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Country Profile: Cambodia


Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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Monks and sightseers beside the Tonle Sap river © Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

It can be hard to escape the sound of jackhammers in Phnom Penh. From daybreak, the traditional sounds of the capital – the yodelling of street vendors and honking of tuk-tuks – now seem accompanied by the ubiquitous grind and screech of building sites. Indeed, a record boom has seen investment in Cambodia’s construction sector treble over the past five years, with a total of more than $7 billion worth of projects approved in 2016. Sprawling malls, condos and entertainment complexes now tower over the low-rise city – monuments to Cambodia’s entry into the world of global capitalism, with all its attendant consumerist cultures and trends.

For a country which was only 20 years earlier clawing its way back to a fragile peace after more than a decade of genocide and civil war, it may be tempting to view these countless new developments as symbols of progress. But, like their hastily laid foundations, the façade of modernization in Cambodia is shaky. Despite raising overall living standards and ushering in economic growth that has seen it branded an Asian ‘tiger economy’, three decades of rule by Prime Minister Hun Sen have done little to deliver social, economic or political equity for the majority of Cambodians.

Behind the scaffolding of construction sites, an estimated 300,000 workers – mostly internal migrants from the provinces, and many of them children – toil for around $7 a day in precarious conditions that have been compared to forced labour. Similarly, the million employees in the garment sector – the other backbone of the country’s economy – are drawn to the capital’s numerous factories on fickle short-term contracts for as little as $4 per day. Cambodia’s new-found wealth is, by contrast, sequestered in the hands of the country’s ruling elite – an indivisible mesh of political, business and military.

Like the cash-flow, political power has remained concentrated. Officially a parliamentary democracy with regular elections, the country has since 1998 been ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Hun Sen, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge (the regime that perpetrated the genocide of 1975-79). Opposition parties are licensed and there is a sanctioned space for political dissent and civil society. But that space has always been carefully policed by the CPP and is narrowing significantly.

The CPP’s main rival is the Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose charismatic leader Sam Rainsy last year found himself in exile for the third time in a decade. Other opposition members of parliament have been subject to beatings, harassment and arbitrary arrest with regularity. The activities of NGOs and civil society have meanwhile come under greater attack, as with the recent detention of five high-profile human rights defenders on charges Human Rights Watch describes as ‘farcical’.

Less visible still are all those Cambodians (an estimated 800,000 since 2000) who have faced forcible eviction and destitution as a result of an escalating policy of land-grabs meted out by government members, security forces and affiliated businesses. Such is the scale of land-grabbing in Cambodia that a dossier of cases has been submitted to the International Criminal Court, claiming that the violations by the country’s ruling elite amount to crimes against humanity.

Campaign groups like Global Witness have warned that such conditions should be a red flag to foreign investors in Cambodia – the biggest of which is China, whose company names brand the majority of construction developments and in whose geopolitical orbit Cambodia is becoming more firmly entrenched. China is unlikely to be ruffled, but the country’s questionable course of development may yet give its long-standing Western donors and biggest trading partners (the UK and US) pause for thought.

Fact file

Leader Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen. Head of state is constitutional monarch King Norodom Sihamoni.
Economy GNI per capita $1,020 (Vietnam $1,890, France $42,960).
Monetary unit Riel.
Main exports clothing, timber, rubber, rice, fish, tobacco. Tourism is increasingly important: visitor numbers per year have more than doubled since the time of the last profile, to 4.5 million, and the sector employs 500,000, compared with the 600,000 (mainly women) employed making garments and shoes. Around a third of the government budget derives from aid.
People 15.6 million. Population annual growth rate 1990-2015: 2.2%. People per square kilometre: 88 (France 122).
Health Infant mortality 25 per 1,000 live births (Vietnam 17, France 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 210 (France 1 in 6,100). HIV prevalence rate: 0.6%.
Environment Cambodia now has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation: forest coverage is down from 73% in 1990 to less than 50% – mostly due to land concessions and illegal logging. Its primary waterway, the Tonle Sap, suffers from large-scale damming and overfishing.
Culture Officially 96% ethnic Khmer, but in reality around 10% are Chinese, Vietnamese, or Cham (Muslim) – the last group in particular is subject to widespread racism.
Religion Over 90% Buddhist (official), pockets of Muslims.
Language Khmer (official); some minority languages.
Human Development Index 0.555, 143rd of 188 countries (Vietnam 0.666, France 0.888).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution After more than two decades of economic growth, Cambodia has reached lower middle-income status and surpassed its poverty-reduction goals. But 18% still live on less than $2.50 per day. 2007 ★
Literacy 74%. Slowly improving from historically low levels. The primary net enrolment rate is up to 95%. 2007 ★★
Life expectancy 69 years (Vietnam 76, France 82). 2007 ★★
Freedom Despite numerous media outlets, the press is largely owned by the ruling party or its allied businesses. Protest is in theory lawful, but demonstrations are often forcibly dispersed, while activists and opposition politicians are routinely threatened and detained. 2007 ★★
Position of women Women’s representation in parliament is now 20%, but their participation in social, political and economic life remains constrained by conservative gender norms. Rates of sexual and domestic violence are among the highest in Southeast Asia. 2007 ★★
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is legal in Cambodia, though social prejudice and discrimination persist – as in a recent Facebook scandal around the sexuality of its King Norodom Sihamoni. Prompted by aid donors, the government has in recent years taken steps in support of LGBT rights and visibility. 2007 ★★★
New Internationalist assessment Under the trappings of electoral democracy, the CPP has sustained a government founded on patronage around its veteran Prime Minister Hun Sen. Corruption is rife and the rule of law among the weakest in the region, with citizens’ everyday rights neglected or actively violated – notably through land-grabs. Recent stirrings of popular discontent have seen the CPP lean more heavily on tactics of intimidation, coercion and propaganda.

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