Challenges facing Cambodias Ethnic Minority

11th October 2010

“The biggest problem and the root to all the changes is the lost of the forest that we witness at the moment. Not only the organization of our livelihood changes, but it changes the whole culture of the Indigenous People”.

This quote comes from a Tampuen man who lives in Ratanakiri, Cambodia.

Today, “sub-” nationalisms and separatist movements within and across their borders challenge many nations once believed to be completely consolidated. In many cases if an ethnic/religious map of South East Asia is examined and compared to a political map of the same region, a certain lack of conformity can be noticed. The indigenous peoples unconsciously drew the former according to migrations, settlements and a common belief system. The latter, according to Weatherbee and Emmers, is the arbitrary product of an imperialist system.

As Southeast Asia’s most ethnically homogenous nation, Cambodia has the smallest population of all ethnic communities. Minorities in Cambodia daily face the challenges of being different from the Khmer majority. Of the approximately 15 million people living in Cambodia up to 95 percent belong to the Khmer majority (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development). The remaining 5% is composed of an extremely fragmented subpopulation of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples with a wide range of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Cambodian government recognizes only two of these indigenous groups, the Cham and the Khmer. The ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese populations are officially known as “residents,” even if they are citizens. Among the remaining ethnic minority groups living in Cambodia are the people of the hill tribes’. Unlike the vast majority of people who make up the majority of Cambodia’s population, these tribes’ people are not ethnic Khmer. Of the estimated 8 million inhabitants of Cambodia, the people of the hill tribes number less than 2 percent of the total population.

These people were originally called Phnong or Samre, meaning savage until during the 1960s, when, in an effort to create some unity among the highland tribal groups and the lowland Khmer, the Cambodian government began calling them Khmer Loeu, quite literally Highland Khmer. Most of the people of the hill tribes come from a very different cultural background to that of lowland Cambodians. Many have vastly different languages, customs, survival strategies, religions, and in some cases even physical appearance. Despite government terminology, Indigenous Ethnic minorities are called by a number of names such as Hill Tribes, Highlanders, Highland People, Indigenous People, and Khmer Loeu (an umbrella term for all indigenous peoples in the Northeast provinces); more often they refer to themselves as Choncheat. Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are defined as:

“ those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.” (Center for world Indigenous studies, 1999)

For reasons of convenience the term minorities will be taken to include all “those with specific social or cultural identity distinct from the dominant or mainstream society, which makes them vulnerable to being disadvantaged in the process of development.” (Asia Development Bank, 1999) Many of these people and groups are not eligible to join the ruling People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK).

The Khmer Loeu are the non-Khmer highland tribes in Cambodia. They include thirteen distinct minority groups who can be distinguished from their lowland neighbors not only by their long term inhabitation of the remote hilly forest areas but also due to their distinctive religious practices which are associated with their environment, and by the use of their semi nomadic swidden agricultural techniques. Although the origins of this group are not clear, some believe that the Mon-Khmer speaking tribes were part of the long migration of these people from the northwest. (Swann, 2009) Later the Austronesian-speaking groups, Rade and Jarai, are thought to have come to the coastal regions of Vietnam and then moved west, forming wedges between some of the Mon-Khmer groups.

These tribes’ people often live in settlements that span both in Cambodia and in neighboring Laos or Vietnam without regard to national borders. This is possible because of the isolation locations and ruggedness of the terrain within the areas that they inhabit. For these reasons controlling political boundaries is made difficult, allowing the Hill people for centuries to have been able to avoid contact with lowlanders and to travel fairly freely across political boundaries. Most Khmer Loeu live in scattered temporary villages in remote highland areas in the plateaus and mountainous areas on the edges of Cambodia. Most of these villages only have a few hundred inhabitants. They are found mainly in the northeastern provinces of Rotanokiri, Stoeng Treng, and Mondol Kiri and Crate and are usually are governed by a council of local elders or by a village headman.

The Khmer Loeu cultivate a wide variety of plants, but the main crop is dry or upland rice growth by the slash-and-burn method. Other than the vegetables grown by the Khmer Loeu other foods are obtained by hunting, fishing, and gathering. These supplement the cultivated vegetable foods in their diet. Housing varies from large multi-family long houses to small single-family structures. Depending on location and weather patterns these may be built close to the ground or on stilts. The Kuy, Phnong, Brao, Jarai, and Rade are the major Khmer Loeu groups resident in Cambodia. All with the exception of about 160,000 Kuy lived in the northern Cambodia provinces of Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, and Stoeng as well as in adjacent Thailand.

