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The Cultural Composition of Cambodia’s Population


Cambodia is considered the culturally most homogenous country in Southeast Asia. Statistics on the country’s ethnic demography are mostly incomplete or misleading for a number of reasons. The recent history of genocide, war, massive migration, and forced resettlement has led to a situation where reliable demographic and ethnographic information is not available. Little is known today about the numbers or situation of the country’s various cultural minorities. Existing statistics are mostly estimates from various ministries operating with different systems of classification. There are considerable inconsistencies within and among various statistics. Moreover, given that numbers and rights of various groups are subject to much political controversy, it is not implausible to assume that the results of surveys are distorted by political interests23. The following paragraphs provide a short overview of the most recent numbers available concerning the ethnic composition of Cambodia’s population.

The National Institute of Statistics of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) estimated in 1981 that 264.604 people – about four percent of the total population at that time – belong to various ethnic minorities (Pen 2002: 4). In terms of numbers, Chams were considered the largest minority group, followed by the Chinese and the Phnong hill tribe, while the ethnic Vietnamese were only number seven on this list. The Department of Ethnic Minorities at the Ministry of Religious Affairs estimated in 1992 that 309.000 people – or 3.5 percent of the total population – belonged to ethnic minority groups (Ministry of Religious Affairs 1992). However, unlike earlier statistics, those figures did not include ethnic Lao, Thai, Malay, Burmese, Chinese, and Vietnamese because they were regarded as ‘foreign residents’ from 1992 until today (Pen 1996: 12). The Administration Department of the Ministry of the Interior estimated in 1995 that about 443.000 – or 3.8 percent of the total population – belonged to 21 different groups. Those numbers include the members of the groups mentioned above, which however are still considered ‘foreign residents’ (Ministry of the Interior 1995). A survey conducted by the Ministry of the Interior in 1996 concluded that there are 502.369 members of ethnic minorities and ‘foreign residents’, or about 4.48 percent of the total population (Ministry of the Interior 1996). Current estimates conclude that about ten percent of the total population of about fourteen million people belongs to one of about forty different cultural minorities (Pen 2002: 3)24.



In many instances, there is only anecdotal information available about the number of various groups as well as their social, economic, and cultural situations. This is particularly true of the various highland peoples, which are considered indigenous peoples for the purpose of this paper. Based on provincial statistics and statistics of the Ministry of Interior, Bourdier estimated Cambodia’s total indigenous population to number 142.700 in 1996 (Bourdier 1996: 8). A paper published by the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples Development (IMC) in 1997 estimates the number of indigenous persons in the three northeastern provinces Mondulkiri, Rattanakiri, and Stung Treng at 105.000, while provincial statistics estimate 102.000 indigenous persons for the four provinces Mondulkiri, Rattanakiri, Stung Treng, and Kratie. Smaller populations of indigenous peoples are present in other provinces, such as Preah Vihear, Pursat, Kampong Thom, and Sihanoukville (IMC 1997a: 4; ADB 2001b: 5). Indeed, there are indications that almost all of Cambodia’s twenty-four provinces contain indigenous communities25. Based on their spoken language, the national population census of 1998 concluded that there are 17 different indigenous groups and estimated their members to number 101.000 or 0.9 per cent of the total population. This survey did not include various indigenous groups outside the northeastern provinces. Moreover, identification by language is likely to lead to relatively low numbers, because groups living close to the mainstream population may speak Khmer well and tend to hide their ethnic identity from outsiders. Cambodia’s hill tribes are the major concern of this paper and most of the second part is devoted to these groups. However, in order to assess the different relationships of various groups to the majority nation, the following section will briefly discuss, in the context of Kymlicka’s typology, the incorporation of the following ethnic groups: Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese. These groups are not the only ethnic groups in Cambodia but the most significant in terms of their numbers.
  1. Ethnic Groups: Immigration


The ancestral homeland of Cambodia’s Muslim Chams is the medieval Kingdom of Champa, located along the coast of what is today central Vietnam. The state of Champa emerged from the connection of various Cham communities into a federation during the first centuries A.D. This federation had developed into a wealthy nation by the fifth century and flourished until the early nineteenth century (Collins 1996: pp. 17). Collins distinguishes four phases of migration from Champa to Cambodia, the first of which took place in 1471. Various migrations where triggered by the Vietnamese expansion into the Mekong Delta and – in Kymlicka’s terms – associated with a deeply illiberal policy of nation-building which involved the destruction of the Cham nation26. The final defeat of the Chams led to the fourth and final migration to Cambodia between 1830 and 1835 and to the demise of Champa.

