Explore Ethnic Groups - Cambodians

Cambodia is bordered by Thailand and Vietnam. In 1975 the country was renamed Democratic Kampuchea, in 1979 it became the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and in 1989 the nation once again became known as Cambodia. The Khmer (ethnic Cambodian), who comprise the largest ethnic group, speak the Khmer language. Smaller groups are the ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, Cham (a Muslim minority group), and Khmer Loeu, or highland Khmer.

At the end of the War, Khmer Rouge soldiers, many of them uneducated boys from rural areas, were ordered to arrest and murder educated professionals, government officials, teachers, and religious leaders. To create a “classless” society and agrarian socialist state, they also evacuated urban areas and abolished schools, hospitals, markets, and money. To destroy family loyalty, they separated adults and children of age six or older by gender into distinct villages, where they were forced to do hard labor. Due to genocidal policies, many people died from torture, lack of medical care, and starvation. Some estimates indicate there were nearly 2,000,000 deaths from an original population of nearly 8,000,000.

The Khmer Rouge also sought to eliminate minority groups such as ethnic Chinese, ethnic Vietnamese, and Chams. During the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam, which overthrew the Communist Khmer Rouge, and the second Cambodian civil war that raged from the late 1970s to 1991, Cambodians used the ensuing chaos to escape through treacherous jungles filled with land mines to the refugee camps in neighboring Thailand. Although many eventually resettled in the United States, the traumas they experienced continue to affect their adjustment while they have worked hard to build a new life.

Since 1975 more than 150,000 Cambodians have immigrated to the United States, many of them having arrived in the early 1980s. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 206,052 Cambodians, concentrated in California (84,559), Massachusetts (22, 886), and Washington (16,630), with smaller populations in Pennsylvania, Texas, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Virginia, New York, Illinois, and other states.

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