The Kingdom of Cambodia is wedged between Thailand to its west, Laos to its north, and Vietnam to its east. Much of its geography is flat fertile land and dominated by the Mekong River.
Cambodia lost most of the territory it once held to the growing states of Siam and Annam, now Thailand and Vietnam, after the fifteenth century when the great kingdom and civilization centred on Angkor went into steep decline. During the nineteenth century, Cambodia was almost completely swallowed up by its encroaching neighbours before this process was halted by the imposition of French colonial rule.
Cambodia’s brief period of stable, postcolonial rule ended in 1970 when the war between the USA and North Vietnam swept into central Cambodia. A bitter and destructive civil war ensued, augmented by massive US bombing, between the US-backed Khmer republican regime led by Lon Nol and an insurgent Chinese- and Hanoi-backed Khmer Rouge. In April 1975 the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot won, and the new government sought to restructure Cambodian society completely. The Khmer Rouge called the new start ‘Year Zero’. More than 1 million Cambodians died in the process: one of the world’s darkest moments, where a government turned against its own people.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge fell out with the Vietnamese communists, their former allies, and the Vietnamese successfully invaded and installed a puppet regime in Phnom Penh (1979-90). From sanctuaries in Thailand, the Khmer Rouge, joined by remnants of former royalist and republican regimes in Cambodia and backed by China, the ASEAN states and the West, waged a guerrilla war.
A rough stalemate continued for a decade until 1991, when the warring factions signed a peace agreement in Paris. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) took control until elections were held. Though Cambodia has been developing as a democracy, the political situation was still somewhat unsettled in recent years, after 2003 national elections failed to give any single party the two-thirds majority of seats needed to form a government. In 2005, a number of opposition parliamentarians and human rights activists were detained by government authorities, though the prime minister decided to release all political detainees in 2006.
Population: 15.4 million
Official Language: Khmer
Other Languages: Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon-Khmer languages
Main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Animism
Khmers make up 90-94 per cent of the entire population, the other 10 per cent comprises four distinct groups: the Cham, indigenous highland communities (known as the Khmer Loeu), ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese, plus other smaller minority groups such as the Khmer Krom and the Kuy people. However, the government formally recognizes only the Cham and the Khmer Loeu.
Cham: roughly 4 per cent of the population, Muslim descendants of inhabitants of the medieval Hindu kingdom of Champa, located near the Tonle Sap lake.
Khmer Leou: roughly 1 per cent of the population, known as ‘upper Khmer’ they are a heterogeneous group of highlander/indigenous peoples occupying the mountains in the north eastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri and the south west province of Koh Kong.
Montagnards from Vietnam: indigenous groups from the highlands of Vietnam, many of whom are Christian and are sometimes called Degas. Facing persecution from the Vietnam government, they often flee to Cambodia as refugees.
The Khmer Krom: ethnic Khmer who reside in Vietnam yet face persecution by the Vietnamese government, flee to Cambodia only to be treated as illegal immigrants and returned to Vietnam.
Cambodia’s indigenous population is estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 people; indigenous communities are present in up to fifteen Cambodian provinces.
The Kingdom of Cambodia is, since 1993, a constitutional monarchy with nascent democratic institutions still struggling to re-establish themselves after the disaster of the Khmer Rouge rule and the political compromises made in the 1991 Paris Agreement peace plan. Though the constitution of 1993 contains a large number of human rights provisions (Articles 31-50), which are supposed to be enforceable by an independent judiciary, the day-to-day practice of and respect for these rights still remains elusive in many cases. Critics have pointed out that Cambodia, despite a great deal of effort and resources, is far from having a truly independent and well-functioning judiciary and still remains controlled by the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). Violations of human rights, such as arbitrary arrests and violence by security and military personnel or government officials are rarely prosecuted.
The status and protection of minorities in the new Cambodia is tenuous: while the constitution is silent on any rights of minorities, it does confirm in Article 31 that Cambodia ‘shall recognize and respect human rights’ contained in treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and presumably that should also imply minority rights provisions such as Article 27. In practice of course, the weak state of the judiciary and of the rule of law in the country do not augur well for those vulnerable members of Cambodian society, such as minorities, who are most in need of strong human rights protection. Additionally – and contrary to international human rights standards – the numerous and apparently generous constitutional human rights provisions are only available to the country’s ‘citizens’. This is problematic for some minorities, especially the ethnic Vietnamese, many of whom are not recognized as citizens by state authorities.
In July of 2009, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP further consolidated their power through national elections. Human rights groups claimed that the CPP was attempting to create a one-party state by silencing opposition voices. Much of this criticism comes from the CPP’s tendencies to file numerous lawsuits against civil society activists, opposition politicians and journalists.
