Cambodia, officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in Southeast Asia on the southern Indochinese Peninsula. It covers an area of 181,035 square kilometers (69,898 square miles) and is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest. The capital and largest city of Cambodia is Phnom Penh.
The history of Cambodia dates back to prehistoric times, and in 802 AD, Jayavarman II declared himself king, uniting the warring Khmer princes of Chenla under the name “Kambuja.” This marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire, which thrived for over 600 years.
The Khmer Empire, influenced by Indian culture, played a significant role in spreading Hinduism and later Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia.
The empire constructed impressive religious structures, with Angkor Wat being the most famous and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, in the fifteenth century, Cambodia’s power declined while its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand, grew stronger. In 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France and was later incorporated into French Indochina.
After a period of Japanese occupation during World War II, Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953. Despite maintaining a neutral stance, Cambodia was drawn into the Vietnam War as the conflict spilled over its borders via the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk trails.
In 1970, a coup installed the pro-American Khmer Republic, which was subsequently overthrown by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The Khmer Rouge regime ruled the country and carried out the devastating Cambodian genocide until 1979 when they were ousted by Vietnamese forces during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.
The Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea took control, but faced challenges in rebuilding the country due to limited international recognition and ongoing conflict.
Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which formally ended the war with Vietnam, Cambodia was briefly governed by a United Nations mission (1992-1993). The UN oversaw elections, and the majority of registered voters participated. After the UN’s withdrawal, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) consolidated power in a 1997 coup d’état. The CPP remains in power, effectively establishing a de facto one-party state, although Cambodia is constitutionally a multi-party state.
Cambodia is designated as a least developed country by the United Nations. It is a member of various international organizations, including the United Nations, ASEAN, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the East Asia Summit, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Non-Aligned Movement, and La Francophonie.
While Cambodia’s per capita income remains low compared to neighboring countries, it has experienced rapid economic growth and is among the fastest-growing economies in Asia.
The agricultural sector remains dominant, but industries such as textiles, construction, garments, and tourism have seen significant growth, attracting foreign investment and fostering international trade. Cambodia is known for its rich biodiversity and seasonal tropical forests, but it also faces challenges such as deforestation and vulnerability to climate change.
Etymology Update 12/03/2023
The official English name of the country is the Kingdom of Cambodia. The English term “Cambodia” is derived from the French word “Cambodge,” which, in turn, is a transliteration of the Khmer word កម្ពុជា (Kâmpŭchéa).
The Khmer word Kâmpŭchéa is a shortened alternative to the country’s official name in Khmer, which is ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា (Preăh Réachéanachâkr Kâmpŭchéa).
The Khmer term Kâmpŭchéa is derived from the Sanskrit name कम्बोजदेश (Kambojadeśa), which means “land of the Kambojas.” The Kambojas are said to be the descendants of Kambu, a legendary Indian sage from the ancient Indian kingdom of Kamboja.
The term “Cambodia” was already in use in Europe as early as 1524, as mentioned by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian explorer who accompanied Ferdinand Magellan on his circumnavigation of the globe. The term “Cambogia” was cited in Pigafetta’s work “Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (1524–1525).
According to scholar George Coedes, there is a 10th-century inscription in Cambodia that tells a dynastic legend. The legend narrates the union of the hermit Kambu Swayambhuva and the celestial nymph Mera, who establish the Cambodian Solar royal dynasty known as Kambu-Mera. Coedes suggests that this legend has its origins in southern India and is a version of the creation myth of the Kanchi Pallava dynasty.
In colloquial language, Cambodians refer to their country as either “Srok Khmer” (ស្រុកខ្មែរ), which means “Land of the Khmers,” or the slightly more formal “ប្រទេសកម្ពុជា” (Prâtés Kâmpŭchéa), which means “Country of Kampuchea.” The term “Cambodia” is more commonly used in the Western world, while “Kampuchea” is more widely used in the East.
History Update 12/03/2023
Sparse evidence suggests that there was a human presence in present-day Cambodia during the Pleistocene period. Some quartz and quartzite pebble tools have been found in terraces along the Mekong River in Stung Treng, Kratié, and Kampot provinces. However, the dating of these tools is unreliable.
During the Holocene period, there is slight archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherer communities in Cambodia. The cave of Laang Spean in Battambang Province is considered the oldest archaeological site in Cambodia and belongs to the Hoabinhian period. Radiocarbon dating of its lower layers indicates an age of around 6000 BC. The upper layers of the cave reveal a transition to the Neolithic period and contain the earliest dated earthenware ceramics in Cambodia.
Archaeological records for the period between the Holocene and Iron Age are limited. One significant event in Cambodian prehistory was the gradual migration of rice farmers from the north, which began in the late third millennium BC. Another interesting prehistoric feature is the presence of “circular earthworks” found in the red soils near Memot and in the adjacent region of Vietnam. Their purpose and age are still debated, but some of them may date back to the second millennium BC.
Other prehistoric sites with uncertain dates include Samrong Sen, located near the ancient capital of Oudong, and Phum Snay in the northern province of Banteay Meanchey. Excavations at Phum Snay uncovered 21 graves with iron weapons and signs of cranial trauma, suggesting past conflicts, possibly with larger cities in Angkor. Prehistoric artifacts are often discovered during mining activities in Ratanakiri.
Evidence of ironworking dates back to around 500 BC, with findings in the Khorat Plateau in present-day Thailand. In Cambodia, Iron Age settlements have been found beneath Baksei Chamkrong and other Angkorian temples. Circular earthworks at the Lovea site, located a few kilometers northwest of Angkor, also indicate Iron Age activity. Rich burials, indicative of improved food availability and long-distance trade, point to the existence of social structures and labor organization. Trade relations with India were already established by the 4th century BC.
Glass beads from the Iron Age period serve as important archaeological evidence. These beads, found at various sites across Cambodia such as Phum Snay in the northwest and Prohear in the southeast, indicate the presence of two distinct trading networks. These networks were separated in time and space, suggesting a shift from one network to the other around the 2nd to 4th century AD, possibly due to changes in socio-political powers.
Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian era
During the 3rd to 5th centuries, the Indianized states of Funan and Chenla emerged in present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam.
These states absorbed influences from India for over 2,000 years, spreading them to other Southeast Asian civilizations, including present-day Thailand and Laos. While there is limited information about these polities, Chinese chronicles and tribute records mention their existence.
Funan may have encompassed the port referred to as “Kattigara” by the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. According to Chinese chronicles, the death of Jayavarman I of Chenla around 681 led to turmoil, resulting in the division of the kingdom into Land Chenla and Water Chenla, with weak princes under the dominion of Java.
The Khmer Empire emerged from the remnants of Chenla and gained firm establishment in 802 when Jayavarman II declared independence from Java and declared himself a Devaraja (God-king). He and his followers established the cult of the God-king and launched a series of conquests that formed an empire flourishing from the 9th to the 15th centuries. During Jayavarman VIII’s reign, the Mongol army of Kublai Khan attacked the Angkor empire, but the king managed to negotiate peace. In the 13th century, Theravada Buddhist missionaries from Sri Lanka reintroduced Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia, eventually displacing Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the predominant religion in Angkor. However, it did not become the official state religion until 1295 under the rule of Indravarman III.
The Khmer Empire reached its height during the 12th century and was the largest empire in Southeast Asia at that time. Angkor, the empire’s center of power, witnessed the construction of several capitals. In 2007, using satellite photographs and modern techniques, an international team of researchers concluded that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering an urban sprawl of 2,980 square kilometers (1,151 square miles). The city, which could have supported a population of up to one million people, and Angkor Wat, the most famous and well-preserved temple, serve as reminders of Cambodia’s past as a major regional power. The empire remained a significant force in the region until its decline and eventual fall in the 15th century.
After enduring numerous wars with neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and subsequently abandoned in 1432 due to ecological and infrastructure problems. This marked a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation, during which Cambodia’s internal affairs increasingly fell under the control of its neighboring powers. The era of monumental construction that characterized the Khmer Empire came to an end, and older beliefs such as Mahayana Buddhism and the cult of the god-king were supplanted by Theravada Buddhism.
