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Cambodia - People

Cambodia is a young country, with some 65 percent of the population under the age of 30. Most of its people live in rural areas. And most of the rural areas are poor. While Cambodia has made tremendous strides in reducing poverty—dropping from 50 percent to 20 percent between 2004 and 2011—much of the population still hovers just above the poverty line where they remain highly vulnerable to slipping back into poverty.

Ninety percent of Cambodia's population is ethnically Cambodian. Other ethnic groups include Chinese, Vietnamese, hill tribes, Cham, and Lao. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of 95% of the population; Islam, animism, and Christianity also are practiced. Khmer is the official language and is spoken by more than 95% of the population. Some French is still spoken in urban areas, and English is increasingly popular as a second language.

The recent history of war, conflict and international isolation, the breakdown of many basic social services and the destruction of national infrastructure, the presence of millions of landmines, the lack of basic health care and food security, and the absolute poverty of the majority of citizens have left Cambodia with a high number of vulnerable groups. As Cambodia is also one among the poorest developing countries, the recovery process is hampered by all the developmental problems associated with extreme poverty. In 2000, the UN ranked Cambodia 136 out of 174 countries based on various social and economic indicators such as life expectancy, adult literacy, and per capita income. About 85 percent of the population lives in rural areas, most depending on subsistence agriculture that generates extremely low levels of income.

The most vulnerable groups in Cambodia include street children, orphans, persons with disabilities (PWD), and homeless women in especially difficult circumstances, elderly people without support, single heads of households with many children, commercial sex workers, ethnic minorities, women and girls who have been violated and demobilized soldiers. From this statement, PWD are among the most vulnerable groups in this society. They have very limited access to basic social services, education,

Economic and demographic factors have made Cambodia’s health and nutrition situation one of the most critical in Asia. Malnutrition is widespread, particularly among children and women. International relief agencies estimate that 45% of Cambodian children are chronically malnourished, 59% suffer from stunting, and 58% are anemic. In addition, infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), tuberculosis (TB), and malaria are serious health problems throughout the population.

Particularly in rural areas, most Cambodians are uneducated. Two in five haven’t completed primary school. The most educated Cambodians are in the capital, Phnom Penh, and in Siem Reap province, home to the Angkor Wat historic temple. Most Cambodians aged 5 and above have jobs. About 64 percent work in agriculture, 24 percent in services and 12 percent in the industrial sector. According to 2013 figures compiled by Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics, 97.6 percent of Cambodians work. The institute defined “employed” as “having worked at least six months, or 183 days or more during the reference period.” There is, however, some dispute about unemployment figures in Cambodia. The International Labor Institute figures the unemployment rate at 0.5 in 2015, defining “employed” as having worked one hour a week, a methodology considered suspect. “Everybody has some kind of garden in the backyard. If they go and grow some vegetables … they will always be considered employed,” Ou Virak, the economist who founded the Future Forum think tank in Phnom Penh told The Cambodia Daily. The modern Khmer are the product of centuries of cultural and racial blendings. Their origins are obscure, but it is believed that at some period before 2000 BC they moved down from the northwest into the fertile Mekong Delta. At the beginning of the Christian era they came into more direct contact with the indigenous peoples of Indonesian stock already living in what is now Cambodia and drove them into the less favorable mountain zones. Little more has been established other than that of the Khmer of that period generaIly resembled the presentday Cambodians.

Cambodia was Hinduized by successive waves of migrations from India starting in the third century BC. This process, with its concomitant mixing of the races, reached its climax in the ninth and tenth centuries AD. In the eighth century Cambodia underwent an Indo-Malay invasion from Java. The great Thai invasions into Cambodia occurred between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries. In more recent times the physical makeup of the Khmer has been affected by mixing with Vietnamese, Chinese ,and Europeans. The Khmer of today are a heterogeneous people whose anceiitors were of many races but who have been assimilated to Khmer culture and have become Cambodian citizens.

The permanently settled Khmer and Cham villages usually are located on or near the banks of a river or other bodies of water. Cham villages usually are made up almost entirely of Cham, but Khmer villages, especially in central and in southeastern Cambodia, typically include sizable Chinese communities. In his study of the coastal Chinese in Kampot Province and in Kaoh Kong Province, French geographer Roland Pourtier points out that the Chinese dwellings and shops--usually in the same structures--are located at the center of the town or village, while the Khmer houses are scattered at some distance from the center. He also finds that there are some villages made up almost entirely of Chinese.

