I should have mentioned here that I left Cambodia already about five weeks ago. Yet among other things I keep writing on various papers on indigenous peoples and decentralization in Cambodia. This is happening somewhat slowly, as I have other obligations, too. I decided to split my report into two parts: a research report and a final report. The research report summarizes the results of the empirical study, that is, interviews in the field. The final report is supposed to put those findings into the context of international law, political theory and development debate. I just finalized the first draft of the research report and thought I should make it available here. Any feedback is highly welcome. And I should mention that I intend to travel to Cambodia again in about three weeks from today.
This is the research report:
Research Report: Indigenous Peoples and Decentralization in Cambodia
1. Rationale and Research Design 2
1. Research Objective 2
2. Why Decentralization and Indigenous Peoples? 2
3. Research Design and Methodology 3
2. Research Results: Access 4
1. Poverty 4
2. Education 5
3. Health 6
4. Participation 7
5. Access 7
3. Research Results: Culture 8
1. Language 8
2. Perpetuation of Indigenous Culture 9
3. Institutions 11
4. Decentralization 13
4. Conclusions 14
5. Recommendations 15
1. Rationale and Research Design
1. Research Objective
This research project has been conducted to examine the relationship between indigenous peoples and decentralization in Cambodia. This research report documents, processes, and analyses the information yielded in interviews during field work. Therefore it does not include arguments relevant to the subject but based in considerations outside the empirical part of the study. Consequently, recommendations in this paper are limited to measures that appear plausible in the light of the empirical results.
This research report will be complemented by a final report. The final report will review the literature and put the empirical part into the context of the international debate on the cultural dimension of citizenship, international law and policy, and poverty reduction. The final report will include wider ranging recommendation that reflect the broader scope of the discussion and assesses the risks and chances associated with the findings.
The terms ‘indigenous peoples’, ‘highland peoples’, ‘highlanders’ are used synonymously throughout the paper. This is plausible in the light of the relevant definitions of indigenous peoples. Yet all those terms are misleading insofar as they do not reflect the diversity of languages and cultures among the various groups making up the indigenous population of Cambodia. However, a number of important characteristics are shared by all those groups. Moreover, despite the diversity of indigenous groups, the problems and challenges faced by its members vice a vice the majority population appear to be similar in many respects, including those associated with decentralization.
2. Why Decentralization and Indigenous Peoples?
It is possible to distinguish at least six reasons for paying attention to the situation of highland peoples in the context of decentralization:
a. Territorial Concentration: The majority of Cambodia’s indigenous groups, unlike other cultural minorities, lives territorially concentrated and members of those groups are said to be in the majority in two provinces (Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri). Given this pattern of territorial concentration, the devolution of power to the local level of government can provide indigenous groups with significant self-governing powers.
b. Cultural Distance: If integration and accommodation of cultural difference is relevant in the context of decentralization, than it would make sense to ask which group’s ‘cultural distance’ to the majority culture is the highest. Indigenous groups tend to have a different language and religion, like many members of various other ethnic groups. In addition, indigenous groups frequently maintain economic, social, and political institutions different from the mainstream society and are frequently distinguished by their lower level of advancement. This is reflected not least in the absence of a script. In short, if the accommodation of cultural difference is a relevant question in the context of decentralization, than the accommodation of indigenous groups is likely to be the biggest challenge.
c. International Law: Various types of groups can be distinguished according to the level to which their rights are spelled out and protected in international law. It suffices to note here that the norms in current and emerging international law with regard to indigenous peoples are both more specific and more sophisticated compared to norms applying to other groups. The same is true of specific policies that major international organizations have adapted to respect the culture and to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. In large part, the associated requirements are a matter of decentralizing relevant functions in a way that is meaningful to indigenous peoples. As those norms are becoming more influential in Cambodia it is plausible to consider and incorporate the associated requirements early into the emerging decentralization policy and its implementation.
d. National minority: Unlike many other groups, highlanders are among the most ancient inhabitants of today’s Cambodia and have formed societies with institutions in their particular language prior to being incorporated into the Cambodian nation-state. By virtue of forming a national minority indigenous groups have a legitimate claim to self-management stronger than other groups, which would have to be accommodated in decentralization policy.
e. Poverty Reduction: Members of indigenous groups are among the poorest members of Cambodia’s society. To the extent that decentralization is meant to eradicate poverty in its various dimensions, it is plausible to pay particular attention to the segments of societies where poverty is most persistent.
