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Khmer
Total population
16 million (2008 est.)
Regions with significant populations
 Cambodia      14.2 million[1]
 Thailand 1.4 million
 Vietnam 895,000 - 1.3 million
 United States 241,025[2]
 France 68,000
 Australia 25,710[3]
 Canada 25,000
 Malaysia 11,381
 New Zealand 6,918[4]
 Laos 4,000
 Belgium 3,000
Languages

Khmer, Northern Khmer, French

Religion

Dharma Wheel.svg Theravada Buddhism

Related ethnic groups

Mon, Wa, and other Mon-Khmer groups

The Khmer people; ខ្មែរ pronounced /kmɛər, kəˈmɛər/; are the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia, accounting for approximately 90% of the 14.8 million[1] people in the country. They speak the Khmer language, which is part of the larger Mon-Khmer language family found throughout Southeast Asia. The majority of the Khmer are followers of the Khmer style of Buddhism, a highly syncretic version which blends elements of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, animism and ancestor-spirit worship.[5] Significant populations of Khmers reside in adjacent areas of Thailand (Northern Khmer) and the Mekong Delta region of neighboring Vietnam (Khmer Krom).

Contents

History

Migrations into the mainland regions of Southeast Asia from the north continued well into historic times. The Khmer came with earlier waves following in the wake of the Malays.[citation needed] Most scholars believe they came at least 3,000 years ago, much earlier than Tai people who now inhabit many parts of what was originally Austroasiatic territory. The reason they migrated into Southeast Asia is generally debated, but scholars believe that Mon-Khmer were pushed down by invading Sino-Tibetans from the north as evident by Austroasiatic vocabulary in Chinese or because of agricultural purposes as evident by their migration routes along major rivers. The Khmer are relatives to the Mon who settled further to the west.

After establishment in Southeast Asia, the history of the Khmer people parallels the history of Cambodia. Like the other early peoples of Southeast Asia such as the Pyu and Mon, the Khmer were influenced by Indian and Sri lankan traders and scholars, adapting their religions, sciences, and customs and borrowing from their languages. The Khmer also acquired the concept of the Sivite Deva Raja (God-King) and the great temple as a symbolic holy mountain. Although Cambodian kingdoms waxed and waned and were eventually eclipsed, the Cambodian penchant for building temples of stone throughout their kingdoms left monuments still extant today.

Khmer Art, Museum Insel Hombroich, Germany

Jayavarman II (802 – 830), revived Cambodian power and built the foundation for the Angkorean empire, founding three capitals--Indrapura, Hariharalaya, and Mahendraparvata--the archeological remains of which reveal much about his times. After winning a long civil war, Suryavarman I (reigned 1002 – 1050) turned his forces eastward and subjugated the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati. Consequently, he ruled over the greater part of present-day Thailand and Laos, as well as the northern half of the Malay Peninsula. This period, during which Angkor Wat was constructed, is considered the apex of Khmer civilization. The Khmer kingdom became a great empire, and the great temples of Angkor, considered an archeological treasure replete with detailed stone bas-reliefs showing many aspects of the culture, including some musical instruments, remain as monuments to the culture of the Khmer. After the death of Suryavarman II (1113 – 1150), Cambodia lapsed into chaos until Jayavarman VII (1181 – 1218) ordered the construction of a new city. He was a Buddhist, and for a time, Buddhism became the dominant religion in Cambodia. As a state religion, however, it was adapted to suit the Deva Raja cult, with a Buddha Raja being substituted for the former Shiva Raja or Vishnu Raja.

A Khmer woman

The rise of the Tai kingdoms of Sukhothai (1238) and Ayuthaya (1350) resulted in almost ceaseless wars with the Cambodians and led to the destruction of Angkor in 1431. They are said to have carried off 90,000 prisoners, many of whom were likely dancers and musicians.[6] The period following 1432, with the Cambodian people bereft of their treasures, documents, and human culture bearers, was one of precipitous decline. In 1434 King Ponhea Yat made Phnom Penh his capital, and Angkor was abandoned to the jungle. Due to continued Siamese and Vietnamese aggression Cambodia appealed to France for protection in 1863 and became a French protectorate in 1864. During the 1880s, along southern Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was drawn into the French-controlled Indochinese Union. For nearly a century, the French exploited Cambodia commercially, and demanded power over politics, economics, and social life.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the political situation in Cambodia became chaotic. King Norodom Sihanouk (later, Prince, then again King), proclaimed Cambodia's independence in 1949 (granted in full in 1953) and ruled the country until March 18, 1970, when he was overthrown by General Lon Nol, who established the Khmer Republic. On April 17, 1975, the genocidal Khmer Rouge led by Saloth Sar, better known by his alias, Pol Pot, came to power and virtually destroyed the Cambodian people, their health, morality, education, physical environment, and culture. On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge. After more than ten years of painfully slow rebuilding with only meager outside help, the United Nations intervened resulting in the Paris Peace Accord on October 23, 1992 and created conditions for general elections in May 1993, leading to the formation of the current government and the restoration of Prince Sihanouk to power as King in 1993. Nonetheless, the Khmer Rouge continued to control portions of western and northern Cambodia until the late 1990s when they surrendered to government forces in exchange for either amnesty or re-adjustment for positions into the Cambodian government, and security outside the capital remains problematic.