The Cambodian court relocated the capital to Longvek, where the kingdom aimed to revive its former glory through maritime trade. The first European mention of Cambodia was made by the Portuguese in 1511, who described the city as a prosperous center of wealth and foreign trade. However, ongoing conflicts with Ayutthaya and Vietnam resulted in the loss of more territory, and Longvek was ultimately conquered and destroyed by King Naresuan the Great of Ayutthaya in 1594. In 1618, a new Khmer capital was established at Oudong, located south of Longvek. Over the next three centuries, Cambodian monarchs were forced to enter vassal relationships with alternating periods of Siamese and Vietnamese control, with only brief intervals of relative independence.
During this time, the hill tribe people of Cambodia were frequently targeted and enslaved by the Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian powers. The nineteenth century witnessed renewed conflicts between Siam (now Thailand) and Vietnam, as they vied for control over Cambodia. Cambodia briefly became the Tây Thành Province of Nguyễn Vietnam, during which Vietnamese officials attempted to impose their customs on the Khmer population. As a result, several rebellions erupted against Vietnamese rule, and appeals for assistance were made to Thailand. The Siamese-Vietnamese War (1841-1845) concluded with an agreement to place Cambodia under joint suzerainty. Subsequently, a treaty was signed between King Norodom Prohmborirak and France, granting French protection to Cambodia.
In 1863, King Norodom, who had been installed by Siam, sought the protection of Cambodia from Siam by placing the country under French rule. Four years later, in 1867, a treaty was signed between King Norodom and Rama IV of Siam, in which Siam renounced suzerainty over Cambodia in exchange for control over the Battambang and Siem Reap provinces, which became part of Siam. However, in 1907, a border treaty between France and Siam resulted in the return of these provinces to Cambodia.
From 1867 to 1953, Cambodia remained a protectorate of France and was administered as part of the colony of French Indochina. However, during World War II, Cambodia was occupied by the Japanese Empire from 1941 to 1945. In mid-1945, a puppet state known as the Kingdom of Kampuchea was briefly established. Between 1874 and 1962, the population of Cambodia increased from approximately 946,000 to 5.7 million.
After the death of King Norodom in 1904, France influenced the selection of the next king. Norodom’s brother, Sisowath, was placed on the throne. Following the death of Sisowath’s son, Monivong, in 1941, France bypassed Monivong’s son, Monireth, due to concerns about his independent-mindedness. Instead, Norodom Sihanouk, a maternal grandson of King Sisowath, was enthroned as the new king. The French believed that young Sihanouk would be easily controlled, but they were mistaken. Under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953.
Independence and the Vietnam War
Under King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy. However, when French Indochina gained independence, Cambodia lost its hope of regaining control over the Mekong Delta, which was awarded to Vietnam. The Mekong Delta had been under Vietnamese control since 1698, with King Chey Chettha II granting permission to the Vietnamese to settle in the area decades earlier. This has remained a diplomatic issue, particularly for the ethnic Khmers (Khmer Krom) who still live in the region, numbering over one million. The Khmer Rouge attempted invasions to reclaim the territory, which partly led to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1955, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father in order to participate in politics, and he was subsequently elected as prime minister. After his father’s death in 1960, Sihanouk resumed his position as head of state, this time with the title of prince. As the Vietnam War escalated, Sihanouk adopted a policy of neutrality in the Cold War. He allowed the Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and supply route for their forces fighting in South Vietnam. This policy was seen as humiliating by many Cambodians. Sihanouk privately informed journalists and US representatives that he would not object to US airstrikes on Vietnamese communist sanctuaries in Cambodia as long as Cambodians were not killed. However, in public, Sihanouk denounced the US right to conduct airstrikes in Cambodia and called for an end to the bombings. Despite his public appeals, the bombings continued.
The ruling style of Sihanouk and his shift away from the United States caused resentment among some members of the government and military in Cambodia.
Khmer Republic (1970–1975) Update 12/03/2023
In 1970, while visiting Beijing, King Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. The extent of US involvement in the coup remains uncertain. However, once the coup was successful, the new regime demanded that the Vietnamese communists leave Cambodia and received political support from the United States. In response, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched attacks on the new government, aiming to retain their sanctuaries and supply lines. The king called for his followers to help overthrow the government, which contributed to the onset of a civil war. The Khmer Rouge rebels began using the king to gain support, and the conflict from 1970 to early 1972 primarily involved the government and army of Cambodia against the North Vietnamese armed forces.
As the Vietnamese communists gained control of Cambodian territory, they established a new political infrastructure, which eventually came under the dominance of the Cambodian communists known as the Khmer Rouge. Between 1969 and 1973, the forces of the Republic of Vietnam and the US conducted bombing campaigns in Cambodia to disrupt the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge.
Documents found in the Soviet archives after 1991 revealed that the North Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1970 was carried out at the explicit request of the Khmer Rouge and negotiated by Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command. North Vietnamese units overran many Cambodian army positions while the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) intensified their attacks. In response, US President Richard Nixon announced the entry of US and South Vietnamese ground forces into Cambodia to target North Vietnamese base areas. Although some equipment was seized or destroyed, containing the North Vietnamese forces proved difficult.
The leadership of the Khmer Republic, under Lon Nol, faced disunity among its principal figures: Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s cousin Sirik Matak, and National Assembly leader In Tam. Lon Nol remained in power due to the reluctance of the others to take his place. In 1972, a constitution was adopted, a parliament was elected, and Lon Nol became president. However, internal divisions, the challenges of expanding the army, and widespread corruption weakened the civilian administration and military.
The Communist insurgency in Cambodia continued to grow, with support from North Vietnam. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary consolidated their control over the Vietnamese-trained communists, purging many of them. Simultaneously, the CPK forces became stronger and less dependent on their Vietnamese allies. By 1973, the CPK was fighting government forces with limited or no North Vietnamese support, and they controlled a significant portion of Cambodia’s territory and population. The government made several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the insurgents, but by 1974, the CPK was openly operating as divisions, and some North Vietnamese combat forces had moved into South Vietnam. Lon Nol’s control was reduced to small enclaves around cities and main transportation routes, while over 2 million refugees from the war resided in Phnom Penh and other urban areas.
On New Year’s Day 1975, Communist troops launched a major offensive that led to the collapse of the Khmer Republic after 117 days of intense fighting. Coordinated attacks on the perimeter of Phnom Penh and the capture of fire bases controlling crucial supply routes resulted in the surrender of the Lon Nol government on April 17, 1975, just five days after the US mission evacuated Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge regime (1975–1978)
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, reached Phnom Penh and took control of Cambodia. They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and implemented radical policies inspired by Maoist China’s Great Leap Forward. Immediately after coming to power, they evacuated the cities and forced the entire population to undertake grueling marches to rural work projects. The regime aimed to transform the country’s agriculture based on ancient models, rejected Western medicine, and systematically destroyed temples, libraries, and anything associated with Western influence.
Estimates of the number of people killed under the Khmer Rouge regime vary, ranging from approximately one to three million, with the most commonly cited figure being two million, roughly a quarter of the population. This period gave rise to the term “Killing Fields,” and the Tuol Sleng prison became infamous for mass killings. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled across the border into Thailand. The Khmer Rouge regime disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups, with the Cham Muslims suffering severe purges that resulted in the extermination of up to half of their population. Pol Pot was determined to maintain his power and eliminate any enemies or potential threats, leading to increased violence and aggression against the Cambodian people.
Forced repatriation in 1970 and the atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge era significantly reduced the Vietnamese population in Cambodia, from an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 in 1969 to around 56,000 by 1984. However, the majority of the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime were not ethnic minorities but ethnic Khmer. Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers were also targeted. Intellectualism was seen as a threat, and even wearing eyeglasses was considered a sign of intellectualism and could result in persecution.
Religious institutions were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Religion was brutally persecuted, leading to the complete destruction of the majority of Cambodia’s historic architecture, including 95% of the country’s Buddhist temples.
