Ethnic groups in Cambodia

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Ethnic group Population  % of total*
Khmer 13,684,985 90%
Vietnamese 760,277 5.0%
Chinese 152,055 1%
Other 608,222 4%
Javanese[citation needed] ca 140,000 0.93%
An ethnic map of Cambodia.

The largest ethnic group in Cambodia are the Khmers, who comprise around 90% of the total population in Cambodia, and are indigenous to the lowland Mekong subregion in which they inhabit. The Khmers historically have lived near the lower Mekong River in a contiguous diagonal arc, from where modern-day Thailand, Laos and Cambodia meet in the northwest, all the way to the mouth of the Mekong River in southeastern Vietnam.

There are also a significant number of Chinese and mixed Khmer-Chinese descendants who dominate the business community, as well as indigenous minority groups of Hmong, Pong, Austronesian and Tai amongst others who are collectively known as Khmer Loeu.[1] Minority groups living in the lowlands, often among or adjacent to Khmers, include Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.

Ethnic Khmer[edit]

Main article: Khmer people
Khmer women at a market in Battambang.

The Khmers are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the area, having filtered into Southeast Asia around the same time as the Mon. Most archaeologists and linguists, and other specialists like Sinologists and crop experts, believe they arrived no later than 2000 BCE (over four thousand years ago) bringing with them the practice of agriculture and in particular the cultivation of rice. They were the builders of the later Khmer Empire which dominated Southeast Asia for six centuries beginning in 802 CE, and now form the mainstream of political, cultural, and economic Cambodia.

The Khmers developed the first alphabet still in use in Southeast Asia which in turn gave birth to the later Thai and Lao scripts. The Khmers are considered by most archaeologists and ethnologists to be indigenous to the contiguous regions of Northeast Thailand, southernmost Laos, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam. That is to say the Khmer have historically been a lowland people who lived close to one of the tributaries of the Mekong River.

The Khmers see themselves as being one ethnicity connected through language, history and culture, but divided into three main subgroups based on national origin. The Khmer of Cambodia speak the Khmer language. Khmer Surin are ethnic indigenous Khmers whose lands once belonged to the Khmer Empire but have since become part of Thailand. They have their own dialect but also speak fluent Isan Thai.

Maintaining close relations with the Khmer of Cambodia, some now reside in Cambodia as a result of marriage. Similarly, the Khmer Krom are indigenous Khmers living in the regions of the former Khmer Empire that are now part of Vietnam. Fluent in both their particular dialect of Khmer and in Vietnamese, many have fled to Cambodia as a result of persecution and forced assimilation by communist Vietnam.

All three varieties of Khmer are mutually intelligible. While the Khmer language of Cambodia proper is non-tonal, surrounding languages such as Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian are all highly tonal and have thus affected the developments of Khmer Surin and Khmer Krom dialects.


Main article: Vietnamese Cambodian

The Vietnamese are the largest (or second largest) ethnic minority in Cambodia, with an estimated 400,000 - 700,000 living in provinces concentrated in the southeast of the country adjacent to the Mekong Delta. Vietnamese also live along the shores of the Tonle Sap lake itself. Although the Vietnamese language has been determined to be a Mon–Khmer language, there are very few cultural connections between the two peoples because the early Khmers were influenced by the Indian cultural sphere while the Vietnamese are part of the Chinese cultural sphere.[2]

Ethnic tensions between the two can be traced to the Dark Ages of Cambodia (from the 16th to 19th centuries), during which time a nascent Vietnam and Thailand each attempted to vassalize a weakened post-Angkor Cambodia, and effectively dominate all of Indochina. Control over Cambodia during this, its weakest point, fluctuated between Thailand and Vietnam. Vietnam unlike Thailand, wanted Cambodia to adopt Vietnamese governmental practices, dress, and language. The Khmers resented and resisted until they became a French colony. During the French rule of Indochina, the French brought over Vietnamese middle men to administer the local Cambodian government, causing further resentment and anti-Vietnamese sentiment that endures to the present.[3]

Modern Vietnamese in Cambodia are mainly descended from settlers who immigrated in the early 20th century. Most no longer speak Vietnamese, creating a social dilemma. They have engaged primarily in aquaculture on the southern banks of the Mekong Delta. Many are assimilated into Khmer society, but there are still those who keep their separate social identity.[citation needed]


Main article: Chinese Cambodian
Chinese in Cambodia
Linguistic Group percent
Other groups

Chinese Cambodians are approximately 1% of the population.[4][5] Most Chinese are descended from 19th–20th century settlers who came in search of trade and commerce opportunities during the time of the French protectorate. Waves of Chinese migration have been recorded as early as the twelfth century during the time of the Khmer Empire. Most are urban dwellers, engaged primarily in commerce.

