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More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Here is the slightly fuller version of the article published in the Khmer Times, with more scholarly and  pointed references.  Also below is a second photograph and caption.


 The Putaing Community Social Enterprise Group decided to revive Bunong Song and Dance for extra income from performing at traditional ceremonies and for eco-tourism visitors.

More to Cambodian Culture than Angkor Wat

Cambodia can justifiably take great pride in Angkor Wat and its classic dance led by its graceful Apsaras.

Yet there is far more to Cambodian culture, to be just as proud about, and not just to impress or attract foreign visitors. All Cambodians should appreciate and enjoy their compatriots’ heritage and culture.

Indigenous ancestries pre-date the Khmer. No-one has yet done a definitive study.  A United Nations report suggests 6 larger tribes and 20 smaller ones[1].  Their combined population probably exceeds 200,000 or up to 2% of the Cambodia’s population. Indigenous people are wary of being counted, which explains why there is no exact figure.

Languages living and dying?

The languages spoken are as diverse as the cultures. Like Khmer, they are classified as “Austroasiatic” spreading from India to Malaysia. Four distinct sub-groups cover Cambodia with notable differences[2].  Khmer are “Khmeric”.  Kreung, Tampoun and Bunong, in mainly the North-East, belong to the Bahranic sub-group.  Smaller indigenous groups elsewhere belong to the Katuic and Pearic sub-groups, and are in more danger of dying out.  Khmer predominates for official purposes and in formal education.  Some indigenous languages are spoken-only. Most have not converted to Khmer script, derived originally from a south Indian alphabet. Nor have any followed the French influence in Vietnam to adopt the Latin alphabet.  Today initiatives are underway to allow teaching of indigenous students in their own languages, enabling far more to complete schooling and go on to higher education.[3][4]  English is of course becoming omnipresent due to the internet and social media.

In religion, most indigenous people are “Animist” and not naturally akin to the Buddhist majority, though beliefs and customs tend to intertwine.  Unlike many of their cousins in Vietnam, Cambodian indigenous people in general have not embraced Christianity.

Darkest days

Over the years, indigenous minorities have been pressured to join mainstream culture.  The most violent was by the Khmer Rouge There is one Kampuchean revolution. In Kampuchea, there is one nation and one language, the Khmer language. From now on, the various nationalities do not exist any longer in Kampuchea.”[5]

Fortunately, despite tens of thousands perishing, enough survived to return to their ancient homes and lands, to rebuild traditional lives and livelihoods. Importantly, they have retained many unique qualities, recognized first by Anthropologists?[6].  Ratanakkiri, the province’s name meaning “Mountain of precious stones”, has jewels in the form of its peoples, but like the now over-mined gems, they could disappear altogether.

One unique universal quality of indigenous people, due to their affinity with nature is that they are good husbands of forests and highly efficient in their utilization of scarce resources”[7]. Unfortunately most of their lands are now being taken from them in the name of development.

They also have a peaceful and forgiving nature.  They are less haunted by the country’s violent past. “Crimes common in larger-scale societies (theft, rape, murder) are virtually unheard of due to deterrents in both the spiritual sense but also to the heavy fines in sacrifice and feasts in ceremonies to appease that would be levied”.[8]

Good development partners

Too often we still hear that indigenous people are primitive or savage[9], undeserving of their lands to be put to better use for the country’s development[10].  Decision-makers, instead of excluding them, should invite them for consultations and mutually acceptable solutions.

Tourism is already a major-revenue earner for Cambodia and expected to grow.  Yet Angkor Wat is already over-saturated; risking damage to fragile monuments, with the enjoyment of tourists spoilt by over-crowding.   Many go in search of alternative ways to amuse themselves.  They visit dubious orphanages, with attendant risks and harm to Cambodian children[11].  Recently some have taken to visiting garbage dumps – now what kind of impression, does that give[12]?

Respectable adventurous tourists search out the many attractions often unnoticed all over Cambodia. Perhaps more Cambodians will break the habit of simply descending on Siem Reap; Preah Sihanouk or Kampot/Kep for Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year?  Some are already discovering the charms of Mondulkiri.  But are they embracing indigenous culture?  Outsiders are taking over prime spots such as Bousra Waterfall, detracting from the genuine local authenticity that attracts people in the first place.  Will they want to be entertained by the Putaing Bunong traditional dancers, or go for live music that goes on despite the sad death of renowned pioneer Nyel Che last year[13]?  Can the various “Eco-tourism” projects, founded on indigenous people’s values, appeal to Cambodians as much as to foreigners[14]?

Many of us hope that a National Cambodian Indigenous People’s Cultural Centre will develop based on Mondulkiri’s centre begun with the help of UNESCO and now supported by Germany’s Henreich Böll Foundation.[15]

Now if everyone could fully appreciate Cambodia’s indigenous people’s rich culture, then their rightful place in Society - and their continued existence - would be safe.




www.mdgfund.org - Kreung Handicrafts - Ratanakkiri Province

The Creative Industries Support Programme (CISP), a partnership between UN agencies and local organizations, supported indigenous and Khmer artisans in northern and eastern Cambodia.  One of the problems these days, is that tourists may be sold non-authentic goods imported in to Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri.

