Cambodia is a small country with an estimated population of nearly 11 million, but is culturally the richest and ethnically the most homogeneous nation in Southeast Asia. Nearly 90 percent of the inhabitants are Khmer; the remainders are divided between Chams, Vietnamese and Chinese.
The nation boasts an impressive historic civilization focused on the city of Angkor, which contained a complex of magnificent temples built on the precepts of Hindu cosmology. The Khmer Empire, compact in shape, has been considerably reduced in size since its heyday; its modern boundaries were defined by the French which relinquished control over the region in 1954.
Present day Cambodia illustrates how brutal the collision between politics and geography can be. The country is easily penetrated from the Vietnamese and Thai borders, and the age-old hostilities between Vietnam and Cambodia surfaced when the Vietnam War (1954-1955) spilled over the country as Vietcong soldiers sought shelter in the forests of Cambodia’s
Mekong delta area across from Vietnamese territory. After the overthrow of the king by the Khmer Rouge, the communist revolutionaries embarked upon a course of terror in their own country in the name of national reconstruction. With nearly the entire population of the cities, including that of the capital city of Phnom Penh banished to the countryside, religion outlawed, and the distressed, unemployed, and sick done to death (over 2 million), the country lay in ruins by the early 1970s.
In the aftermath of Vietnamese victory in its own country, Vietnam moved into the country to drive out the Khmer Rouge terrorists who had staged a tragic holocaust in a new wave of terror, pushing stream of Cambodian refugees into Thailand. The Vietnamese-backed government did not, however, gain international recognition and was in constant conflict with the Khmer Rouge and other factions within the country.
In October 1991 an interim government was set up through the peace initiatives of the United Nations, which has since been replaced by a newly organized permanent government. Peace in Cambodia, however, remains shaky and the nation’s future depends as much on international (essentially of the U.S.) economic aid as on the solidification of its fragile democracy.
Physical and Cultural Characteristics:
Physically, the country is essentially an alluvium-covered basin of the Mekong River. The centerpiece of the topography is the Tonle Sap Lake that serves as a huge reservoir for the Mekong. During the rainy season (mid-May to early October) the lake’s surface expands from the dry season’s minimum of 1,200 sq miles (3,108 sq km), to a rainy-season maximum of more than 3,000 sq miles.
As a result of this annual phenomenon and the influx of fresh water, the lake is one of the world’s richest sources of fresh water fish. On the north, along the border with Thailand, the Cambodian plain encounters an escarpment, the Dongrak Mountains, making a natural boundary. In the southwest two upstanding blocks (Cardamon and Elephant Mountains) for another highland portion covering the area between the Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand.
The climate is typically tropical monsoonal. From mid-May to early October, the southwest winds bring heavy rains and high humidity; and from early November to mid-March, the drier and lighter winds of the northeast bring infrequent rains and lower humidity. Between these periods, the weather is transitional. Maximum temperatures range from 82°F (28°C) in January to about 95°F (35°C) in April. Annual rainfall varies between 200 inches (5,000 mms) on the southwestern highlands and 50-55 inches in the central lowlands.
Cambodia has always been overwhelmingly a land of villages. Nearly 80 percent of the population was estimated to be rural in 1995. The urban areas primarily date back to the early 20th century during the French colonial period, serving essentially as commercial and administrative centers to the surrounding areas.
Phnom Penh containing currently nearly a tenth of the country’s population (920,000 in 1995) is the only metropolis. Before the outbreak of war in 1970 it had about half a million people. By 1975 the population had swelled to over two million by the influx of refugees from the wartorn rural areas. Since the official depopulation in 1979 it has grown back to its present size. Between 1975 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of urban people were forcibly moved into rural areas to work in rice fields and maintain irrigation channels. With the exception of Phnom Penh and Batdambang, both located in the central lowlands of the Mekong, few towns have subsequently regained their pre-1970 levels.
