Executive Summary: Commune Council in the Vernacular. Indigenous Peoples and Decentralization in Cambodia

Today I finalized a short summary of my final report. I thought I should make it available here. Of course it is tempting to continue writing on this one but I thought I better make it available soon so that I have the chance to incorporate concerns and recommendations from anybody willing to provide feedback. Any considerations are greatly appreciated.

Executive Summary: Commune Council in the Vernacular. Indigenous Peoples and Decentralization in Cambodia

This research project has been conducted to examine the relationship between indigenous rights and decentralization in Cambodia. It aims at exploring how the current decentralization process can help to accommodate the needs and fair demands of indigenous communities. The final report will start with introducing two ideas in contemporary political science that are both of central importance for the understanding of cultural diversity in many countries of the word and highly relevant for the relationship between indigenous peoples and decentralization.

Nation Building and Minority Rights

The first such idea is the dialectic of state nation-building and demands for minority rights. The argument is that modern states are nation-building in the sense that they engage in a process of promoting a common language, and a sense of common membership in, and equal access to, the social institutions operating in that language. This happens with the intention of diffusing a particular culture throughout society, and of promoting a particular national identity based on participation in that societal culture. This process of nation-building inescapably privileges members of the majority culture. This line of argumentation suggests that the standard operations of the liberal state systematically disadvantage members of cultural minorities. Policies associated with decentralization and deconcentration in Cambodia are designed to promote linguistic integration into the language of the cultural majority. The changes associated with those processes are infact designed to promote linguistic integration into the language of the cultural majority and thus systematically disadvantage members of cultural minorities.

Ethnic Groups and National Minorities

The second important idea is the distinction between ethnic groups and national minorities. Two broad patterns of demands for minority rights are emerging as response to state-nation building: ethnic groups and national minorities. The report will point out both the relevance of this distinction for decentralization in Cambodia as well as the potentially powerful policy recommendations that stem from it. In short: it is the difference in the mode of incorporation into the Cambodian nation-state that shapes the nature of minority groups as well as the sort of relationship with the larger society and eventually the legitimacy of minority rights demands. In the case of national minorities, cultural diversity arises from the involuntary incorporation of previously self-governing, territorially concentrated cultures into a larger state. In the case of ethnic groups, cultural diversity is the result of voluntary individual and familial immigration. Whereas ethnic groups typically wish to integrate into the larger society, and to be accepted as full members of it, national minorities typically wish to maintain themselves as distinct societies alongside the majority culture and demand various forms of autonomy or self-government. Indigenous peoples are in many ways different from non-indigenous groups but in important ways similar. This is closely related to important instruments in international law. Whereas the implications on national minorities in general are rather uncertain, international law on indigenous peoples is very explicit and provisions reflect ‘best practice’ in Western countries. If applied to the Cambodian context the application of this distinction discovers a rather rare ethnic composition in Cambodia: there are no national minorities other than indigenous groups.

National Minorities and Decentralization: Indigenous Peoples

Although decentralization is likely to affect members of both types of groups it is the case of national minorities that matters particularly when it comes to decentralization, because the devolution of power to lower levels of government can provide territorially concentrated national minorities with significant self-governing powers, while it does not directly affect territorially dispersed ethnic groups. In short, the report will state that, if the accommodation of national minorities is the problems, then decentralization has proven to be the solution to many of the associated difficulties in many countries in the world. This is particularly true of indigenous groups. Decentralization is the prime means by which nation-building policies can be balanced with minority rights for national minorities.

International Law

With regard to indigenous rights the paper will touch on major instruments in international law relating to indigenous peoples and to associated policies of major international organizations. This will provide the terms and analytical framework to present the main findings and results of the empirical study. Based on that recommendations will be formulated aiming at both the norms formulated in those international laws as well as at making decentralization policy more responsive to the needs of indigenous people and improve their situation.

Preservation and Perpetuation of Indigenous Cultures

One important insight in many countries is that for a culture to survive the associated language needs to be official language of a nation-state. The report will pay particular attention to the linguistic aspects of decentralization and indigenous rights. Among the major recommendations will be to publicly recognize the use of indigenous languages in local institutions, particularly institutions of local governance and education. Beyond this, the report will explore how decentralization can in fact contribute to the rebuilding, preservation and perpetuation of indigenous cultures and to the development and promotion of institutions of indigenous self representation in the political system.

