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Globe Open Map Cambodia shares its northwestern border with Thailand and part of its northern border with Laos (Cambodia, 2005).  To the east and southeast lies Vietnam, and its southwestern coastline sits on the edge of the Gulf of Siam. Cambodia has a landmass of approximately 70,000 square miles (181,035 square kilometers), about the size of the state of Missouri (Geography of Cambodia, 2004).  Several hill and mountain ranges run along Cambodia’s present political boundaries and the highest peak is Phnom Aural (5,984 feet above sea level) (Cambodia, 2005). 

The delta of the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia, lies to the southeast of the central plains (Water Policy International, 2001).  It flows from north to south and is almost entirely navigable.  Another important physical feature of Cambodia is the Great Lake (Tônlé Sap) situated in the central plain that forms the heartland of the country (Tônlé Sap, 2005).  Seasonal flooding causes it to expand to four times its normal size to approximately 4,000 square miles, and it is one of the richest sources of freshwater fish in the world (MSN Encarta, 2004). The capital of Cambodia, the city of Phnom Penh, lays at the confluence of the rivers Tônlé Sap (which drains the Great Lake) and the Mekong River (Phnom Penh, 2005).

Natural Resources

Over half of Cambodia is covered by forest. However, the country’s considerable timber resources have been depleted by decades of war and ruthless exploitation. The Great Lake (Tônlé Sap) dominates the central plain; the area is used primarily for wet rice cultivation (Geography of Cambodia, 2005).  Other rivers include the Tônlé Srêpôk and the Tônlé Sab (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004c). Although only 21 percent of the total land area is cultivated, rubber, kapok, bananas, coconuts and palm are grown commercially (Cambodia, 2005).  Limited mineral resources include sapphires, rubies, salts, manganese and phosphates.

In addition to deforestation, a decline in biodiversity and industrial pollution has affected the supply of fresh water and fisheries in Cambodia. The Government of Cambodia has responded to the environmental issues facing the country by banning the export of lumber and declaring almost 16 percent of the land “protected areas” (Cambodia, 2005).


Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate and receives an average annual rainfall of 55 inches, but the mountain areas and coastal regions experience almost three times as much precipitation.  The average temperature is 80°F and the coolest months of the year are December and January (Cambodia, 2005).


The Kingdom of Cambodia, once a part of a great empire, is the oldest country in Southeast Asia (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004).  The Khmer people have existed for more than 4,000 years (Chandler, 1991) since the first century A.D.

The area was first dominated by the people of coastal Funan, then by inland Chenla (U.S. Library of Congress, 1987a).  These warring factions eventually formed two separate states.  In the eighth century A.D., a powerful king, Jayavarman II, unified it into one territory, which he called “Kambuja”, a name that was subsequently Europeanized to “Cambodia.”  During the 12th century, the capital of the Khmer empire was Angkor, site of the famous temple, Angkor Wat, which symbolizes the power and influence of the Khmer Empire at its height. It is considered a national symbol to this day (Chandler, 1991; U. S. Library of Congress, 1987b).  Farmers comprised the majority of the working population.  They were able to produce rice for their own people as well as for export to many surrounding countries.  The people respected nature and valued the country and its resources. This independent empire controlled most of the neighboring countries.

The Angkor Empire began to decline upon the death of Jayavarman VII. At that time, it became susceptible to domination by its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors (Domination by the Thai and by Vietnamese, 2005).  This period of time has been referred to as the “dark ages” of Cambodia due to the economic, social and cultural stagnation that marked the period between 1432 until the French arrived in the eighteenth century. Cambodia then became part of the French protectorate in 1863 (Dark Ages, 2005; Colonial Cambodia, 2005).

The French colonized Cambodia  (1887-1953), as part of the Union Indochinoise (Colonial Cambodia, 2005).  They built roads and other infrastructures to exploit the agricultural potential of the area (rubber, rice and corn). Consequently, Cambodia became the “rice basket” of Indochina.  The French also restored the magnificent monuments of the Angkor era, indirectly contributing to the emergence of nationalism among the educated urban-elite Cambodians.  The Japanese continued this trend by fanning the flames of nationalism throughout Asia in the years leading up to World War II (Country Studies, Library of Congress, 2004).

