Last Updated: Thursday, 08 October 2015, 08:45 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Cambodia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Cambodia : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


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.


Main languages: Khmer (official), Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian minority languages

Main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Animism

The overwhelming majority of Cambodia's population of an estimated 14 million people (CIA World Factbook, 2006), perhaps as much as 90 per cent, is ethnic Khmer. Most Khmer follow Theravada Buddhism, and their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer subfamily of the Austroasiatic group.

The other 10 per cent is made up of four distinct ethnic groups: Cham (most of whom are Muslims), indigenous hill tribes (also known as Khmer Leou), ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese.


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.


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 Peoples Party. 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 could 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 Vietnamese, many of whom are not recognized as citizens by state authorities.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The democratic and pluralist 'veneer' of Cambodia appeared thinner in recent years as a number of political opponents and human rights activists were jailed, demonstrations prohibited or heavily controlled, and media and government critics hampered in 2005 and 2006. The UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia issued a report in 2007 which was highly critical of Cambodia's government, indicating that it 'uses systematic human rights and civil liberty violations to maintain its hold on power'.

Despite a 2001 Land Law to recognise indigenous rights in Cambodia, not a single indigenous group had received title for the collective ownership of their traditional lands by 2007. Regulations crucial to the enforcement of this legislation have still not been approved, resulting in indigenous people being particularly vulnerable to state orchestrated 'land grabbing' strategies. Following his 2007 visit, the UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia expressed his deep concern about the practice of 'land grabbing', illegal or coercive sales, and the granting of concessions, including mining licenses. It is thought that illegal logging in Cambodia has reduced the country's forest cover from 70 percent in the early 1970s to less than 30 percent in 2007.

Announcements in 2007 at the possible construction of two dams in Cambodia on the Sesan and Srepok rivers have caused concern for the negative impact they will have on the livelihoods of affected indigenous peoples.

The almost exclusive use of the Khmer language in all fields of public life continues to disadvantage indigenous groups and to some degree other minorities such as the Cham. In localities where the Khmer Leou are a majority, local commune councils still operate exclusively in Khmer and not local languages, making the participation of indigenous peoples who are not fluent in Khmer all but impossible. All communication with higher echelons of state administration is conducted exclusively in Khmer. Despite some provisions for bilingual education, this does not appear to have been implemented beyond a few pilot programmes, especially in north-east Cambodia. Despite numerous statements by state officials that bilingual education is one way to address the low levels of school participation of many minorities, the country's second National Education for All Plan is actually silent on the goal of education in minority languages.

On a more positive note, some broadcasting in minority languages restarted in 2004, having been stopped completely after 1993.

There remain strong undercurrents against the small Vietnamese minority, who face petty harassment from officials. While there have been no organized moves to oust them, the Cambodian community would prefer them to be repatriated to Vietnam.

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