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The ethnic groups that constitute Cambodian society possess a number of economic and demographic commonalities – for example, Chinese merchants live mainly in urban centers and play middlemen in many economic cycles, but they also preserve differences in their social and cultural institutions. They are concentrated mostly in central and in southeastern Cambodia. 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 Khmer Loeu live in widely scattered villages that are abandoned when the cultivated land in the vicinity is exhausted. 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.

The Cham people in Cambodia descend from refugees of the Kingdom of Champa, which once ruled much of Vietnam between Gao Ha in the north and Bien Hoa in the south. The Cambodian Chams are divided into two groups based on their religious practices, the orthodox and the traditional. The orthodox group, which makes up about one-third or the total number of Chams in the country, are located mainly in the Phnom Penh – Oudong area and in the provinces of Takeo and Kampot. The traditional Chams are scattered throughout the midsection of the country in the provinces of Battambang, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, and Pursat. The Chams of both groups typically live in villages inhabited only by other Chams. The villages may be along the shores of water courses, or they may be inland. The inhabitants of the river villages engage in fishing and in growing vegetables. They trade fish to local Khmer for rice. The women in these villages earn money by weaving. The Chams who live inland support themselves by various means, depending on the villages. Some villages specialize in metalworking; others raise fruit trees or vegetables. The Chams also often serve as butchers of cattle for their Khmer Buddhist neighbors and are, in some areas, regarded as skillful water buffalo and ram breeders.


The Khmer Loeu are the non-Khmer highland tribes in Cambodia. The Khmer Loeu are found mainly in the northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri, Steung Treng, Mondulkiri and Kratie. Most Khmer Loeu live in scattered temporary villages that have only a few hundred inhabitants. These villages usually are governed by a council of local elders or by a village headman. The Khmer Loeu cultivate a wide variety of plants, but the main crop is dry or upland rice grown by the slash-and-burn method. Hunting, fishing, and gathering supplement the cultivated vegetable foods in the Khmer Loeu diet. Houses vary from huge multi-family longhouses to small single-family structures. They may be built close to the ground or on stilts. The major Khmer Loeu groups in Cambodia are the Kuy, Phnong, Stieng, Brao, Pear, Jarai, and Rade. All but the last two speak Mon-Khmer languages. About 160,000 Kuy currently live in the northern Cambodia provinces of Kampong Thom, Preah Vihea, and Steung Treng as well as in adjacent Thailand.


The Chinese in Cambodia formed the country’s largest ethnic minority. Sixty percent of the Chinese are urban dwellers engaged mainly in commerce; the other 40% are rural residents working as shopkeepers, as buyers and processors of rice, palm sugar, fruit, and fish, and as money lenders. The Chinese in Cambodia represented five major linguistic groups, the largest of which is the Teochiu (accounting for about 60%), followed by the Cantonese (accounting for about 20%), the Hokkien (accounting for about 7%), and the Hakka and the Hainanese (each accounting for about 4%). Those belonging to certain Chinese linguistic groups in Cambodia tend to gravitate to certain occupations. The Teochiu, who make up about 90% of the rural Chinese population, run village stores, control rural credit and rice-marketing facilities, and grow vegetables. In urban areas they are often engaged in such enterprises as the import-export business, the sale of pharmaceuticals, and street peddling. The Cantonese, who are the majority Chinese group before the Teochiu migrations began in the late 1930s, lived mainly in the city. Typically, the Cantonese for the most part are mechanics or carpenters. The Hokkien community is involved in import-export and in banking, and it includes some of the country’s richest Chinese. The Hainanese started out as pepper growers in Kampot province, where they continued to dominate that business. Many moved to Phnom Penh, where, in the late 1960s, they reportedly had a virtual monopoly on the hotel and restaurant business. They also often operate tailor shops. In Phnom Penh, the newly arrived Hakka are typically folk dentists, sellers of traditional Chinese medicines, and shoemakers.


The Vietnamese community is scattered throughout southeastern and central Cambodia. They are concentrated in Phnom Penh, and in Kandal, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham provinces. No close cultural or religious ties exist between Cambodia and Vietnam. The Vietnamese fall within the Chinese culture sphere, rather than within the India, where the Thai and the Khmer belong. The Vietnamese differs from the Khmer in mode of dress, in kinship organization, and in many other ways – for example the Vietnamese are Mahayana Buddhists while most of the Khmers are Theravada Buddhists. Although Vietnamese live in urban centers such as Phnom Penh, a substantial number live along the lower Mekong and Bassac rivers as well as on the shores of the Tonle Sap, where they engage in fishing.

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