Article about Rattanakiri in the Weekend Edition of the Cambodia Daily

Worlds Collide
Villagers Attempt to Ban Tourists From Cemetery In a Fight To Protect the Living From the Dead
By Kate Woodsome and Kay Kimsong
The Cambodia Daily

VEUN SAI DISTRICT, Rattanakiri province – Bou On knows change is coming. Her eyes, milky with age, have seen a jungle footpath swell into a full-sized road. They’ve squinted into a sun reflected from tin roofs that were once wood. And they’ve helplessly followed the footsteps of unwelcome visitors trading on sacred ground..

Caught between their past and their future, the Kachon Krom villagers of Kachno commune are angry and scared. An ancient burial ground resting in the hill tribe community has become a highly coveted tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world. But the development that should make them rich is instead making them poor.

“When the tourists come, the soul is awakened and the angry spirits demand a new home be built. Even the poorest family must sacrifice at least one cow, chicken and pig. We just cannot afford this,“ said 60-year-old Bou On, who is a mix of Laotian and Tampuen.

Standing no taller than a healthy 10-year-old girl, Bou On’s frame is slight but her stance firm. She is unwavering in her belief about the cemetery’s rules and the consequences of breading them.

“After the funeral ceremony, no one can visit the tomb. If a family member returns to the site, they will disturb the spirit,” she said. “I just saw a spirit consume the body of a man who revisited his family’s grave. He fell ill and had to give sacrifices to calm the spirit.”

A group of village elders recently wrote a letter to the provincial government requesting their support to prohibit tourists from disturbing the spirits. They even have appealed to Bou On’s brother, former CPP defense minister and deputy prime minister Bou Thong, for help.

Bout Thong, now a parliamentarian and the fifth-ranking member of the CPP’s elite Standing Committee, had donated buffalo and rice to appease the spirits but suggested no more than a protective fence to solve the problem, they said.

Bou Thong had declined to be interviewed. Now elders are relying on younger residents, like Om Mean, to find a solution. More mud than clothes cover Om Mean’s body as he balances a pile of warning notices on his bicycle handlebars. A young disciple preaching his elders’ words, the 26-year-old member of the village’s natural resource committee passes a paper to each person he meets.

“Tourists should not come, because this is a ghost world separate from the human world,” he said, standing on a new road that cuts the cemetery in half.

Small houses capped with pointed roofs and enclosed by thin wooden fences surround him. Totem poles roughly carved into the shape of men and women stand tall beside the houses, symbolizing the servants of the dead.

They bear wooden elephant tusks and riches, a wish for prosperity in the life to come. The wooden mobile phones and tin bras appearing on the latest totems testify to a recent merger between tradition and modernity.

Three warning signs printed in Khmer and English should be enough to keep visitors from touching the totems, but if tour groups insist of on breading the rules, “militant action’ must be taken, Om Mean said.

“We can use a knife, stick or hammer to drive them from the site or arrest them,” he said. “If a tourist breaks the regulations, we will charge them the cost of a ceremonial sacrifice or arrest them and bring them to provincial court.”

It would be a lonely battle, as provincial government officials are unwilling to take firm action no the matter. Ratanakkiri is Cambodia’s largest eco-tourism destination and fourth on the government’s list of tourism development priorities. The internationally renowned Lonely Planed travel book even advises travelers to make the trip to Kachon’s cemetery.

Plans for a new airport and improved roads throughout Cambodia-including one highway planned to got through neighboring Stung Treng province-could transform the province within the next couple of years. The last thing the government wants to do is dissuade visitors from coming, said Ratanakkiri Governor Khma Khoeun.

“We won’t support the fining of visitors. The villagers will have to handle it themselves,” he said. “We’ll just follow them for a while and tell tourists to visit other cemeteries.”

Economic constraints will likely alter villagers’ traditional belief systems, Kham Khoeun said, adding that in a few years the elders would realize their wrongs.

Their thinking is not so clear or modern,” he said. “There’s no way that visitors walking through that cemetery are affecting their culture.”

The seven ethnic minorities and the ethnic Khmer, Laotian and Vietnamese residents occupying Ratanakkiri have already laid the groundwork for a collision of cultures, which is not necessarily bad, according to Jan Noorlander, CARE’s Highland Children’ Education Project manager.

