Official Language: Khmer
Other Languages: Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon-Khmer languages
Main religions: Buddhism (96.6 per cent), Islam (1.9 per cent), Christianity (0.4 per cent), Animism (0.8 per cent)
Ethnic Khmer make up 90-94 per cent of the entire population, with the remainder comprised of four distinct groups: Cham, indigenous highland communities, 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 Cham and Khmer Loeu – a term that is increasingly used to confliate indigenous peoples with Khmer nationalism. The government does not recognize the international designation of ‘indigenous peoples’ but refers to such groups as ethnic minorities.
Cham is a term used to designate three separate Muslim groups, most of whom are Sunni, collectively making up 1 – 2 per cent of the population. Many trace their ancestry to the medieval Hindu kingdom of Champa. The communities mainly reside in Kampong Cham, Kampot, and north of Phnom Penh. The government designates Cham as Khmer Islam; although this reduces their ethnicity to a religious designation that is essentially Khmer, this term is preferred by some of the groups.
With regard to Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, there are between 18 and 24 different indigenous communities, comprising an estimated 400,000 people or 2 – 3 per cent of the country’s total population. They live mainly in the northeastern provinces of Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie, Preah Vihear, and Kampong Thom, but also in nine other provinces including the south west province of Koh Kong. They speak mostly Mon-Khmer or Austronesian languages. The assimilatory term Khmer Loeu or ‘upper Khmer’, is used by the government to subsume these communities as part of the Khmer ethnicity.
The Cambodian National Institute of Statistics’ 2013 survey estimated that ethnic Vietnamese comprised 0.1 per cent of the total population or 14,678 people, but these and other similar figures are generally considered to be a ‘gross under-estimation’. Researchers working on ethnic Vietnamese issues estimate the population to be between 400,000 and 700,000. Minority Rights Organisation Cambodia, a local NGO working on statelessness, estimates that there are likely upwards of 700,000 ethnic Vietnamese.
Then there are Montagnards, who belong to indigenous communities 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 are ethnic Khmer who reside in Vietnam yet face persecution by the Vietnamese government. Many fled to Cambodia only to be treated as illegal immigrants and returned to Vietnam.
While Chinese were possibly the country’s largest minority prior to the Khmer Rouge period, their numbers had dwindled to around 60,000 by 1984. The Chinese presence in Cambodia has increased drastically since 1993, though their exact numbers remain difficult to ascertain: research suggests that there are at least 300,000 ethnic Chinese, though some estimates put the population as high as 700,000.
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For the more than three decades that Cambodia has been ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), the country has suffered continued corruption, violence and the repression of all dissent. Amid crackdowns on civil society, opposition parties and activists, the government has held onto power through a ruthless campaign of intimidation. While all Cambodians are affected by the deteriorating human rights environment, minority and indigenous communities are particularly at risk. This reflects a long history of discrimination against these communities, especially their experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970’s. Though the total death-toll under this regime is believed to number between 1.7 million and 2.5 million, certain communities were particularly affected: for example, while 19 per cent of the majority Khmer population perished during these years, some 36 per cent of the Cham minority died in the same period.
The legacy of this era continues to be reflected in the slow and troubled progress towards justice for the Khmer Rouge’s many victims, particularly communities targeted in acts of genocide, including ethnic Vietnamese, Cham and Khmer Krom. The UN-backed Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was only established in 1997 and since 2006, when its investigations formally began, has only successfully prosecuted three people for crimes against humanity. Two of these, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, were also convicted on additional charges of genocide in November 2018 for their alleged role in the murder of thousands of Vietnamese and, in the case of Chea, Cham Muslims. Ao An (also known as Ta An), on the other hand, after being charged in 2015 for crimes against humanity for ‘extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds and other inhumane acts’, including the massacre of Cham Muslims, had his case severed in December 2016, creating a separate case file, and in August 2018 received separate rulings from the co-investigating judges: while the international judge indicted Ao An for genocide and crimes against humanity, the national judge dismissed the case on the grounds that it fell outside the ECCC’s jurisdiction. A final ruling on his case is still pending. Investigations against Yim Tith, a former cadre accused of aiding the killing of Khmer Krom and Vietnamese minorities, were concluded in 2017 but he has yet to be convicted. A major reason for the slow progress and limited number of cases brought against former Khmer Rouge officials, as well as the apparent failure to convict some of those accused of these crimes, is the reluctance of the Cambodian government – many of whom, including Hun Sen, were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge – to support the trials. Indeed, the ruling CPP has actively obstructed progress in many instances, with Hun Sen himself stating that further prosecutions could provoke civil war.
