The Transition to Adulthood in Cambodia

Type Working Paper
Title The Transition to Adulthood in Cambodia
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2009
Three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime (KRR) in January 1979, analysis of contemporary
Cambodian society can still hardly be free of references to that period. The number of deaths in excess
of those expected under normal circumstances cannot be determined with much precision (Heuveline
1998), but by some estimates, the death toll of the three years, eight months and twenty days of the
KRR reached 1.7 million—a fourth of the total population at the KRR’s outset (Sliwinski 1995; Kiernan
1996). KRR-era fertility also fell, but a baby-boom quickly followed (Heuveline and Poch 2007), and these
demographic trends together result in a most unusual age structure. At the time of the first post-KRR
census in 1998, 52.9% of the total population was under the age of 19.
Just as the cohorts that were entering adulthood at that time were much larger than those who
preceded them, the political, economic, and social context in which they were operating was vastly
different from that of their elders. The KRR abolished formal education both in public schools and in
pagodas in the whole country. For many, displaced by the five-year conflict preceding the KRR, formal
education had been interrupted earlier.  Whether they would resume their education when public
schools reopened in the early 1980s depends in part on how old they were then.  For those who did not
return to school and instead entered the labor force, they were very few professional opportunities
owing to the state of the country’s economy and its isolation from the U.S. and West-European Nations.
Deeming as illegitimate the Vietnamese invasion that had brought down the KRR, these Nations
withheld aid and investments until the early 1990s, that is, only after the 1989 pull-off of Vietnamese
troops, the 1990 four-party political agreement in Paris, and the 1991-1993 United Nations’ transitional
authority over the country. For the generation entering the labor force in the following years, and with
the benefit of an uninterrupted educational trajectory, the conditions could not be more different from
those of the previous generation.

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