Vietnamese occupation and transition (1978–1992)
In November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in response to border raids conducted by the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese forces successfully conquered Cambodia, leading to the establishment of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) in 1979. The PRK was a pro-Soviet state, led by the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, a party originally formed by the Vietnamese in 1951. The leadership of the PRK included individuals from the Khmer Rouge who had fled Cambodia to avoid persecution under Pol Pot’s regime, including figures like Ta Mok. The PRK was heavily dependent on the occupying Vietnamese army and operated under the guidance of the Vietnamese ambassador to Phnom Penh. It received military support from both Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
In opposition to the newly established PRK, a government-in-exile known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) was formed in 1981. The CGDK consisted of three factions: the Khmer Rouge, a royalist faction led by Norodom Sihanouk, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. The CGDK was recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge representative, Thiounn Prasith, retained his position at the UN but had to work in consultation with representatives of the non-communist Cambodian parties. The refusal of Vietnam to withdraw its forces from Cambodia resulted in economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
Efforts to achieve peace in Cambodia began in Paris in 1989 under the State of Cambodia, and these negotiations eventually led to the Paris Comprehensive Peace Settlement in October 1991. As part of the settlement, the United Nations was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire, handle refugee issues, and oversee disarmament through the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
Modern Cambodia (1993–present)
In 1993, Cambodia restored its monarchy, with Norodom Sihanouk returning as King, and the first post-war election was organized by UNTAC. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the FUNCINPEC party, led by Sihanouk’s son Ranariddh, winning. To avoid political instability, a power-sharing agreement was reached between Ranariddh and Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). They became co-Prime Ministers, with the CPP threatening to secede if power was fully transferred to FUNCINPEC. However, in 1997, Hun Sen led a coup d’état, ousting Ranariddh and consolidating power for the CPP by removing other parties represented in the government.
After stabilizing the government, Cambodia was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999. Norodom Sihamoni, Sihanouk’s son, was crowned as the King of Cambodia in 2004 following Sihanouk’s abdication. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, reconstruction efforts and economic growth contributed to some political stability under a multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy. However, Hun Sen’s rule has been marked by allegations of human rights abuses and corruption.
Cambodia’s economy experienced significant growth in the 2000s and 2010s, with China providing substantial investment and infrastructure development support through its Belt and Road Initiative. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, a UN-backed war crimes tribunal, was established to investigate crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea period and prosecute its leaders. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials or investigations of former Khmer Rouge officials.
In recent years, Cambodia has faced political challenges. The 2013 general election led to allegations of voter fraud by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), triggering widespread anti-government protests. The government cracked down on the protests, leading to their suppression. Ahead of the 2018 general election, the CNRP was dissolved, and the Cambodian People’s Party solidified its de facto one-party rule by winning all seats in the National Assembly.
In 2020, Cambodia was affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic. While initially successful in minimizing the spread of the disease, the country experienced a major outbreak in early 2021, which strained the healthcare system and had severe economic consequences, particularly in the tourism industry due to travel restrictions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office for 38 years, is known for his firm grip on power. In December 2021, he announced his support for his son Hun Manet to succeed him after the next general election in 2023. The CPP confirmed Hun Manet as its future candidate for prime minister. In October 2022, Hun Sen warned that the Candlelight Party, the country’s newest and largest opposition party, may be dissolved before the 2023 general election, following a lawsuit filed against one of its leaders.
Geography Update 12/03/2023
Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia and has a total area of 181,035 square kilometers (69,898 square miles). It is situated entirely within the tropical region, between latitudes 10° and 15°N, and longitudes 102° and 108°E. The country shares borders with Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east and southeast. Cambodia also has a coastline along the Gulf of Thailand that stretches for 443 kilometers (275 miles).
The landscape of Cambodia is characterized by a central plain that is low-lying and surrounded by uplands and low mountains. This region includes the Tonle Sap, also known as the Great Lake, and the upper reaches of the Mekong River delta. Moving outward from the central plain, there are transitional plains that are thinly forested and gradually rise to elevations of about 200 meters (650 feet) above sea level.
To the north of the Cambodian plain, there is a sandstone escarpment that forms a southward-facing cliff spanning over 320 kilometers (200 miles) from west to east. This cliff marks the southern boundary of the Dângrêk Mountains, with heights ranging from 180 to 550 meters (600 to 1,800 feet) above the plain.
The Mekong River flows south through Cambodia’s eastern regions. To the east of the Mekong, the transitional plains merge with the eastern highlands, which are forested mountains and high plateaus extending into Laos and Vietnam. In the southwestern part of Cambodia, there are two distinct upland blocks known as the Krâvanh Mountains and the Dâmrei Mountains. These mountains form a highland region covering much of the land area between the Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand.
The southern coastal region of Cambodia, adjacent to the Gulf of Thailand, is a narrow strip of lowland that is heavily forested and sparsely populated. It is separated from the central plain by the southwestern highlands.
One of the most notable geographical features of Cambodia is the Tonle Sap, which undergoes significant inundations. During the dry season, it covers an area of about 2,590 square kilometers (1,000 square miles), but during the rainy season, it expands to approximately 24,605 square kilometers (9,500 square miles). The Tonle Sap plain is densely populated and primarily used for wet rice cultivation, making it the core agricultural region of Cambodia. A significant portion of this area has been designated as a biosphere reserve.
Cambodia’s climate is characterized by tropical wet and dry seasons, which are influenced by monsoons. The temperature in Cambodia ranges from 21 to 35 °C (70 to 95 °F). The country experiences two primary monsoon seasons that bring distinct weather patterns.
The southwest monsoon occurs from May to October and brings moist winds from the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean. This period is known as the rainy season, and it is characterized by heavy rainfall and high humidity. The heaviest precipitation usually falls between September and October. Flooding can occur during this time, and some degree of flooding is seen almost every year, with severe cases occurring periodically.
The northeast monsoon arrives from November to April, marking the dry season in Cambodia. During this period, the weather is drier with lower humidity. Temperatures can rise up to 40 °C (104 °F) around April, making it the hottest time of the year. The driest period is typically in January and February.
Cambodia, like other countries in Southeast Asia, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the region, particularly due to its coastal areas. Climate change has resulted in water shortages, extreme flooding, mudslides, rising sea levels, and potentially destructive storms. These effects pose risks to the population, especially in rural coastal areas. The Tonlé Sap, a vital ecosystem and a significant source of food and agriculture, has also been affected by climate change, impacting the livelihoods and food security of many Cambodians.
Notably, Cambodia experienced disastrous flooding in 2001 and 2002, and flooding events have occurred almost every year. In addition, during the 2020 Pacific typhoon season, severe flooding affected 17 provinces in Cambodia.
Overall, Cambodia’s climate exhibits a distinct wet season from May to October and a dry season from November to April, with variations in temperature and precipitation throughout the year.
Biodiversity and conservation
Cambodia is known for its rich biodiversity, particularly in its seasonal tropical forests and riparian ecosystems. The country is home to various species of trees, mammals, birds, reptiles, freshwater fish, and marine fish. The Tonle Sap Lake and its surrounding biosphere are important habitats for a significant portion of Cambodia’s biodiversity.
The Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997, encompasses the lake and nine provinces. It serves as a critical area for preserving the diverse ecosystems and wildlife. Other notable habitats include the evergreen and dry Dipterocarp forests in Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, as well as the Cardamom Mountains ecosystem, which includes national parks and wildlife sanctuaries like Preah Monivong National Park, Botum-Sakor National Park, Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, and Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) recognizes six distinct terrestrial ecoregions in Cambodia, each with its unique characteristics and species composition. These ecoregions are the Cardamom Mountains rain forests, Central Indochina dry forest, Southeast Indochina dry evergreen forest, Southern Annamite Range tropical forest, Tonle Sap freshwater swamp forest, and Tonle Sap-Mekong peat swamp forest.
However, Cambodia has faced significant challenges in preserving its biodiversity due to deforestation. The country has experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation globally, resulting in the loss of primary forest cover and degradation of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Factors contributing to deforestation include illegal logging, large-scale clearings for construction projects and agriculture, and land grabbing. The loss of forest habitats poses a threat to many endangered and endemic species.
The construction of hydroelectric dams in the Greater Mekong Subregion, particularly in Laos, also poses risks to Cambodia’s food supply and fish stocks. The fisheries in Tonle Sap Lake, which are vital for the country’s protein supply, may be affected by upstream dams and changes in water flow.
Recognizing the importance of environmental conservation, the Cambodian government and educational system have increased their collaboration with national and international environmental groups. Efforts are being made to develop and implement a National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan (NESAP) to promote sustainable and environmentally friendly growth in the country.
