. To that end, the Khmer Rouge held Cambodia’s UN seat directly until 1983 and then a Khmer Rouge dominated coalition held the UN seat until 1993. The Khmer Rouge were able to keep this seat with the support Chinese and Western governments.

After removing the Khmer Rouge from power, Vietnam occupied Cambodia where it remained in one form or another until September 1989 when Vietnam pulled its final troops out as the Paris Peace Agreements negotiations had begun to get underway. Signed in October 1991, the Paris Peace Agreements marked the official end of the Cambodia-Vietnam war.

In 1993, the Cambodia monarchy was restored, and democratic elections were held under the supervision of the United Nations. While the royalist party won the election, it was forced into a joint government with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) headed by Hun Sen after they threatened to secede. This government lasted four years until Hun Sen and the CPP launched coup ousting the other political parties and those parts of the government who were not aligned with the Cambodian People’ Party.

Today, Cambodia is in the same place with Prime Minister Hun Sen in charge and there being limited to no political or civil society opposition to the government.

In recent decades, Cambodia has seen civil war, invasion, coup d’états and genocide. Until 1993, outsiders have routinely invaded or used Cambodia as a source of resources, as a buffer state, for colonial glory, or for their own geopolitical means. This history shapes Cambodia and Cambodians to this day.


Located on the Southeast Asia peninsula, Cambodia shares borders with Thailand to the north and west, Vietnam to the east and Laos to the northeast, east while to the south the country borders on the Gulf of Thailand.

Physically, Cambodia has three small mountain ranges (Cardamom and Elephant Mountains in the South and the Eastern Highlands in the Northeast) while the rest of the country consists of plains. The two most dominant geographic features of Cambodia are the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake.

The Mekong River enters Cambodia at Khone Falls, flows south to Phnom Penh meeting up with other rivers such as the Kong and Srepok. At a junction near Phnom Penh, the Mekong River and the Sab river connect with the Mekong continuing south and begins to form the Mekong delta which stretch over a total area of about 65,000 square kilometers from Cambodia to Vietnam.

At approximately 2,600 square kilometers, the Tonle Sap is the major freshwater lake in Cambodia and is a highly productive fishing ground. The Sab river flows out of Tonle Sap down to Phnom Penh and connects with the Mekong River. One of the most unique features of Tonle Sap is that during the peak flood season when the Mekong River water levels are highest, the direction of the flow of the Sab River reverses and begins to flow back into Tonle Sap bringing water, soil, and nutrients with it. During this time, the Tonle Sap grows to around 10,400 square kilometers. When the flood season subsides, the Sap river returns to flowing back into the Mekong River again.

As a country that consists of numerous rivers and low-lying plains, agriculture is extremely important to Cambodia and Cambodians. In 2019, over 75% of Cambodians lived in rural areas while the agriculture sector supplier 31.2% of total employment and contributed 20.7% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019. . Rice is Cambodia’s major agricultural crop, its most important export commodity. Other crops in Cambodia include cassava, corn, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, coconuts, and mangoes. Yet despite the importance of agriculture to Cambodia, one-fifth of Cambodians eat less than the minimum daily requirement of calories, a number that has no doubt been made worse by COVID19.


With seventeen million people, Cambodia is the fourth smallest of the ASEAN nations. At 25.6 years old Cambodia’s median age is the second lowest in ASEAN, only the Philippines is younger, and its fertility rate is above 2 at 2.52. Finally, 76% of all Cambodians live in a rural area which means that Cambodia has the lowest urbanization rate of any country in Southeast Asia. This combination of a young population, high fertility rate and low urbanization rate means that the Cambodia population projects to grow for the next 40 years.

Other factors affecting Cambodia’s growing population is the decline child mortality rates in the country. Since 2000 when there were 106.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, the mortality rates have declined to 26.6 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2019. While this is a massive improvement, this number still is the third highest rate in the Southeast Asia region behind Laos and the Philippines.

Ethnically, over 95 percent of all Cambodians are of Khmer background with the Cham, Chinees, and other groups making up the balance of the ethnic groups. When looking at either religion (95% of Cambodians are Buddhists) or language (95% of Cambodian’s primary language is Khmer) we see that Cambodia is homogeneous. While Cambodia was more diverse in the past, the Khmer Rouge’s targeting, and elimination of non-Khmers in Cambodia in the 1970’s was so overwhelming that the country’s diversity has likely been changed forever.