Khmer Loeu form the majority population in Rotanokiri and Mondulkiri provinces, and they also are present in substantial numbers in Kracheh and Stoeng Treng provinces. Their total population in 1969 was estimated at 90,000 persons. In 1971 the number of Khmer Loeu was estimated variously between 40,000 and 100,000 persons (Swann, 2009). Population figures were unavailable in 1987, but an estimation of the total probably was near 100,000 persons. The major Khmer Loeu groups in Cambodia are the Kuy, Mnong, Stieng, Brao, Pear, Jarai, and Rade. All but the last two speak Mon-Khmer languages.

Minorities in Cambodia are daily challenged with being different from the Khmer majority, challenges which range from land grabbing, to citizenship, to the denial of basic social and economic rights. Despite the guarantees made in the Cambodian constitution, according to the Asia Development Bank, the government does not appear to have an active policy towards ethnic minorities. In a paper on Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty Reduction it further goes on to say that there are still many constraints in place that limit access by these minorities to government services. (Asia Development Bank, 2002)

In 1997 an inter-ministerial commission submitted to the government a draft policy to respond to the needs of indigenous people. This stated that all highlanders had the right to practice their own cultures, adhere to their own belief systems, traditions and language; and that in all legal and administrative matters, all persons belonging to highland communities and living in Cambodia should be considered and treated as Cambodian citizens, with the same rights and duties. (Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples Development, 1997) This draft policy essentially is a confirmation of the Cambodian constitution. Unfortunately no information can be found at present to confirm if this policy has been approved by the council of ministers.

Article 32 of the constitution of the kingdom of Cambodia states that::

“Every Khmer citizen shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status.”

However, there has long been debate between the representatives in the National Assembly over what the definition of a Khmer citizen is. It was eventually agreed that the term included some Cambodian ethnic minorities such as the hill-tribe people known as the Khmer Leu and the Khmer Islam (International Center for Ethnic Studies and Minority Rights Group, 1995)

While the Khmer Loeu hill tribes continue to struggle for more independence from the lowland Cambodians, they continue to be viewed by many ethnic Khmer as an inferior people with strange customs. Many of the Khmer Loeu fear that within a few years, their cultures will have disappeared along with their environment. Gradually, more and more of the people of the Khmer Leu are being incorporated into lowland Cambodian life, adopting Khmer customs, clothing, and practices. Many of the youth are now being taught the Khmer language and are working on lowland Cambodian farms.

The most pressing concern of the indigenous minorities is the need for health care. Malaria and other diseases are rampant, and there is a lack of almost all medicines. Although indigenous medicine is effective for many ailments, life-threatening diseases are often not treated. Instead, sacrifices of livestock are offered to the deities. Therefore, a method of incorporating modern medicine into traditional practices may be a viable alternative.

Another problem facing the indigenous minorities is the environmental pressures of slash and burn farming. Although no formal research has been conducted on this matter, field visits to many of the villages bear out this hypothesis. Because slash and burn agriculture requires considerable land, any encroachment on their land could seriously hinder the highlanders’ situation. Schemes to develop this area for commercial uses such as logging, farming, livestock grazing, and tourism may conflict with the way of life of the indigenous minorities.

As levels of tourism and foreign investment continue to increase within the country, Cambodia finds itself in an era of unprecedented development. Despite the obvious benefits achieved by this investment and development, increasing levels of corruption continue to plague all levels of society, limiting social development and allowing for further violation of human rights. The abuses of power by government officials, law enforcement, and the military have become commonplace occurrences. Vulnerable minorities have become easy targets for profiteering. Illegal logging on Indigenous traditional land is rapidly increasing, while a blind eye is turned toward “Land grabbing” and the subsequent displacement of entire communities.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has committed, in principle, to land security for marginalized groups, and has stated that land held illegally by officials and other private agents will be repossessed and redistributed. (World Bank, 2006) In practice, however, land grabs are still commonplace, and there have been few cases of restitution by the State regarding misappropriated land. The Prime Minister has also stated that illegal-logging operations must stop, but with evidence that associates and relatives of Hun Sen spearhead the multi-million dollar industry, it seems unlikely that the State’s fight against illegal logging will amount to anything more than political rhetoric. (Asia Forum of Human Rights Development, 2007) Already, plans for several hotels in Ban Lung, the capital of Ratanakiri, are underway, and the newly built hydroelectric plant providing electricity to Ban Lung and surrounding areas may also stimulate economic development and tourism. The inevitable encroachment by the Khmer majority coupled with hill tribe population increases are likely to lead to increased conflicts over land.

In an effort to address minority and indigenous issues the Cambodian government has created bodies such as the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Ethnic Minorities Development and the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples Development. However, despite the creation and existence of these governmental institutions, there is an apparent lack of political will to further strengthen them, which, combined with increasing levels of corruption, undermines their effectiveness. Certain minorities are further alienated and marginalized through legal mechanisms that refuse to acknowledge them as citizens of Cambodia, denying them basic rights and freedoms granted in the Constitution. (Asia Forum of Human Rights Development, 2007) Legal technicalities are provided as justification for land grabs against Indigenous communities. These provide the legitimacy required for the continuation of government and corporation private interests.