“A clash of cultures is natural and makes and area more economically viable. People thrive off it. But if they’re not the agents of their own change, people may suffer from it, rather than benefit,” he said.

Over the past five years, an influx of tourists and new residents has rapidly introducing new technology, clothing and languages to the province’s many hill tribes. Sixty-five percent oft the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, most of whom practice animism and speak distinct dialects. Their belief systems differ greatly from Khmer culture, and impel many hill tribes to appeal to spirits for a malaria cure or a good harvest.

The risk of rapid cultural integration or homogenization, Noorlander said, is creating a culture of shame.

“Some young indigenous people turn more Khmer than Khmers will ever be. They have a false sense of shame about their roots and their background,” he said. “This results in a rift between elder and younger generations.”

No major ideological divide separates older Kachon Krom villagers from their younger counterparts, they said. But the passage of time may mean the loss of history and a commitment to preserve the past for the future.

Maoeun Choeun, 18, dropped out of second grade years ago to till his family’s soil. He knows little about the spirituals. But he works and lives beside his elders and agrees with them because he respects them.

“I guess people could go along to the cemetery as long as they don’t touch it,” Maoeun Choeun said. “I don’t know why. That’s just what the elders say.”
Continue reading Article about Rattanakiri in the Weekend Edition of the Cambodia Daily


I should mention that I intend to travel to Rattanakiri next Tuesday. I do not know how often I will have the chance to access this log prior to my departure and therefore give some information in advance.

I do not intend to take my laptop with me. This is mostly because I did not manage to connect it to the network and therefore could not properly back up my computer. I do not want to risk my data. However, I take my camera with me and more than 400 mb of memory. This way I hope I can provide numerous pictures afterwards.

The “lonely planet” which I bough for 3 bucks in the market (4th edition 2002) does not have to say more than two pages about Rattanakiri. However, the German guide (“Reise Know How” 2003) offers extensive information. I quote the introduction:

“Rattanakiri ist die nordoestlichste Provinz Kambodschas und grenzt im Norden an Laos und im Osten an Vietnam. Das Kontoum- und das Chhlongplateau bilden die natuerlichen Grenzen zu seinen Nachbarn … Endlose Urwaelder, duchzogen von Huegeln, Suempfen und Wasserlaeufen, machen Rattanakiri in seiner Unwegsamkeit zu einem der am wenigsten erforschten Landstriche unserer Erde. Tiger, Leoparden, Rotwild, Elepfanten, Krokokile und das fast ausgestorbenen Kouprey leben hier noch im Schutz der dichten Tropenwaelder … Die hier lebenden Bergvoelker, die Khmer Loeu, die sich in 21 ethnische Gruppen mit unterschiedlicher Kultur und Sprache gliedern, siedeln bis in die unzugaegnlichsten Winkel der Provinz. Die bekanntesten Staemme sind die Charai, Kaco, Tampuan, Kreung und Brau. Unter den etwa 80.000 Einwohnern von Rattanakiri leben neben den Bergvoelkern, viele Laoten und vietnamesische Minderheiten. Die Khmer sind hier im eigenen Land in der Unterzahl.“

I mentioned earlier that I believe this situation makes Rattanakiri a challenge to both decentralization and democratization of the political system. I contacted various organizations which have operations in this province and I am confident that they will assist in my research. I will travel with another of our project translators. He is political scientist, CPP member and writes his master about political parties. Given that Sunday is election I cannot expect him to stay longer than until Friday.

However, if I find local organizations on the spot that make meaningful research possible without my co-traveler being present I tend to think that I stay longer. Even with regard to security concerns involving the upcoming election this would seem to be a rational decision, since political unrest caused by national election is not likely to have heavy impacts in such a remote province (which people told me is a different Cambodia).

The German tourist guide notes that “aus touristischer Sicht gehoert Rattanakiri zu den interessatesten Provinzen in Kambodscha. Ausserdem gibt es weder Minen, Strassenraeuber noch Rote Khmer. Lediglich die weit verbreitete Malaria kann die Abenteuerlust etwas trueben.“

Since I have my mosquito net as well as two sorts of mosquito repellent with me I think I am on the save side with regard to the only thing which limits the delight of traveling Rattanakiri.
Continue reading Rattanakiri

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