The Society and Its Environment

Cambodia Table of Contents

SINCE 1975 CAMBODIA has suffered through one of the most catastrophic periods in its long history. The takeover of the country by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, its violent aftermath, and the constant warfare between communist and noncommunist factions has resulted in widespread and major changes in the Cambodian social fabric. The country was plunged into a dark age from which it was slowly emerging in the late 1980s.

Under the Khmer Rouge, the entire social structure of the country suffered radical and massive changes. An estimated 1 million to 2 million Cambodians died during the first three-and- one-half years of communist rule. Traditional family life was violently disrupted and virtually abolished between 1975 and 1979. Nuclear families--the most important units of Cambodian society--were broken up and were replaced with communal groupings. About 97 percent of the population was forced into communal economic programs. Urban dwellers were driven into the countryside in mass marches that caused great suffering and many deaths. Rural society was reorganized into interfamilial units known as krom (groups). Urban Cambodians, ethnic minorities, and educated people suffered especially harsh treatment. The ethnic Chinese, because they were engaged extensively in small businesses and were mainly urban dwellers, were targets for communist persecution, as were the Cham, a prominent ethnic minority group. Educated people were special targets for extermination, and most of the teachers and physicians fled the country or were massacred. Those who showed evidence of Western influence, such as using the English language, were suspect. Although freedom of religion was guaranteed in theory under the Khmer Rouge, in fact Buddhism and other religions were repressed ruthlessly. Temples were destroyed or put to secular uses, and monks were defrocked and forced do manual labor.

The Vietnamese invasion in December 1978 ameliorated the situation somewhat. As a result of the invasion, the Khmer Rouge government of Democratic Kampuchea was overthrown, and the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) under Heng Samrin was installed in 1979. The PRK allowed considerably more freedom than had its predecessor. In the late 1980s, Marxist-Leninist socialism as it existed in Vietnam was the goal of the PRK government in Phnom Penh. The regime was not pushing hard to convert the country, but was planning a gradual conversion instead. Religions were allowed to function. The government allowed Buddhist monks to return to their temples, although narrow limits were placed on those who could become monks and on aspects of ritual. The education system, which had suffered almost total destruction under the Khmer Rouge, was reconstituted, and the number of students attending formal classes rose dramatically in the early 1980s. The public health service was functioning again in the mid-1980s, and modern medical services were available although trained medical personnel and some medicines continued to be in short supply. The shortage of medical personnel was partially filled by foreign doctors and technicians. The PRK did not neglect to court ethnic minorities. Members of one of the Khmer Loeu (or highland Khmer) tribal minorities were made leaders in several northeastern provinces, and members of the Cham minority served in the central government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress