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Introduction

Khmer or KAMPUCHEA, French CAMBODGE, formerly (to 1970) KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA, (1970-76) KHMER REPUBLIC, (1976-79) DEMOCRATIC KAMPUCHEA, or (1979-89) PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KAMPUCHEA, country lying in the southwestern Indochinese Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Covering a land area of 70,238 square miles (181,916 squarekilometres), it is bordered on the west and northwest by Thailand, on the northeast by Laos, on the east and southeast by Vietnam, and on the southwest by the Gulf of Thailand. The capital is Phnom Penh.

Cambodia's maximum extent is about 280 miles (450 kilometres) from north to south and 360 miles from east to west. The central region is a low-lying alluvial plain surrounding the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the beginnings of the Mekong River delta. Extending outward from this region are transitional plains, thinly forested and with prevailing elevations no higher than several hundred feet above sea level. On the north, along the border with Thailand, the Cambodian plain abuts a sandstone escarpment that marks the southern limit of the Dangrek (Khmer: D‚ngrÍk) Mountains. A southward-facing cliff, stretching for more than 200 miles from west to east, rises abruptly from the plain to heights ranging from 600 to 1,800 feet (180 to 550 metres), forming a natural frontier boundary. East of the Mekong the transitional plains gradually merge with the eastern highlands, a region of forested mountains and high plateaus that extend into Laos and Vietnam. In southwestern Cambodia two distinct upland blocks, comprising the Kr‚vanh (Cardamom) Mountains and the D‚mrei (Elephant) Mountains, form another highland region that covers much of the land area between the Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand. In this remote and largely uninhabited area is found Mount AŰral (5,949 feet; 1,813 metres), Cambodia's highest peak. The southern coastal region adjoining the Gulf of Thailand is a narrow lowland strip, heavily wooded and sparsely populated, which is isolated from the central plain by the southwestern highlands.

The people

Cambodia's first national census as an independent nation was taken in 1962, with a resulting total of about 5,700,000. Overall population density has been difficult to determine, because of the enormous losses and movements of people in the years after 1970. Because so much of the country is poorly watered and without inhabitants, the actual density in populated areas is quite high.

Ethnic and linguistic composition

The Khmer (Cambodians) account for the vast majority of the total population. This has produced a homogeneity that is unique in Southeast Asia and has encouraged a strong sense of national identity. Other traditional ethnic groups included the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham-Malays, various tribal peoples, and Europeans. With the upheavals of the 1970s, the number of European residents declined precipitously, while many Chinese and local Vietnamese survivors emigrated overseas.

The Khmer are concentrated in the lowland regions surrounding the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, on the transitional plain, and along the coast. They belong to the Mon-Khmer ethnolinguistic group. A product of centuries of intricate cultural and racial blending, the Khmer moved southward before 200 BC into the fertile Mekong delta from the Khorat Plateau of what is now Thailand. They were Indianized by successive waves of Indian influence and in the 8th century AD were exposed to Indo-Malayan influences and perhaps immigration from Java. This was followed by migrations of Tai peoples from the 10th to the 15th century, by a Vietnamese migration beginning in the 17th century, and by Chinese migrations in the 18th and 19th centuries. The typical Khmer family before 1975 consisted of a married couple and their unmarried children. Both sons and daughters usually left the parental home after marriage to establish their own households.

Among the ethnic minorities in Cambodia before 1975, the Chinese were the most important, for they controlled the country's economic life. They were shunted aside in the communist-led revolution of the 1970s and made to become ordinary peasants. Those who did not seek refuge abroad after 1975 and others who subsequently returned regained some of their former influence as urban centres were revived. The Vietnamese minority occupied a somewhat lower status than the Chinese, and most of them fled or were repatriated to Vietnam after 1970. In the 1980s, however, a large number of Vietnamese migrants, many of them former residents of Cambodia, settled in the country. Centuries of mutual dislike and distrust have clouded Vietnamese-Khmer relations, and intermarriage has been infrequent. The next most important minority, the Cham-Malay group known in Cambodia as Khmer Islam, also maintained a high degree of ethnic homogeneity and was discriminated against under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea. Finally, the tribal people of Cambodia, living originally in the forested northeastern part of the country, received slightly better treatment than the Khmer Islam during that period.