Overall, protecting Cambodia’s biodiversity and addressing the challenges of deforestation and environmental degradation are crucial for the long-term sustainability and preservation of the country’s natural resources and ecosystems.
Cambodia operates under a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary representative democracy as outlined in its 1993 constitution. The country is led by a Prime Minister, currently Hun Sen, who has held the office since 1985. The King of Cambodia, currently Norodom Sihamoni, serves as the head of state. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King with the approval of the National Assembly, and together with ministerial appointees, exercises executive power.
Legislative authority is shared between the executive and the bicameral Parliament of Cambodia. The Parliament consists of the National Assembly, the lower house with 123 seats, and the Senate, the upper house with 61 seats. Members of the National Assembly are elected through proportional representation for a maximum term of five years. The Senate seats are filled by commune councillors and appointments by the King and the National Assembly, with senators serving six-year terms.
King Norodom Sihamoni ascended to the throne on 14 October 2004, following the abdication of his father, King Norodom Sihanouk. His selection was endorsed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly Speaker Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Cambodia is officially a multiparty democracy; however, the Cambodian People’s Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen have dominated the political landscape since 1985. Hun Sen has been in power for several decades and has expressed his intention to continue ruling until he is 74.
While Cambodia is officially a multiparty democracy, it has been criticized for being a de facto one-party state. The Cambodian People’s Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen have been accused of suppressing political dissent and disregarding human rights. The 2013 election results were disputed by the opposition, leading to demonstrations and clashes with riot police in the capital. Hun Sen’s government has faced criticism for its authoritarian tendencies and restrictions on freedom of the press.
Overall, Cambodia’s political system combines elements of democracy with centralized power in the hands of the ruling party and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The foreign relations of Cambodia are managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led by Prak Sokhon. Cambodia is an active participant in international organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank. It became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2004 and has also joined regional bodies like ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
Cambodia maintains diplomatic relations with numerous countries, with around twenty embassies located in the country. It has established diplomatic ties with its Asian neighbors as well as major global players involved in the Paris peace negotiations, including the United States, Australia, Canada, China, the European Union, Japan, and Russia. These international relationships have facilitated assistance from various charitable organizations to support Cambodia’s social, economic, and civil infrastructure needs.
Despite the relative stability achieved after the violent conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s, Cambodia still faces ongoing border disputes with its neighboring countries. Contentions over offshore islands, sections of the boundary with Vietnam, and undefined maritime boundaries persist. Border conflicts between Cambodia and Thailand, particularly in the vicinity of the Preah Vihear temple, have strained relations between the two countries. The situation remains unresolved due to factors such as Thailand’s disregard for international law, the presence of Thai troops in the area, and limited resources for the Cambodian military.
In recent years, Cambodia has developed closer ties with China. China has invested in Cambodia, including the construction of a deep-water seaport along the Gulf of Thailand in Koh Kong province. This seaport can accommodate cruise ships, bulk carriers, and warships. Cambodia’s diplomatic support has been important for China’s claims in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN is strategically valuable for China as it serves as a counterweight to Southeast Asian nations with closer ties to the United States, given that unanimous agreement among ASEAN members is required for group initiatives.
Overall, Cambodia’s foreign relations involve active participation in international organizations, diplomatic engagement with various countries, and the cultivation of ties with major powers such as China.
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is composed of the Royal Cambodian Army, Royal Cambodian Navy, Royal Cambodian Air Force, and Royal Gendarmerie. It operates under the Ministry of National Defence, which is overseen by the Prime Minister of Cambodia. The Supreme Commander of the RCAF is His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni, while Prime Minister Hun Sen effectively holds the position of commander-in-chief.
To reorganize the Cambodian military, a revised command structure was introduced in the early 2000s. This involved the establishment of three subordinate general departments within the Ministry of National Defence: the Department of Logistics and Finance, the Department of Materials and Technical Services, and the Department of Defence Services, all under the High Command Headquarters (HCHQ).
The current Minister of National Defense is General Tea Banh, who has held this position since 1979. The Secretaries of State for Defense are Chay Saing Yun and Por Bun Sreu.
As of 2010, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces had approximately 102,000 active personnel, with an additional 200,000 personnel in reserve. The military expenditure accounts for around 3% of the national GDP. The Royal Gendarmerie of Cambodia consists of over 7,000 personnel and is responsible for maintaining public security, preventing and investigating organized crime and terrorism, protecting state and private property, and providing assistance in cases of emergencies, natural disasters, civil unrest, and armed conflicts.
Hun Sen has consolidated significant power in Cambodia, including a praetorian guard that is believed to possess capabilities comparable to regular military units. This guard is allegedly employed by Hun Sen to suppress political opposition. Cambodia has signed the UN treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, demonstrating its commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Overall, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces play a crucial role in ensuring the security and stability of Cambodia under the leadership of the Ministry of National Defence and the Prime Minister.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is the dominant political party in Cambodia, maintaining a firm grip on power. Since 2018, the CPP has held an overwhelming majority in Parliament, controlling all but four seats, including all 125 seats in the National Assembly and 58 of the 62 seats in the Senate.
Hun Sen, the leader of the CPP, and his government have been embroiled in various controversies and allegations. Hun Sen himself was a former Khmer Rouge commander who rose to power with the support of the Vietnamese. After the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia, he has maintained his position through the use of violence and oppression when deemed necessary.
In 1997, Hun Sen orchestrated a coup against his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, fearing his growing power. He utilized the army to purge Ranariddh and his supporters. Ranariddh was forced into exile in Paris, while other opponents of Hun Sen were subjected to arrest, torture, and even execution.
The Cambodian government has faced accusations of political oppression and widespread corruption. There have been reports of corruption in the sale of land to foreign investors, leading to the forced eviction of numerous villagers. Furthermore, allegations have been made regarding bribes being accepted in exchange for granting access to Cambodia’s oil and mineral resources. Cambodia consistently ranks among the most corrupt governments in the world.
The government has also been criticized for its treatment of activists and journalists. Journalists covering protests over disputed election results in 2013 were deliberately attacked by police and unidentified individuals, resulting in injuries. The political tensions escalated as the opposition boycotted the opening of Parliament due to concerns of electoral fraud. Amnesty International recognizes Yorm Bopha, a land rights activist, as a prisoner of conscience in Cambodia.
In 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which further contributed to the consolidation of power and a shift towards a more authoritarian political system.
These incidents and allegations have drawn international criticism and raised concerns about human rights, political freedoms, and democratic governance in Cambodia.
Corruption Update 12/03/2023
Corruption in Cambodia is indeed a pervasive problem that surpasses the levels seen in many other countries. Despite the implementation of an “Anti-Corruption Law” in 2010, corruption continues to be prevalent across various sectors in the country. The judiciary, police, and other state institutions are particularly affected by corrupt practices. Government officials often engage in favoritism, and impunity is widespread. Furthermore, the lack of a clear separation between the courts and the executive branch of government leads to a deep politicization of the judicial system.
Cambodians frequently encounter corruption in their daily lives, affecting areas such as accessing medical services, dealing with alleged traffic violations, and seeking fair outcomes in court verdicts. Businesses face significant bureaucratic hurdles when obtaining licenses and permits, particularly those related to construction, and bribery is commonplace during this process. Unfortunately, the 2010 Anti-Corruption Law does not provide adequate protection for whistle-blowers, and individuals who report corruption that cannot be substantiated may face imprisonment for up to six months.
These challenges highlight the need for comprehensive and effective measures to combat corruption in Cambodia. Addressing systemic corruption requires a multifaceted approach, including strengthening institutions, promoting transparency, enhancing accountability, protecting whistle-blowers, and promoting a culture of integrity. Efforts to tackle corruption should be prioritized to ensure the rule of law, promote fair governance, and foster a conducive environment for social and economic development in Cambodia.
Legal profession Update 12/03/2023
The Cambodian legal profession traces its roots back to 1932 when it was first established. However, during the Khmer Rouge regime, which lasted from 1975 to 1979, the entire legal system in Cambodia was dismantled. Judges and lawyers were considered “class enemies” and were executed, resulting in the near eradication of the legal profession. Only a small number of legal professionals, estimated to be between 6 and 12 individuals, survived the regime and remained in the country.
