Like much of South-East Asia, Cambodia has indigenous hill tribes, known as Khmer Leou (literally ‘upper Khmer'). There is no consensus concerning the number or even classifications of the various hill tribes, although a UN estimate in 1992 noted six larger tribes numbering over 10,000 and twenty smaller groups of less than 3,000, perhaps in total numbering about 120,000 people, though some estimates suggest that today's population may be closer to 200,000. Cambodia's last census, in 1998, gave a figure of 101,000, though this was based on language affiliation and was undoubtedly an underestimate at the time. The largest among these minorities are the Kuy, Mnong, Stieng, Brao, Tampuan, Pear, Jarai and Rade. The first five speak Mon-Khmer languages, whereas Jarai and Rade are both languages of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family.

The Cambodian hill tribes mainly inhabit the isolated north-east mountainous regions of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces, and the mountainous areas of Koh Kong Province in the south-west.

Many of them continue to practise slash-and-burn subsistence farming. Traditionally they are not Buddhists, and most have retained their local animist religions.

Historical context

The Khmer Leou were apparently part of the migration of groups of people throughout the region thousands of years ago; it is this ancestry that explains why they are considered indigenous to Cambodia. The Mon-Khmer-speaking groups, including the Khmer, came from the north-west, while it is likely that the Austronesian-speaking minorities came west from the coastal parts of Vietnam.

During the French colonial period, for the most part, the authorities did not interfere directly in the internal affairs of the Khmer Leou. This began to change drastically with independence as the Cambodian authorities in the 1960s embarked on efforts to assimilate the Khmer Leou: schools were built where the Khmer Leou children were educated only in Khmer; resettlement programmes were put into place (both to bring ethnic Khmers into Khmer Leou regions, and to settle the latter in communities closer to Khmer centres); and other steps taken so that they would learn and adopt the ways of life of lowland Khmers and abandon their traditional customs. These policies resulted in rebellions in the 1960s by some Khmer Leou against these and other unpopular measures.

Communists in the 1970s were able to use this discontent to recruit some Khmer Leou into their ranks against the then-government of Cambodia, eventually assisting in the final victory of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. The overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 by the Vietnamese Army led to the establishment of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. Policies towards the Khmer Leou during the ensuing period could be said to have been, at least in theory, fairly generous, and included for example commitments to eliminate illiteracy and calls for each minority language to be respected, as well as for Khmer Leou to be allowed to write, speak, and teach in their own language. The Khmer Leou were also recognized as Cambodian citizens, and thus avoided some of the disadvantages and discriminatory measures affecting minorities like the Chinese and Vietnamese.

Ironically, the establishment of a more democratic Kingdom of Cambodia after 1993, despite the stronger commitment to human rights generally in the country's new constitution, did not necessarily entail a greater specific commitment towards respecting the rights of the Khmer Leou.

Current issues

Most state schools in the areas where Khmer Leou are concentrated continue to teach exclusively in Khmer. Because many if not most indigenous children do not speak or understand this language fluently, there results in their case a much higher than average drop-out rate. A few schools teaching partially in local indigenous languages have started to operate on an experimental level; mainly this is through the efforts of local and international NGOs rather than the state authorities (though the state was involved from 2003 in three pilot bilingual education projects in the Khmer Leou regions of north-east Cambodia). The government of Cambodia announced at the end of 2006 that it would offer some form of bilingual education for indigenous students up to grade three in five of the north-east provinces. In general, indigenous communities remain poorly served with regard to education, and there is a lack of easily accessible state schools in many parts of the north-east after grades 2 or 3.

The movement towards local government structures and decentralization of authority in Cambodia has led to local council elections since 2002. While these are positive steps for the country, they have not been so favourable for indigenous peoples, who in effect are excluded or seriously disadvantaged because of highly restrictive language requirements. Legislation requires that any candidate for local council – or any other elected position – must be able to read and write Khmer. As most indigenous peoples do not satisfy this requirement, the majority of the Khmer Leou are in effect excluded from direct participation in this aspect of the political process. Ethnic Khmer tend to occupy local governments, and in turn encourage the in-migration of other ethnic Khmer, while indigenous peoples are becoming ever more vulnerable and disempowered because of this discriminatory language preference.

The issue of collective landownership, and loss of access to their traditional and agricultural lands, has been an ongoing and increasingly important one for the Khmer Leou. Despite a 2001 Land Law and other regulatory measures to recognize the rights of these indigenous peoples, and other steps such as the establishment of a National Strategic Development Plan and, more recently, the establishment of a National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, these positive steps often remain mere window-dressing. At the beginning of 2007, not a single indigenous people had received title for the collective ownership of their traditional lands in the six years since the adoption of the 2001 law. Regulations that are crucial to enforce some aspects of this legislation are still not approved, with the result that the Khmer Leou are particularly vulnerable to land conflicts, and to finding themselves being evicted, threatened or even victims of violence in order to make them abandon lands which they have occupied for generations. A 2007 report, for example, indicates that the privatization of land is continuing, and that even state agencies are ignoring the land law and other legal protection of the rights of the Khmer Leou. It pointed out that, in the case of these indigenous peoples, the scale of privatization, evictions, logging permits and other development projects is so vast that, unless concrete steps are taken soon, indigenous peoples will have hardly any land left to register because they will have lost most of it already. A 2006 report describes the extent of land loss through intimidation, the issuing of logging permits without proper consultations or processes, and other forms of alienation, particularly in relation to indigenous peoples in the north-east, as having reached disastrous proportions. Mining and even tourism concessions by the government of Cambodia also seem to be given without regard for indigenous rights over the lands concerned.

In May 2007 the UN Special Representative noted that ‘economic land concessions, as presently granted, have compromised and destroyed the livelihoods of rural communities in favour of the enrichment of a few connected to the political establishment'. He was also ‘deeply concerned about the continuing alienation of indigenous land through "land grabbing", illegal or coercive sales, and the grant of concessions, including mining licenses'.

The authorities are, however, taking steps against illegal logging, which once again is particularly affecting the north-east region inhabited by the Khmer Leou; in 2006 a group of loggers, including a former governor, were found guilty by Cambodian courts. Nevertheless, it is thought that illegal logging has reduced the country's forest cover to less than 30 percent, a huge reduction from the more than 70 per cent of Cambodia that remained forested in the early 1970s.

Finally, there are concerns regarding announcements in 2006 and 2007 as to the possible construction of two dams in Cambodia on the Sesan and Srepok rivers, which could have a serious negative impact on the livelihoods of affected indigenous peoples and which may go ahead without any study of their potential impact or appropriate compensation for those affected.

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