About Cambodia

Population: Almost 15 Million

Language: Khmer

Ethnic Groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%

Religions: Buddhist (official) 96.4%, Muslim 2.1%, other 1.3%

Median Age: 23.3 Years (Male- 22.6 years/Female- 24 years) Compared to the US median age which is around 36.

Government Type: Multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy

Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Genocide

On April 17th, 1975, the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh was taken over by the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was the communist party of Cambodia, led by Pol Pot, and believed in creating a purely agrarian-based communist society.

Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed “Year Zero.” Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. The country cut itself off from the outside world.

The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed “enemies”:

  • Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments.
  • Professionals and intellectuals – this included almost everyone with an education, English-speaking people and even people wearing glasses (which, according to the regime, meant that they were literate).
  • Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Thai and other minorities in Eastern Highland, Cambodian Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist monks.
The majority of these victims were killed and buried in “Killing Fields” outside of Phnom Penh.  By the time Vietnam invaded and overthrew Pol Pot in early 1979, over 1.7 million Cambodians had been killed.
Today, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with an annual income of $300/person. The average life expectancy in Cambodia is around 63 years old, compared to 72 in Vietnam and 73 in Thailand. For every one million people, there are only 160 physicians in Cambodia, as compared to 2000 in Thailand and 5000 in the U.S. Of the 9 justices on the Supreme Court, only one has a law degree. Only about 4% of the population has graduated high-school, and only about 1% has graduated from college. Of this 1%, only about 25% are women, and only about 10% of those are women from the provinces.
The best hope for Cambodia seems to be education and leadership training. Studies by the World Bank and other international organizations have shown that the most effective way to reduce poverty in third world countries is the education of women [e.g. “Advancing Gender Equality: World Bank Action Since Beijing” (World Bank, 2000); “What Helps in Girls’ Education: Evidence and Policies for the Developing World” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2005)]. In many third world countries, including Cambodia, women are discriminated against regarding educational, social, and professional opportunities. Thus, ironically, the population that can most advance the country is given the least opportunity to do so. For that reason, The Harpswell Foundation has focused most of their efforts towards the education and leadership training of women, through their dormitory and leadership center for college women in Phnom Penh. (Source)
For more information on The Harpswell Foundation and my role as a Leadership Resident see my Blog Post.

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