Among the numerous daily hardships, challenges and impediments which face Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, some recent developments provide a reason for future optimism, despite the fact that effective implementation still remains a challenge. The State has initiated a decentralization program aimed at curbing corruption and increasing responsiveness to community needs. (Asia Forum of Human Rights Development, 2007) If successful, this program could result in a more accountable, participatory and responsive government in rural areas. However, while official development aid provides funding for a substantial part of the government budget, no increase in leverage or pressure has come from donor governments and agencies in an attempt to curb government corruption and rights abuses.

Lastly, the increase in the amount of contact between the hill tribes and the Khmer, and the development of a market economy, is expected to have an affect on the highlanders. Despite the changes that are occurring rapidly, the indigenous minorities must continue to confront these if they are to retain their cultural identity. The fact that their languages are not written, coupled with the proliferation of Khmer schools in the past few years, may lead Khmer to supplant the teachings of highlanders’ native languages and put them in the most vulnerable situation of their lifetime.

In order to withstand the inevitable and further influence of the Khmer majority and of modernization, the indigenous minorities must begin to organize themselves both socially and politically. In the light of these rapid changes, the highlanders living in Ban Lung, Ratanakiri have recently formed the Association for the Progress and Development of the Highlander Nations of Ratanakiri. Their objective is: to promote the development of highlander culture and agriculture, to address medical needs and to improve access to better communications for the highlander nations in Ratanakiri.

It is obvious that the future of the indigenous minorities depends on sound policies that ensure the freedom to practice their religion and culture and to speak their languages without being neglected or assimilated. The UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples (See Appendix 1), whose adoption was supported by Cambodia, is an important step in ending discrimination and promoting the rights of Cambodia’s recognized indigenous people. Now the challenge lies in the implementation of these rights and freedoms into realistic policies and legislation. This is not always possible in practice, but it is clear that the minorities are making gains.


Asia Forum of Human Rights Development, Nov 2007, Ethnic Minorities and Indigenous peoples in Cambodia – Discrimination in the face of development, [online]

Asia Development Bank, 1999, The Bank’s Policy on Indigenous Peoples, ADB, Manila, Philippines

Asia Development Bank, 2002, Cambodia: Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty Reduction, Manila, Philippines

Asia Development Bank, 2000 Cambodia: Country Assistance Plan 2001-2003, Phnom Penh, Cambodia [Online]

Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Cambodia, [online]

Duncan C. R, Ed. 2008, Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, Ch. 9 Foreigners and Honorary Khmers: Ethnic minorities in Cambodia, NUS Press, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Center for world Indigenous studies, 1999, Indigenous peoples in the Netherlands foreign policy and development cooperation. [Online]

International Center for Ethnic Studies and Minority Rights Group International, 1995. Minorities in Cambodia. ICES, London, [Online]

Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples Development (IMC), 1997, General Policy for Highland People Development, September 1997 (Final draft). IMC, Phnom Penh in ADB 2002

Kiernan, B. 1990, The Survival of Cambodia’s Ethnic Minorities, Cultural Survival Quarterly Issue 14.3 (Fall), [Online]

Kiernan B. 2008, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rough, 1975-79, 3rd Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven USA

Kingsbury, D. 2005, South-East Asia: A political Profile 2nd Edn. Oxford University Press, Victoria Australia

Levinson, D. 1998, Ethnic groups worldwide: a ready reference handbook, The Oryx Press Phoenix Arizona USA pp. 208-209

Peou S, Cambodia: After the Killing Fields, Chapter 2 in Funston, J. 2001, Government and politics in Southeast, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore

Russell R. 1990, Cambodia – A country study, Library of Congress. Federal Research Division, Into the Maelstrom: Insurrection and War, 1967-75, ch. 1; National Army of Democratic Kampuchea, ch. 5) [online]

Simone, V. 2001, The Asian Pacific: Political and Economic Development in Global Context 2nd Edn. Addison Wesley Longman

Swann, W. 2009, 21st century Cambodia: view and vision, Global Vision Publishing House, New Delhi, India, p.48

Weatherbee D.E, & Emmers, R. 2005, International relations in Southeast Asia: the struggle for autonomy, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc. Landham MD USA p. 139

Wijeyewardene, G. 1990, Ethnic groups across national boundaries in mainland Southeast Asia, Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore

World Bank, 2006, Justice for the Poor: An exploratory study of collective grievances over land and local governance in Cambodia, Oct 2006 [online]





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