The Khmer form 90% of Cambodia’s 15 million people, making it one of the most homogenous countries in Southeast Asia. The remainder are ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, hilltribes and Cham Muslims.
The Khmer have been in Cambodia since around the first century A.D, way before the Thais and Vietnamese and Chinese moved into the area. The Vietnamese are one of the largest ethnic minorities and while official figures claim a population of 100,000, the real figure could be between half to two million. They are important in fishing and construction but distrust seems to still exist between the Khmers and Vietnamese.
Many of the Cambodian Chinese have lived there for generations and are fully assimilated. Again, there seems to be a vast discrepancy between official figures at 50,000 and an unofficial count of 500,000 in the urban areas. Until 1975, the Chinese controlled Cambodian banking and economy. They have resurfaced as a powerful economic force due to huge investments by overseas Chinese.
The Cham Muslims live along banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Kompong Cham, Kompong Speu and Kompong Chhnang provinces. After heavy persecution during the Pol Pol years, they have rebuilt their community which could be twice as large as the official figure of 200,000.
The hill tribes or Khmer Loeu live mainly in the northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng and Kratie. They probably total around 100,000, of which the largest group is the 15,000 strong Tompoun. Other hilltribes include the Phnong, Kreung,
Kavet, Brau and Jarai.
The government coined the term Khmer Loeu, or Highland Khmer, to establish some commonality between them and the ruling Khmer society. However, there is little understanding between them. The Khmer Loeu live in temporary villages and face the threat of being marginalized with an official policy to encourage lowland Khmers to move to the spacious mountainous regions.