A History of Cambodia

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

King Rama III of Siam (now Thailand, which borders Cambodia to the west) wrote in the 1840’s: “The Cambodians always fight among themselves in the matter of succession. The losers in these fights go off to ask for help from a neighboring state; the winner must then ask for forces from the other.”

This observation rings eerily true in the early 1990’s, with a Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh and the hated but powerful Khmer Rouge (whose reign of terror lasted from 1975 to 1979) operating out of Thailand with Thai, U.S., and Chinese assistance. Historian David P. Chandler ably narrates Cambodian history from ancient times, through the powerful kingdom of Angkor and the French colonial period, adeptly drawing helpful parallels with recent events that set in context the Khmer Rouge period and the present political/military quagmire.

Cambodia historically has been abused and fought over by (and has served as a geopolitical buffer for) its much larger neighbors, Siam/Thailand and Vietnam. Chandler shows the further damage wrought by a contemptuous, negligent French colonial regime and later by the Cold War. The patriotic but megalomaniacal Prince Sihanouk strove mightily but failed to keep his country out of the Vietnam War, signing an unavoidable secret agreement with North Vietnam. The 1970 U.S.-South Vietnamese invasion, writes Chandler, “probably spelled the end of Cambodia as a sovereign state.”

Cambodia, like Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti, is one of the world’s postcolonial basket cases. Chandler shows why this is so inconcise, measured prose that rewards a reader’s time with a much-enhanced understanding of a complex situation in which few participants escape blame. A HISTORY OF CAMBODIA is an excellent case study in the nature and effects of several modern world phenomena: colonialism, the Cold War, and totalitarianism. Chandler’s informed but cautious use of limited primary sources, especially for the precolonial period, is a model for the responsible writing of history.