By the mid-20th Century, resentment against the Chinese grew as the Khmer became increasingly conscious of their own economic impotence. The Khmer farmer frequently found himself in debt to a Chinese moneylender - a situation which heightened Khmer-Chinese antagonism. Nevertheless, because of their reputation for industry and financial shrewdness, Chinese men were eagerly sought as marriage partners by Khmer families that desired greater financial security and higher socio-economic status for their daughters. Although the Chinese regarded the Khmer as indifferent farmers, poor traders, uninspired fishermen, unreliable laborers, inferior cultivators and chronic vagrants, they sought Khmer girls as wives. The Khmer believed that the offspring of a Khmer-Chinese marriage combined the best qualities of both groups.

The ethnic groups that constitute Cambodian society possess a number of economic and demographic commonalities -- for example, Chinese merchants play middlemen in many economic cycles, but they also preserve differences in their social and cultural institutions. The major differences among these groups lie in social organization, language, and religion. The majority of the inhabitants of Cambodia are settled in fairly permanent villages near the major bodies of water in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region. The contemporary locations of major Khmer population centers date back to antiquity according to geographer Jacques Nepote. Khmer Krom settlements are located in the same areas as the ancient site of Funan, and that the Khmer settlements extending from Phnom Penh in a southeastern direction are located where pre-Angkorian archaeological sites are clustered.

The forested highland plateaus and intermontane valleys are sparsely populated by ethnic groups collectively known as the Khmer Loeu. The seminomadic tribal peoples of the high forested plateaus are no longer called Phnong (savages) ; they are referred to as Khmer Loeu (upper Cambodians) and are said to have the same origin as the lowland Khmer. Some of the highland groups, in fact, are related in language to the Khmer, but others are from a very different linguistic and cultural background.

The Khmer Loeu live in widely scattered villages that are abandoned when the cultivated land in the vicinity is exhausted. The heaviest settlement is along the northeastern and eastern frontiers, but other groups live in the mountain chains of western Cambodia. Many scholars believe that the Khmer Loeu came from the Malay Peninsula or the Indonesian archipelago ; others, that they are related to the tribes of southern China and Assam. All agree that a preponderant Asian influence is reflected in their customs and languages. Some of these languages are similar to the Malay and Polynesian languages, whereas others seem more closely related to the Mon-Khmer language group.

The Khmer Loeu are animists. Religion is usually centered in the family, in which most rituals are performed. There is little communal religious activity except in time of crisis, when all members of the family may participate in offering sacrifices to the spirits. Themain religious practitioner is the village sorcerer, who is believed to have supernatural powers for dealing with the spirit world.

Cambodia Ethnic Groups MapThe earliest Vietnamese colony dated from the late seventeenth century, when the empire of Annam, in what is now part Vietnam, occupied large areas of the country. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century they migrated into Cambodia in a steady stream and settled the more fertile agricultural areas along the riverbanks from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng and from Battambang to Chau Doc of Vietnam, incurring the resentment -- usually passive -- of the Khmer farmers.

Enmity has existed between the Khmer and the Vietnamese for centuries, but this antagonism did not hinder the growth of a sizable Vietnamese community scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. According to an American scholar on Southeast Asia, Donald J. Steinberg, an estimated 291,596 Vietnamese, constituting more than 7 percent at the total population, resided in Cambodia in 1950. They were concentrated in Phnom Penh, end in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces.

The friction between the Khmer and the Vietnamese has been bitter and continual. The Vietnamese were usually commercially ambitious and pushed themselves forward in a way that annoys most of the Khmer. Although the Khmer have accepted, to some extent, commercial exploitation by the Chinese, they found highly objectionable the same action by the Vietnamese. Dislocation and discrimination rather than social assimilation and integration had been the standard ethnic pattern of the Vietnamese settlements, particularly in rural districts. Khmer farmers often abandoned their traditional settlements in the face of Vietnamese encroachments. The wedge that was driven between the two peoples has inhibited cultural exchange.

The Khmer have shown more antipathy toward the Vietnamese than toward the Chinese or toward their other neighbors, the Thai. Several factors explain this attitude. The expansion of Vietnamese power has resulted historically in the loss of Khmer territory. The Khmer, in contrast, have lost no territory to the Chinese and little to the Thai. No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese fall within the Chinese culture sphere, rather than within the Indian, where the Thai and the Khmer belong. The Vietnamese differ from the Khmer in mode of dress, in kinship organization, and in many other ways--for example the Vietnamese are Mahayana Buddhists.

