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Cambodia

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Cambodia is in Southeast Asia, bordering Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. The country is slightly smaller than the state of Oklahoma. Approximately 14.5 million people live in Cambodia.

The country’s terrain is characterized primarily by low, flat plains with some mountains in the southwest and northern regions. Rice paddies and thick forests dominate the landscape. Cambodia’s climate, like that of other countries in Southeast Asia, is tropical. There are two primary seasons: monsoon and dry, with little temperature variation within seasons. The country’s natural resources include oil and gas, timber, gemstones, iron ore, manganese, and phosphates.

Ninety percent of Cambodians are of the Khmer people group, while there is a minority of Vietnamese, Chinese, and other groups. The vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhist, while 3 percent are Muslim and 2 percent are Christian. The vast majority of Cambodians speak Khmer, but both French and English are also spoken.

Between the 10th  and 13th centuries A.D., the Khmer people’s empire reached its peak of power, extending over much of Southeast Asia. The empire’s power center was the city of Angkor and may have been populated by as many 1 million people, making it one of the largest pre-industrial cities in the world.

The Khmer Empire’s power then began to wane, leaving it to Thai and Vietnamese domination. The country became a protectorate of France in 1863 and remained part of French Indochina until 1953.

After suffering the effects of the conflict between North Vietnam and the United States, Cambodia entered a dark period dominated by what has become known as the “killing fields.” In 1975 the communist Khmer Rouge took control of the country and forcibly evacuated the cities, sending the entire population into the rural areas of the country for “reeducation.” Approximately 1.5 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation, or forced hardship under this brutal regime.

In 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and occupied the country for ten years, driving the Khmer Rouge out of power. The Vietnamese invasion also sparked nearly 13 years of civil war in Cambodia. Years of political turmoil followed, despite democratic elections and peace treaties. The most recent elections in July 2008 were relatively calm.

Cambodia is a poor country, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in Southeast Asia. In fact, 40 percent of the population lives on one dollar or less a day. Cambodians living in the countryside are especially impoverished, lacking education and productive skills. Life is also made more difficult in the countryside by a lack of infrastructure. Furthermore, Cambodia’s economy will be increasingly strained as the country’s young population, half of which is under 21 years old, begins to enter the job market.