Before the Khmer Rouge era Cambodian society was organized somewhat along hierarchal lines, although some mobility was possible, with status levels being determined by wealth and prestige. Most people fell into one of three categories: 1) an elite made up of aristocrats and high-raking officials; 2) a middle class made up of merchants, professionals, and bureaucrats; and 3) peasants and workers. Buddhist monks occupied their own niche and have traditionally been given a great amount or respect.

Villages have traditionally been relatively egalitarian and led by elected headmen. Some families were more prosperous than others but generally not by very much. Social stratification generally took place on the basis of age, character and piety.

Social control has traditionally been exercised through the teaching of proper behavior to children, gossip, ostracism and fears of the shame, embarrassment and loss of face associated with breaking social rules. Many rules are based on Buddhist rules of conduct. Many people also fear punishment from supernatural beings and/or deceased ancestors.

Cambodians have lived outside the bounds of civil society since 1970. Institutions, like the family, village hierarchies and religion, that held society together were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Chaos and upheaval after the Khmer Rouge made the recovery process slow. The Khmer Rouge attempted to eliminate social classes by making everyone a peasant. Even so, a new hierarchy developed with the Khmer Rouge cadre at the top. See History and the Philosophy of the Khmer Rouge.

After the Khmer Rouge era, social differentiation emerged, with the strong, the powerful and politically connected at the top. Anyone who dares to challenge them, risks ending up dead.

Class and Social Stratification in Cambodia

Social strata in precommunist Cambodia may be viewed as constituting a spectrum, with an elite group or upper class at one end and a lower class consisting of rural peasants and unskilled urban workers at the other end. The elite group was composed of high-ranking government, military, and religious leaders, characterized by high prestige, wealth, and education or by members one of the royal or noble families. Each one of the subgroups had its own internal ranking system. Before the ouster of Sihanouk in 1970, the highest ranks of the elite group were filled largely by those born into them. The republican regime in the early 1970s invalidated all royal and noble titles, and the only titles of social significance legally in use in connection with the elite group were those gained through achievement. Military and government titles tended to replace royal and noble titles. In spite of the legislated loss of titles, however, wide public recognition of the royalty and the nobility continued. The deferential linguistic usages and the behavior styles directed toward members of these groups persisted through the 1970s and, to a limited extent, were still present in the late 1980s.[Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

In the early 1970s, the senior military officers, some of whom were also members of the aristocracy, replaced the hereditary aristocracy as the most influential group in the country. To some extent, this upper stratum of the upper class was closed, and it was extremely difficult to move into it and to attain positions of high power. The closed nature of the group frustrated many members of the small intellectual elite. This group, positioned at the lower end of the elite group, consisted of civil servants, professional people, university students, and some members of the Buddhist hierarchy. It had become large enough to be politically influential by the 1970s, for example, student strikes were serious enough in 1972 to force the government to close some schools. *

Somewhere in the middle of this social spectrum was a small middle class, which included both Khmer and non-Khmer of medium prestige. Members of this class included businessmen, white-collar workers, teachers, physicians, most of the Buddhist clergy, shopkeepers, clerks, and military officers of lower and middle rank. Many Chinese, Vietnamese, and members of other ethnic minorities belonged to the middle class. The Khmer were a majority only among the military and among the civil servants. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The lower class consisted of rural small farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, and blue-collar urban workers. The majority of Cambodians belonged to this group. Most of the members of the lower class were Khmer, but other ethnic groups, including most of the Cham, Khmer Loeu, some Vietnamese, and a few Chinese, were included. This class was virtually isolated from, and was uninterested in, the activities of the much smaller urban middle and upper classes. *

Within the lower class, fewer status distinctions existed; those that did depended upon attributes such as age, sex, moral behavior, and religious piety. Traditional Buddhist values were important on the village level. Old age was respected, and older men and women received deferential treatment in terms of language and behavior. All else being equal, males generally were accorded a higher social status than females. Good character--honesty, generosity, compassion, avoidance of quarrels, chastity, warmth--and personal religious piety also increased status. Generosity toward others and to the wat was important. Villagers accorded respect and honor to those whom they perceived as having authority or prestige. Buddhist monks and nuns, teachers, high-ranking government officials, and members of the hereditary aristocracy made up this category. Persons associated with those who possessed prestige tended to derive prestige and to be accorded respect therefrom. *

The Khmer language reflects a somewhat different classification of Khmer society based on a more traditional model and characterized by differing linguistic usages. This classification divided Cambodian society into three broad categories: royalty and nobility, clergy, and laity. The Khmer language had--and to a lesser extent still has--partially different lexicons for each of these groups. For example, nham (to eat) was used when speaking of oneself or to those on a lower social level; pisa (to eat) was used when speaking politely of someone else; chhan (to eat) was used of Buddhist clergy, and saoy (to eat) was used of royalty. The Khmer Rouge attempted to do away with the different lexicons and to establish a single one for all; for example, they tried to substitute a single, rural word, hop (to eat), for all of the above words. *

Income Disparity and Social Mobility in Cambodia

Social mobility was played out on an urban stage. There was little opportunity among the majority of the rural Cambodians to change social status; this absence of opportunity was a reflection of traditional Buddhist fatalism. A man could achieve higher status by entering the monkhood or by acquiring an education and then entering the military or the civil service. Opportunities in government service, especially for white-collar positions, were highly prized by Cambodian youths. The availability of such positions did not keep pace with the number of educated youths, however, and in the late 1960s and the early 1970s this lag began to cause widespread dissatisfaction. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The gap between rich and poor is rising.Only one quarter of the Cambodian population has access to electricity, compared with nearly full coverage in Vietnam and Thailand. About one-third of the Cambodian population does not have running water at home. “The wealth that we get from economic growth does not benefit people over all — just a handful of people,” said Son Chhay, a senior member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main opposition party in Parliament, which was formed by the merger of two parties last year. “We have just rich and poor. We don’t have a middle class.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, February 1, 2013]

Khmer Rouge and Society

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. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Institutions, like the family, village hierarchies and religion, that held society together were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Chaos and upheaval after the Khmer Rouge made the recovery process slow. The Khmer Rouge attempted to eliminate social classes by making everyone a peasant. Even so, a new hierarchy developed with the Khmer Rouge cadre at the top. See History and the Philosophy of the Khmer Rouge.

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 Khmer Rouge characterized Cambodians as being in one of several classes: the feudal class (members of the royal family and high government or military officials); the capitalist class (business people); the petite bourgeoisie (civil servants, professionals, small business people, teachers, servants, and clerics); peasant class (the rich, the mid-level, and the poor, based on whether or not they could hire people to work their land and on whether or not they had enough food); the worker class (the independent worker, the industrial worker, and the party members); and the "special" classes (revolutionary intellectuals, military and police officials, and Buddhist monks). *

Society After the Khmer Rouge

After the Khmer Rouge era, social differentiation emerged, with the strong, the powerful and politically connected at the top. Anyone who dared to challenge them, risked ending up in jail or even dead.

As a result of the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978, 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. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

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. *

As time has gone by the rules of a civil society have become more infused into Cambodian society. One human rights activist told the New York Times in the 1990s, “There is a strong recognition not only by the government but by the military that a civil society is an actor on the scene and that the state will have to accept this reality. Because of this, we can work better now in terms of mobilizing pressure and public opinion and exposing wrong doing. Foreign aid is at least aptly credited for pushing the changes.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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