Health care is expensive, and nationwide 70 percent of the total spent on health care is paid out-of-pocket. There is also a growing body of evidence that links illness and access to health care with debt, sale of assets and poverty. User fees were introduced in public health facilities in Cambodia in 1997 in order to inject funds into the health system to enhance the quality of services. Because of inadequate health insurance, a social safety net scheme was introduced to ensure that all people were able to attend the health facilities. The direct costs for health care and medical services, and added indirect costs, deterred poor women from presenting with sick children.

Cambodia’s 2010 Demographic and Health Survey indicated that Cambodia has made significant progress in the health sector in the past five years. Cambodia has already achieved its 2015 Millennium Development Goal targets for infant mortality, under-5 mortality, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS. More than 60 percent of women receive at least four antenatal care visits and 71 percent of women deliver with the assistance of a trained health professional, a substantial increase from 44 percent in 2005. Early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding and vitamin A coverage remain high.

According to the preliminary results reported in the Cambodia tuberculosis (TB) prevalence study which was released in 2012, Cambodia achieved two out of the three Millennium Development Goal targets for TB, specifically to halt the incidence of TB and halve TB death rates by 2015. Cambodia was on track to achieve the third target of reducing by half tuberculosis prevalence rates by 2015.

HIV prevalence was cut in half from 1.7 percent in 1998 to 0.8 percent in 2010 and more than 80 percent of eligible individuals are on life-saving antiretroviral treatment. The U.S. government provided almost 40 percent of the financial resources behind the national response and has established surveillance, service delivery, and quality assurance platforms needed for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to achieve its goals.

The country’s maternal mortality rate is among the highest in Southeast Asia and the number of newborn deaths is also extremely high. USAID improves maternal and child health by helping to develop national policies and strengthening national systems, improving clinical skills, expanding community outreach, providing community education, and improving access to quality health services.

In March 2015 the Ministry of Health reinforced a ban on unlicensed health workers and clinics—which are commonly used in rural communities with poor access to the state’s healthcare system—and urged local authorities to implement it. However, some villagers in remote areas of the country complain that obtaining medical treatment has become extremely difficult since the ban was reinforced in March, and nearly impossible if they encounter an emergency in the middle of the night.

According to the Ministry of Health, 5,757 private clinics became licensed in Cambodia between 2009 and 2014, and the ministry is working to approve additional facilities. It said that almost 4,000 illegal health-service providers were still operating in August 2015.

Cambodia’s dearth of licensed medical practitioners stems from the bloody 1975-79 era of the Khmer Rouge regime, when physicians, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists and professional people in any field were murdered, together with their extended families. According to the World Bank, in 2012 Cambodia had a mere 0.2 physicians for every 1,000 people, or nearly 3,000 in a nation with a population of just under 15 million at the time.

Cambodia had one of the most serious HIV epidemics in Asia during the mid-1990s, but has made significant strides against infection in recent years through an aggressive campaign to promote safe sex, according to UNAIDS. New infections dropped by 67 percent, from 3,900 in 2005 to 1,300 in 2013, while more than two-thirds of the 75,000 people living with HIV are accessing antiretroviral therapy—the highest percentage of treatment access in the region, the U.N. agency said.

More than half of Cambodian households, especially those in rural provinces, lack electricity or an improved water source. Cambodia is lauded as one of the most successful countries in getting people to install and use toilets – and key to that success is a peer–pressure strategy developed in Bangladesh and adopted across the world. Pressure from the community inhibits people from defecating in the open, and they are encouraged to use the toilets of friends or family instead, if they lack one of their own. Mr Phuy Seakphy has developed a thriving toilet installation business – the toilets consist of simple concrete pipes sunk into the ground, and he now sells 15–20 toilets a month. Women and girls risk attack if they go into fields at night to relieve themselves. The shortage of toilets in rural Cambodia also has a significant effect on children, with an estimated 33% of children aged under 5 years suffering from stunted growth. “When children are exposed to faeces in their environment, they repeatedly get bouts of diarrhoea. So the good things that are going in are coming straight out,” says James Wicken, the country director of WaterAid Cambodia. (Al Jazeera, 20 November 2017)

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Page last modified: 31-07-2018 08:47:04 ZULU