Kymlicka’s distinction would classify the Cham as national minority or, more precisely, as sub-state nation. The kingdom of Champa formed an institutionally complete, territorially concentrated historical community, including a distinct culture and language. Moreover, there is no doubt about the involuntary nature of the Chams’ incorporation into a larger state. Chams are not indigenous peoples, because they participated and lost in the process of state formation. However, the territory occupied by the Cham nation is located within the borders of today’s Vietnam. And it was the Vietnamese state into which the Cham nation was forcefully incorporated, not unlike the Khmer national minority in the Mekong Delta mentioned below. The Chams never formed a self-governing society in the territory of today’s Cambodia27 and their incorporation did not involve force on the part of the Cambodian state. Consequently, Kymlicka’s typology classifies Chams in Cambodia as an ethnic group.

Most Chinese in Cambodia have their origins in four regions in southeastern China and belong to five language groups: the Teochiu, the Cantonese, the Hainanese, the Hokkien, and the Hakka (Hawk 1995: 14)28. Refugees from China were granted asylum by successive Cambodian kings from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. Due to this open immigration policy, a Chinese community had already emerged in Cambodia during the fourteenth century. During the following centuries, the Chinese community grew steadily due to struggles between various clans, famines, and droughts in the southern Chinese provinces. Migrating to Cambodia meant for the early émigrés abandoning China, because turning one’s back to the ancestral homelands was considered a low crime punishable by death. This changed only with a convention adopted in 1860, which recognized the rights of Chinese citizens to emigrate. This convention led to a new wave of Chinese migrants to Cambodia (Edwards 1996a: 117). According to Willmott, a steady stream of Chinese migrants of about two thousand a year until the 1920s rose sharply to five thousand per year during the following years due partly to the economic boom in Cambodia (Willmott 1968: 112). Accordingly, the Chinese population rose from about one hundred seventy thousand in 1905 to three hundred thousand at the beginning of World War II (Chandler 1992: 160). Massive numbers of Teochiu migrated following economic crisis in China in the 1930s, while other Teochiu moved into the Battambang province after it was annexed by Thailand in 1941 and remained when the province was returned to Cambodia in 1945. Since the existence of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia is the result of migration, and because they never formed a self-governing society in the territory of today’s state of Cambodia, Kymlicka’s typology classifies the Chinese in Cambodia as an ethnic group.

The history of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia is long and complex and impossible to discuss at length here. During the last three centuries, this history has been characterized by Vietnamese invasion and colonization of parts of Cambodia (Chandler 1991; Derks 1996: 252-55). Vietnamese migration into Cambodia was encouraged by the French, because the colonial power preferred that Vietnamese staff their administration and provide the workforce for their plantations. Willmott distinguishes four groups of Vietnamese with different histories of immigration: First, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Vietnamese rice farmers where encouraged by a policy of colonization to move into the Mekong Delta and up the Mekong River into what are today the Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces in Cambodia. The second group was made up of urban Vietnamese communities, which emerged when the French colonizers established their protectorate in Cambodia and assigned many Vietnamese to positions in their administration. In addition, this group includes various craftsmen who were encouraged to move to and settle in Cambodia. The third group consisted of ethnic Vietnamese fishing communities along the Mekong and Tonle Sap Lake. The fourth group of Vietnamese was made up of workers brought to the rubber plantations which were established in eastern Cambodia near the Vietnamese border (Willmott 1968: pp. 34). Another category needs to be added which includes Vietnamese who recently moved to Cambodia due to the prospect of peace and prosperity due to the arrival of 20.000 UN personal (Hawk 1995: 23). How would Kymlicka’s distinction between national minorities and ethnic groups categorize the Vietnamese? Clearly, the existence of this group in Cambodia came about by various waves of Vietnamese migration to Cambodia. Members of the Vietnamese minority never formed institutionally complete, self-governing societies with homelands within the territory of today’s Cambodia. What supports seeing ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia as ethnic groups is that their incorporation did not and does not come about involuntarily, by means of force on the part of the Cambodian state. To the contrary, force was employed by various regimes in recent history, in times on a genocidal scale, precisely to prevent Vietnamese from becoming legitimate citizens of Cambodia. Applying Kymlicka’s distinction classifies Vietnamese in Cambodia as ethnic group.