The Khmers is the most dominant group accounting for a vast majority (89 percent) of the population. They are concentrated in the lowlands of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, and speak Mon-Khmer language. The Khmers are a product of centuries of racial and cultural blending since 200 B.C. that in all probability moved from the Khorat Plateau, and was subsequently Indianized by the successive wares of the Indian culture, and later on in the 8 the century exposed to the Indo-Malayan influence.
Among the minorities the Chinese, now form about 3 percent of the population, and are the most important. They controlled most of the country’s commerce and small businesses before 1970. The Vietnamese, number 5 percent, and have a lower social status. The Chams accounting for a little over 2 percent, are followers of Islam, and have been traditionally discriminated against.
There are a few tribal groups occupying the forested northeastern part of the country. Most ethnic Khmers practice Theravada form of Buddhism which was the state religion until 1975. The tribal people are mostly animists. The Vietnamese and Chinese are more eclectic and follow generally Mahayana Buddhism. Some of the Vietnamese are members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Resources and Economy:
The known mineral resources of Cambodia are scarce. Consisting mainly of limestone, phosphate deposits, a little iron and some coal. Energy resources are primarily dependent on oil which accounts for 4-5 percent of all imports. Prospecting for oil and natural gas has been started in the offshore areas, close to the sites earlier exploited by Vietnam.
Traditionally, agriculture has dominated the economy. Almost 70 percent of the labor-force is engaged in the agricultural sector (down from the estimated 90 percent of the 1930s), which makes up nearly one-half of the nation’s revenue; trade accounts for another one-sixth. Rice is the principal crop. Cambodia produces nearly 3.5 million tons annually and has a modest surplus for export.
Although the cultivation encompasses most of the total cultivated land of the country, Cambodia’s major rice growing region is surrounding the Mekong, and the Tonle Sap. Under the administration of Khmer Rouge during the 1970s great effort was made to build irrigation systems m the country by forcible resettling of the population in the various regions.
Although the results were notable in agricultural production, the irrigation channels were poorly designed and finally collapsed and abandoned after 1979. Other crops include corn, rubber, sugar cane, soybean, oranges, bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papaya and tropical fruits. Fishery and livestock are also important.
In the eastern part of the country small rubber plantations developed by the French, and the Chinese, have now fallen on disuse. Forestry, however, remains a significant industry and brings substantial earnings. Sawn and felled timber accounts for over one-half of all the exports.
Industrial development of the county is still in infancy after the massive destruction of the economy during the 1970s. Since independence in 1953, Cambodia had embarked on a program of modernizing its economy. The road system was improved, the railroad connections to Thailand and Vietnam were strengthened, and the nation’s only port at Kampong Saom (Sinhanoukville) was opened in 1956. But the equipment installed in the 1950s and 1960s became obsolete during the 1970s as the country was plunged into years of internal strife and warfare, which left the economy in ruins.
Since then, the country received a modest amount of foreign aid. Some progress was made in the 1980s; and plants were established or reopened to produce soft drinks, paper, cigarettes, construction materials, cement, and cotton textiles. Timber processing and rice milling important before 1975 were also revived in the 1980s. Roads and waterways that constitute the main transportation routes were improved.
A sizable maritime trade is also now growing between Thailand and Cambodia, and the port of Kampong Saom underwent substantial renovation. The port is of strategic importance to the nation, and considerable industrial development has taken place in the area. Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and Thailand are the main trading partners. Cigarettes, petroleum products, construction materials, and electronic goods were the chief imports in 1994.
In review, Cambodia remains an economically poor and undeveloped nation, with a shattered economy and fragile political institution. There is ample arable land for expansion of agricultural economy if the political conditions were to stabilize. The country does not possess much of mineral resources and is not in a position to utilize its few minerals in domestic industry.
Little has also been done with the forest resource much of which was neglected during and since the 1970s. The economic future of the country continues to be closely tied to the trends of internal political events, and the solidification of its democratic institutions.