It was not until 1995, following the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent efforts to rebuild the country, that lawyers began to reappear in Cambodia. The Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia was established during this time to regulate the legal profession and provide support to lawyers. Since then, the legal profession in Cambodia has gradually been reestablished, and lawyers have played an important role in the country’s justice system.
The reemergence of lawyers in Cambodia marked an important step towards rebuilding the legal system and providing access to justice for the Cambodian people. Today, the legal profession continues to develop, with lawyers working on a wide range of legal matters and contributing to the country’s legal framework and institutions.
According to a report by the US State Department, forces under Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have been involved in frequent and large-scale abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture, which have gone unpunished. These human rights abuses raise serious concerns about the state of human rights in Cambodia.
The 2016 Global Slavery Index highlights that a significant number of people in Cambodia, approximately 256,800 individuals or 1.65% of the population, are estimated to be living in modern-day slavery. This includes various forms of forced labor and exploitation, indicating a pressing issue that needs to be addressed.
Forced land evictions orchestrated by senior officials, security forces, and individuals connected to the government are widespread in Cambodia. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have been affected by land grabbing, resulting in the confiscation of millions of hectares of land. This practice serves the interests of powerful groups and individuals while adversely affecting the livelihoods and rights of the affected population.
Concerns have also been raised regarding restrictions on the media, freedom of expression, and political participation in Cambodia. In the lead-up to a national election in July, the UN expert on the human rights situation in Cambodia expressed serious concerns about these issues. Furthermore, critics of the government have faced arrests on charges of spreading fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia, raising further concerns about freedom of expression and government transparency.
These issues highlight the need for continued efforts to address human rights abuses, protect vulnerable populations, ensure land rights, and promote freedom of expression and political participation in Cambodia.
Administrative divisions Update 12/03/2023
Cambodia is administratively divided into autonomous municipalities and provinces, which serve as the first-level administrative divisions in the country. There are a total of 25 provinces, including the autonomous municipality.
At the second level of administration, Cambodia is further divided into districts and municipalities. There are 159 districts and 26 municipalities in the country. These districts and municipalities are then subdivided into communes and quarters. Communes are referred to as “khum,” while quarters are known as “sangkat.”
This hierarchical administrative structure helps in organizing and managing the governance and public services at various levels throughout Cambodia.
In 2017, Cambodia had a per capita income of $4,022 in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) and $1,309 in nominal terms. The United Nations classifies Cambodia as a least developed country. The country’s economy heavily relies on agriculture and related sectors, with most rural households depending on these industries. Cambodia’s major exports include rice, fish, timber, garments, and rubber. The International Rice Research Institute reintroduced over 750 traditional rice varieties to Cambodia from its rice seed bank in the Philippines.
According to the Economist and IMF, Cambodia experienced robust economic growth, with an average annual GDP growth rate of 7.7% from 2001 to 2010, ranking among the top ten countries in the world with the highest growth rate. The tourism industry witnessed significant growth, with tourist arrivals increasing from 219,000 in 1997 to over 2 million in 2007. In 2004, inflation stood at 1.7%, and exports reached $1.6 billion. Over the period from 2004 to 2011, Cambodia achieved remarkable poverty reduction, with the poverty rate dropping from 52.2% to 20.5%. However, despite these gains, many individuals who escaped poverty remain vulnerable to small shocks that could push them back into poverty.
Cambodia’s oil and natural gas deposits, discovered in 2005, hold great potential but have seen limited development due to territorial disputes with Thailand. The National Bank of Cambodia serves as the country’s central bank and plays a regulatory role in the banking sector. The number of regulated banks and micro-finance institutions increased significantly between 2010 and 2012, indicating growth within Cambodia’s banking and finance sector. However, challenges persist, including a lack of education among the older population, particularly in rural areas, and a need for basic infrastructure. Corruption and concerns about political instability also hinder foreign investment and delay foreign aid.
The Cambodian government has taken steps to address some issues, such as enacting laws on trade unions and establishing the Credit Bureau Cambodia to enhance transparency and stability in the banking sector. However, there are ongoing challenges related to labour rights and concerns raised by international organizations. The garment industry, which accounts for a significant portion of Cambodia’s GDP, has experienced tensions between independent unions and employers, with calls for a trade union law to streamline negotiations. The trade union law has drawn criticism and raised concerns among labour and rights groups.
Overall, Cambodia has made significant progress in poverty reduction and economic growth, but there are persistent challenges that need to be addressed, including human development, infrastructure development, and issues related to labour rights and corruption.
The garment industry holds a significant position within Cambodia’s manufacturing sector, constituting 80% of the country’s exports. In 2012, exports from the sector reached $4.61 billion, marking an 8% increase from 2011. During the first half of 2013, garment industry exports were valued at $1.56 billion. This sector provides employment to 335,400 individuals, with 91% of the workforce being female.
The establishment of Better Factories Cambodia in 2001 marked a unique collaboration between the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group. This program engages workers, employers, and governments to enhance working conditions and improve the competitiveness of the garment industry.
On 18 May 2018, the Project Advisory Committee (PAC) of the ILO Better Factories Cambodia Program convened in Phnom Penh to offer input on the draft conclusions and recommendations of the program’s independent mid-term evaluation. The committee also discussed strategies to further strengthen the initiative’s transparent reporting.
The PAC members agreed with the evaluation’s findings regarding the program’s impact on the Cambodian garment sector and workers. These impacts include:
a. Contributing to the sustained overall growth of the garment industry. b. Improving the lives of at least half a million Cambodian workers employed in factories participating in the Better Factories Cambodia program, as well as their family members. c. Ensuring that workers receive proper wages and social protection benefits. d. Virtually eliminating child labor in the sector. e. Enhancing the overall safety of Cambodia’s garment factories. f. Creating a “level playing field” for labor standards across the garment sector. g. Influencing business practices by utilizing factory data to identify areas for improvement and integrating the program into the risk management strategies of international brands and buyers.
The Better Factories Cambodia program has played a crucial role in promoting sustainable growth and improving working conditions within Cambodia’s garment industry.
The tourism industry is a significant contributor to Cambodia’s economy, serving as the country’s second-largest source of foreign currency after the textile industry. Over the years, international visitor arrivals have experienced remarkable growth, surpassing six million in 2018—a ten-fold increase since the beginning of the 21st century. Tourism plays a crucial role in employment, providing jobs for approximately 2.5 million Cambodians, which accounts for 26% of the country’s workforce.
While Phnom Penh and the iconic Angkor Wat are popular tourist destinations, other notable places include Sihanoukville in the southwest, known for its beautiful beaches, and Battambang in the northwest, which attracts many backpackers. The Kampot and Kep regions, including the Bokor Hill Station, also offer attractions for visitors. Since the 1993 UNTAC elections, tourism has experienced steady growth during a relatively stable period.
In terms of international arrivals, Chinese tourists constituted a significant portion in 2018. Tourism receipts exceeded US$4.4 billion, accounting for nearly ten percent of Cambodia’s gross national product. The Angkor Wat historical park in Siem Reap Province, the beaches in Sihanoukville, the capital city of Phnom Penh, and the country’s growing number of casinos (reaching 150 in 2018, up from 57 in 2014) serve as the main attractions for foreign tourists.
However, Cambodia’s reputation as a safe tourism destination has been somewhat affected by civil and political unrest, as well as notable incidents of serious crimes committed against tourists in the country.
The production of tourist souvenirs in Cambodia generates employment opportunities, particularly in areas surrounding major tourist sites. However, the quantity of locally produced souvenirs is often insufficient to meet the demand of the increasing number of tourists. As a result, a majority of the products sold in tourist markets are imported from China, Thailand, and Vietnam. Locally produced souvenirs include items such as traditional scarves called “krama,” ceramics, soaps, candles, spices, wood carvings, lacquerware, silverware, and painted bottles containing infused rice wine.
Agriculture plays a vital role in the Cambodian economy, serving as its mainstay. As of 1985, agriculture accounted for 90 percent of the country’s GDP and employed approximately 80 percent of the workforce. The primary agricultural commodity in Cambodia is rice, which holds significant importance. Additionally, there are major secondary crops cultivated, including maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, groundnuts, soybeans, sesame seeds, dry beans, and rubber.