Research Design

This research used primarily semi-structured interviews with members of indigenous groups as well as members of Commune Councils. The selection of interviewees was done using criteria associated with the ethnic composition of the constituency. Questions are designed to explore various aspects of the relationship between indigenous communities and decentralization. Those questions aim at addressing 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 established decentralized institutions, access to and costs of services and participation and the like.

Research Results

Members of indigenous groups tend to be the poorest where the constituency of a Commune Council consists of members of different ethnic groups. Regardless of the ethnic composition of the constituency in virtually any case the result was that the access of members of indigenous groups to health services, education, and participation is the most limited while they are most affected by poverty.

Another important insight is that with virtually no exemption the local, indigenous language is used for interaction in the village and between members of the same linguistic groups within the Council. Given the above mentioned dialectic between nation building and minority rights and the rigid language provisions in the framework of decentralization, the vehement implementation of current design of decentralization policy will disadvantage the members of indigenous groups directly and systematically and thus widening the existing economic, social and economic gap between members of indigenous and non-indigenous groups. Members of the dominant ethnic groups can participate in decentralized institutions anywhere in the country in their native language. Members of indigenous groups are not provided with the opportunity to participate in their language in any Commune Council. Members of the dominant ethnic group can freely choose their leaders among themselves whereas the choice for indigenous groups is limited to members capable of functioning in institutions operating in Khmer. And finally, members of the dominant ethnic group enjoy the privilege of a modern nation-state which is operating its institutions entirely in their language, thus contributing to the preservation and perpetuation of the culture and identity of this group. Members of indigenous groups are at a severe disadvantage, threatened by the very real danger of cultural extinction because none of the institutions that make up the nation-state, not even institutions of local governance, operate in their language.

In contrast to the rigid design of decentralization policy, research results indicate that language is handled very flexible in the actual implementation of decentralization, providing for the opportunity to use local language. Thus, decentralization in Cambodia has contributed to the accommodation of the needs and fair demands of indigenous peoples. This is particularly the case where one linguistic group forms the majority of the constituency of the Commune Council. Where there was virtually no indigenous representation in the political system before, decentralized institutions provide groups with a voice in the political process. In addition, they provide members of those groups with the possibility to take part in decisions that affect their lives and serves as important instrument of self management. And finely, Commune Council operating in local languages contribute to the preservation and development of indigenous cultures.

In contrast, the current decentralization framework is designed and implemented it is likely to systematically disadvantage members of indigenous groups where they form a minority in the constituency of the Commune Council. Due to their different cultural identity and way of life the needs of indigenous peoples can deviate significantly from those of the mainstream society. Where members of indigenous groups form a minority in the Commune Council development projects are likely to benefit predominantly or entirely members of the mainstream society, disadvantaging the members of indigenous groups and widening the existing gap between the members of different ethnic groups. Seila procedures of prioritization of needs are likely to systematically disadvantage members of indigenous groups where their members form a minority in the constituency of the Commune Council. Moreover, in almost any location visited during this research project it is mostly women, the old and the young who have a more limited command of Khmer language. Those groups tend to be already disadvantaged within indigenous communities and the implementation of current decentralization policy is likely to further marginalize members of these groups.


• In general, changes associated with minor costs and efforts are likely to be effective in better accommodating indigenous groups within the framework of decentralization. Those changes would bring about a voice and opportunities for members of the Cambodian society who are most affected by poverty on any meaningful measure.
• 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.
• 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. A case could be made that 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.
• It is highly desirable for various reasons that position associated with institutions of local governance are 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. Infact 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.
• Given that deliberation of development projects on the community level takes place in local language but will ultimately have to be translated into Khmer. It needs to be recognized that significant power is associated with this linguistic interface, which is likely to become a major bottleneck or gate-keeper for both participation and dissemination of information. There are particular difficulties to the translation in the case of indigenous languages. For the time being it is desirable 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.
• It is desirable to strengthen and promote indigenous institutions in the framework of decentralization. In many cases indigenous communities have strong social and political institutions that are likely to be operate very effective in the framework of decentralized local government. Examples include elders and mechanism of social concession. 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.
• 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 and thus tends to represents a rationalization for not providing conditions of non-dominance. It appears advisable and desirable to adapt decentralization policy to existing indigenous institutions and carefully integrate those institutions within the framework of decentralization. This necessitates the explicit recognition of ethnic membership with regard to indigenous groups.
• 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 in this regard. As long as this situation persist it is likely that attempts to promote members of indigenous groups infact benefit members of non-indigenous groups. 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.

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