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Rough Cut: Cambodia: The Silk Grandmothers
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Cambodia's history, including the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodia: Country Profile
Cambodia sits to the east of the Gulf of Thailand in Southeast Asia, bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. About the size of the state of Oklahoma, Cambodia has a population of 14 million -- almost all native Cambodian -- and 95 percent of the population practice Buddhism. With its tropical climate and monsoon season from May to November, Cambodia is a land of rice paddies and forests, dominated by the Mekong River and Tonle Sap, or Great Lake.

Map of Cambodia

Map of Cambodia

Most Cambodians consider themselves Khmers, descendents of the Angkor empire that extended over much of Southeast Asia and reached its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries. During that time, the empire produced some of the world's most spectacular architectural masterpieces in what is now the northwestern section of the country. Some 72 major temples and buildings dot the area, the two most famous being Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

Built for King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat portrays the early Hindu cosmology, with the central towers representing Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls as the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat as the oceans beyond. Angkor Thom, however, was the first Angkor temple built with open walls, symbolic of the shift from Hinduism to Buddhism that King Jayavarman VII successfully pushed during his reign from 1181 to 1215. Angkor Wat later was turned into a major Buddhist shrine.

With an eroding empire and repeated attacks from neighboring countries, Cambodia spent the next few hundred years in steady decline. By the mid-1800s fearing a total collapse, the country's monarchy asked the French for protection. The European nation had begun to colonize through parts of Southeast Asia, and in 1887, Cambodia officially became part of French Indochina. During World War II, the country was under Japanese occupation, but France regained control after the war. Worried about extending itself militarily and caught in a war with Ho Chi Minh's followers in Vietnam, France finally granted Cambodia independence in 1953. The new era began with King Sihanouk's leadership under a constitutional monarchy.

The Killing Fields

The beginning of the 1970s marked a time of intense violence, when King Sihanouk, while traveling abroad, was deposed in a military coup led by his prime minister Lon Nol. Fighting over control of the country continued for the next five years, when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge guerilla army marched into the capital Phnom Penh and assumed power, renaming the country Democratic Kampuchea.

Primarily educated in France and using Marxist and Stalinist principles, members of the Khmer Rouge led one of the most brutal reigns in history. Its leader, Pol Pot, though raised in middle class society, believed farmers were the true proletariats and began a radical campaign that forced people to evacuate the cities and work as agrarian laborers.

Schools and hospitals were closed, banking abolished, private property confiscated and religion outlawed. On these collective farms, where people were forced into labor, they lacked food, agricultural tools and medical care. Many starved before the first harvest, and hunger and malnutrition caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Those who resisted were executed, as were military and political opposition leaders (though King Sihanouk remained safely in exile). Public executions were common and torture centers were established, where, surprisingly, detailed records were kept of the thousands murdered. By the time Communist Vietnamese forces invaded and defeated the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, Pol Pot and his party were responsible for the deaths of more than 1.7 million people, almost 20 percent of Cambodia's population, in just three years.

During Vietnamese occupation, many of those displaced during Pol Pot's reign flooded the Thai-Cambodia border in search of refuge. At one point, at least 600,000 people were living in refugee camps along the border and in holding centers inside Thailand. The occupation lasted 10 years and coincided with 13 years of civil war, as the Khmer Rouge forces were never actually disarmed or demobilized. The 1991 Paris peace accords mandated democratic elections and a ceasefire, though in 1992, the Khmer Rouge resumed fighting and rejected the election results. But a year later, elections did take place and more than 90 percent of the vote established a multiparty liberal democracy in the framework of a constitutional monarchy, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to king. In 1996, thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers defected when offered amnesty, and by 1999, the remaining elements of the faction were either captured or they surrendered.

Today, surviving members of the Khmer Rouge are set to stand trial in front of a joint Cambodia and United Nations genocide tribunal. But, disagreements over guidelines have led to delays and, as of June 2007, no charges had been filed.

Silk-Weaving Traditions

Cambodia's silk-weaving history dates back to the 7th century and the Angkor empire. During its peak, the area developed as a trading center and became part of the famous silk route between South India and China. In the book Customs of Cambodia, author Chou Ta-Kuan, who visited the Angkor empire from China in the 13th century, describes a thriving culture of raising silkworms and weaving beautiful fabrics.

In 1999, Cambodia's first full year of peace in 30 years, the government began economic reforms by signing a Bilateral Textile Agreement with the United States, guaranteeing a quota of textile imports into the U.S. and bonuses for improving working conditions and enforcing labor laws. From 2001 to 2004, the economy grew at an average rate of 6.4 percent, driven largely by the expansion of the garment industry and tourism.

Sources: CIA Factbook, BBC, U.S. State Department, Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, and Yale's Cambodia Genocide Program.

Related Links

FRONTLINE/World: Cambodia -- Pol Pot's Shadow
In this April 2002 story, FRONTLINE/World reporter Amanda Pike follows a trail of mass graves to find "Brother Number Two," the former Khmer Rouge commander, living freely in the country he helped destroy.

BBC Country Profile: Cambodia
The BBC provides a political and economic profile of Cambodia, all the latest news coverage from the country and a timeline of significant events in the country's history.

U.S. Department of State Cambodia Profile
The State Department offers extensive background on Cambodia, including demographics, history, economy, leadership and travel information.

Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program
Since 1994, this project has been studying the history of Pol Pot's reign and collecting documentation and other biographic and bibliographic information about the Khmer Rouge, much of which is available online.

The United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials Web site provides updates on the latest efforts to bring members of the Khmer Rouge to justice.

Traditional Cambodian Clothing
The Web site features an article on textiles in Cambodia, with a particular focus on styles and design of these intricately patterned silks.

Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles
Kikuo Morimoto's organization aims to revive and activate the rich tradition of textiles in Cambodia, and the Web site includes a large amount of historical information.

--Matthew Vree