During the 2013 elections, accusations regarding voting irregularities, political intimidation and corruption further tainted the incumbent government. Cambodia’s indigenous and minority populations were preyed on for votes by the CPP, reportedly being intimidated to vote for the CPP in rural provinces to ensure their own victory.
Plans for the next elections in 2018 do not augur well. In 2015, the government and the opposition joined together to pass new election-related legislation. One law bans NGOs from criticizing political parties during election campaigns.
Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), has been keen to exploit local discontent over land issues. Sam Rainsy, its leader, has been criticized for using anti-Vietnamese sentiments to bolster his political campaign. This follows his 2010 conviction for racial incitement and vandalism following a protest he led against alleged land encroachments by Vietnam – however, his prosecution was also widely believed to have been politically motivated.
In any event, the case is just one example of how the ethnic Vietnamese have become a scapegoat for Cambodia’s social and political challenges. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) reported ‘ethnically motivated disenfranchisement’ when a July 2013 poll found that ethnic Vietnamese were denied the right to vote at polling stations across the country. Media reports have also found that many ethnic Vietnamese have decided to leave Cambodia for their safety, despite having lived in the region for generations. In December 2013, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) penned an open letter to CNRP, imploring them to stop scapegoating the Vietnamese. Days later, the CCHR’s president, Ou Virak, began receiving death threats via social media and email. In 2014, opposition party and garment worker protests in Phnom Penh led to violence directed towards ethnic Vietnamese. A Vietnamese-owned coffee shop was destroyed. An ethnic Vietnamese man was beaten to death in February 2014, after he crashed his motorcycle into the back of a car and was insulted using ethnic slurs.
The loss of land has been one of the most prominent issues facing Cambodia’s minority and indigenous population for years. The increase in government-granted land concessions to private corporations has robbed communities of their livelihoods and of their spiritual connections to the land itself. The roots of Cambodia’s land ownership problems trace back to the debilitating Khmer Rouge policies, which abolished private ownership and monetary currency. LICADHO launched an online dataset in 2015, comprising the 2.1 million hectares covered by existing concessions. The organization noted that the Cambodian government had yet to disclose details of its land concessions, despite a 2012 directive ordering a moratorium and public review. At least 98 concessions, totalling more than 700,000 hectares, have affected lands belonging to indigenous communities, according to a 2012 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Despite promises from the government, lack of transparency and legal support has sparked outrage among various NGOs, as well as minority and indigenous community members themselves. A World Bank-funded programme was begun in 2002 with the aim of sorting out land titles. Despite the programme issuing more than 1.1 million land titles in rural areas since its inception, the NGO Bridges Across Borders stated that most of these titles only existed on paper and the process often failed to halt illegal evictions. The World Bank itself noted a ‘particular disconnect between institutional, legal, and policy achievements and insecurity of land tenure for the poor’ in a July 2009 review. The Cambodian government decided to withdraw from the project in September 2009, following pressure from the World Bank to support evicted families.
A very high-profile case involved the redevelopment of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake, a real estate venture linked to both a ruling party senator and Chinese funding. The government signed a 99-year lease deal with Shukaku Inc. in 2007. The following year, the company began pumping sand into the lake, paving the way for a 133 hectare complex of offices and apartment buildings. Roughly 4,000 families, many of whom belong to the Cham Muslim minority, were denied land titles and forced to move away. The government provided meagre compensation for the families who were displaced, and the housing that was offered to them was inadequate and far away from employment opportunities. The Boeung Kak Lake controversy led the World Bank to suspend future loans to Cambodia in 2011, following strong criticism from its own accountability wing, the Inspection Panel. By early 2012, the lake had disappeared from satellite photographs of the capital city. But the problem of evictions has not been limited to Boeung Kak Lake; by 2010, the Asian Human Rights Commission found that over 133,000 people in Phnom Penh alone had been evicted since 1990.
Also troubling are the land concessions granted for large-scale hydropower projects. For example, a group of around 5,000 mostly indigenous people face resettlement to accommodate the development of the north-eastern Lower Sesan 2 dam project. Aside from the evictions, the dam threatens local fish stocks, a key source of food and income to the area. Despite vehement protests, substantive dam construction was set to commence in January 2015. Another controversial project is the Stung Cheay Areng dam in Koh Kong province, which threatens to inundate a valley in the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest. The area is inhabited by the Chong minority.
Indigenous and Minority Languages
The majority Khmer language is exclusively used in the public sphere; this creates serious obstacles for minority and indigenous populations. Even in Khmer Loeu-dominated regions, local councils only use Khmer, thus excluding the indigenous highland population from contributing to their own affairs. Language and cultural barriers, as well as poverty and physical remoteness, contribute to Khmer Loeu not accessing adequate healthcare, leading to poor health outcomes in Ratanakiri province. At the end of 2006, the Cambodian government proposed to offer bilingual education for indigenous students up to grade three in several north-eastern provinces, however the government has yet to fully implement any such programme. Despite numerous statements by state officials that bilingual education is a key way to address the low levels of school participation in indigenous communities, the country’s 2003 – 2015 National Education for All Plan does not set a goal of education in minority or indigenous languages. The only schools that offer bilingual education are generally operated through NGOs, not the Cambodian government.