f. Social Capital and Decentralization: Indigenous peoples can be characterized as groups which did not attempt to centralize political power and participate in the process of state formation. Typically, indigenous peoples have developed and maintained a decentralized mode of social organization. In contrast to other cultural groups in Cambodia, highland people’s social organization is decentralized, members have a strong sense of shared values and communities have developed and maintained strong and effective institutions of local governance. Those institutions can be seen as valuable social capital, with critical importance in the process of development. While decentralization can be seen as attempt to build social capital by creating effective institutions of local governance, it is plausible to pay attention to highlanders whose culture and tradition is distinguished not least by the existence of such institutions. For decentralization to ‘tap’ this social capital and its potential contribution to local development it is important to understand and accommodate those institutions.
3. Research Design and Methodology
This research primarily used semi-structured interviews with members of various indigenous groups as well as members of commune councils. Interviews were conducted in the provinces of Kratie, Rattanakiri, and Stung Treng with most interviewees from the Jorai, Kraveth, Kreung, Kuy, Lun and Stieng groups. The selection of interviewees was done using criteria associated with the ethnic composition of the constituency. Since reliable data about the ethnic identity of citizens is not available, the selection of communes and villages was done in consultation with provincial government staff. Interviews took place during July and August, when strong rains make access to particular places very difficult and time consuming. As it is frequently the remotest areas which are inhabited by highlanders the selection tended to favor communities in less remote areas due to various constraints.
Interviews were based on a number of guiding questions designed to explore various aspects of the relationship between indigenous peoples and decentralization. Those questions address various dimensions of this relationship, such as participation in decentralized institutions, dissemination of information, ability to participate meaningfully in Khmer, attitudes towards and understanding of the functions of the commune council, interethnic relationships between members of different ethnic groups, relationship between traditional indigenous institutions and newly empowered decentralized institutions, access to and costs of services and participation.
In most cases the interviewees were either entirely members of the same indigenous village or of the same commune council. Interviews usually began with open questions about the situation in the community/ commune, the history of the group(s), changes in the indigenous culture and the like. The discussion was kept as open as possible allowing for issues to be raised in its course. This usually yielded good participation after a few initial questions.
Later in the course of the discussion more specific questions were asked which require closer attention. Particularly interesting information was gained by asking to rank different cultural groups in terms of its member’s level of access to health, education and participation, level of poverty, cost and level participation, level of understanding of commune affairs and the like. Follow up questions were asked to explore the meaning of poverty and access and to identify perceived obstacles to development and decentralization. Using rankings to measure and compare poverty and access solves a number of problems. There is controversy about what exactly constitutes poverty. Definitions have been changing over the decades and reflect different approaches to development and poverty reduction. Asking constituents themselves allows learning about and operating with definitions and measures meaningful to the persons affected by poverty. In addition, ranking is a simple concept, allowing for meaningful translation.
It lies in the nature of the project that the linguistic circumstances pose a special challenge to the conduct of meaningful interviews. Interviews took place mostly in Khmer, running the risk of failing the linguistic challenge which is the very subject of this research. However, interviews were conducted in a way that allowed for translation and clarification. The extent and quality of participation suggests that interviews yielded meaningful and valid results.
2. Research Results: Access
In virtually every commune visited members of indigenous groups are the poorest constituents. Regardless of the ethnic composition of the constituency, in virtually every case the ranking of groups in terms of poverty indicated that members of indigenous groups are the poorest. Furthermore, the neediest persons are found among members of indigenous groups. At the same time, indigenous communities exhibit lower levels of inequality compared to other communities. In discussions the poverty of indigenous communities was attributed to a number of causes, among them the low efficiency of the mode of production, the ‘lacking mind for business and profit’, and natural and geographic features of the areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. On occasion, non-indigenous interviewees stressed that indigenous communities have great development potentials in terms of resources and institutions, but do not utilize those potentials.
