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Modern Cambodian history begins with the creation of the French Protectorate in 1863. Until the 15th century, Cambodia was a regional great power, but by the late 18th it faced extinction as a sovereign state. Although the Protectorate ensured the country’s territorial integrity, French ideas of governance and philosophy collided with Cambodia’s ancient traditions. By 1897, the French had prevailed: Cambodia had escaped its predatory neighbors, Siam and Vietnam, but had lost its internal and external sovereignty. After independence in 1953, Cambodia sat on the fault lines of the Cold War. Precariously neutral until 1970, it fell into a new dark age of civil war, foreign invasions, saturation bombing, and mass murder. Liberated from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea (DK) by the Vietnamese in late 1978, the regime the invaders installed suffered a period of international ostracism that lasted until the end of the Cold War in 1991–1992. Cambodia is at peace today, but hopes that it would develop as a free, democratic, and more equal society have proved illusory. Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest states; a kleptocracy ruled by the durable autocrat Hun Sen via a façade of democratic institutions. The economy, according to Sebastian Strangio, “is controlled by … [a] new quasi-palace elite: a sprawling network of CPP politicians, military brass, and business families arranged in vertical khsae, or ‘strings,’ of patronage emanating from Hun Sen and his close associates.”

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Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) consists of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines and was the midway point in the vibrant East–West international maritime trade route that stretched from Europe, Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia to its west; and China, Ryukyu, Japan, and Korea to its east. The favored stop was along the Straits of Melaka, a calm haven protected from the force of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds. The stream of traders in the Straits enabled local ports to develop into international port cities, whose inhabitants created mixed communities and cultures: commodities were re-fashioned or re-packaged into hybrid forms to accommodate the distinctive tastes of different groups, while frequent and lengthy sojourns by traders resulted in liaisons that produced mixed offspring and cultures. Enhanced economic opportunities encouraged mobility and establishment of diaspora communities in the littoral. More sinister were the forced mobility through wars and slavery that produced reconstituted ethnic communities and new ethnicities and identities in the early modern period (c. 1400– c. 1830s).