Tribal Land Rights a Mattre of Survival for Cambodia's Hill tribes

Cambodia's Tombon hill tribe face extinction if tehy can't secure land rights.

Land Rights are a Matter of Survival
For Cambodia's Hill Tribes
By Antonio Graceffo

"In collective cultures, everything is an all or nothing proposition. When one goes, they all go. Once people give up hope they will all sell their land."

And once the land is gone, the tribes will die out.

Graeme Brown works for Community Forestry International, helping tribal people to obtain rights for both forest and farmland. Unlike tribes in Thailand, who were transplanted from Tibet, the tribes of Cambodia are actually indigenous.

"They were always here.¡¨ Said Graeme. But national boundaries are an unnatural occurrence which hill tribes are barely aware of . The area used to be Lao, and part of the area was given to Vietnam. This corner of the world, Ratanakiri, is like the Golden Triangle, in Thailand, where the Indochinese cultures meet."

Graeme is an expert on tribal customs and history, and had a deep understanding of and sympathy for the special problems faced by tribal people when they begin losing their land. He began his career working with aboriginal people in his home country of Australia, and has been working with Cambodia¡¦s tribal people for the last eight years.

"It is arguable how many tribes there are, linguistically speaking." Said Graeme, confirming what I had read in my research.

I had read that there were as many as twelve tribes. One report had the figure at twenty. Graeme felt the correct number was about eight.

"Whereby the most important ones are the Jarai, Tombon, and Kreung." The Jarai have the most unique language, which is related to the Cham Muslim language. "Jarai exist in Vietnam, as well as The Philippines. Other tribes include Brao and Kjaw."

Graeme went on to say that the Jarai had a Latinised script from Vietnam, long ago. The Jarai are the Montengards that we hear so much about, who fought for the Americans in the Vietnam conflict, and then became refugees. Even today, Jarai sneak across the border, into Cambodia, to avoid persecution in Vietnam. In 2004, the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government tried to ship 191 Montengards back to Vietnam. The army even denied aid workers and UN officials access to the ailing refugees. But, thanks to the intervention of journalist Kevin Doyle and the UNHCR many have been classified as refugees and saved.

Ratanakiri came unde Khmer Rouge control as early as 1968, with hill tribes being the earliest supporters. They had become disenfranchised and lost hope in the western world. The king had sold them off to Vietnam, and the Americans were dropping bombs on them. So, many of them joined the Khmer Rouge.

In about 1973, however when the Khmer Rouge began collectivising the people and controlling them, destroying their culture and language, many of the hill tribes fled to the jungles to wait out the war. According to Graeme, many also fled back across the border into Vietnam, and later played a role in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which ended the Khmer Rouge.

Graeme explained that today, hill tribes are full citizens of Cambodia, entitled to both the ID card and the passport. They can own land and can hold government positions. They can work in the military or police and even some low level politicians have come from the tribes.

Graeme explained that land ownership among the tribes is in the form of communal land rights.

"It is actually the village which owns the land, but the individual families are given rights by the village headman to farm the land. They do not, however have the right to sell the land. This respects their traditional concept of communal ownership. The commune chief and village headman, however, are not supposed to approve the sale of the land. But they do. It is all corruption."

"The villagers who sell their land are referred to as nyat colcot (scoundrels). Additionally, there are evil people outside, who have designs on the land. They start by approaching someone in the village, in a position of authority, usually police or military. If they can get him to sell first, the others will follow. A common technique is to tell the villagers that the government didn't really give them permanent land rights, and that the government is about to take the land back. So, they might as well sell while they have the chance. Then the commune or village chief is given a payoff to approve the sale."

"After the first sales the people loose faith in the government and in the system. They lose faith in the law and believe that they have no rights. So, they sell their land. They buy a second hand motorcycle, and the others in the village get jealous. So, they sell also.¨

According to Graeme, the people who buy the land are mostly those who made their money from illegal logging. Most of the logging is carried out by the Cambodian armed forces, and the loggers are generally powerful people with political connections, who can exert pressure on the tribes. Additional pressure comes from the schools, television, and contact with the outside.

"They are told they are stupid if they don¡¦t sell, and that they are backward if they keep with the ancient ways. People with no land have to move out of the village and then the structure begins to deteriorate. When they move, they have to clear new forest which is, both backbreaking, and illegal. And, the government will just take the land away from them.¨

Sometimes these people actually start rumours to get the villagers to sell.

"Once the land is gone and the social system in the village breaks down, the people will have no recourse and we will see drug addiction and human trafficking. When there is nothing left to sell, the evil people will come in to buy people. Eighty percent of the tribal people don¡¦t speak Khmer, and even fewer are literate. This gives very limited recourse to the law.¨

Even if they had full access to courts, Cambodia¡¦s government and legal system are riddled with corruption. Common practices include secret trials and trials in absentia, where neither the plaintiff nor the witnesses are present.

A road has been planned, leading to Vietnam. An international airport, funded by the Asia Development Bank, is also being built. Graeme sees the completion of these two projects as the final nail in the tribal coffin. In fact, he believes that after the next dry season the communities will be finished.