Rubber is a particularly notable commercial crop in Cambodia. During the 1980s, it served as an important primary commodity, ranking second only to rice. The rubber industry also contributed significantly to the country’s foreign exchange earnings, serving as one of the few sources of foreign currency for Cambodia.
The civil war and neglect have had a severe impact on Cambodia’s transport system. However, with assistance from other countries, the country has been making efforts to upgrade its main highways to international standards, resulting in significant improvements since 2006. Today, most main roads in Cambodia are paved.
Cambodia has two rail lines with a total length of approximately 612 kilometers (380 miles). These lines connect the capital, Phnom Penh, to Sihanoukville on the southern coast. After a hiatus of 14 years, regular rail services between these two cities have recently resumed, providing a safer transportation option for travelers compared to the road. Trains also operate from Phnom Penh to Sisophon, although they often only run as far as Battambang. In recent years, a project worth US$141 million, largely funded by the Asian Development Bank, has been initiated to revitalize the rail system and establish connections with major industrial and logistics centers in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
The main road linking Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville, which was previously a dirt road, has been resurfaced with concrete or asphalt. Additionally, five major river crossings have been bridged, resulting in continuous road access from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong and neighboring Thailand. However, it’s important to note that Cambodia’s road traffic accident rate remains high compared to global standards. In 2004, the number of road fatalities per 10,000 vehicles was ten times higher in Cambodia than in developed countries, and the number of road deaths had doubled in the previous three years.
Historically, Cambodia’s extensive inland waterways played a significant role in international trade. The Mekong River, the Tonle Sap River, and their tributaries, along with the Tonle Sap lake, provided extensive navigable routes. Craft with a draft of 0.6 meters (2.0 feet) could navigate approximately 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) year-round, and an additional 282 kilometers (175 miles) were accessible to craft with a draft of 1.8 meters (5.9 feet).
The country has two major ports: Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, along with five minor ports. Phnom Penh, located at the confluence of the Bassac, Mekong, and Tonle Sap Rivers, is the only river port capable of accommodating 8,000-ton ships during the wet season and 5,000-ton ships during the dry season.
As economic activity has increased, there has been a rise in automobile usage, although motorcycles still dominate the roads. Traditional “cyclo” rickshaws, which originated from the French colonial era, were popular in the 1990s but have been gradually replaced by remorques (carriages attached to motorcycles) and rickshaws imported from India. Cyclos, where the cyclist sits behind the passenger seat, are a unique mode of transportation in Cambodia.
The country has three commercial airports. In 2018, these airports collectively handled a record of 10 million passengers. Phnom Penh International Airport is the busiest airport in Cambodia, followed by Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, which serves the most international flights in and out of the country. Sihanouk International Airport, located in Sihanoukville, serves the coastal region.
Science and technology
Since 1999, Cambodia has had a National Committee for Science and Technology, which represents 11 ministries. While seven ministries have responsibilities related to the country’s 33 public universities, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has the major oversight of these institutions.
In 2010, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports approved a Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector. This policy marked the initial step towards a unified national approach to research and development within the university sector and the application of research for national development purposes.
Following this policy, Cambodia developed its first National Science and Technology Master Plan for the period 2014-2020. The plan was officially launched in December 2014 by the Ministry of Planning after a two-year process supported by the Korea International Cooperation Agency. The master plan aims to establish a science and technology foundation that promotes industrial innovation, with specific emphasis on agriculture, primary industries, and information and communication technologies (ICTs).
However, it’s worth noting that Cambodia’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index has decreased over time. In 2021, Cambodia was ranked 109th, down from 98th in 2019.
Cambodia possesses significant potential for developing renewable energy resources. Although the country has not yet attracted substantial international investment in renewable energy as of 2020, it can serve as a valuable model for other ASEAN countries, particularly in terms of conducting solar power auctions.
To attract more investment in renewable energy, the Cambodian government could take several steps. These include improving renewable energy governance, setting clear targets for renewable energy development, establishing an effective regulatory framework, enhancing the bankability of renewable energy projects, and facilitating market entry for international investors.
Given Cambodia’s high vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change, it is advisable for the country to place greater emphasis on the development of renewable energy sources as part of its overall climate change mitigation efforts. By prioritizing renewable energy, Cambodia can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a more sustainable and resilient future.
Society Update 12/03/2023
The first official census conducted in Cambodia was in 1921 during the French protectorate period. However, this census only counted men aged 20 to 60, as its main purpose was to collect taxes. After the 1962 population census, Cambodia experienced civil conflicts and instability, resulting in a 36-year gap before another official census could be conducted in 1998.
Currently, approximately 50% of the Cambodian population is younger than 22 years old. With a sex ratio of 1.04 females to every male, Cambodia has the most female-biased sex ratio in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Among Cambodians aged over 65, the female-to-male ratio is 1.6 to 1.
As of 2018, the total fertility rate in Cambodia was 2.5 children per woman. This rate has declined from 4.0 children per woman in 2000. On average, women in urban areas have 2.2 children, while women in rural areas have 3.3 children. The provinces of Mondol Kiri and Rattanak Kiri have the highest fertility rates, with women having an average of 4.5 children, while Phnom Penh has the lowest fertility rate, with women having an average of 2.0 children.
The majority of Cambodia’s population is of ethnic Khmer origin, comprising over 95% of the total population. The Khmer people are speakers of the Khmer language, which is the official language of the country. Cambodia’s population is largely homogeneous, but there are also minority groups residing in the country.
The Chams are one of the minority groups in Cambodia, accounting for about 1.2% of the population. They are descendants of the Austronesian people of the former kingdom of Champa, which was located in central and southern Vietnam. The Chams in Cambodia, most of whom are Muslims, often live in separate villages in the southeastern part of the country.
The Vietnamese are the second-largest ethnic minority in Cambodia, making up around 0.1% of the population. They are concentrated in provinces in the southeast of Cambodia, bordering the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Despite linguistic similarities between the Vietnamese language and the Mon-Khmer language family, there are limited cultural connections between the two groups. Historical tensions between the Khmer and Vietnamese date back to the Post-Angkor Period when both Vietnam and Thailand sought to dominate Cambodia.
Chinese Cambodians represent approximately 0.1% of the population. Most Chinese Cambodians are descendants of 19th and 20th-century immigrants who came to Cambodia for trade and commerce opportunities during the French protectorate era. They are primarily urban dwellers engaged in business activities.
The indigenous ethnic groups living in the mountainous regions are collectively known as Montagnards or Khmer Loeu. These groups, including various tribal communities, are descended from Mon-Khmer speakers who migrated from southern China and Austronesian speakers from insular Southeast Asia. Due to their isolation in the highlands, the Khmer Loeu groups have maintained distinct cultural practices and beliefs that differ from the mainstream Khmer population.
It’s important to note that these demographic figures are estimates and may vary slightly.
Traditional gender roles in Cambodia have often placed certain expectations on Khmer women. These expectations include being modest, soft-spoken, and well-mannered. Women are traditionally seen as industrious and take on the roles of caregivers and caretakers within the family. They are also expected to be financial controllers, managing household finances.
There is an emphasis on maintaining virginity until marriage and being faithful wives. Cambodian women are often described as having a “light” walking style and refined demeanor, characterized by quiet movements and the rustling of their silk skirts. This description highlights the cultural appreciation for grace and elegance.
In the traditional Cambodian family structure, women hold authority at the familial level and can act as advisors to their husbands. They play an important role in decision-making within the household.
It is important to note that while these traditional gender roles have been prevalent in Cambodian society, the country has undergone significant social changes in recent decades. Women in Cambodia are increasingly pursuing education, joining the workforce, and challenging traditional gender norms. There is a growing recognition of women’s rights and gender equality in the country.
The Khmer language, spoken by the majority of Cambodians, belongs to the Mon–Khmer subfamily of the Austroasiatic language group. In the past, French served as the language of government during the colonial period in Indochina. While many older Cambodians still speak French, its usage has declined over the years. However, some schools and universities funded by the French government still use French as the language of instruction. There are also French-language newspapers and TV channels available in Cambodia, and the country is a member of La Francophonie.
