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Cambodia - Society

In 1987 the estimates varied from 6.3 to 7.3 million with possibly more than 500,000 Cambodians scattered in Thailand and abroad as refugees. The country's average annual growth at that time was targeted at 2.3 percent. The country had an estimated urban population of more than 10 percent and an estimated population density averages about 36 per square kilometer. By 2011, the country's population estimate had more than doubled to over 14 million.

Cambodia in 1987 was ethnically homogeneous, with more than 90 percent of the population being ethnic Khmer. National minorities comprised about 3 percent of total population, with Cham, of Islamic faith, being the most significant minority group. The country also had some number of other scattered tribal minorities in upland and forested areas. In the late 1980s, there was reportedly some Vietnamese immigration, which had begun in 1981-82 and some ethnic Chinese living in urban areas, but concrete numbers for either group were unknown.

The country's national language is Khmer, a member of Mon-Khmer subfamily of Austroasiatic language group. Under the Vietnamese authorities, Russian and Vietnamese were taught in Phnom Penh and other urban areas during the late 1980s. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1993, French and English began to reappear as well.

Theravada Buddhism had been suppressed by Khmer Rouge, but had been revived and controlled under successor regime in the 1980s. Wats (temples) and monks privately supported, with wats administered by lay committees. The country's Buddhist clergy or sangha were lead by a chairman (prathean), who headed the ecclesiastical hierarchy. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1993, the country adopted Buddhism as the official religion. Two percent of the country's population as of 1998 were said to be practicing Muslims, with 1.5 percent practicing other or unspecified religions.

As of 1987, the literacy rate was about 48 percent. In the late-1980s the total estimated school enrollment was 1.3 million (primary) and 369,500 (secondary). Schooling at the time followed t he Vietnamese model with 3 levels: primary grades 1-4; lower secondary education, grades 5-7; and upper secondary education, grades 8-10. Education at all levels was hampered at the time by lack of facilities, teachers and instructional materials. Post-secondary education consisted of 20 teacher training schools, plus institutions offering professional or technical instruction. Soviet and Vietnamese instructors were heavily represented in educational institutions during the period. Admission to higher education was also based on political reliability.

Average life expectancy was 48.5 years (male 47 years, female 49.9 years) for the period between 1985 and 90. Some prevalent diseases at that time were tuberculosis, malaria, infectious and parasitical illnesses. Infant mortality was 160 per thousand live births in 1986. Nonspecific gastro-enteritis accounted for disproportionate number of infant deaths. Localized malnutrition and poor hygienic conditions exacerbated the debility of population and susceptibility to illness. In 1987 there were a total of 34 hospitals and 1,349 rural dispensaries nationwide. In the countryside, a network of primary care facilities was being established at tha time with international help. Hospitals were being planned or already established in provincial capitals, with dispensaries at district (srok) level, and first aid stations at village (khum) level. The extension of health care was greatly impeded by lack of trained personnel and inadequately developed infrastructure (especially clean water, and distribution or availability of medical supplies/equipment.)

Cambodian society reflects a basic stability and historical continuity. During the last 500 years the culture has demonstrated its ability to remain substantially intact and, at the same time, to adapt successfully to changing political and social circumstances. The great majority of the people share the same, cultural heritage. They practice Theravada Buddhism, speak the Khmer language and most have a rural background. The culture has been relatively free of strife between diverse social groups and, has developed without class conflict or social upheaval. Social stratification originated in the Hindu caste system, though the principles of caste were never strictly applied, even in the days of the ancient Khmer empire. The egalitarian philosophy of Buddhism had a moderating influence on the social structure. It was possible for any individual to attain high social status and, the respect of his neighbors by joining the Buddhist monkhood or by showing exceptional religiOUS knowledge and piety. This traditional Buddhist individualism and modern education combined to facilitate increasing social mobility. Throughout the society runs the major distinction between royalty and those Of common birth. Other criteria for determining social status have emerged, but the two extremes of royalty and commoners are still important. Prescribed patterns of address, speech and behavior exist among members of different occupational groups and between royalty and commoners. Within a single urban socioeconomic group and also in the rural village, the individual's status is dependent on his relative age and religious piety.

The nuclear family, consisting of a husband and a wife and their unmarried children, probably continued to be the most important kin group within Khmer society. The family is the major unit of both production and consumption. Within this unit are the strongest emotional ties, the assurance of aid in the event of trouble, economic cooperation in labor, sharing of produce and income, and contribution as a unit to ceremonial obligations. A larger grouping, the personal kindred that includes a nuclear family with the children, grandchildren, grandparents, uncles, aunts, first cousins, nephews, and nieces, may be included in the household.

Family organization is weak, and ties between related families beyond the kindred are loosely defined at best. There is no tradition of family names, although the French tried to legislate their use in the early twentieth century. Most Khmer genealogies extend back only two or three generations, which contrasts with the veneration of ancestors by the Vietnamese and by the Chinese. Noble families and royal families, some of which can trace their descent for several generations, are exceptions.

The individual Khmer is surrounded by a small inner circle of family and friends who constitute his or her closest associates, those he would approach first for help. In rural communities, neighbors--who are often also kin--may be important, too, and much of housebuilding and other heavy labor intensive tasks are performed by groups of neighbors. Beyond this close circle are more distant relatives and casual friends. In rural Cambodia, the strongest ties a Khmer may develop--besides those to the nuclear family and to close friends--are those to other members of the local community.

A strong feeling of pride--for the village, for the district, and province--usually characterizes Cambodian community life. There is much sharing of religious life through the local Buddhist temple, and there are many cross-cutting kin relations within the community. Formerly, the Buddhist priesthood, the national armed forces, and, to a lesser extent, the civil service all served to connect the Khmer to the wider national community. The priesthood served only males, however, while membership in some components of the armed forces and in the civil service was open to women as well.

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Page last modified: 02-06-2012 17:25:29 ZULU