Introduction / History The Central Khmer are the remnants of a civilization that once controlled southern Vietnam. They live along the southwestern border of Vietnam from the Tay Ninh province to the Can Tho province, and along the Mekong River. They speak Khmer, an Eastern Mon-Khmer language.
The Khmer Empire, which flourished between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, encompassed present-day Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam. Its power declined when the Thai and Vietnamese conquered the Khmer and restricted them to the area that now known as Cambodia.
Bombings, civil war, and war with the Vietnamese turned Cambodia into a killing field in 1970. At the same time, Vietnam was in civil war. Many of the Khmer in Vietnam fled their villages to escape the war. Some moved to refugee camps, but were resettled to New Economic Zones at the unification of Vietnam in 1975.
What are their lives like? The Central Khmer have virtually been absorbed into the Vietnamese community. They have intermarried and now share the same religions, customs, and culture. Most of the Khmer are farmers who grow rice in irrigated paddies. They live in thatch roof, bamboo houses that are built on stilts.
In the 1970s, most of the Khmer were middle-income peasants who owned enough land and tools to farm successfully without relying on outside labor. There were very few poor among those living in the Mekong River Delta.
Fish and shellfish from the coastal waters and the plains of the Mekong River are a major resource for the Khmer. It is also the second most important staple food, after rice. Forestry was once a major industry in the area inhabited by the Khmer. However, most of the timber has now been used for reconstruction after the war.
The state now controls transportation, wages, education, medicine, health services, housing, food, and clothes; all of these goods are rationed. Rural education was badly disrupted during the war years, and all schools were nationalized after 1975. Twelve years of schooling are provided free.
More men than women were killed between 1975 and 1979, creating a skewed sex ratio among the Khmer. Today, mostly widows and orphans remain. The women are now required to perform duties that once belonged to the men.
The Khmer have a simple social structure. Each village has its own chief, and there is no political structure beyond the village. The village chief is the link between the people and the central government. Village leadership is usually divided; the chief has authority in secular matters, while the Buddhist monk has authority in religious issues.
Many of the Khmer have acquired the language and culture of the Vietnamese. Traditional Khmer music reflects a tie to Indonesia. Folk dancing and the classical royal ballet are also popular. However, their own traditions have begun to fade as they have become more assimilated into Vietnamese culture.
What are their beliefs? The former Khmer Empire was influenced by India, from which it adopted Hinduism and Buddhism. Today, the majority of the Khmer in Vietnam are Buddhist. However, relics of ethnic religions such as ancestor worship (praying to deceased ancestors for guidance) and spirit worship are still important.
Due to Buddhist influence, the Khmer also seek the middle path to nirvana, or ultimate peace through gaining merit in this life. Merit may be gained through supporting the construction of Buddhist temples, giving food to monks, and studying in the monastery. Peasant boys often became monks in order to gain an education in the monasteries.
What are their needs? The Khmer need emotional healing from horrors of war. This will only come when they meet Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Christian laborers, additional evangelistic tools, and intercession for the Central Khmer are all desperately needed.
Prayer Points Ask the Lord to call people to go to Vietnam and share Christ with the Khmer.
Pray that God will grant favor to any missions agencies that are currently focusing on the Khmer.
Pray that God will use the few Khmer believers share the Gospel with their own people.
Ask God to send Christian humanitarian aid workers to Vietnam to minister to the physical needs of these war-torn people.
Ask God to call forth prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through intercession.
Pray that strong local churches will be planted among the Khmer.
Hau Giang, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Kien Giang, An Giang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau, Bin Duong, Can Tho, Dong Thap, Long An, Soc Trang, Bin Phuoc, and Tay Ninh provinces; Ho Chi Minh City. (Source: Ethnologue 2016)