Cambodia‎ > ‎Cambodia Guide‎ > ‎

Overview of ethnic diversity in Cambodia

Figures on the ethnic make-up of Cambodian society are somewhat difficult to determine, and the most recent population census in 1998 did not address the question of ethnicity. However it is thought that ethnic Khmers – drawn from the Eastern Mon-Khmer group of the Mon-Khmer language family – make up around 96 per cent of Cambodia’s total population.1

Ethnic Khmers living just outside the kingdom in An Giang, Bạc Liêu, Kiên Giang, Sóc Trăng and Trà Vinh Provinces of southern Việt Nam (an area known in Cambodia as Kampuchea Krom or Lower Cambodia which was ceded to the Việt kingdom in 1749) maintain their own distinct cultural identity.

The largest single minority group in Cambodia is that of the Cham-Malays – drawn from the Chamic branch of  the Austronesian or Malay-Polynesian language group of the Austro-Thai language family – who are settled mainly along the Mekong River to the north of Phnom Penh. Descended from the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Champa in what is now south-central coastal Việt Nam, they adopted their faith and script from the Malays, who settled in Kampot at the invitation of Muslim Khmer King Chan in 1642. Consequently their language and script differs somewhat from that of their cousins in Việt Nam. Partly urbanised, often educated and much involved in trade and commerce, the Cham were severely persecuted during the Pol Pot years and their present population of 220,000 (1992) compares to a figure of over 800,000 during the 1950s and 1960s.

Numbering around 50,000, the ethnic Chinese – drawn from the Han (Sinitic) language group of the Sino-Tibetan language family – constitute another important ethnic group in Cambodia, although as in neighbouring Thailand, they have been assimilated to a greater degree than in many other parts of South East Asia. Over the past few years there has arguably been a fresh wave of siniticisation as ethnic Chinese business people from Taiwan, Malaysia and

3Singapore have invested in Cambodia and the Chinese government has provided important bilateral aid. Chinese language schools are popular and there are now several local Chinese-language newspapers in Phnom Penh. Major Chinese festivals such as Chinese New Year and the Harvest Moon Festival are widely observed. Although they are not official holidays, market traders and stallholders close shop in such large numbers that in the centre of Phnom Penh, business activity almost comes to a halt.

A community of some 95,000 ethnic Vietnamese (Viet-Muong branch, Mon-Khmer language group, Austro-Asiatic language family) is dominant in Cambodia’s fisheries and manual trades.

Cambodia is also home to numerous hill tribe peoples, collectively referred to by the government as Khmer Loeu (‘Highland Khmer’), a name coined in the 1960s by Prince Norodom Sihanouk to help generate a feeling of unity between the highlanders and the lowland ethnic Khmer majority. The most numerically significant of these hill tribes are the Pnong (or Mnong, 19,000), the Kui (16,000), the Brau with their sub-groups the Kravet and the Krung (15,000), the Rhade (or Ede,

Other Cambodia Information