Cambodian French, a dialect influenced by the country’s colonial history, is still used in some government settings, particularly in court proceedings. Since 1993, there has been a noticeable increase in the use of English, which has been replacing French as the primary foreign language. English is widely taught in universities, and there is a significant English-language press in the country. Bilingual street signs in Khmer and English have become common.
As a result of this linguistic shift, English is now predominantly used in Cambodia’s international relations. It has replaced French on Cambodian stamps and, since 2002, on the country’s currency. The Khmer script, used to write the Khmer language, has its origins in the South Indian Pallava script.
Theravada Buddhism is the official and predominant religion in Cambodia, with more than 95 percent of the population practicing it. The country is home to an estimated 4,392 monastery temples spread across the nation. Cambodian Buddhism is deeply influenced by both Hinduism and native animism.
The belief system of Cambodian Buddhism incorporates a close relationship between the community and spiritual entities. Practices such as apotropaic rituals (aimed at warding off evil) and luck-attracting actions and charms are prevalent. These traditions have roots in the native folk religion. Hinduism has also had an impact, particularly through tantric practices and the assimilation of Hindu deities into the spirit world. For instance, the neak ta spirit known as Yeay Mao is considered a modern manifestation of the Hindu goddess Kali.
Among the Chinese and Vietnamese communities in Cambodia, Mahayana Buddhism is the predominant religion. It combines elements of other religious practices such as the veneration of folk heroes and ancestors, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Islam is followed by approximately 2 percent of the population, primarily among the Cham people and the descendants of long-standing Malay residents in the country. The Muslim population in Cambodia is reported to be composed of 80 percent ethnic Cham individuals.
In 2021, the life expectancy in Cambodia reached 75 years, marking a significant improvement compared to the average life expectancy of 55 years in 1995. Both public and private healthcare services are available in the country. Studies have shown that trust in healthcare providers plays a crucial role in increasing the utilization of healthcare services, particularly in rural areas of Cambodia. The government is committed to enhancing the quality of healthcare by raising awareness about diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other prevalent health issues.
Cambodia has made notable progress in reducing infant mortality rates. The infant mortality rate has decreased from 86 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1998 to 24 in 2018.
Ratanakiri, a province with the most challenging health indicators, experiences a child mortality rate of 22.9%, meaning that nearly 23% of children do not survive beyond the age of five.
Cambodia was once heavily affected by landmines, making it one of the most landmined countries in the world. Unexploded landmines have caused significant casualties, resulting in over 60,000 civilian deaths and numerous injuries since 1970. However, the number of reported landmine casualties has significantly decreased, from 800 in 2005 to 111 in 2013 (22 deaths and 89 injuries). Survivors of landmine accidents often require amputations and face significant challenges, including resorting to begging for their livelihood. Cambodia has been working towards becoming landmine-free by 2020, but the social and economic impact, including the presence of orphans and a high number of amputees (one in 290 people), is expected to persist for years to come.
Between 1979 and 2013, landmines and exploded ordnance in Cambodia have caused 44,630 injuries, as reported by the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System.
Education Update 12/03/2023
The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in Cambodia is responsible for formulating national education policies and guidelines. The education system in Cambodia is decentralized, with central, provincial, and district levels of government managing its administration. The constitution of Cambodia guarantees free compulsory education for nine years, ensuring the universal right to quality basic education. According to the 2019 Cambodian census, the literacy rate was estimated at 88.5% of the population, with higher rates for men (91.1%) compared to women (86.2%). Among youth aged 15 to 24 years, the literacy rate is 89% for males and 86% for females.
The Cambodian education system still faces numerous challenges, but significant progress has been made in recent years. Primary school enrollment has improved, program-based budgeting has been introduced, and policies have been developed to facilitate access to education for disadvantaged children. The country has also made significant investments in vocational education, particularly in rural areas, to address poverty and unemployment. Phnom Penh is home to two highly regarded universities in Cambodia.
Traditionally, education in Cambodia was provided by Buddhist temples (wats), primarily catering to males. However, during the Khmer Rouge regime, education suffered severe setbacks. Child labor has also hindered educational progress, as many employed children in Cambodia are enrolled in school but face challenges such as late entry, lower learning outcomes, and higher dropout rates.
Research on academic performance among Cambodian primary school children has highlighted the influence of parental attitudes and beliefs. The study found that children’s academic achievement was negatively affected by parents with stronger fatalistic beliefs (i.e., the belief that human effort cannot change destiny). Additionally, the study found that the length of time parents had resided in the community positively predicted better academic performance among their children. These findings underscore the role of social capital in educational access and achievement in Cambodian society, where family attitudes and beliefs are central factors.
In 2017, Cambodia had a homicide rate of 2.4 per 100,000 population, indicating a relatively low level of violence in the country.
Prostitution is technically illegal in Cambodia, but it remains prevalent. In a series of interviews conducted in 1993, a majority of the interviewed women considered prostitution to be a normal profession and not a source of shame. It was estimated that there were approximately 100,000 sex workers in Cambodia in the same year.
On August 18, 2019, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive that banned the issuance of new online gambling licenses by the Finance Ministry. Existing operators holding online licenses were allowed to continue their operations until the expiration of their licenses. The decision was motivated by concerns about foreign individuals using online gambling as a means to exploit victims both within and outside the country. Prior to the announcement of the new policy, Cambodia had issued over 150 online gambling licenses.
Cambodian culture is shaped by various influences, including Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, French colonialism, Angkorian culture, and modern globalization. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is responsible for promoting and developing Cambodian culture, which encompasses not only the culture of the lowland ethnic majority but also the distinct cultures of the hill tribes known as the Khmer Loeu.
A notable aspect of Cambodian clothing is the krama scarf, commonly worn by rural Cambodians. The sampeah is a traditional Cambodian greeting, symbolizing respect towards others. Khmer culture, developed and spread by the Khmer empire, encompasses unique styles of dance, architecture, and sculpture that have been influenced by and exchanged with neighboring Laos and Thailand throughout history. Angkor Wat, along with numerous other temples, stands as a remarkable example of Khmer architecture from the Angkorian era.
Traditionally, the Khmer people used Tra leaves to record important information, including legends, religious texts, and prayer books. These leaves were carefully preserved by wrapping them in cloth to protect them from moisture and the climate. The Bon Om Touk, also known as the Water Festival, is a significant national festival in Cambodia. It features a boat rowing contest and attracts approximately 10% of the country’s population each year. The festival is a time for games, giving thanks to the moon, enjoying fireworks, and attending boat races in a festive atmosphere.
Popular games in Cambodia include soccer, kicking a sey (similar to a footbag), and chess. The Cambodian New Year, based on the classical Indian solar calendar and Theravada Buddhism, is a major holiday celebrated in April. Notable figures in Cambodian music include singers Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, Preap Sovath, and Sokun Nisa, who introduced new musical styles to the country.
One of the significant annual events in Cambodia is the Pchum Ben, or Ancestors’ Day. During this 15-day festival, people visit pagodas across the country to offer prayers and food to the spirits of their deceased relatives. It is a time for Cambodians to remember and honor those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979.
Rice is the primary staple grain in Cambodia, similar to other Southeast Asian countries. The Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers provide a significant supply of fish, which is an important part of the Cambodian diet. As of 2000, the average supply of fish and fish products per person was 20 kilograms (44 pounds) or 2 ounces per day. Some of the fish is used to make prahok, a fermented fish paste that allows for longer storage.
Cambodian cuisine features a variety of tropical fruits, soups, and noodles. Key ingredients in Cambodian cooking include kaffir lime, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, ginger, oyster sauce, coconut milk, and black pepper. Some popular dishes include num banh chok, which is a type of noodle dish, fish amok, a steamed fish curry, and aping, a traditional Cambodian pancake. The country also offers a wide range of distinctive street foods.
The influence of French cuisine can be seen in dishes like Cambodian red curry, which is often served with toasted baguette bread. The toasted baguette is dipped in the curry for a unique combination of flavors. Cambodian red curry is also enjoyed with rice and rice vermicelli noodles. Kuy teav is another popular dish often enjoyed when dining out. It is a pork broth rice noodle soup garnished with fried garlic, scallions, green onions, and various toppings such as beef balls, shrimp, pork liver, or lettuce. Kampot pepper, known for its exceptional quality, is commonly used and pairs well with crab dishes in Kep or squid dishes along the Ou Trojak Jet river.