Update October 2017

A film in Khmer is available here with an explanation of the contents in English text to go with the vivid images. One of the four ethnic minorities featured are the Kreung, very close to Bunong, but all are related ancient SE Asia inhabitants from pre-colonial times and borders.

Update August 2017
 
Bousra Waterfall
Recently I met Bunong students studying in Phnom Penh from Bousra in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. Their village is the home of the famous waterfall that is the most popular tourist site in the province.

They confirmed what I observed on my last visit there last year - that all but one of the refreshment and souvenir kiosks had been acquired by incomers, many selling imitation local handicrafts, instead of their genuine products. One dresses up tourists as Bunong people, as pictured right.

During that visit I also went to Ratanakkiri and its most popular tourist site, Yak Loam Lake. There too was the notable absence of any of the indigenous minorities, unlike years ago, who once made up substantial majorities in both of these provinces.

Clearly more efforts are needed if ethical tourism is to provide major benefits to Cambodia's indigenous people, and somehow begin to make up for the vast loss of their traditional lands and livelihoods.

One small promising development, however, is Yun Mane's new restaurant in Phnom Penh, located in the popular tourist area of Tuol Tom Pong , the “Russian Market”. Their food is authentic; prepared, cooked, and served by indigenous staff while using true ingredients from their farms and [what is left of their] forests.

Ratanakkiri's most popular tourist site. Such areas still house important spiritual sites for indigenous people who are animists. Often these are not respected by tourist operators and tourists. One of the few exceptions is Globalteers who are giving a welcome lead.


More Reading

Excellent article in the Cambiodia Daily setting out the place of indigenous people's in the context of climnate change and other worldwide dimensions.

[2] “Kuay in Cambodia” by Gerald Diffloth.
[4] http://www.unicef.org/cambodia/12633_17787.html
[5] (Quote from Page 11 of  http://www.minorityrights.org/download.php@id=418) See also:
[6] http://www.worldcat.org/title/mountain-of-precious-stones-ratanakiri-cambodia-essays-in-social-anthropology/oclc/148032215
[7]  Ethnic Minorities and Rural Poverty in Lao PDR, Anders Engvall, Stockholm School of Economics, April 2006, Page 23.
[8] White Joanna, the indigenous highlanders of the NE Cambodia – an uncertain future.
[9] “Acting like a “Phnong,” a minority group in the country, a slur against whom is associated with ignorance and poor education” - http://www.voacambodia.com/content/unacceptable-insult-leads-to-opposition-walkout-at-national-assembly-session/1546042.html.
[13] http://www.phnompenhpost.com/7days/tributes-pour-mondulkiri-musician-and-his-unique-art-form
[15] mondulkiri-centre.org ; https://mondulkiricentre.wordpress.com




John Lowrie
General Co-ordinator
Nomad RSI is a French INGO in Mondulkiri since 1997, conducting environmental and anthropological studies, while facilitating development projects with indigenous people.







4 comments:

  1. Mr. Lowrie, this is an excellent article explaining several of the threats to the indigenous highlander culture on the northeast frontier. I've always respected NOMAD's work immensely and am thankful a few of our Bunong highlander university graduates have been able to assist your NGO in the past.

    Tommy Daniels, Pres./Chairman
    Cambodia Corps, Inc. (CCi)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Tommy

    Very many thanks.

    I have to admit that it is a hard sell to get over that indigenous people are not just being deprived of their rights but that it simply does not make any sense, including economic, to displace them. It keeps worrying me that the main advocates are people with their own agenda (human rights, the environment), not putting the indigenous issues first.

    Nomad RSI is now phasing out, as we develop and hand over to the federated local NGO formed from what are now 16 self-help groups (so still less one fifth of the 98 villages.)

    "Mondulkiri Indigenous People Association for Development"

    http://mondulkiri-centre.org/index.php?page=our-own-organisation-mipad

    We hope that they will become a powerful self-advocacy group.

    I hope that your graduates will, as with those in CIYA, take active part. MIPAD does need the most talented people, ones who have those cultural origins on the one hand and a good education on the other.

    Best wishes


    John

    ReplyDelete
  3. Belated but great recognition of Sylvain's work of saving the Bunong language. Where would we be without him? https://www.voanews.com/a/saving-bunong-a-vulnerable-language-in-cambodia/3905123.html

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent detailed report about the land-grabbing in Preah Vihear province and how it is affecting indigenous people there. Soon they will have little or no ancestral lands despite supposed protection under International and Cambodian Laws.
    https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5728-cambodia-communities-in-protracted-struggle-against-chinese-sugar-companies-land-grab

    ReplyDelete