MONDULKIRI - Here, in what is perhaps Cambodia's most remote province, the first
census in over 36 years faced considerable language, security and accessibility problems.
But as the process drew to a close, officials said the countrywide count had gone
"excellently", even in such remote areas.
"The census is important for development - but I don't know what kind of development,"
said an ethnic Phnong commune chief in Poh Leh village, 18 km from the provincial
capital of Sen Monorom.
The 48-year-old Pich Pray greeted visiting supervisors wearing a snazzy census
T-shirt and a grin from pierced ear to pierced ear.
"I informed everyone, they are not worried about the census," said the
village's only Khmer speaker.
Rural census officers were typically village or commune chiefs like Pray, trained
to explain the process to the local people.
Local authorities' cooperation was particularly important in counting indigenous
peoples, such as in Mondulkiri's many Phnong villages, where few people can understand
the Khmer publicity information.
Enumerators were mostly local schoolteachers. Half the schools in Mondulkiri had
to close during the census.
Huat Ky, a teacher enumerating Pray's village (population 220), said that he had
not found any problems.
But he added that when he asked questions about the traditional longhouses' material
and facilities, "some people thought the government was going to help them build
Between March 3-12, 25,000 enumerators and 8,000 supervisors fanned out in the first
attempt to count every person in the country since 1962.
The statistics gathered included type of dwelling, access to basic amenities, and
fertility and educational information as well as population data.
"The census data will enable the government to better shape the development
of the country... in every field," said Planning Minister Chea Chanto.
But getting that data was not necessarily easy. Mondulkiri has been a Khmer Rouge
bastion since 1970 and even today some areas are unsafe. A dozen soldiers armed with
AK-47s and rocket launchers accompanied provincial governor Chum Chheang when he
checked on census-taking in the northern district of Koh Nhek.
Until a new road was built last year, Koh Nhek was virtually cut off; the route from
the capital was a four-day walk for villagers - who had no motorcycles - and a daylong
four-wheel-drive journey for officials. Even the new, graded road is only accessible
in the dry season.
Local officials admit that the district town is comprised of Khmer Rouge families,
and security on the 100 km, forested road from the capital is an intermittent problem.
However, the census went well in the district, supervisors said, and people on the
whole understood the process.
Ironically, the wife of census official and assistant district chief Soy Sun was
one of the few who did not. Pruong Sun said she was "a bit worried" about
the census, as she thought it might have something to do with elections. But she
said she told the truth to the enumerators nonetheless.
"When my husband was trained [about the census], he returned and busily told
people about that. But I was just concerned with my household," she said when
asked why her husband did not explain the census to her.
Around Koh Nhek are some of the hardest-to-access villages in the province. Census
planners had originally considered using elephants to reach these areas, but the
high cost of elephant rentals (50,000 riel, about $14, for a four-hour trip) compelled
enumerators to travel by oxcart or on foot.
Loh Au village, scattered in small hamlets among rice fields, is accessible by motorcycle
in the dry season, but motos are rare. Census supervisors bumped into town on an
"I didn't understand what the census was until now, but I am happy to answer
the questions," said villager Buth Outh Ouk. "Maybe the government will
help us build... a dam, or a school, or a well to make life easier for the people."
She said that it is 5km to the nearest school and only one child, out of 88 families,
attends. Many villagers must carry water on their shoulders from the river half a
However, Ouk's village is a metropolis compared to Phum Thmei, 64 km northeast of
Sen Monorom. Located on a section of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the forest only
7km from the Vietnamese border, Phum Thmei must be one of Cambodia's most remote
The nearest town, Pech Chriada, is 20km west. The rudimentary track accommodates
only walkers or a four-wheel-drive vehicle - with stops to hack vegetation out of
the way - in the dry season. The nearest Vietnamese town is four hours' walk east,
across the O'Thmei river border, whose banks are sown with mines. Census enumerators
did not visit there.
"The village chief told us that the head of each family had to go to the district
to fill out the forms," said resident Tra Kouy, 70, adding that it was "half
a day's walk" one way. His village of 39 people and two cows boasts only one
rickety, ten-year-old moto which "does not work so well".
He said he did not mind being enumerated. "I want the government to provide
medicine and a road," he said, noting that health problems, including malaria,
were endemic in the village and that the nearest school was 20km away.
"I also want a well although there's a river nearby. I am too old to walk far."
As the census finished up in Mondulkiri, Governor Chum Chheang said he was "sure"
that everyone in his province had been counted. Census officials said counting had
progressed much faster than they had anticipated.
Nott Rama Rao, the chief technical adviser for the census, said he will do a follow-up
survey to test the accuracy of the process, but added that the census seemed to have
gone "excellently well" overall.
The thousands of Cambodians currently living in refuge in Thailand will not be included
in the census, but a note will be made of this on all census reports, Rao said.
The National Institute of Statistics will be responsible for processing questionnaires.
This will take about nine months, with two shifts a day working every day. Provisional
population figures should be available this July that include gender and household
breakdown at national and provincial levels.
The final, extended data analyses should be done by 1999, bringing to an end a four-year
The census is organized by the Ministry of Planning and implemented by the National
Institute of Statistics. The United Nations Population Fund gave about $4.3 million
in funding, plus an additional $700,000 for equipment and transport.
"It makes a world of difference if you have accurate, relevant census data on
which to base statistical inferences," said Craig Martin, executive director
of IMIC Ltd, which provides the Kingdom's only market research service, utilized
by NGOs and businesses. "That's what we're all waiting for."