  1. Ethnic Groups: Integration


The previous section has shown that the incorporation of the Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese in Cambodia generally came about by immigration, characterizing the respective communities as ethnic groups. The following section will show that these groups show a significant degree of institutional and linguistic integration. The subsequent discussion will argue that this degree of integration is considerably higher than that of various hill tribes – in line with Kymlicka’s theory. Chams, Chinese, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups in Cambodia maintain ethnic communities, and by doing so, keep alive aspects of their cultural heritage. However, they do not try to recreate self-governing societal cultures. To varying degrees, members of these groups consider Khmer their first language and participate in the institutions of the majority culture.

The Cham’s integration is particularly consistent with Kymlicka’s distinction, insofar as Chams participate in Cambodia’s institutions while those institutions accommodate Cham particularity. Each group of Cham migrants to Cambodia was welcomed by the Khmer king and allowed to settle in various places. Important government positions were given to Chams, including positions of royal rank and governorships. Chams served important functions in the state’s institutions, not only as soldiers and loyal bodyguards of the king but even in facilitating diplomatic relations and court affairs (Collins 1996: 33). From the first migration, Kings of Cambodia surrounded themselves with loyal Chams who dutifully protected the throne from usurpers. While maintaining a distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious identity from the majority Khmers, Chams frequently acted more loyal to the Khmer king than the Khmers themselves. The Chams integration was not a one way affair. For example, one of the Khmer kings converted to Islam, subsequently requiring members of the royal court in Oudong to do the same and to wear Cham costumes during ceremonies. He took a Muslim name, married a Muslim woman and mosques were built all over the country. The Chams were allowed to place the shrine of their leaders alongside the shrines of the great kings of Cambodia at Oudong. Regarding the Chams institutional integration, Collins goes as far as stating: “In effect, with the loss of Champa, the Khmer king was acknowledged by Chams as the king of the Chams as well” (Collins 1996: 37). Chams display a high level of linguistic integration. In most Cham communities, Cham language is learned more like a second language. Cham communities are mostly located next to Khmer communities and Chams in many instances refer to their situation in Cambodia as “guests in someone’s house” (Hawk 1995: 10)29. Many Chams are members of various mainstream political, economic, and social organizations.



Throughout the centuries, Chinese were seen as an integral part of the social fabric of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Edwards 1995a: 109). Chinese played an important economic role, frequently acting as middle men and economic intermediaries between the Khmer peasantry and aristocracy. Chinese were given important political positions in the Cambodian administration. Chinese culture continuously influenced many dimension of Cambodian civilization through a gradual process of mutual borrowing (Chandler 1992: 80). While Chinese immigrants maintained their own communities, they adopted many Khmer customs and frequently became integrated into Cambodian society to a high extent (Hawk 1995: 14). At the same time, the Chinese retained elements of their culture through the practice of religion, language, and various customs30. The situation of ethnic Chinese deteriorated dramatically after the ousting of Sihanouk and Chinese identity was suppressed from 1970 until 1990. Sihanouk’s successor Lon Nol ordered the closing – and even bombing – of Chinese schools and newspapers as well as Chinese cultural and community centers. The situation worsened under the Khmer Rouge. While all minorities suffered from discrimination and forded assimilation, ethnic Chinese were particularly targeted because of their economic status and the regimes’ prejudice against urban dwellers. The ban on Chinese language, schools, and cultural associations was rigorously and violently enforced. As a result, the Chinese language had fallen out of common usage by the late 1980s (Edwards 1996a: 148). The suppression of Chinese cultural identity gradually faded with the establishment of the State of Cambodia (SOC) in 1989. Since then, a cultural revival has taken place, involving a renaissance of Chinese cultural institutions. Chinese temples, schools, cultural associations, and newspapers were reestablished. However, Khmer is being taught in Chinese schools and the curriculum focuses on Cambodia. There is a greater level of intermarriage and Chinese newspapers cover prominently events in Cambodia. Ethnic Chinese in Cambodia today display a considerable level of linguistic integration and – despite the existence of Chinese secondary associations – participate widely in the political and economic institutions of the larger society. The revival of Cambodia’s Chinese community does not mean that this group is trying to recreate a Chinese societal culture. In turn, Cambodia’s government provides significant space for the expression of Chinese cultural identity. As Edwards puts it, “… the Royal Government of Cambodia has given important recognition to the fact that ethnic Chinese in Cambodia today have a local (Cambodian) national identity while retaining a partially or specifically Chinese cultural and ethnic identity” (Edwards 1996a: 165).