Under the Cambodian constitution, indigenous peoples and Cham Muslims are recognized as full citizens of Cambodia, but other ethnic minorities such as the ethnic Vietnamese, Montagnards and the Khmer Krom are still denied citizenship. These unrecognized minorities are unable to access health care and education, and often endure social discrimination.
The lack of citizenship combined with their endemic poverty makes ethnic Vietnamese women especially vulnerable to human trafficking and prostitution within Cambodia. One third of ethnic Vietnamese young women and girls are sold into the sex trade, according to a 2011 report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Cambodia has continued to violate its obligations under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees by forcibly removing Vietnamese Montagnards (or Degar) before they are able to apply for asylum. When the Phnom Penh Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) began fighting for the rights of the Montagnard asylum-seekers, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has frequently lashed out at international officials who criticize his government, subsequently threatened to shut down the OHCHR and accused its country representative of favoring the main political opposition party. The Cambodian government also confirmed its termination in 2010 of a UN-run centre which provided housing for 76 Montagnard asylum-seekers, including 62 members whom the government had already granted refugee status. The CCHR also pointed out that the closing of the Montagnard centre came just weeks after a state visit from a senior Vietnamese delegation. Rights groups are concerned that the Montagnards, part of a mainly Christian minority from Vietnam’s central highlands, might be deported back to Vietnam permanently. This group would face further discrimination in their homeland because of their ethnicity and the fact that the Montagnards historically sided with the US during the American war in Vietnam. Some critics have found similarities between the Montagnard situation and the late 2009 deportation of 20 Uyghurs back to China. That controversial move was immediately before China and Cambodia signed aid agreements up to US $1.2 billion.
The Khmer Krom, an ethnically Khmer minority with its origins in modern southern Vietnam, has faced discrimination in both Vietnam and Cambodia. In 2009 a group of Khmer Krom immigrated to Cambodia after being deported from Thailand. Cambodian authorities did acknowledge the Khmer Krom’s right to live in Cambodia because they share the same Khmer ethnicity as 94 per cent of the Cambodian population. However, in 2010 officials refused to provide them with the basic identification cards necessary to provide employment, education, and health care within Cambodia. The lack of assistance from the Cambodian government leaves the Khmer Krom in a state of ‘legal limbo’ as they do not qualify as Cambodian citizens or as refugees.
Khmer Rouge Trials
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were established in 2005 with UN backing to bring senior figures in the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) to justice. Many Cambodians see the process as a vital step for Cambodian society, by addressing past injustices. In 2010, Kang Kek Iew, also known as Kaing Guek Eav or Duch, was sentenced in 2010 to 35 years in prison for his role as head of the notorious torture centre S-21. He was charged with crimes against humanity, but in this case it could not be established that he had targeted minorities specifically, as the victims had belonged to all segments of society.
In 2011, three other prominent former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime faced legal proceedings in a second case known as Case 002, which specifically addressed genocide. The case was split into smaller trials, given the complex nature of the charges against the accused. Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second in command known as ‘Brother Number Two’, and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2014 for crimes against humanity. These charges related to the forced removal of two million Cambodians from Phnom Penh to labour camps and execution sites. A separate trial against the two commenced in July 2014; it focuses on genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The genocide charges relate specifically to the Khmer Rouge’s killing of approximately 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese and an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Cham Muslims. The third co-defendant, Ieng Sary who had served as the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, died in 2013.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Cham Khmer Islam Minority Human Rights and Development Association
Tel: + 885 12 304 009
Association of Khmer Chinese in Cambodia
Tel: + 855 23 364 266
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Tel: + 66 2391 8801
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights
Tel: + 855 23 883 832
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Tel: + 855 023 330 965
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Tel: + 855 23 25435
Cambodian Institute of Human Rights
Tel: + 855 15 912 607
Documentation Center of Cambodia
Tel: + 855 23 211 875
Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme
Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia (Vigilance)
Tel: + 855 23 27767
Tel: + 816 6577 35 78
NGO Forum on Cambodia
Tel: + 855 23 214 429
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Tel: + 1 202 667 4690
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- ‘Everything has shattered’ – rising levels of violence against Shi’a in Pakistan
- Still dispossessed – the battle of the Chagos Islanders to return to their homeland
- Living with Insecurity: Marginalization and Sexual Violence against Women in North and East Sri Lanka (October 2013)
- Fiji: The Challenges and Opportunities of Diversity (April 2013)
- Islamophobia and attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka (March 2013)