The level of and access to education was ranked lowest for members of indigenous groups compared to members of other ethnic groups in virtually any commune visited. This judgment was shared by members of both indigenous and non-indigenous groups. Most of the time this is simply because there is no school in areas inhabited by highlanders. In those cases the community was typically actively trying to establish a school but frequently did not reach the numbers of students and/or the financial contribution necessary to mobilize funding. In rarer cases the physical infrastructure was in place but teachers were not available. Interestingly, there were a small number of communes where members of the local indigenous group were trained during the times of Sihanouk and Pol Pot and now working in the government education system. As a result, the availability of education is significantly better in those areas. In addition, it appears that those teachers represent an important link between the state system and local communities
The priority of having education available was stressed more often by members of indigenous groups than by members of other ethnic groups. Most of the time it was explicitly education in Khmer that was asked for. However, the incorporation of local language and knowledge was seen as beneficial. The relationship between education and political representation was stressed during several interviews. Interviewees pointed out on various occasions that member of indigenous groups have difficulties interacting with government because of their low level of education and knowledge of Khmer. Interviewees stressed that the provision of better schooling would allow electing better qualified people who represent more successfully the group’s interests and manage local development more effectively.
Education is linked not only to representation but to participation as well. People who are illiterate in Khmer tend to have difficulties to understand council affairs and therefore tend to feel incapable of participating in its discussions. Furthermore, there were indications that children of indigenous groups are scared or afraid of going to school, particularly in areas where they form a minority in class.
Lacking education is linked to poverty in many ways: poor parents cannot afford not to have children working in the field. After all, work in the field provides short terms tangible benefits while the benefit of education is long term and associated with more uncertainty. Poverty makes it a rational choice for parents not to send children to school. To the extent that members of indigenous groups are poorer than members of other groups this mechanism will affect their opportunities and choices more severely. On the other hand, opportunities increasingly depend on the level of formal education, particularly on literacy in Khmer. It follows that the limited or disadvantaged access to education in Khmer is likely to widen the existing gaps in disfavor of indigenous groups, reinforcing both the low level of education and the poverty of its members.
However, while this mechanism generally affects members of any cultural group there are more specific disadvantages faced only by members of indigenous groups. Education is not a culturally neutral undertaking. It is not only the level of availability of education but its content and particularly the language in which education is provided which matters here. In Cambodia, education is conducted entirely in Khmer where it is available. It is designed nationally without the involvement of indigenous communities. It does not give recognition to indigenous languages, cultures or knowledge and does not consider the different cultural, economic, and social circumstances of indigenous groups. The playing field on which students with different languages compete when education is delivered in the native language of one some students is not even. And this puts members of indigenous groups at a disadvantage which is not faced by members of the cultural majority. The only exception in this research was a number of schools in Rattanakiri that form pilot projects and are run by NGO’s in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. The lacking recognition is in large part a linguistic problem but not entirely so. The knowledge base of formal education is exclusive in that it neglects indigenous language and knowledge. Even in a scenario in which the access to education is similar for members of indigenous groups they would still face a serious disadvantage if the education available does not respond to specific educational needs and is culturally and linguistically exclusive. The more trivial consequence is that the content of education is not as relevant for members of indigenous groups and therefore of lower value. More seriously, by neglecting indigenous language and culture formal education conveys a sense of cultural or intellectual inferiority and is likely to undermine the self-respect of individual members of indigenous groups.
Thus members of indigenous groups tend to be disadvantaged in the field of education not only by the limited access to education but by the fact that it is provided entirely in Khmer. Moreover, education that does not recognize the cultural membership of its subjects tends to convey a sense of cultural inferiority and threatens the perpetuation of the local knowledge base. A case could be made that for education not to disadvantage members of indigenous groups it would not only have to be equally available but in addition would have to take indigenous language and knowledge into account.
The emerging pattern with respect to access to health parallels the picture in the field of education. The provision of health services was among the top priorities in most indigenous communities while the access for their members is most limited due to various and interdependent causes. Members of indigenous groups live territorially dispersed in areas where health services are usually not available or where accessing those services is associated with unrealistic distances and costs. In contrast, Khmer (and, in some areas, ethnic Lao) tend to settle concentrated in or close to district towns, where health facilities are easily accessible. To varying degrees indigenous villagers expressed confidence in modern medicine, while traditional medicine continues to be practiced. It was pointed out that the worst and most pervasive suffering in the community stems from the absence of health services. On occasion a feeling of neglect was expressed by members of indigenous groups during interviews.
In many cases members of indigenous communities do not qualify in terms of the required numbers to get support for the establishment of health centers. At the same time most of them live to far away to access the existing facilities. Accordingly, the costs (mostly in terms of transportation) of accessing health services are the highest for indigenous groups while they are the poorest members of the constituency. Yet the value of the available health services might not be the same, since those services and the way they are provided are frequently at odds with traditional medicine and belief systems.