Troublingly, the prejudice that drove the Khmer Rouge to persecute certain minorities – in particular, its classification of ethnic Vietnamese as ‘historic enemies’ or ‘third pillars’ aligned with the state of Vietnam – persists to this day. Ethnic Vietnamese are arguably the most marginalized and impoverished community in Cambodia, with many lacking identification and as a result excluded from essential services such as education. Ongoing friction between Cambodia and Vietnam, such as a renewed border demarcation dispute in 2015, has led to rising discrimination and hate speech against ethnic Vietnamese. In 2016, at the beginning of the voting registration process for the July 2018 elections, intolerance towards ethnic Vietnamese was exploited by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); shortly after the CPP proposed a legal registration process for the majority of the estimated 160,000 undocumented Vietnamese immigrants in the country, the CNRP announced that it would be sending a force of 2,000 people to monitor the registration process for suspected foreigners – a thinly veiled reference to Vietnamese.
Many ethnic Vietnamese have been living in the country for decades, but lack identification papers. A national census of foreigners living in the country that began in 2014 has targeted ethnic Vietnamese for identification checks. Ethnic Vietnamese are further targeted for evictions from their homes. As they do not have citizenship rights under Cambodian law without identification papers and are barred from owning land, many settle by rivers and lakes. In October 2015, for instance, the eviction of around 1,000 ethnic Vietnamese families living on Tonle Sap lake began as part of a beautification project that would require them to be relocated, despite having resided there for decades. Their situation has become even more precarious since December 2017 when the government launched a drive against ‘improper’ identify documentation ahead of the July 2018 elections, apparently targeted at the ethnic Vietnamese population. The crackdown, beginning with communities around Tonle Sap and then spreading to neighbourhoods of Phnom Penh with large Vietnamese populations, reportedly stripped many Vietnamese of their documentation.
While the threat of land grabbing affects majority Khmer communities as well, Cambodia’s indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to expropriation of their ancestral lands for large-scale Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) for agriculture, mining, dams and forestry. Hun Sen has been under pressure for years to address land dispossession of indigenous peoples. He has been known to deflect from real root causes, including corrupt political and military links to rubber and logging interests, instead preferring cosmetic approaches to appease international donors and critics. The creation in 2016 of a national anti-logging committee to prevent illegal logging in the eastern provinces, for example, was criticized by some environmental groups at the time for falling short of real action and was subsequently accused of being a ploy by certain powerbrokers to secure a larger share of revenue from this illicit trade. Notably, the head of the committee, Sao Sokha, had himself been previously accused of involvement in illegal logging and had long been associated with political violence, criminal activity and corruption.
Hun Sen also subsequently announced the creation of five new conservation zones that would receive protected status, including 300,000 hectares in the primordial Prey Lang forest. Unfortunately, the order left out approximately 200,000 hectares of the forest that spreads into Preah Vihear province and included a ban on independent community patrols of the forest – a move that activists claim was specifically intended to prevent them from recording future crimes. Local rights groups have noted that illegal logging has continued in other protected areas at the same rate as non-protected areas.
Those defending their rights to land and environment, including many indigenous communities, are particularly under threat in a country that has seen stunning rates of deforestation and land grabs, fuelled by corruption implicating top figures in government. Members of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), comprised of indigenous Kuy people whose activities include patrolling forest areas for illegal logging, have been targeted: in March 2016, their camp was attacked by unknown assailants in a murder attempt on one of their activists, who survived, but sent chills throughout the community of defenders. Cambodia is one of the most dangerous places to be an environmental rights defender, and many have been killed for their work over the past few years. The PLCN, which won a prestigious Energy Globe Award for its work in June 2019, reported that 152 forestry related crimes took place in Prey Lang forest in January 2019 alone – a marked rise that it attributed to the failure of authorities to take effective action against perpetrators.
Indeed, the government itself regularly targets environmental defenders through arbitrary detention and judicial harassment. For example, environmental rights defender Ven Vorn, an indigenous Chong man from Koh Kong Province, was found guilty in March 2016 of ‘harvesting timber products and/or non-timber forest products without a permit’ (Article 98 of the Forestry Law) after being arbitrarily detained for five months. Although he was released the same day on a suspended sentence, the charges were thought to be related to his work to prevent the construction of the Areng valley dam on the ancestral territory of the Chong people, as in fact, indigenous peoples retain legal rights to harvest forest products without a permit under Article 40 of the Forestry Law. The Appeal Court upheld the sentence in September, although in July 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that it should reassess its decision. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders noted that the case is just one example of an increasingly common tactic by the government to suppress legitimate human rights activities: arbitrary detention, conviction and then release on suspended sentences.
