Census: Nation’s 13.4 Million Seek Elbowroom

With 70,482 inhabitants, Pailin, the town on the Thai border built for and by the Khmer Rouge, has more than tripled in size since their rebellion ended in 1998.

Oddar Meanchey province, with 185,443 people, is also three times more populous than it was when Pol Pot died there that year.

Battambang province, at just over 1 million people, has grown by 30 percent in the same period.

After 10 years of peace, Cambodians are not only more numerous, they are spreading north, northwest and northeast, to plant cashews, build roads and dig for mines, bombs and gold, according to provisional figures released Wednesday from this year’s second-ever decennial government census.

Where there were four Cambodians, there are now about five: as of midnight on March 3, there were a total of 13,388,910 Cambodians, a 17 percent increase over 1998, with an annual growth rate of 1.55 percent, slightly higher than the regional rate of 1.3 percent.

Compiled by over 30,000 census takers who interviewed Cambodians in 2.8 million households over 10 days in March, the census results have yet to be mined for data on age, fertility, mortality and migration, the things that help tell government planners how to project population figures for the years between censuses.

But one dividend of a decade of peace is already clear: Cambodia’s smallest, remotest populations are growing the fastest, and, within these places, the rural communities are rising faster. Areas once too dangerous even for census takers are now increasingly inviting for migrant populations, the census found.

Of the 10 fastest growing provinces, six are inhabited by fewer than 100,000 people. Three quarters of Pailin’s population, the fastest growing area, live in rural areas outside the municipality and their numbers are rising yearly at 13.37 percent, more than twice as fast as urban Pailin (6.11 percent).

On the other hand, the most populous province, Kompong Cham, with 1.68 million mainly rural people, is growing at only 0.44 percent a year.

As a whole, the growth rate in Cambodia’s urban population (2.55 percent) is still faster than the rural population (1.3 percent), and one in five Cambodians now lives in an urban area, which is defined as a location with a population density greater than 200 people per square kilometer and where fewer than half the men work on farms.

But the numbers still tell a story of migration from bigger places to smaller ones.

“Stung Treng is bustling with activity due to rapid expansion of agro-industry plantations […] and construction of a road and bridges connecting it with neighboring Laos,” the census report’s authors wrote.

“Kompong Cham and provinces that have shown marginal increase in population during 1998-2008 are likely to be the out-migrating provinces of […] the economically active population,” they said.

Differing professions are also drawing the sexes apart: men are drawn to manual labor in remote places while Phnom Penh, Takhmau town and Takeo province are now teaming with young women, thanks to the employment opportunities offered by garment factories.

For every 100 women, there are 105.5 men in Pailin, 104.9 in Mondolkiri, but only 88.2 in Phnom Penh and 88 in Kandal.

The implications for policy prescriptions are not subtle: government and administration must extend to places that previously were only sparsely inhabited. Created in 1999, the once war-torn province of Oddar Meanchey, for example, still has no courthouse.

Finance Ministry Secretary-General Hang Chuon Naron said Thursday that the findings had not taken the government by surprise.

“The reallocation of resources is happening already,” he said, adding that the roads under construction in Pailin and Oddar Meanchey, the very projects drawing migrant labor, were planned in expectation of growing populations in those areas.

The national budget is apportioned both by ministry and by province, he said.

“There is no bias in terms of the allocation of resources. It’s on an equitable basis,” he said.

San Sythan, director-general of the National Institute of Statistics, which produced the census, said Thursday that the census figures had fallen short of projections. The government had projected a total of 14.6 million Cambodians for 2008, nine percent more than the census actually found.

San Sythan said this was in part due to the rising levels of wealth and years of double-digit economic growth.

“With this economic development, the [population] growth rate is decreasing. When people have money, there is family planning,” he said.

Yim Thin, deputy governor of Oddar Meanchey province, said Thursday that Cambodian authorities had long tried and failed to entice people to move to his region.

“Since the time of [then Prince Norodom Sihanouk], the government wanted people to come live in border provinces and sometimes promised to provide them oxcarts and cows,” he said. “Not many came. Now they come by themselves.”

The new lure of Oddar Meanchey, he said, has proven to be the promise of cheap, plentiful land.

“People are coming here from all provinces, chiefly from Svay Rieng and Prey Veng. They have family who are soldiers and they come as whole families. They say they have no land and come to claim land here,” Yim Thin said.

“The land here is not very fertile but they can have more of it,” he added.

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