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Cambodia: A haunting past and an uncertain future

11 February 2015

Gabor Toth is a Hungarian television journalist. He recently travelled with MRG to Cambodia under the Minority Realities Programme. Here he recalls his journey and the harrowing stories he heard along the way.

The striking realities of Cambodia cosh the visitor immediately after stepping out from the International Airport of Phnom Penh. From a European perspective, Cambodia can be difficult to understand. To gain a better understanding of the problems facing the country, it is better to leave the crowded Phnom Penh. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) organized a training session and field visit for European journalists in October 2014 in north-eastern Ratanakiri province.

Cambodia is perhaps best known for its tragic history: the legacy of the Pol Pot era is still a huge ballast on the country’s shoulders. The former dictator died in bed as an old man, while court cases against other senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge have moved excruciatingly slowly — highlighting the endemic lack of justice in Cambodia. In Ratanakiri, almost every family has a sad story about lost relatives.

‘I was eight years old when my father was killed. He sent me for rice in the afternoon, and I heard the gunfire. I did not see how he was shot, I saw only two Khmer Rouge soldiers hunting for indigenous people,’ remembered 60-year-old Nory Dam from Trabeg Krom village.

The Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979, claimed the lives of nearly 2 million people. Many were tortured, executed, starved or even worked to death. In so-called ‘mobile teams’ villagers were forced to work 16 hours a day. Those who were unable to work were shot or killed by poisonous injection, according to survivors. Indigenous people endured particularly brutal oppression.

‘Each day 10-15 people died in these mobile teams,’ recalled survivor Hound Kalip.

In Team Krom village, we had a chance to meet a commander of a mobile team. But Per Kham Born insisted that his mobile was the only one where workers received three full meals per day – complete with rice, meat and vegetables.

‘In my group no one died,’ he said, but his words were not convincing at all.

Neither the past nor the future can comfort the people of Cambodia. Indigenous communities around Banlung, Ratanakiri’s capital, are now facing a growing land grabbing crisis that threatens their livelihood, lifestyle and religion.

‘Land grabs are a very important issue. Forests are [being] turned into rubber tree plantations, and land is rented for 99 years to private businesses, most of them coming from Vietnam or China,’ says Tek Vannara director of NGO Forum Cambodia, a grassroots human rights organization.

‘I never saw such big machines before. When the work began I ran away,’ said Shin Eng, recalling the day he lost his land.

Ratanikiri province is a unique area of Cambodia. Over half of the 150,000 people living there are indigenous people, including Tampuan, Jarai, Kreung, Brou, Kachok, Kavet, Kuy and Lun, who face distinct challenges. One of these is the loss of their native languages.

‘At school, of course, we talk in Khmer. But in this village we talk to each other in the Brao language. If we stop speaking Brao, we will stop being who we are,’ said Chara Som, a 19 year old who does not ever want to leave her home village.

But not everybody thinks the same way. Many people who have migrated to bigger cities – often as a result of land grabs – are quickly becoming bilingual. This makes certain communities and their cultures very vulnerable. The European Union is financing more programmes to support them. Working together with regional partners, enforcing human rights, protecting land ownership and minority languages are among the priorities of these programmes.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.