Geography and demographics

The majority of the world's Khmer live in Cambodia, the population of which is 90% Khmer. There are also significant Khmer populations native to Thailand and Vietnam. There are over one million Khmer, mainly in Surin, Buriram and Srisaket provinces, in Thailand. Estimates for the number of Khmer in Vietnam (known as Khmer Krom) vary from the 1.1 million given by government data to seven million advocated by the Khmer Krom Federation.[7]

Due to the Cambodian Civil War, thousands of Khmer now reside in the United States, Canada, Australia and France as well.

Culture and society

Khmer woman in a market.

The culture of the ethnic Khmer is fairly homogeneous throughout their geographic range. Regional dialects exist but are mutually intelligible. The standard is based on Phnom Penh speech, which, due to the city's status as the national capital, has been modestly affected by recent French and Vietnamese influence. However, the variety of Khmer spoken in Battambang is more representative of the speech of the majority of the population. Other dialects are Northern Khmer, called Khmer Surin by Cambodians, spoken by the Khmer in Thailand and Khmer Krom spoken by the Khmer native to the Mekong delta regions of Vietnam adjacent to Cambodia. A little-studied dialect known as Western Khmer, or Cardamom Khmer, is spoken by a small, isolated population in the Cardamon Mountain range extending from Cambodia into Thailand. Although little studied, it is unique in that it maintains a definite system of vocal register that has all but disappeared in other dialects of modern Khmer.

The Cambodians believe in Brahmanism, which is derived from Hinduism and Buddhism. The modern Khmer strongly identify their ethnic identity with their religious beliefs and practices which combine the tenets of Theravada Buddhism with elements of indigenous ancestor-spirit worship, animism and shamanism.[5] The majority of the Khmer live in rural villages either as rice farmers or fishermen and life revolves around the wat (temple) and the various Buddhist ceremonies throughout the year. However, if a Khmer becomes ill, they will frequently see a kru khmae (shaman/healer) whom they believe can diagnose which of the many spirits (neak ta) has caused the illness and recommend a course of action to propitiate the offended spirit, thereby curing the illness.[8] The kru khmae also is learned in herb lore and is often sought to prepare various "medicines" and potions or for a magical tattoo, all believed to endow one with special prowess and ward off evil spirits or general bad luck.[8] Khmer beliefs also rely heavily on astrology, a remnant of Hinduism. A fortune teller, called hao-ra or kru tieay in Khmer, is often consulted before major events, like choosing a spouse, beginning an important journey or business venture, setting the date for a wedding and determining the proper location for building new structures.

Khmer children

Throughout the year the Khmer celebrate many holidays, most of a religious or spiritual nature, some of which are also observed as public holidays. The two most important are Chol Chnam (Cambodian New Year) and Pchum Ben ("Ancestor Day"). The Khmer Buddhist calendar is divided into 12 months with the traditional new year beginning on the first day of khae chaet which coincides with the first new moon of April in the western calendar. However, the modern celebration has been standardized to coincide with April 13th. The new year's celebration lasts three days, one day to mark the end of the old year, one day to welcome the spirit (tevida) of the coming year, and one day to honor one's parents as preah ros or "living gods (enlightened ones)".

Khmer culture has influenced Thai and Lao cultures. Many Khmer loanwords are found in Thai and Lao, and the Thai Alphabet is derived from the Khmer alphabet, which in turn, is derived from the Pallava script of southern India. Khmer architecture, regalia, customs also served as a vehicle to transmit the influence of India to the Thai and Lao as well.

See also

References

  1. Benjamin Walker, Angkor Empire: A History of the Khmer of Cambodia, Signet Press, Calcutta, 1995.
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Notes

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