Participation in the commune council is generally constraint by the same obstacles that limit highlander’s access to services. The council office is in many cases more remote and more difficult to reach due to settlement patterns, absence of infrastructure and the geographical features. Yet unlike in schools and health facilities, highlanders appear in many areas the most active participants in the commune council. The contrast was frequently striking in councils with a constituency of different cultural groups. Moreover, councilors in several communes emphasized that members of indigenous groups in particular are not only the most patient participants, but very sincere and honest in their commitment to local development projects. Yet in other councils the overwhelming obstacles to accessing the council office prevent some communities systematically from attending meetings or make it an extremely time and money consuming exercise. Only in rare cases participants suggested that information was not sufficiently available to participate in council affairs. In many cases interviewees indicated that language is not a major obstacle to participation.
In general the following turns out to be the obstacle to equal access to public services: Whereas the non-indigenous population tends to live territorially concentrated in or close to district or provincial towns, members of indigenous groups live spread over the country in places where transportation is not easily available. Moreover, in many areas indigenous groups live in unstable settlements, moving after a few years to another place. Regulations for building schools, health centers and the like require certain numbers of users which frequently cannot be reached in thinly populated areas. In addition, unstable settlement pattern pose a special challenge to the provision of services. For example, constructing a modern school building in remote areas in order to make education available is associated with significant costs. Yet when the community moves to a different place the benefit of this investment might diminish. Providing services the way they are provided in other parts of the country is associated with uncertainty and risk as long as communities continue moving. This uncertainty was stressed by various government officials as among the most significant obstacles to development projects in indigenous communities. Interviews suggest there is a tendency to neglect development projects in areas inhabited by highlanders and that this tendency is mirrored in the behavior of NGO’s. For example, if a potential donor is considers financing a vaccination program, it is not clear whether members of indigenous groups will be available for the second shot. Similarly, if an NGO wants to contribute a road they will be careful providing it for indigenous communities. If the community decides to move the benefit of the road will diminish. Commitments to indigenous groups, particularly at the district integration workshop, might be avoided because development benefits are perceived as uncertain.
Yet a case could be made that highlanders are provided with the same opportunities as everybody, free to settle or to move to urban centers in order to improve their access to service facilities. And free to capitalize on emerging opportunities to alleviate individual poverty. In this view, measures designed to specifically benefit indigenous peoples would constitute an unjust priviledge. After all, why should the society subsidize highlander’s expensive preferences to live remote and widely scattered? This argument misses the value of cultural membership for the individual and the persistence of cultural identity. People do not choose their culture. In particular, people do not choose their native language. Language is not a matter of preference. Cultural membership appears to be the intervening variable in other areas where highlanders face limited access. Settlement pattern for example, are due to economic and religious practice, that is, culturally determined.
In any council visited highlander’s access to public services and to participation is most limited compared to the rest of the population. The available services are generally provided exclusively in Khmer, limiting access and participation to constituents capable of operating in Khmer. Without recognition and inclusion of the local language and knowledge the value of health and educational services is likely to be lower for highland peoples.
3. Research Results: Culture
Interviews tended to take place not in the more remote indigenous villages, where the level of understanding of the official language is said to be significantly lower. Yet, in virtually any commune visited, the local, indigenous language is the first language children learn at home. It remains the mother language and is in most cases the only language used for interaction in the village and between members of the same linguistic groups within the council.
Khmer is commonly used in commune councils and almost exclusively when there is only a minority of indigenous peoples in the constituency. Even when there is a strong majority of highlanders the council is likely to operate in Khmer. During this research there were only two councils where interviewees indicated that the local language is used in deliberations rather than Khmer. The constituencies of both councils consist almost exclusively of members of the same indigenous group.
Where there is a relatively small minority of one or more indigenous groups in the constituency, Khmer is likely to be used not only for discussion in the council but in the interaction between the council and the indigenous constituency and for the dissemination of information on the village level.
The degree to which members of indigenous groups understand Khmer varies widely. In almost any location visited during this research project it is mostly women and the elderly who have a more limited command of Khmer language. Yet in many indigenous villages, interviewees indicated that most constituents understand enough Khmer to participate in commune affairs. Moreover, a sufficient number of people are said to be capable of translating for those who do not understand. Yet in other cases it was stressed that the local language should be used for interaction between the commune council and the indigenous constituency. In rare cases interviewees suggested that the understanding of council affairs depends critically on whether or issues are explained in local language.
