Baby Boom After Khmer Rouge Led to Cambodia’s Young Population

When a country goes through a devastating war, the return to peace usually involves a “baby boom” for a few years as soldiers arrive home and want to rebuild their lives and families, according to French researcher Patrick Heuveline.

In the case of Cambodia, however, the boom after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 lasted for most of the 1980s, said Mr. Heuveline, a sociologist specializing in demographic analysis, whose research has focused on the consequences of the regime. The result, he said, is the young median age of the country’s population today.

Photo Patrick Heuveline by Sothy Eng mv
Patrick Heuveline. (Sothy Eng)

According to the latest survey by Cambodia’s National Institute of Statistics, 68.5 percent of the population was under the age of 35 in 2013, and so born after the Khmer Rouge regime. This meant, Mr. Heuveline said, that a disproportionate number of people were of school age and afterward competing for work at the same time, taxing the school system and job market.

The 2013 survey also showed that 51 percent of the population was under 25 years old.

One of the most devastating consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime was its death toll, which remains difficult to assess, said Mr. Heuveline, who will present his findings at a talk on Tuesday at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh.

“We know that the number of births went down during the 1970s, but by how much we don’t really know,” he said. “We know that quite a few people left Cambodia in the early ‘80s, but how many we don’t really know. And those are things that will build into the uncertainty about how many people died in that period.”

Based on years of research and statistical analysis, Mr. Heuveline estimates the death toll to be between 1.8 million and 2.1 million people.

Mr. Heuveline was part of the U.N.’s population statistics division in New York in 1992 when he was sent to Cambodia to work on voter registration for the 1993 national election. He has returned every year since 1997 to carry out research.

His ongoing work has also entailed looking at the health of people born during the Khmer Rouge era to find out whether the harsh living conditions at the time caused them any lingering effects.

One of the Khmer Rouge’s biggest failures was their attempt to break up families and restructure Cambodia’s social core, said Mr. Heuveline, now a professor in the Sociology Department and International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“They—and rightly so—saw family as a pillar of society, the main engine of social reproduction…. So they had this idea of separating parents from children,” he said, creating children’s camps away from parents. This was one of the biggest factors that turned people against the regime, Mr. Heuveline said, “because it basically took away everything that people cared about.”

What: Conference

When: April 4, 6:30 p.m. 45 mins duration inc. Q&A

Location: Institut Francais, #218 Street 184

French with Khmer and English translation


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