The case of the ethnic Vietnamese is more complicated and partly at odds with Kymlicka’s theory. Unlike immigrants, those ethnic Vietnamese who came as colonizers or to serve in the French administration did not come with the expectation of integrating into institutions operating in Khmer. To the contrary, the very rationale of colonization is to recreate or extend the colonizers societal culture to the territory of the colonized and to impose their own language and institutions. During various occupations, Vietnamese emperors not only attempted to incorporate parts of the territory inhabited by Khmers, but tried to ‘civilize’ the population. In particular, during emperor Hue’s occupation from 1835-40, efforts were made to impose Vietnamese political culture and social customs on Cambodia’s population, including language and various institutions. “In sum, the Vietnamese treated Cambodia as a part of an expanding Vietnam and sought to impose Sino-Confucian customs on the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer” (Hawk 1995: 17). To be sure, many ethnic Vietnamese lived in Cambodia for generations and married with Khmer. They not only abandoned their homeland but also participate in mainstream institutions operating in Khmer and speak the language of their host society better than the tongue of their ancestors. However, compared to other ethnic groups, ethnic Vietnamese are integrated into Khmer society to a lesser degree and maintain much of their particularity (Hawk 1995: 20). For many, Vietnamese is the first language, taught in Vietnamese schools which exist in many communities. A basic level of Khmer language is learned only in daily interactions with Khmers (Derks 1996: pp. 256). This low degree of integration, together with the history of invasion and occupation, remains a major obstacle to Khmer acceptance of the Vietnamese as a legitimate part of the country’s society. The essence of being Khmer for many Khmers is defined in their direct opposition to Vietnamese identity. One thing that contributes to the sentiments of Khmers is that the Vietnamese colonization of much of the Mekong Delta created a sizeable national minority of Khmers within the borders of Vietnam31. Chandler notes with regard to this process: „the Nguyen institutionalization of control, a process that took more than two hundred years, eventually removed large portions of territory and tens of thousands of ethnic Khmer from Cambodian jurisdiction. This process produced a legacy of resentment and anti-Vietnamese feeling that fueled the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea and persisted among many Cambodians into the 1980s and beyond” (Chandler 1992: 95). While the ethnic Vietnamese’s rather low level of integration is characteristic of national minorities, few people in Cambodia would consider legitimate granting self government rights to this group. After all, few would consider the colonization of Cambodia as legitimate to begin with. Moreover, nothing suggests that Vietnamese in today’s Cambodia aspire to establish their own societal culture. At any rate, this would not be an option since Vietnamese communities are territorially dispersed. No doubt, Vietnamese are the most hated cultural minority in Cambodia and significant political restrictions apply to its members. Massive political violence towards ethnic Vietnamese during the last decades – on a genocidal scale during the Khmer Rouge regime – indicates that securing the common rights of citizenship for members of this group remains a major challenge (Jordans 1996, Edwards 1996a). The ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia do not fit well into Kymlicka’s distinction. Unlike national minorities, they never formed self-governing societies in Cambodia’s territory. Unlike ethnic groups, they did not come individually and with the expectation to integrate. Given their history and situation in Cambodia, the immigrant model of accommodation is the best ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia can realistically hope for.
  1. Cambodia: Polyethnic and Multinational