Again, deliberation of development projects on the community level take place mostly in local language. And this is where it matters for decentralization. It is here where the constituency is supposed to deliberate and determine the course of the community’s development. Yet the result of those deliberations will ultimately have to be translated into Khmer. It needs to be recognized that significant political power is associated with this ‘linguistic interface’, which is likely to become a major bottleneck for both participation and dissemination of information. There are particular difficulties to the translation in the case of indigenous languages. This is due to the absence of a script as well as to the fact that indigenous languages reflect a way of life significantly different from Khmer culture. Indigenous languages do not know many concepts which are relevant to decentralization policy.
2. Perpetuation of Indigenous Culture
The history of highlander groups is preserved and handed down through myths, legends, and songs by elders. Due to its oral nature indigenous culture is manifested in songs and stories rather than in written texts and those oral traditions make up the cultural memory of the group. Indigenous cultures and languages are particularly vulnerable to be lost in the absence of a script. Since culture is given down orally it will be lost as soon as one generation fails to pass it to the next. In many instances the threat of cultural, particularly linguistic, marginalization and extinction of groups appears to be not only a real possibility dramatically close to happen. In one instance there was said to be only one old and confused persons left in the community who still knew the old songs and stories.
The importance of preserving indigenous culture was stressed by members of virtually every indigenous community visited during this research project. Maintaining indigenous culture, religion and language and the perpetuation to the next generation is seen as a matter of great concern. Yet there is uncertainty how the associated practices can be perpetuated to the next generations. And it was subject to regret that substantial elements of what used to constitute local culture are felt to be lost. The most obvious aspects of change regard aspects of material culture. Modern dress is worn rather than traditional clothing, young people dance to pop music rather than traditional dances, and wooden ‘Khmer’ houses are being built rather than bamboo houses in traditional styles. Those changes on the surface mirror less obvious dimensions of recent and radical change, prominently the erosion of the spirit of ‘togetherness’ and ‘sharing happiness’.
On many occasions the difference between the modernization of life styles and culture on one hand and the loss of culture on the other was stressed. It is clearly felt that modernization poses challenges to indigenous culture but mostly assumed that it is not necessary to loose the cultural identity with development. Those changes and the general development are mostly not considered as posing a disadvantage specifically to members of indigenous groups. In most cases members of indigenous groups indicated that they feel to be the agents of their culture’s change.
The judgment of recent and dramatic changes is complex. In general, people accept and frequently embrace the changes associated with modernization that have been taking place. There does seem to be a different perception depending on the age of the person in question. It is typically the older members of the community who are more concerned about the preservation and perpetuation of culture, whereas young people tend to embrace changes associated with modernization more and care less for tradition.
Members of various indigenous groups expressed their appreciation of their particular culture. Most indigenous interviews stated to be proud to be member of the respective indigenous group. This sense of proudness has various sources, among them prominently the practice of solidarity, unity, and honesty. And it appears to be a sense of shared history and great achievements and deeds in ancient times. Interestingly, on various occasions it was stressed by the interviewees that members of the respective indigenous group have contributed to establish Angkor Wat.
On occasion members of indigenous groups suggested that they should be represented on higher levels of government, to have a voice in the design of national policies that affect them as well as to create awareness of indigenous culture. It was stressed that highlanders want their cultures to be known and in fact ask for recognition of their cultural identity. On occasion this was combined with the request to the government to provide information and education in a way that promotes the local indigenous culture within and outside the group. In rare instances this was demanded by claiming the equal right to public positions and offices that members of the majority ethnic group take for granted. Most of the time the demand for recognition takes the form of requesting the government to permit and provide for indigenous self-representation. Members of indigenous groups appear to feel that they do have neither the right nor the capability to create their own representation. Lacking knowledge of the official language is seen as one of the major obstacles to proper political representation.
Observation and interviews indicate that members of various indigenous groups try to hide their ethnic identity. This was the case particularly in areas where indigenous peoples form a minority of the population. But even in areas with a majority of highlanders there where many indications that members of indigenous groups feel ashamed of their cultural membership. For outsiders it is frequently impossible to recognize individuals as members of indigenous groups. Yet this identity appears to be persistent and of high social relevance. If highlanders feel induced to hide their identity outside the group this indicates serious obstacles to the individual’s self respect.
