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The numbers that trace a turbulent history

The numbers that trace a turbulent history

War and resilience play equal roles in Cambodia's past, and this, as Tom Fawthrop
reports, can be traced by the wild fluctuations in population numbers.

CAMBODIA'S turbulent history of war, foreign in vasion, famine and refugee migrations

from the Angkor period until the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement resulted in periods of

radical depopulation.

The balance of the nation's survival has been achieved in just as dramatic periods

of recovery.

After the Siamese invasion of Angkor in 1431, Cambodia suffered a huge drop in numbers

because of territorial secession.

This reached its nadir in the 1840s: internecine wars, famine and invading armies

brought the nation to its knees with an estimated population, based on French figures,

of 800,000.

Historians generally agree that Cambodia was on the verge of dissolution as a viable


The fears of many Khmer people about the survival of their culture and race - often

exploited in election campaigns and the press - date back to the 1840s.

However French colonial rule in 1863 led to a period of stability and population


By 1951 the population was estimated to be 4.3 million.

The 1962 census recorded a figure of 6 million.

During the intervening 36 years since the last census, Cambodia suffered demographic

disaster from 1970-80.

The Lon Nol coup in 1970 dragged Cambodia into the Vietnam war: the country was bombed

by American B-52s, forcing more than a million people to flee to the cities.

Estimates of deaths from the 1970-75 war with the Khmer Rouge and from US bombing

varies from 275,000 to as much as half a million.

From 1973-75 the population figure was highly unstable. Constant displacement and

a massive refugee problem both internally and into foreign countries made it impossible

to hold a census every ten years.

Ethnic Vietnamese were massacred by Lon Nol troops, and 320,000 people were expelled

to Vietnam.

Another 34,000 Khmers fled to Thailand and 10,400 to Laos before the Khmer Rouge


In April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia's population was

a little over 7 million.

In 1979 the first estimate by the new government showed that it had been reduced

to 6.1 million.

This loss, and the shattering of a nation's culture, traditions and family structure

by Pol Pot's regime, was exacerbated by a western embargo of aid to and recognition

of Heng Samrin's People's Republic of Kampuchea regime.

With the threat of famine, the fears of the 1840s were resurrected.

Many felt that the Khmer race was on the verge of extinction. But this underestimated

the nation's resilience.

Emergency aid helped avert the threatened famine, and survivors criss-crossed the

country reuniting families.

By 1980 some kind of normal society had been restored. Population stabilization pre-empted

a phenomenal baby-boom during the early 1980s: 45.5 births per thousand during 1980-85

was the highest in the region, according to the United Nations.

By 1983 the population had recovered to its pre-1975 figure of 7 million.

A demographic disaster had been reversed, and the survival of the race was no longer

in doubt, despite continued civil war.

THE concept of the census is ancient, used primarily as a tool to strike taxes and

identify males for compulsory military service.

In Cambodia the first attempts to estimate population size probably date back to

Angkor, according to Louis Cheminais' book Le Cambodge.

Inscriptions on the monuments of Angkor indicate a rudimentary system for counting


The first use of documentation-based statistics dates from French colonial rule in


Cheminais maintained a fall in the Khmer population to 800,000, but although widely

accepted, the figure can still only be a rough estimate. French academic J. Moura

in his Le Royaume de Cambodge assembled the first statistical records in 1883 to

arrive at 943,954 people.

The census of 1921 saw French authorities attempt to count the entire population

in one night. But the primary purpose of this census was to find the number of males

aged between 20 and 60, a key sector who paid tax and the ones to whom ID cards were


After independence, surveys were carried out in 1958 and 1959, which showed a population

of 4.845 million - almost certainly an under-estimation.

In 1962 Prince Norodom Sihanouk's first census was guaranteed by a National Assembly

kret (law) to collect only politically neutral data.

In 1921 many people would have tried avoiding the count, or given false information,

for fear that honest answers would lead to higher taxes.

By contrast the 1962 census adhered to the universal principles of the modern-day

census in which citizens have nothing to fear from the questions.

While most observers agree that there was good cooperation among state administrators

in 1962, Sim Thai Peng, a Cambodian demographer, said that many people were reluctant

to give any information about relatives who had died during the past year.

Thai Peng said that the survey was still flawed despite it being the best statistical

operation ever held. While it counted all private families, it excluded people living

in barracks, hospitals, hotels, prisons and pagodas.

The census was also extended by days or weeks in some areas, because some census-takers

were poorly trained and some areas inaccurately marked.

The resulting population figure of 5.74 million was clearly an under-count. It was

later revised to 6 million - this continues to be a key point of reference for all

later studies.

In October and November 1980, the fledgling PRK government managed to conduct a population

count. San Sy Than, now the deputy director of the statistics department, said "the

operation was quite efficient.

About 40 supervisors, two for each province, were trained in Phnom Penh". An

announcement on Dec 31, 1980 put the population at 6.589 million.

This count however also had a number of flaws. Questions about education level, occupations

and nationality were also included, but a lot of this data couldn't be processed.

Sy Than lamented: "We were only provided with Casio pocket calculators."

A significant portion of the population was also living in Khmer Rouge-controlled

land along the Thai border.

For all that, the 1980 count has generally been accepted as a reliable one, consistent

with the projections and estimates of international demographers.

The 1980 count was the first attempt to document the scale of the number killed under

Pol Pot's regime.

By this time there was international controversy over the scale of killing, estimations

for which fluctuated wildly from as high as 3 million to very low estimates of not

more than a few hundred thousand. However, with the Cold War at its height, little

attention was paid by the West to the 1980 count.

In his 12-page report on the survey, Finance Minister Chan Phin pointed out the sharp

contrast in sex ratios. In 1962 there were 50.8% men and 49.2% women. In 1980 there

were 43.1% men and 56.9% women.

The fact that more men than women died affected both the agricultural labor force

and undermined family stability.

Expert demographers speculated that, under normal circumstances, Cambodia's population

should have been around 9.3 million - fully 2.8 million more than the reported figure

in 1980, according to US Bureau of Census chief of international research, Dr Judith


Bannister said this also took into account the 567,000 survivors who fled to Thailand,

and other factors.

The claims of 3 million deaths made by the Heng Samrin government and Hanoi did have

some credibility, though it appears not to have taken into account the net population

loss due to emigration.

At the same time, a CIA report minimized the numbers who died to a "few hundred

thousand", to support US policy in the 1980s of recognizing Democratic Kam-puchea

as being the "legal representative of the Cambodian people".

Bannister's calculations of 1.05 million deaths resulting from the DK regime is now

thought to be low, based on the most comprehensive research done thus far by the

Cambodian Genocide Program, set up by US State Department backing under the auspices

of Yale University. The Documentation Center now estimates that 1.7 million people


- (Journalist Tom Fawthrop consulted for UNESCO during the preliminary stages

of Census 1998)


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