The Khmer people, constituting over 97% of Cambodia’s 15.9 million population, are an indigenous Southeast Asian ethnic group closely tied to Cambodia’s cultural fabric.
Comprising the majority, Khmer People also encompass a diversity of smaller groups within Cambodia, constituting 5-10% of the population. This includes Chinese-Khmers, Khmer Islam or Chams, the Khmer Loeu hill-tribe people, and the Vietnamese. Phnom Penh, the capital, is home to about 10% of the population, emphasizing Cambodia’s predominantly rural and agrarian character.
Economic and Demographic Commonalities
Various ethnic groups in Cambodia share certain economic and demographic characteristics. Chinese merchants, primarily urban dwellers, play pivotal roles in economic cycles. However, they maintain distinct social and cultural institutions. Differences among these groups extend to social organization, language, and religion. Concentrated in central and southeastern Cambodia, they notably impact the region’s social fabric.
The majority of Cambodia’s population resides in permanent villages near key water bodies in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region. In contrast, the Khmer Loeu inhabit scattered villages, relocating as cultivated land near them is depleted. Cham villages predominantly consist of Cham residents, while Khmer villages, especially in central and southeastern Cambodia, often host sizable Chinese communities.
The Khmer Loeu
The Khmer Loeu, non-Khmer highland tribes in Cambodia, primarily reside in the northeastern provinces of Rattanakiri, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, and Crate. These tribes cultivate various plants, with upland rice being a major crop using slash-and-burn techniques. Their housing varies from large multi-family longhouses to smaller single-family structures.
Descendants of Champa Kingdom refugees, the Cambodian Cham people are divided into orthodox and traditional groups based on their religious practices. These groups are distributed across Cambodia, residing in specific provinces. They engage in various occupations, including metalworking, fruit farming, and butchering cattle for the Khmer Buddhist community.
The Chinese form Cambodia’s largest ethnic minority, with 60% residing in urban areas engaged primarily in commerce. In contrast, the remaining 40% are rural residents working as shopkeepers, processors, and lenders. Cambodia’s Chinese community represents various linguistic groups, with distinct occupational preferences based on their linguistic background.
The Vietnamese community is dispersed throughout southeastern and central Cambodia, with concentrations in urban centers and specific provinces. They share minimal cultural or religious ties with Cambodians and are part of the Chinese culture sphere, unlike the Cambodians who belong to the Indian culture sphere. Differences extend to clothing, kinship organization, and religious beliefs, with Vietnamese being Mahayana Buddhists compared to Cambodians who predominantly adhere to Theravada Buddhism.