In general, many indigenous communities posses and share various strong institutions. The most obvious examples are elders, who command considerable respect within the respective community. Elders serve many important social, political and spiritual functions within the group. There is a variety of other local institutions, in particular various schemes to assist each other with labor and resources, such as maintaining a collective store or field to balance individual risks and support needy members of the community. Members of many indigenous groups proud themselves of their strong sense of solidarity and sharing. The honesty of indigenous villagers and the sincerity of their solidarity and commitments were recognized on several occasions by their Khmer neighbors.
Where elders exist as an institution they are the center of traditional authority within the group. They are chosen by various procedures aiming at consensus within the community. Elders serve multiple functions within the group, associated with leadership, decision making, mediation, and religious affairs. Their knowledge of the group’s history, legends and songs is of central importance for the intergenerational perpetuation of culture, particularly in the absence of a script. Where elders exist there is a variety of levels to which they are involved in council affairs. It is a common attitude among councilors that elders do not have to play a role in interacting with the council. However, there was a number of examples where elders where explicitly invited and encouraged to keep involved in council affairs.
Respect for the commune council was said to be as high as respect for traditional institutions. The council’s authority appears to be widely accepted and it is well understood that this institution is backed by law. In most cases interviewees stated that there are no conflicts between elders, village chiefs and the council. The mode of interaction appears to be cooperative and there is a functioning division of labor.
Strong leadership and respect for decisions is characteristic for the way elders govern the community. Despite this leadership style decisions emphasize consensus and decision making and conflict resolution involves mediation and negotiation. Village elders are the first instance of resolution when conflicts between individuals arise. Elders are said to have lost authority in many communities over the last decades but are still an effective institution in conflict resolution. Traditional selection procedures and leadership style were justified and defended mostly in terms of democracy and fairness. During the interviews there was no indication that group leaders would consider restricting the liberties of group members in order to maintain some sort of cultural purity.
There does not generally appear to be the perception of a conflict between tradition institutions and state institutions. Commune affairs are perceived to be of formal and legal nature while traditional institutions and leadership are associated with virtue, tradition and wisdom. It was acknowledged during interviews that every citizen has to follow legal rules. Members of indigenous groups are well aware of their Cambodian citizenship. Yet dealing with government is regarded difficult.
In general, policy towards indigenous communities tends to reflect the common attitude that indigenous culture has to adapt to the operations of institutions of the mainstream society. This is associated with the understanding that avoiding discrimination is sufficient to do justice to members of indigenous minorities. However, non-discrimination is defined precisely in terms of equal access to institutions operating in the majority language. Non-discrimination provides members of the majority with a priviledge and puts highlanders at a disadvantage. It appears advisable and desirable to adapt decentralization policy to existing indigenous institutions and carefully integrate those institutions within the framework of decentralization. Involving those institutions in development projects is likely to serve two important purposes: it would be an effective means of targeting the poorest members of the Cambodian society with poverty reduction. At the same time it would strengthen and promote the institutions in question and thus contribute to the preservation and perpetuation of indigenous cultures.
Attitudes towards decentralization and the commune council were generally positive. When asked for the specific benefits decentralization has brought villagers where always able to list a number of projects and achievements. This was the case regardless of the ethnic identity of the interviewees. However, the demand for more training and education in decentralization was stressed in many interviews, by councilors as well as by constituents. On a few occasions it was expressed that the council does not have the power to solve the fundamental problems, particularly associated with land and forest. There is a strong tendency for indigenous communities to be underrepresented in the commune council. In many cases, the share of indigenous councilors tends to be smaller than highlanders share of the constituency. This is particularly the case where highland people form a minority in the commune.
There was no case were members of the District/Provincial Facilitation Teams (PFT/DFT) had been members of a local indigenous group. The recruitment procedures vary from province to province. The positions are filled mostly with members of existing government agencies and it appears to be impossible for highlanders to reach the technical expertise and experience required for this job. At the same time, current members of PFT/DFT do not appear to learn the local language. Frequently the difficulties of having to facilitate decentralization without knowledge of the local language was stressed by members of PFT/DFT. Frequently they were surprised by the fact that highlanders actually persist to have a language quite different from Khmer and impossible for the them to understand. A common attitude among PFT/DFT was that highlander’s lack of education, particular lack of knowledge in Khmer is a serious obstacle to the implementation of decentralization policy. The solution was usually seen in providing education in Khmer language to indigenous communities.
