In the 13th century, Cambodians converted en masse to Theravada
Buddhism, the variant practiced by the Khmer today. State-sponsored
Hinduism, and the temples inspired by that religion, lost their
importance, but for many years the kingdom remained strong and
prosperous, as the Chinese emissary Zhou da guan reported in 1296.
Over the next 200 years, the empire shrank, as tributary states
in what is now Thailand declared their independence and invaded
Cambodian territory. By 1450 or so, the capital had shifted southward
to the region of present-day Phnom Penh, where it has remained ever
Over the next four centuries, Cambodia became a small Buddhist kingdom
dependent on the goodwill of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, In
the mid-19th century, conflict between these kingdoms spilled
onto Cambodian soil, and Cambodia almost disappeared.
In 1863 the Cambodian king, fearful of Thai intentions, asked France to
provide protection for his kingdom. France kept Cambodia from being
swallowed up, but the protectorate developed into a full-scale colonial
relationship that the king had not foreseen.
French rule lasted until the 1950s, and was less harsh than in
neighboring Vietnam. The Khmer elite was treated well and French
policies had a relatively light impact on the population, while
improvements in infrastructure strengthened the economy and brought
Cambodia to the edges of the developed world. France's greatest
contribution to Cambodia was probably its restoration of the temples
at Yasodharapura. French scholars deciphered Angkorean inscriptions and
rebuilt many of the temples, providing Cambodians with a glorious,
precisely dated past that had been largely forgotten.
After Cambodia gained its independence from France, it entered a short
period of peace and prosperity which many older Khmer now look back on
as a golden age. By the late 1960s, however, Cambodia was drawn
inexorably into the Vietnam War. In 1975, Communist forces, known to
the outside world as Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers, overthrew the
pro-American regime that had seized power five years before. In the
Khmer Rouge era that followed , at least 1.2 million Cambodians died of
malnutrition, overwork, executions, and mistreated diseases as the
Maoist-inspired regime sought to achieve total communism overnight.
Responding to Cambodian attacks, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and
established a protectorate there that lasted for 10 years.
Under peace agreements signed in Paris in 1991, Cambodia came under
United Nations protection for a time in preparation for general
elections that were held in 1993. Since then, Cambodia has been a
constitutional monarchy ruled by a coalition government that has
accepted large infusions of foreign aid. In 1999 Cambodia became a
member of ASEAN, and became for the first time, after centuries of
isolation, a full-fledged member of the Southeast Asian community.