The previous sections have shown that the existence of Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese in Cambodia generally came about by immigration. While these groups maintain elements of their ethnic heritage, they are linguistically and institutionally integrated to a considerable degree. Thus, Kymlicka’s category of ethnic groups appears to correspond to the situation of these groups in Cambodia. Moreover, the difference between ethnic groups and national minorities is not dissimilar to official distinctions in Cambodia. However, the political practice associated with these distinctions has been and is very much at odds with suggestions stemming from Kymlicka’s theory. After Cambodia’s independence, Sihanouk classified the hill tribes as ‘Khmer Loeu’, the Chams as ‘Khmer Islam’, and members of the Khmer national minority in the Mekong Delta as ‘Khmer Krom’. The groups so classified were regarded as members of the ethnically defined Cambodian nation, while all other groups were excluded32. As of today, the Cambodian government has avoided the issue of citizenship. However, it appears that the post-independence, ethnicity-based model of citizenship is guiding government policy again. That is, Cambodian citizenship is understood to include the Khmer, the Chams, and various indigenous groups while citizenship is not extended to ethnic Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese. According to Pen, Cambodia officially distinguishes three categories of cultural minorities: the indigenous minorities (Khmer-Loeu), the Chams (Khmer-Islam), and foreign residents. However, government officials consider only groups in the first and second category ‘appropriate ethnic minorities’ of the Kingdom (Pen 2002: 9). There does not seem to be any legal document or public policy that would justify considering this classification ‘official’. However, it does seem to reflect the current approach towards cultural minorities. Interestingly, the two groups that are regarded ‘proper’ ethnic minorities are those which Kymlicka’s distinction classifies as national minorities, namely the hill tribes and the Chams. However, the Chams are classified as an ethnic group in Cambodia according to Kymlicka’s typology. Besides the Chams, the difference between ethnic groups and foreign residents in Cambodia corresponds to the difference between national minorities and ethnic groups in Kymlicka’s framework. The strong contrast between the political implications of both models should be pointed out. In Cambodia, the dichotomy of ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘foreign residents’ marks the difference between persons who have the right to Cambodian citizenship and persons who do not qualify for membership in the Cambodian state33. In Kymlicka’s framework, both ethnic groups and national minorities are granted rights in addition to the common rights of citizenship, and the distinction separates groups that have the right to self-government from groups that do not34.

Besides the difference between ethnic groups and national minorities, the concept of indigenous peoples is not foreign in Cambodia either. According to the survey cited above, the Khmer majority defines indigenous minorities by two criteria: (1) all those people who are not immigrants; and (2) who are almost totally illiterate in Khmer (Pen 2002: 9). The first criterion corresponds directly to Kymlicka’s typology, because it defines indigenous groups as national minorities, that is – in contrast to ethnic groups – as those who did not come as immigrants. To some extent, the second criterion is consistent with Kymlicka’s ideas as well, because it implies that indigenous groups speak and maintain a language different from the majority. It is worth mentioning that many Cambodians use the terms ‘chun-cheat’, which means nationality, or ‘chun-cheat pheak-tech’, which means ‘national minority’, to refer to indigenous minorities. These notions appear to be highly consistent with the typology used in this paper35.



To sum up, Cambodia is a polyethnic and multination state, containing ethnic groups as well as national minorities. Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese form ethnic groups in Cambodia. While these groups as well as Khmers were active contenders in the process by which modern nation-states came about, only the Chams did not succeed and do not have a state today. Accordingly, none of these groups qualifies as indigenous people. Among these groups, only Chams form a national minority. However, they do so in Vietnam, while Kymlicka’s typology classifies Chams in Cambodia as ethnic group. Through the expansion of Vietnam and Thailand, ethnic Khmers in the Mekong Delta and the Surin province were incorporated involuntarily into these states, where they form national minorities today. In Cambodia, only the hill tribes form national minorities or, more precisely, indigenous peoples. As the following sections will show, highland peoples formed self governing societies in the territory of today’s Cambodia and were involuntarily incorporated into the Cambodian nation-state. Put differently, while Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese chose to come to Cambodia, members of the hill tribes did not. Hill tribes were isolated from the process of state formation until rather recently. Due to the scope of this paper, the remaining pages will deal mostly with these indigenous nations. To recall a central idea of Kymlicka’s theory, national minorities – including indigenous peoples – face specific disadvantages, in particular the destruction of their societies through majority state nation-building. In order to equally secure the good of cultural membership, these groups should be allowed to maintain themselves as distinct societies. In order to do so, they should be granted self-government and special representation rights. This involves the devolution of powers to political subunits substantially controlled by members of the particular group. The following chapters will assess hill tribes in Cambodia in lights of these ideas.
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