To get a sense of the quality of life in Cambodia, most of the major indices do not even list the country. In fact, the only quality of life index that does include is the “CEO World’s Best Countries for its Citizens to Live 2020” which ranked Cambodia 120th in the world and worst in Southeast Asia. In terms of freedom or democracy, the country is rated as “Not Free” by Freedom House with a score of 24 out of 100. Corruption is also a big challenge in the country with Transparency International ranking Cambodia as the 157th worst country in the world on its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Political System

When looking at the politics or the political system in Cambodia, any analysis must start with Hun Sen who has been Prime Minister of the Cambodia since 1985. The former military commander for the Khmer Rouge and then for the Vietnamese aligned rebel army who officially overthrew the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen dominates the political system in Cambodia.

Although nominally a state with a Constitutional Monarchy and an elected King, Cambodia has become a one-Party State with the Cambodian People’s Party holding every seat the Cambodia National Assembly and Senate and most seats at the communal level as well. It comes as no surprise that parts of the international community condemned the 2018 National Elections as ”neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.” Yet this condemnation and later sanctions placed on Hun Sen’s government have had little to no impact.

As Hun Sen turns seventy, the future of a Cambodia without him needs to be considered. The Cambodian People’s Party, after careful consideration, has unanimously endorsed the 44-year-old commander of the Royal Cambodian Air Force as the next Prime Minister of Cambodia. The next Prime Minister is Lieutenant General Hun Manet who holds a doctorate in economics, is a West Point Graduate, the head of the Prime Minster elite bodyguard unit, and who also happens to be the eldest son of Hun Sen.

Conspicuously absent from the endorsement of Hun Manet as the future Prime Minister was any timeline for him rising into that role. This means that “the Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen”, to give his full and official title, will not be leaving anytime soon and with his family dynasty in place and we can expect Hun Sen to continue to influence Cambodian politics for years and decades to come.

Economic Overview

With strong economic growth since the end of the 1970’s, Cambodia is now considered as a low middle-income category with the average Cambodian earning $1,374.58 US dollars in 2020 which was down slightly from 2019 due to the impact of COVID19. Despite the increase in overall wages, roughly 18 percent of Cambodia’s population still lives below the poverty line.

Overall Cambodia has consistently achieved annual GDP growth of 7% or higher since 2000 except for 2008 and 2020. Going forward the country is projected to post economic growth of 5.6% in 2022 while reaching higher growth rates in the medium terms with a return in overall global demand.

While agriculture is traditionally the primary economic sector in Cambodia, over the past twenty years the tourism, garment, construction, and real estate sectors have become major employers and contributors to the Cambodian economy. The garment sector employs around 700,000 people while about 500,000 Cambodians are employed in the tourism sector.

The growth of the textile industry is reflected in the country’s primary exports where textile goods account for 70% of Cambodia’s total exports. While Cambodia does a lot of trade with its regional neighbors, its main export partners are not limited to Southeast Asia alone. The United States, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Japan, China, Canada, Vietnam all make up Cambodia primary export markets.

For imports, Cambodia brings in imports petroleum products, fabrics, vehicles, wholesale yarn, cigarettes, electrical communications equipment, and medicine with its key import partners being China, Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Energy security is increasingly becoming more important for Cambodia. The country’s energy consumption will continue to grow due to a growing population, the addition of new people having access to electricity, and the increasing demand per person. While Cambodia has built up hydroelectric power, it does not have any commercial oil fields and thus it needs to import oil from countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Refined petroleum is the number one imported product in Cambodia and the combination of rising demand and rising costs of petroleum products is negatively affecting Cambodia’s trade balance.

As Cambodia is part of ASEAN, it has access to existing free-trade agreements negotiated between ASEAN and Australia/New Zealand, China, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea as well as the overarching RCEP agreement. It has also negotiated a bilateral free trade agreement with China, and Cambodia is negotiating a separate bilateral agreement with South Korea.

One trade challenge that Cambodia faces is that in 2020 the European Union(EU) partially withdrew Cambodia’s access to European markets due to ongoing human rights concerns. Under The EU’s Everything But Arms” agreements Least Developed Countries such as Cambodia where able to send imports to Europe that duty free and quota free. The change in rules affects 20% of Cambodia’s exports to the European Union.


Since 1993 with its independence, Cambodia has begun the process of rebuilding. Economically Cambodia has seen remarkable success with rapid growth in GDP and incomes through the development of a garment industry and growing tourism market while agriculture still forms a key part of its economy and culture.

Cambodia has seen other successes from the ending of civil war, the drop-in child mortality rates to increasing life span of its citizens. But many challenges and issues still remain. In the second part of this post, we will look at some of these key issues and their impact in Cambodia.

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