Like much of South-East Asia, Cambodia has indigenous hill communities (referred to by the government using the assimilatory term Khmer Loeu, literally ‘upper Khmer’). Numbering between 18 and 24 distinct groups, 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. It is believed that there are as many as 400,000 (2 – 3 per cent of the population) in the country today.
The largest indigenous communities 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.
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 swidden (i.e. ‘slash-and-burn’) subsistence farming. Traditionally they are not Buddhists, and most have retained their local animist religions.
Cambodia’s indigenous peoples 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 peoples 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 indigenous communities. This began to change drastically with independence as the Cambodian authorities in the 1960s embarked on efforts to assimilate hill tribes: schools were built where indigenous children were educated only in Khmer; resettlement programmes were put into place (both to bring ethnic Khmers into indigenous 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 indigenous communities against these and other unpopular measures.
Communists in the 1970s were able to use this discontent to recruit some indigenous persons 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 hill tribes 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 indigenous language to be respected, as well as for indigenous communities to be allowed to write, speak, and teach in their own language. The country’s indigenous peoples 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 indigenous peoples.
Most state schools in the areas where hill tribes 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. 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 them 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 indigenous peoples. Despite a 2001 Land Law and other regulatory measures to recognize the rights of 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. Regulations that are crucial to enforce some aspects of this legislation are still not approved, with the result that indigenous communities 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. In the case of Cambodia’s hill tribes, the scale of privatization, evictions, logging permits and other development projects is so vast that, unless concrete steps are taken soon, the country’s indigenous communities will have hardly any land left to register because they will have lost most of it already. Mining and even tourism concessions by the government of Cambodia also seem to be given without regard for indigenous peoples’ rights over the lands concerned.
The government recognizes community land titles (CLTs) through the Land Law of 2001, but the titles have been difficult to obtain. However, corruption and inefficiency among government officials have served to delay CLT issuance. The complexity and high costs of a communal land application – amounting to US$70,000 for each title – are also major barriers. The authorities have, however, taken some steps against illegal logging, which once again is particularly affecting the north-east region inhabited by indigenous communities. Nevertheless, it is thought that illegal logging has reduced the country’s forest cover from 13.1 million hectares in the 1973 to 8.7 million hectares in 2014. Sadly, the process appears to be accelerating: based on satellite imagery, the rate of forest clearance increased by 30 per cent in 2016 compared with the year before. Those defending their rights to land and a healthy environment are also under threat of targeted violence: Cambodia is one of the most dangerous places to be an environmental rights defender, with many killed for their work in recent years, including indigenous activists. The government regularly targets environmental defenders through arbitrary detention and judicial harassment.
The Lower Sesan 2 dam in Stung Treng province, one of the biggest dam projects in the country was completed in 2017 and has displaced some 5,000 people including indigenous Bunong and ethnic Lao since its operations began. As with other megaprojects, it has caused widespread devastation to local environments, livelihoods and cultural traditions, with some communities completely uprooted as a result of flooding.
Updated September 2018
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