Cambodia Daily: High Voter Turnout Expected Among Ratanakkiri Hill Tribes

I found this article to be particularly interesting with regard to the upcoming election and “Highland People”:

High Voter Turnout Expected Among Ratanakkiri Hill Tribes; By Kate Woodsome and Kay Kimsong, The Cambodian Daily, July 8, 2003, p. 13

BANLUNG DISTRICT, Ratanakkiri province – Smiling images of King Norodom Sihanouk are projected through the evening darkness against an outdoor movie screen carried between jungle villages.

Throughout the province, Funcinpec officials are showing a film produced by party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, as well as putting on live comedy shows and giving political pep talks. The event aims to embrace hill tribe villagers with the arms of the royal family, Ministry of Planning Secretary of State Lay Prahas said, using rhetoric long employed by the King.

“People are surrounded and isolated in the forest, so they have no access to the outside world. The only thing they know is this tight duress which has ruled them for the last 20 years,” said Lay Prahas, Funcinpec’s top candidate in Ratanakkiri.

That the CPP won a majority in 48 of the province’s 49 communes in the 2002 commune elections could make it difficult for Funcinpec – or any other party – to win votes in Ratanakkiri. Seven ethnic minorities comprise 65 percent of the population.

The hill tribes “are very active and registered to vote, but they’re doing what they’ve had suggested to them,” said Jan Noorlander, CARE’s Highland Children’s Education Project manager. Hill tribe villagers often rely on the wisdom of elders, and village and commune chiefs to make important decisions.

Distinct languages, cultural beliefs and animism are exercised by the majority of ethnic minorities, which occupy the margins of political life and society.

“It’s a very different culture than Cambodia,” Noorlander said.

Ratanakkiri hill tribes were early recruits for the Khmer Rouge, as their subsistence lifestyles exemplified the society the Khmer Rouge wanted to build.

But one ethnic Tampuan, Bou Thong, helped organize a small rebellion against the Khmer Rouge, Leading thousands of dissidents across the border to Vietnam in 1972. Trained as a communist in Hanoi, he later returned to Cambodia to rise through the CPP’s ranks, ultimately becoming Minister of Defense in the 1980s. He now serves as Ratanakkiri’s National Assembly representative.

“The indigenous still feel they have contact with influential powers because they have him,” Noorlander said of Bou Thong.

Provincial CPP government officials are relying on the party’s past to secure its future.

No high-tech equipment will be employed to rally voter support, just a few microphones, T-shirts, hats and a party platform teeming with history.

“I remember the Tambpuan and ethnic cultures were destroyed by the Khmer Rough. Today the CPP has brought back everything,” commune official Nheam Taisy, 59, said. “We don’t say anything bad about the other parties, we just say the good about ours.”

Voter turnout should be high in Ratanakkiri – about 51.969 of 54.650 eligible voters are registered, said provincial election committee head Sok Ham.

High vote counts from the 1993 and 1998 elections should be even greater this year, he said, as the number of polling stations has increased from 99 to 117 to limit the distance voters must travel to cast their ballots.

There is a high degree of illiteracy in the province, with few hill tribe villagers able to read, write and speak Khmer. But Sok Ham said he is confident that voters regardless of their ethnicity, will be able to understand the ballot, as 50 percent of election officials belong to an ethnic minority and can explain the voting procedure.

CPP provincial Cabinet Chief Nap Bun Heng said voters have voted twice before and will know what to do when handed a ballot.

But Wur Poam, 45, of Banlung district’s Yeak Loam Commune, admits she doesn’t quite understand why she will go to the polls.

“I don’t know what it means to support a particular party,” she said. “The commune chief told us to vote for Huns Sen, so I will.”

Deng Naoi, 69, also will choose Huns Sen’s party because it saved him from the Khmer Rouge. He plans to vote for stability, rather than for change.

More election news is reaching Ratanakkiri than in previous years, with Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America broadcast in Banlung and nearby villages.

But with electricity unavailable to most of Ratanakkiri’s roughly 100.000 residents, radio is heard primarily by people with batteries and understood only by Khmer speakers.

Expectant mother Pleun Chenda, 19, also knows little about the parties running against the CPP.