The Chinese in Cambodia belong to five major linguistic groups, the largest of which is the Teochiu accounting for about 60%, followed by the Cantonese (20%), the Hokkien (7%), and the Hakka and the Hainanese (4% each).

Intermarriage between the Chinese and Khmers has been common, in which case they would often assimilate into mainstream Khmer society, retaining few Chinese customs. Much of the Chinese population dwindled under Pol Pot during the Cambodian Civil War. The Chinese were not specifically targets for extermination, but suffered the same brutal treatment faced by the ethnic Khmers during the period.


Main article: Tai peoples

The Tai ethnic minorities include the Thai, Lao, Shan, and the Kula. They remain in very small numbers scattered throughout the provinces of Cambodia. Thai minorities mainly live in Phnom Penh while the Laotian people live in with the hill tribes to the north. Shan and Kula minorities reside in Pailin Province where their ancestors migrated to participate in the lucrative gem trade. The local Khmer dialect in Pailin has been noted to have been influenced by Burmese[clarification needed] in tone and pronunciation from the ethnic minorities speaking it.


Main article: Cham (Asia)
A map of the distribution of the Cham in southeast Asia today.

The Cham are descended from the Austronesian people of Champa, a former kingdom on the coast of central and southern present-day Vietnam and former rival to the Khmer Empire. At various times between the 7th and 15th centuries, the relationship between Champa and the Khmer ranged from that of allies to enemies. During friendly periods there was close contact and trade between the two Indianized kingdoms and intermarriage between the respective royal families.

During wartime, many Chams were brought into Khmer lands as captives and slaves. As Champa waned, its territory and people were absorbed by both Cambodia and Vietnam until the last vestige of the kingdom was defeated by the Vietnamese in the late 15th century. Thousands of Cham captives were taken back to Vietnam and thousands more fled to adjacent areas that were loosely ruled by a weakened Khmer empire[citation needed].

The Cham in Cambodia number under a million and often maintain separate villages in the southeast of the country although in many areas they live alongside ethnic Khmers. Primarily fishermen or farmers, many Khmer believe the Cham to be especially adept at certain spiritual practices and will sometimes come to them for healing or tattooing.

While the Cham in Vietnam still follow traditional Shivaite Hinduism, most (an estimated 90%) Cham in Cambodia are ostensibly followers of Sunni Islam. Interaction between those who are Muslim and those who are Hindu is often taboo. Intermarriage between Khmers and Chams has taken place for hundreds of years. Many have assimilated into mainstream Khmer society and practice Buddhism[citation needed].

Khmer Loeu[edit]

Main article: Khmer Loeu

The indigenous ethnic groups of the mountains are known collectively as Montagnards or Khmer Loeu, a term meaning "Highland Khmer". They are descended from neolithic migrations of Mon–Khmer speakers via southern China and Austronesian speakers from insular Southeast Asia. Being isolated in the highlands, the various Khmer Loeu groups were not Indianized like their Khmer cousins and consequently are culturally distant from modern Khmers and often from each other, observing many pre-Indian-contact customs and beliefs. Most are matrileneal, tracing ancestry through maternal rather than paternal bloodlines. They grow rice and live in tribal villages.

Historically, as the Khmer Empire advanced, they were obliged to seek safety and independence in the highlands or become slaves and laborers for the empire. Zhou Daguan remarked that the Khmers had captured hilltribes and made them laborers referring to them as the Tchouang or slave caste. Tchouang, from the Pear word juang, means people. Presently, they form the majority in the sparsely populated provinces of Ratanakiri, Stung Treng, and Mondulkiri.

Their languages belong to two groups, Mon–Khmer and Austronesian. The Mon–Khmers are Samre, Phnong, Stieng, Kuy, Krung, and Tampuan. The Austronesians are Rhade and Jarai. Once thought to be a mixed group, the Austronesians have been heavily influenced by the Mon–Khmer tribes.