These issues have devastating impacts on Cambodia’s indigenous communities. Forest destruction not only decimates livelihood opportunities, but also destroys complex cultural identities constructed around on the existence of the forest: the consequences are particularly acute for women as their position in the community are related to these spiritual and resource-gathering roles. According to research by the Cambodian Indigenous People Organization (CIPO), five indigenous groups, located primarily in the provinces of Preah Vihear, Preah Sihanouk, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng – the Saoch, Khe, Spong, Loeun and Samre – are most at risk of ‘disappearing’ – effectively being forced into extinction. It is for this reason that the government’s ongoing community land titling initiative for indigenous communities is so important – a process that to day has been hampered by widespread corruption, bureaucracy and inefficiency.
In the meantime, indigenous communities continue to be displaced by large megaprojects and developments. This includes, in particular, the Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province, which was completed in 2017. One of the biggest dam projects in the country, it was pushed through by its Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese backers regardless of widespread opposition and a questionable environmental impact assessment (EIA). Since its inauguration in September 2017 by Hun Sen, some 5,000 people including indigenous Bunong and ethnic Lao have been displaced. Flooding thousands of hectares of forest, the dam will undermine the fish stocks on which many indigenous and minority communities depend and devastate a wealth of cultural heritage, including sacred forest areas and grave sites, as well as the likely erosion of traditional knowledge. In Feburary 2018 reports emerged that the village of Srekor had been completely submerged by floodwater, inundating homes, temples, fisheries and ancestral graves, with many families at the time still in the process of negotiating compensation from Cambodian authorities and the developers. In December 2018 the dam was formally opened by Hun Sen, who blamed opposition to the project on foreign ‘incitement’.
Updated June 2019.
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 the 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, which remains one of the world’s darkest moments, in which 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.
Hun Sen has dominated politics since he was elected as Prime Minister in 1985, continuing to rule under the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) up until the present day. Elections in July 2018, preceded by months of harassment and intimidation of the political opposition, resulted in another landslide victory that was rejected by many observers as neither free nor fair. Hun Sen’s rule has been defined by consolidating the power of the CPP through judicially harassing his opponents and siphoning state resources for himself, his family and his cronies. He has passed restrictive laws on civil society, and imprisoned civil society workers on bogus charges. Under his rule, massive land concessions have been granted to foreign businesses for development, dispossessing both indigenous and minority communities.
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 in the 1970’s 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 and indigenous peoples, 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.
Human rights groups have claimed that the CPP is 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. 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.
The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its leader Sam Rainsy have been known to exploit anti-Vietnamese sentiment, creating public outrage that can result in attacks and hate speech against ethnic Vietnamese. Such sentiment was again used to whip up voter sentiment during the registration process for elections in 2018, and there have been reports of harassment during registration for ‘suspected’ ethnic Vietnamese. Indeed, in past elections, ethnic Vietnamese were denied the right to vote at polling stations across the country.
The elections in July 2018, preceded by months of harassment and intimidation of the political opposition, resulted in another landslide victory for the CPP and its leader Prime Minister Hun Sen that was rejected by many observers as neither free nor fair.
Land grabs continue to plague Cambodia’s minority and indigenous communities. Rights activists report that the country faces a land grabbing crisis driven by the government’s neoliberal economic land concessions (ELC) scheme, which has seen large swathes of the country carved up and sold off to multinational companies with close ties to the ruling elite. In north-eastern Rattanakiri province, indigenous community groups accuse Vietnamese rubber firms of taking over their lands. In 2012, the government responded to criticisms by placing a moratorium on future ELCs and rolling out a ‘land-titling’ scheme, intended to grant land ownership to locals. But critics say the new programme, led by a team of Hun Sen’s youth volunteers, is equally tainted by corruption and abuse.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia)
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Documentation Center of Cambodia
Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme
NGO Forum on Cambodia
Open Development Cambodia
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
Association of Khmer Chinese in Cambodia
Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact
- Cambodia: Protecting indigenous resources with a community-based monitoring app (2020)
- Minorities in Cambodia (1995)
News and updates
- A Cambodian Monk on Identity in New York City (29 March 2016)
- Cambodia: A haunting past and an uncertain future (11 February 2015)
- For many indigenous and minority communities, ‘development’ brings only destruction – new global report (28 June 2012)
- Struggle for control of resources in South East Asia feeds ethnic conflict, displacement and threatens livelihoods of minorities and indigenous peoples, new global report (28 June 2012)
- Unraveling the policies of the Khmer Rouge: targeted or mass killings? (6 August 2010)
- Confronting the end of a minority community in Cambodia (13 July 2010)
- Realizing Rights for All: tackling the structural drivers of economic, social and cultural rights deprivations facing marginalized groups (2023)
- Enhancing quality and universal access to indigenous peoples’ reproductive healthcare (EQUIP) (2021)
- Strengthening the capacity of minorities and indigenous peoples to advocate for implementation of international standards (2015)
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Sources and further reading
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