“I believe our village elders who tell us about the CPP. Everyone likes CPP, so I like them too,” she said.

Lay Prahas considers village elders the best vehicles for change. With his movies and pamphlets packed in several sports-utility vehicles, the Funcinpec hopeful is charging across Ratanakkiri with a message.

“Village elders are the fathers of a family of children – each of which deserves equal rights,” he said. “or else they don’t deserve to be parents.”
Continue reading Cambodia Daily: High Voter Turnout Expected Among Ratanakkiri Hill Tribes

“General Policy for Highland Peoples Development”

I met somebody who was involved in the drafting of a “General Policy for Highland Peoples Development(1997), which is however not in force. Its first paragraph starts with the following sentence: “The Kingdom of Cambodia is a multi-ethnic society and forms a unity of cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity. The Royal Government of Cambodia shall promote understanding and respect of cultural diversity and ensure that Highland Peoples can practice their own cultures, which are recognized by the Cambodia national society, based on the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.” The rest of this document appears to be written in the same spirit.

The drafting and associated research was supported by UNDP, ADB and World Bank (WB). However, this support came from outside Cambodia and was very punctual.

There appears to be no organizational continuity on these issues in Cambodia, to say the best. The research started with tables provided by the Ministry of Religion. Since then the numbers keep changing. Census data is provided by the Ministry of Planning. However, population figures about “Highland People” are everything but consisting and dramatically decreasing up to the last census in 1997. Other data is derived from provincial governments and documents from police commissions.

There were objections to the policy by several ministries, most prominently Chapter 3.6 which they want to replace. The wording of this paragraph in the initial draft is as follows: “Further complete or partial deforestation or other forest exploitation in areas inhabited or used by Highland Peoples shall be forbidden unless such forest use permits continued, sustainable traditional agriculture and forest use of Highland Peoples. In no case should such exploitation be permitted without the full and informed participation and consent of the affected Highland Peoples themselves. All exploitation should be submitted to sustainable forest management, including replanting, using of sustainable indigenous species and ensuring minimal impact on the biological diversity of the area. The Government of Cambodia shall adopt general forest management policies which require exploitation to be limited to legally designated exploitation forests, which are not currently or traditionally inhabited or used by Highland Peoples, where sustainable management would be required, and where plans for exploitation would be subject to social, cultural and environmental impact assessment and open to public examination and review.”

The policy in question is designed to target the four provinces in which indigenous peoples life: Ratanakiri, Kratie, Steung Treng, and Mondul Kiri. The policy does not refer to ‘ethnic groups’, but to ‘highland peoples’ or Khmer Leu.
The legislative process of this policy came to a halt mainly because laws concerning land and forest where not appropriately clear. However, specific laws are in force today.

Given that many government organizations are busy right now because of the upcoming election, it appears likely that this policy will be reintroduced into the legislative process with support by the forenamed influential organizations. Furthermore, WB’s potentially tough (this remains to be seen) Operational Directive on indigenous peoples together with the pending WB (IDA) commitment of about 23 Mill. US$ project costs seems to make this a truly delicate affair.

With regard to my travel plans I learned that there are many organizations in Rattanakiri to assist indigenous peoples. However, to see their lifestyles it is better to go to Mondul Kiri, where people are more easily accessible, tent to be poorer and without assistance.
Continue reading “General Policy for Highland Peoples Development”

Web Page?

I was contemplating that the creation of a web page for either or both the project and minority rights in this country would be a good idea. This could make considerable documentation available to citizens and organizations. It would be cheep, help to facilitate access to policy literature and networking as well as integration of fragmented activities in government agencies and supporting organizations.
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And I do not think this is what I realistically could pursue in three month. In Ethiopia I learned that to make a difference and bring about change highly visible and communicative events such are sometimes a good vehicle. With regard to sequencing and pacing the strategic conflict may arise whether to address minority rights issues before there is the state capacity to enforce them. Based on the above indicated theories I mentioned that I would like to make the case for the integration of associated considerations at an early stage.
Continue reading Sequencing

Knowledge Management

At the first glance it appears to me that in the Cambodian political system in general and in government agencies in particular the bottleneck is not so much that research results are not existent, but not available. The bottleneck appears to be in large part access to and dissemination of existing research results. I do not think my project wants to deliver the sort of anthropological, sociological or ethnological research that really is lacking and necessary for policy making.
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Decentralization and Language

The policy implications are powerful, since political measures to overcome gender inequality are not meant to be permanent but measures to accommodate the culture of national minorities/indigenous peoples are meant to be persistent. Since language appears to be at the core of these problems (and because politics is bound to language) I intend to focus for the time being on decentralization and linguistic minorities.
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Neutral State?