French Colons and Post-Conflict Arrivals[edit]

Prior to the Cambodian Civil War which lasted from between 1970 until the Khmer Rouge victory in April 17, 1975, there were an estimated 30,000 colons, or French citizens living in the country. After the civil war began most left to go back to France or to live in the United States. Cambodia was ruled by the French for nearly a century until independence in 1953 and French language and culture still retains a prestigious position amongst the Khmer elite.

After the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese in 1979, they retreated back towards the Thai border in the west of the country by expelling Vietnamese forces, Vietnam then occupied Cambodia for the next ten years. During this time Cambodia was isolated from the Western world, however visitors from states with ties to the Soviet bloc trickled into the country in (albeit) small numbers.

In post-conflict Cambodia today, many other ethnic groups can be found, particularly in Phnom Penh, in statistically significant numbers. After the United Nations helped restore the monarchy in the early 1990s, the number of Western individuals (termed Barang by the Khmer) living in the country swelled into the tens of thousands. And due to the further economic boom of the 21st century (Cambodia's economic growth has averaged over 7% in the decade after 2001), these numbers have only risen.

Expatriate workers from across the globe probably number around 150,000 in the capital of Phnom Penh alone. These diplomats, investors, archaeologists, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs, and NGO employees include sizeable numbers of Europeans, Americans and Australians, as well as those from neighbouring Southeast Asian states, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Russians, along with smaller numbers of Africans.

Ethnic Groups of Cambodia[edit]

  • Cham – Descendants of Cham refugees who fled to Cambodia after the fall of Champa. 222,808 (2012 est.)
  • Chinese – Descendants of Chinese settlers in Cambodia. 695,852 (2012 est.)
  • Khmer
    • Khmer Kandal – "Central Khmers" Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Cambodia proper.
    • Khmer Krom – "Lowland Khmers" Ethnic Khmers indigenous to Southeastern Cambodia and the adjoining Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam. The provinces of South Vietnam all bear ancient Khmer names as they were once part of the Khmer Empire, until the 19th century when the French made Cambodia a protectorate.
    • Khmer Surin – "Surin Khmers" Ethnic Khmer indigenous to Northwestern Cambodia and adjacent areas in Surin, Buriram and Sisaket provinces in Northeast Thailand, in the region known as Isan. These provinces were formerly part of the Khmer Empire but were annexed by Thailand in the 18th century.
  • Khmer Loeu – "Highland Khmers" Umbrella term used to designate all hilltribes in Cambodia, irrespective of their language family.
    • Mon–Khmer speakers
      • Kachok
      • Krung – There are three distinct dialects of Krung. All are mutually intelligible.
        • Krung
        • Brao
        • Kavet
      • Kraol - 2,000 (est.)
        • Mel- 3,100 (est.)
      • Kuy – A small group of people mostly located in the highlands of Cambodia.
      • Phnong
      • Tampuan – Ethnic group located in the Northeastern province of Ratanakiri.
      • Stieng – Often confused with ethnic Degar (Montagnard)
      • Mnong - Ethnic group located on the eastern province of Mondulkiri.
      • Samre
        • Chong
        • Sa'och
        • Somray
        • Suoy
    • Austronesian speakers
      • Jarai – Mostly located in Vietnam, the Jarai extend into Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province.
      • Rhade – The majority of Rhade, or Ê Đê, are located in Vietnam. They share close cultural ties with the Jarai and other tribes.
  • Tai
  • Vietnamese – Live mostly in Phnom Penh where they form a considerable minority and parts of southeastern Cambodia next to the Vietnamese border.
  • Hmong–Mien - The Miao and Hmong are hill tribes that live in urban and rural areas.
  • Tibeto-Burman
  • Javanese - 140,000 (est.) Living mostly in Kep, Battambang and Kratie. Descendants of Muslim Javanese migrants in the 18th century.[citation needed]
  • Japanese - mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh
  • Koreans - mainly first generation entrepreneurs and investors in Phnom Penh


  1. ^ "Cambodia Ethnic Groups". Retrieved 2012-09-02. 
  2. ^ David Chandler (2000). A History of Cambodia. Westview Press. 
  3. ^ David Chandler (2000). A History of Cambodia. Westview Press. 
  4. ^ "Ethnic groups statistics - countries compared". Nationmaster. Retrieved 2012-09-02. 
  5. ^ "Birth Rate". CIA – The World Factbook. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 

Further reading[edit]