The People of Cambodia

Image of Cambodian children

The people of Cambodia are a mix of ethnic Khmers who constitute almost 95 percent of Cambodia’s population, making it the most homogenous country in the world.

At the same time, the country is also home to a number of ethnic minorities, principal among them the Chams, the Chinese, and the Vietnamese.

There are at least 20 distinct hill tribes, such as the Kavet, the Tompuon, and the Phnong, who inhabit the mountainous northeast provinces. The majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas.

The dominant ethnic group is, of course, the Khmer with the total population of about 13million, and fewer than 400,000 of those are non-Khmer.

The origin of the Khmer people is still the subject of debate. They may be from Mongol and Melanesian groups, or other groups altogether.

The influence of Indian and Javanese cultures is evident in both pre-Angkor and Angkor architecture, arts, and traditions. There were also large migrations from China and Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries, just prior to the French Colonial era.

When the Khmer Rouge took over, many of the Chinese and Vietnamese left, severely damaging both the agricultural and merchant capabilities of Cambodian society.

The Khmer Rouge murdered many of the ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese who stayed and most of those who survived left the country in 1975.

The unofficial Vietnamese population may be as high as a million and is surely at least 200,000 since many Vietnamese returned or arrived with the Vietnamese takeover in 1979. Since the departure of the ruling Vietnamese in 1989, Cambodia has not always been a good place for the remaining ethnic Vietnamese.

Ethnic Vietnamese

Although official records state that there are only about 100,000 Vietnamese people in Cambodia, the actual number may be much higher, making them the largest non-Khmer group in the country.

Settled in southeast and central Cambodia, they form the numerous fishing communities around Takeo and the Tonlé Sap Lake. Many Vietnamese are also rice farmers.

Phnom Penh has a large population of Vietnamese, many of whose ancestors had been brought over from Vietnam by the French as civil servants.

Ethnic Cham

Originally from the Champa Kingdom of Central Vietnam, the Cham people, who number at least 250,000, have lived in Cambodia for over 500 years. More than 90 percent of the Chams are Muslims and are referred to as the Khmer Islam. Most live in Cham-only villages along the banks of the Mekong River and the Tonlé Sap Lake.

Apart from fishing, they are also involved in farming, raising cattle, and growing rice. Cham men wear a sarong called a batik and the women usually cover their heads with a scarf or turban.

Ethnic Khmers

The Khmer people are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia and are proud to proclaim themselves the descendants of the great civilization of Angkor, the symbol of the nation. They once controlled a large chunk of Southeast Asia that extended into modern-day Thailand and Vietnam.

The impact of classic Khmer culture in Cambodia is evident in the revival of several ancient arts such as the apsara (celestial dancing girl) dance and the music that accompanies these dances, both of which go back to the glorious traditions of Angkor.

Ethnic Chinese

Cambodians of Chinese or mixed Chinese and Cambodian descent are known as the Khmer Chen. The Chinese people controlled businesses and economic interests in Cambodia before the 1975 revolution, but the community was brutally persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, and thousands emigrated.

Today, over half a million Khmer Chen live in Cambodia and they continue to dominate commerce in the urban centres, particularly banking, money lending, and the import and export of food products.

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