This separation is not possible with regard to culture and particularly language. Since the government cannot but promote a particular language by using it in the societies institutions, it cannot be neutral with regard to culture. Women are for good reasons considered a disadvantaged group. However, we assume that once these inequalities are overcome, there won’t be a need for recognition or special provisions to promote women. However, this is not true with regard to rights given to members of groups to promote justice between cultural groups. Many theorists (and most likely people who are subject to assimilation policies) support the view that it is desirable to perpetuate the existence of associated differences.
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The Next Weeks

For these reasons, I intend to focus my research on these groups and associated policy problems for the next weeks. I tend to think I should exclude religious and gender minorities which can be separated from my issue in the following way: In (liberal) theory, there is the old idea that religious minorities can be accommodated by a strict divorce of state and religion (which, however, is not the case in Cambodia).
Continue reading The Next Weeks


The key to whether or not a cultural group is able to perpetuate their culture has been the question whether or not these groups are allowed to maintain societal institutions in their language. Regarding decentralization this might be associated with the question of whether or not these groups are provided the space in the legal and policy framework and whether or not their political and social institutions can (and should) be integrated into it. This I think is a largely a question of whether or not these institutions can be maintained in the mother language.
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“Highland People”

Although the largest ethnic minority groups are Vietnamese and Chinese descendants, Muslim Chams and ethnic Lao with the situation of the Vietnamese being particularly urgent. I believe so called ‘indigenous people’ pose a challenge specifically to decentralization because they live territorially concentrated. Furthermore, it is usually considered fair that immigrants learn the majority language of the country they immigrate to. But this is not true in the case of indigenous peoples.
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Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe it turned out that development achievements are jeopardized by ethnic and nationalist conflict. Regarding sequencing, a strong case can be made from this and the above mentioned theories to incorporate minority rights consideration from the beginning in capacity building. This is, to oversimplify the argument, because ethnic and national conflict, mediated through nation-building appears to be in large part a function of capacity building itself. However, given the rather small proportion of cultural minorities in Cambodia the applicability of these insights is not clear.
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In my reading of current political theory there is the widely shared insight that the demand for minority rights should be seen as response to state nation-building, which is associated with policies to disseminate the majority culture (and language) throughout the territory of a given (nation-) state. Nation-building in this sense appears to be closely related to capacity building.

The normative implication is that (state) nation-building is important and legitimate but must be limited by protective rights for cultural minorities. And so is (state) capacity building. These group-differentiated rights in turn legitimize state nation-building. Such treatment should not be considered preferential, or privilege or special status. It rather compensates for disadvantages faced by minority groups that the dominant national group does not face. Among them prominently the threat of cultural extinction. And for the individual the risk to loose its cultural context to make free and meaningful choices, which is important in liberal political theory.
Continue reading Nation-Building


In general, I feel there is not much recognition of the fact that Cambodia population is multiethnic and multinational and that there is quite a number of non-Khmer Cambodian citizens. I found the use and notion of the word ‘Khmer’ characteristic for this situation. Many people seem to use this term synonymous with Cambodian citizenship, also to my knowledge it refers to ethnicity and language.
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Anecdotal Research

Other than what I mentioned so fare I did not find much research on cultural minorities in Cambodia. The available literature stresses that the data is anecdotal particularly in Cambodia and maybe it is no coincidence that a volume currently co-edited by Will Kymlicka (“Asian Minorities and Western Liberalism”) features most countries in the region but not Cambodia. I assume this neglect is due to the fact that Cambodia is a relatively small country and culturally more homogenous than neighboring countries. However, these facts do not make it more likely that cultural minorities desire to assimilate into the mainstream society. Or less likely that they vehemently resist such demands
Continue reading Anecdotal Research