Between 1945 and 1953, the country went through a period of several political changes that included the emergence of several political parties, new leadership, the drafting of a constitution and elections.  King Sihanouk played an important role. He engaged in a delicate balancing act as he negotiated the gradual handing over of power by the French, while at the same time tried to neutralize the political opposition within Cambodia (Colonial Cambodia, 2003).  In 1953, Cambodia became independent and King Sihanouk took the title of Prince and ruled the country until a coup d’etat led by General Lon Noi ousted him in 1970. The country endured a civil war for five years between the Lon Noi forces and the Communist Khmer Rouge. 

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge forces led by Pol Pot took over the capital city of Phnom Penh and changed the country of Cambodia and its people forever. The residents of cities and towns were forced to evacuate, and the Cambodian society was turned into a forced labor camp. During the Khmer Rouge occupation (1975-1979) under the vicious leadership of Pol Pot more than one million people (over 20% of the population) were killed, displaced, starved to death, or were victims of disease. Indeed, most of the educated and business classes were killed. This tragic phase of modern Cambodian history is one of the worst recorded events of human suffering (Yale University, 2005).

In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and forced Pol Pot out of power.  The Vietnamese take-over put an end to the genocide but was not initially recognized by the United Nations (UN).  The Khmer Rouge, Khmer’s People’s National Liberation Front, and the supporters of Prince Sihanouk formed a coalition, which ruled Cambodia when Vietnam withdrew (Chandler, 1991).

In 1990, the guerilla movement agreed to a United Nations plan that created a national council to help unite the country.  This newly formed government had its problems.  Many guerilla groups tried to halt any effort to stabilize the new government. The economy is still in the process of recovering from the destruction of the infrastructure, the political system or the society of this once peaceful and productive nation (Brigham Young University, 2003).

Political Organization

In accordance with a Constitution, promulgated in September 1993, the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a multiparty liberal democracy led by a constitutional monarch.

The Executive branch of the Royal Cambodian Government is comprised of:

  1. A King (“who shall reign but shall not govern” – Article 7 of the Cambodian Constitution) who functions as the Head of State, appointed for life by a Royal Council of the Throne (Article 13) in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution.
  2. A Prime Minister (appointed by the King after vote of confidence by the National Assembly), who functions as the Head of Government.
  3. A Council of Ministers appointed by the King, which serves as the Cabinet to the Prime Minister.

The Legislative branch is a bicameral body comprised of:

  1. The National Assembly that has 122 members elected by popular vote every five years.
  2. The Senate that consists of a 61 member (2 appointed by the King, 2 by the National Assembly and 57 by functional constituencies).

Flag of the CambodiaThe Judicial branch exercises independent judicial authority through a Supreme Court and lower courts in accordance with legislation created in accordance with the Constitution.  The King ensures the independence of the judiciary and is assisted in this task by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.  This Council, chaired by the King, recommends the appointment of as well as the discipline of judges appointed to the bench.  Chapter XI of the Cambodian Constitution also provides that judges cannot be dismissed.

For administrative purposes, Cambodia is divided into 20 provinces and three municipalities.  The Kingdom of Cambodia is represented at the United Nations and participates in all major international organizations (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004b; Politics of Cambodia, 2005).


The economy of Cambodia has been challenged by its turbulent and violent history (Economy of Cambodia, 2005).  The failure to develop infrastructure and to diversify a predominantly agrarian economic base has had a lasting and persistent legacy.  Even today, political unrest, internally and in the region, give Cambodia the dubious distinction of being one of the world poorest countries. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1999 was $3.1 billion (the GDP for the U.S. in 2002 was $10,446 billion) and per capita GDP was $270 ($36,410).

Cambodia’s major industries include textiles and garment production, wood furniture, beverage, food processing and rubber.  Before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, tourism was one of the fastest growing areas of Cambodia’s economy.  Cambodia is striving to bring its economy forward with the assistance of foreign, multilateral aid. (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2004).

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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