"Previously, the tribes had their rice fields, but also had the forest, as a back up, for the years when the harvest was bad. It is normal in farming, that you have droughts or bad years, and they survived many of them by hunting and gathering in the forests. In the past, they were gatherers, taking food from the forest and transplanting it closer to the village, to b eaten if the rice failed. But because of a loss of culture, through the acts of outside agents, this doesn't happen anymore. Last year, the rice failed. Normally the elders would have told them, during the year, when they should and gather forest foods. But this time, it didn¡¦t happen because of a break down of the culture."

The lives of the tribal people are becoming harder and harder.

"Now people have to work full time. Before, they only farmed part of the year, and had more time for their ceremonies, traditions, and festivals. They had time to sit and talk. But now they just work. Before, they had more land and more forest back up. Now, they have lost both. In the past there were even years that they were able to sell their surplus, to support lowland families whose rice harvest had failed. Their livelihood has become worse, although they are working more."

I once asked my father how he survived the Great Depression. His answer may have sounded strange, but he said. "We were able to get through it because we didn't know we were poor." He explained. "Everyone around us was also poor. So we had nothing to compare ourselves to. We just thought we were normal."

"Do the tribes know that they are poor?" I asked Graeme.

"They were always poor, by our understanding of that word. But they had their internal structures to rely on. And they had stability."

But the recent incursion on Ratanakiri by the Khmer majority had changed everything.

"Now, the children go to a government school, whose focus is to teach Khmer values and ideas. The Khmers education system doesn't allow for creativity. And of course, they teach the children values, which differ from their tribal beliefs. They become Khmer. And suddenly, they need things that they never needed before. They need cell phones and motorcycles. And the informal eduction that they get is much more powerful than the formal one. The informal education comes at the hands of officials and party members, who push the development paradigm. They are told that their tribal culture is stupid, and that what they have is backward and without value."

Although Graeme's work focused on helping the tribal people, he explained that the values system of the people called Khmer Daum, or original Khmer was not very different from that of the tribal people. And, poor, rural, uneducated, Khmer farmers were facing almost the same set of issues as the indigenous people.

"As they are loosing their land, we will have to switch to the kind of work which helps them find constructive, rather than destructive, means of making a living. Drugs and prostitution would be examples of negative means. These two haven't appeared yet. But we are starting to see more alcohol related domestic violence. It is part of the culture to drink rice wine. They drink a lot, and they get drunk often. But, they are happy and singing and funny. And it is not a negative, addictive kind of drinking. But now we are starting to see men getting drunk and hitting their family.¨

Just recently, I had spent a day with a Tombon guide, named Noeuke, who impressed me very much, and who I considered a friend. Graeme also took a particular interest in Noeuke, because he had once been Noeuke's teacher. I was sad to here that the outlook for Noeuke and his family was pessimistic.

"Noeuke¡¦s village is screwed.¨ Said Graeme, bluntly. "The communal council sold off the graveyard. The Tombon believe that the spirits of all of the dead are still in the graveyard, and all of the village people must be buried close together, so the village can stay in harmony in the next world.¨

Noeuke's village had once moved, because of certain omens. But Graeme explained that moving a village, according to the culture and in keeping with certain ceremonies, did not disturb the spirits of the dead. ¡§Hill tribe villages had always been able to transplant in the past, because they believed in the dynamic movement of spirits. When the spirits became unhappy in a certain place, the village could move, and the spirits would move with them.¨

But in Noeuke's village, the spirits were not consulted.

"The headmen sold it off, and drank the money they got.¨

I told Graeme, that I had read that the village chiefs were now appointed by the government. He explained how it actually worked.

"It used to be the that the village chose the chief. Then there was a period where the government appointed a village chief who would be easy to manipulate. But, there are still cases of the villagers choosing the chief on their own, and then the choice being approved by the government.¨

Graeme gave a blatant example of an unfair sale of land.

"In a commune, called Oyadou, Ratanakiri, they villagers were threatened four times that if they didn¡¦t sell their land, it would be taken from them. So, in the end, they agreed to sell it for $90,000 USD. All they were actually paid, however, was $20,000. The headmen got $1,000. Each of the members of the commune government got $1,500. And each family got $400. The two effected villages singed a request to have the sale nullified on the grounds that it was illegal. An intense investigation by higher authority determined that the sale was indeed illegal. But till today, nothing has been done.¨

The new road will allow forest products to go to Vietnam, which will increase the value of the land and the intensity of the landgrabbers.

"Villagers are often told that if they sell their land it will be made into a professional farm, and they could have a job working on the farm, which isn't true."

I had seen this same tactic used on hill tribe people in Thailand. The professional farms were large, mechanised operations, which employed less than ten people, where hundreds had once earned their livelihood. To ad insult to injury, the ten workers were Thais, not hill tribe.

"On a new professional farm, built on land bought from tribes, the workers were Khmers from Kampong Cham. They were being underpaid, so, in order to survive, they resorted to banditry. They began stealing pigs form the hill tribe villagers. In the past, each villager had let his pigs run free. And there was never a problem. But now, they were having incidences of theft, caused indirectly by the land grab.¨

"In collective cultures, everything si an all or nothing proposition. When one goes, they all go. Once people give up hope they will all sell their land."

And once the land is gone, the tribes will die out.

To learn more about the plight of Cambodia's tribes, contact Graeme.

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All of Antonio¡¦s books are available at


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