Despite its delicious cuisine, Cambodian food is relatively lesser-known on the global stage compared to its neighboring countries, Thailand and Vietnam.
Tea is a popular beverage in Cambodia, and it is grown in Mondulkiri Province and around Kirirom. One type of tea called “te krolap” is a strong tea made by placing water and a mass of tea leaves in a small glass, covering it with a saucer, and flipping the whole thing upside down to brew. Once it reaches the desired darkness, the tea is poured into another cup and sweetened with plenty of sugar, but without adding milk. Lemon tea, known as “te kdau kroch chhma,” is made with Chinese red-dust tea and lemon juice. It can be enjoyed hot or iced and is typically served with a generous amount of sugar.
When it comes to coffee, Cambodia primarily imports beans from Laos and Vietnam, although domestically produced coffee from Ratanakiri Province and Mondulkiri Province can also be found in some places. The beans are traditionally roasted with butter and sugar, along with other ingredients that can range from rum to pork fat, resulting in a unique aroma, sometimes with hints of chocolate.
Cambodia has several industrial breweries, primarily located in Sihanoukville Province and Phnom Penh. In recent years, there has been a rise in microbreweries in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The number of craft beer breweries increased from two to nine between 2014 and 2018, and as of 2019, there are 12 brewpubs or microbreweries in Cambodia.
Rice wine is a popular alcoholic drink in Cambodia, and its quality can vary widely. It is often infused with fruits or medicinal herbs, resulting in a variety of flavors. One popular infused rice wine is called “sra tram” or soaked wine, such as the Sombai liqueur. This type of rice wine has gained popularity, especially in the tourism industry, as it is smoother to drink compared to plain rice wine.
Overall, tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages like rice wine contribute to the diverse and flavorful beverage culture in Cambodia.
Football (soccer) is indeed one of the most popular sports in Cambodia, despite professional organized sports not being as prevalent as in Western countries due to economic conditions. The introduction of soccer to Cambodia can be credited to the French during the colonial period, and it quickly gained popularity among the locals.
The Cambodia national football team achieved a notable accomplishment by finishing fourth in the 1972 Asian Cup. However, the development of football in Cambodia has faced challenges and slowed down during the civil war.
In addition to soccer, Western sports such as basketball, volleyball, bodybuilding, field hockey, rugby union, golf, and baseball are also gaining popularity in Cambodia. Volleyball, in particular, is the most popular sport in the country.
Cambodia also has its own traditional sports, which include boat racing, buffalo racing, Pradal Serey (Khmer kickboxing), Khmer traditional wrestling, and Bokator (a traditional Khmer martial art). These native sports reflect the cultural heritage and traditions of the Cambodian people.
Furthermore, Cambodia has participated in international sporting events such as the Olympic Games, with their first participation occurring in the 1956 Summer Olympics in the equestrian discipline. Cambodia also hosted the GANEFO Games in 1966 and will host the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in 2023, demonstrating the country’s involvement in regional and international sports competitions.
Overall, while soccer holds a special place in Cambodian sports culture, a variety of Western and traditional sports are gaining popularity, showcasing the growing interest and participation in sports across the country.
Cambodian dance encompasses three main categories: Khmer classical dance, folk dance, and social dances. The origins of Khmer classical dance are a subject of debate among scholars. Some native Khmer scholars believe that the dance forms can be traced back to the time of Angkor, drawing similarities from temple engravings of that period. Others argue that modern Khmer dance styles were learned or re-learned from Siamese court dancers in the 1800s.
Khmer classical dance, also known as Robam Preah Reach Troap, is a highly stylized form of performance art that originated in the royal courts of Cambodia. It serves both entertainment and ceremonial purposes. The dances are performed by highly trained male and female dancers in intricate costumes. They are often showcased on public occasions as a tribute, invocation, or to enact traditional stories and epic poems such as the Reamker, which is the Khmer version of the Ramayana. The dance is accompanied by the music of a pinpeat ensemble and a vocal chorus.
Cambodian folk dance, typically performed to mahori music, celebrates the diverse cultural and ethnic groups of Cambodia. Folk dances originated in villages and are primarily performed by villagers for villagers. The movements in folk dances are less stylized compared to classical dance, and the dancers wear clothing that represents the people they are portraying, such as hill tribes, Chams, or farmers. Folk dances are often faster-paced and depict themes of everyday life, love, comedy, or the warding off of evil spirits.
Social dances in Cambodia are performed by guests at banquets, parties, or other informal social gatherings. These dances are similar to those found in other Southeast Asian countries. Examples of Khmer traditional social dances include Romvong and Romkbach, which are circle dances, as well as Saravan and Lam Leav. Additionally, modern Western popular dances like Cha-cha, Bolero, and the Madison have also influenced Cambodian social dance.
Overall, Cambodian dance is a rich and diverse art form that encompasses classical, folk, and social dance styles. Each category has its own unique characteristics, reflecting the cultural heritage and traditions of the Cambodian people.
Libraries Update 12/03/2023
The National Library of Cambodia was established in 1924. It served as a repository of knowledge and cultural heritage, housing a vast collection of books, manuscripts, and other valuable documents. However, during the Khmer Rouge era, which occurred from 1975 to 1979, the National Library, like many other institutions in Cambodia, suffered significant destruction.
The Khmer Rouge regime, under the leadership of Pol Pot, aimed to eradicate intellectualism and eliminate any perceived threats to their ideology. As a result, the National Library, along with numerous educational and cultural institutions, was targeted for destruction. Countless books, manuscripts, and historical records were lost or damaged during this period of upheaval and devastation.
In the years following the Khmer Rouge regime, efforts have been made to rebuild and restore the National Library. The Cambodian government, in collaboration with international organizations and donors, has worked towards the recovery and preservation of cultural artifacts and the revival of Cambodia’s intellectual and literary heritage.
Despite the losses suffered during the Khmer Rouge era, the National Library of Cambodia continues to play a crucial role in preserving and promoting Cambodian literature, history, and culture. It serves as a valuable resource for researchers, scholars, and the general public, contributing to the revitalization of Cambodia’s intellectual and educational landscape.
Traditional Cambodian music has a rich history that dates back to the time of the Khmer Empire. It encompasses various genres and styles that are deeply rooted in Cambodian culture. One of the iconic forms of traditional dance is the Apsara Dance, often performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, accompanied by Mahori ensembles. These dances hold significant cultural and artistic value.
In rural areas, you can find musical forms such as Chapei and Ayai. Chapei is popular among the older generation and typically features a solo performance by a man playing a Cambodian guitar (chapei) while singing a cappella verses. The lyrics often carry moral or religious themes. Ayai, on the other hand, can be performed solo or as a duet by a man and a woman. It is a lyrical poetry form that can be scripted or improvised, often filled with double entendres and humor. The duo takes turns singing verses, “answering” each other or posing riddles, with instrumental breaks in between.
For traditional Cambodian weddings, Pleng Kaah, meaning “wedding music,” is played. It consists of a set of traditional songs and music performed both for entertainment and as accompaniment for the ceremonial parts of a Khmer wedding, which can span several days.
In addition to traditional music, Cambodia has a vibrant popular music scene. Cambodian popular music often combines traditional elements with Western-style instruments. The music of renowned singers like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pen Ran from the 1960s to the 1970s is considered classic Cambodian pop music. However, during the Khmer Rouge regime, many of these artists were tragically lost, and original master tapes were destroyed.
In the 1980s and 1990s, artists like Keo Surath carried on the legacy of the classic singers by remaking their popular songs. This era also saw the rise of kantrum, a music style of the Khmer Surin community, accompanied by modern instrumentation.
Internationally, there have been collaborations between Cambodian and Western artists. For example, the Australian hip hop group Astronomy Class has recorded with Kak Channthy, a native Cambodian female singer. The band Dengue Fever, based in California, features a Cambodian female singer and blends Cambodian music with Western-style rock, creating a unique fusion known as “world music.”
These diverse musical expressions showcase the richness and cultural heritage of Cambodian music, spanning traditional, popular, and contemporary genres.