Research results indicate that decentralization has improved the living conditions of indigenous communities in many communes. Decentralization has brought health facilities, schools, roads, wells, and bridges. Accordingly, attitudes towards decentralized institutions of government are positive. In addition, decentralization has given indigenous groups a voice in local affairs in many communes which they did not have before. And it is here where decentralization has contributed to the accommodation of indigenous peoples.
Major gaps between indigenous communities and other communities continue to exist in terms of poverty and access to education and health services. Members of indigenous groups face significant disadvantages in the spheres of education and health. Some of those disadvantages are shared by members of communities which are not indigenous, such as the difficulties of accessing services in remote and thinly populated areas. Yet many disadvantages are exclusively faced by members of indigenous groups. This is in large part a matter of language. Services and education are provided in Khmer and exclude local language, culture and knowledge.
In this regard, decentralization did not contribute much to the accommodation of indigenous groups. More precisely, decentralization does not utilize the potential it has to accommodate indigenous communities. Members of indigenous groups are not provided with the opportunity to participate in their language in most commune councils, even when they form a majority of the constituency. Members of the majority culture can participate in decentralized institutions anywhere in the country in their native language. In council elections, the choice for indigenous groups is limited to members capable of functioning in institutions operating in Khmer, while members of the majority culture can freely choose their leaders among themselves. Positions associated with decentralized institutions are only disproportional occupied by members of indigenous groups.
A strong contrast was found between communes with a majority of highlanders and communes with a minority of highlanders. Due to their different cultural identity and way of life the needs of indigenous peoples can deviate significantly from those of the mainstream society. In communes with a strong majority of highlanders, decentralized institutions provide groups with a voice in the political process, allowing for distinctive needs and interest to be represented and considered while there was virtually no such representation in the political system before. In addition, commune councils provide members of those communities with the possibility to take part in decisions that affect their lives and serves as important instrument of self management.
In contrast, research suggests that decentralization did not contribute much to development of indigenous communities where members form a minority in the commune. Where there are specific indigenous needs they are not likely to be addressed when priorities are determined by majority decisions. This situation is permanent, since a minority of highlanders in the constituency won’t become a majority at any point. Majority decisions are likely to become a mechanism which reinforces the poverty and disadvantaged situation of highlanders where they form a minority in the commune, further widening the existing gaps between the members of different ethnic groups.
a. The public recognition of the use of indigenous languages in commune councils where indigenous peoples form a majority is desirable for various reasons. It would ensure that dissemination and participation takes place in a meaningful manner and would make it more likely that decentralized institutions work for members of indigenous groups. This measure would merely mean the formalization of patterns which are already operating on the ground.
b. Meaningful provisions have to be found to accommodate the needs of members of indigenous groups where they are in the minority in the constituency of the commune council. This is likely to involve their native language. For dissemination of information and participation to be informed and meaningful it cannot but take place in the native language of the constituents in question.
c. Position and offices associated with institutions of local governance should be given to members of indigenous groups where members of those groups are part of the constituency. This is particularly true of commune councilors, council clerks, and PFT/DFT. The requirement of literacy in Khmer for those positions should be handled very flexible. It is worth considering whether knowledge of the majority language should be among the requirements where members of indigenous groups are in the majority. It is very unlikely that people not familiar with the cultural and linguistic environment effectively manage affairs of local governance. In contrast, locally recruited persons have proven to both committed to the development of their communities as well as capable of effectively contributing to it.
d. Provisions have to be found to provide meaningful translation, particular where participation takes place in the local language. For the time being it is reasonable that elected commune councilors are in charge for the translation, since they have the strongest incentives to be responsive to the needs and demands of the constituency.
e. Where possible, indigenous institutions should be strengthened in the framework of decentralization. Examples include elders and mechanism of mutual support. Indigenous institutions are likely to operate very effectively in the framework of decentralized local government.
f. Any attempt to both alleviate poverty of members of indigenous groups as well as to preserve and promote indigenous culture faces the lack of human resources. Strategically, the lack of indigenous capacity appears to be the major obstacle to carefully targeted development projects. As long as this situation persist it is likely that attempts to promote members of indigenous groups do not benefit them directly. And it remains uncertain whether parts of those benefits will trickle down to the intended addressees. For members of indigenous groups to become the agents of their cultural and social change it is of utmost importance to target members of those groups particularly with culturally appropriate education and training and involve them in the design of those measures.