As the second part of this thesis has shown, applying Kymlicka’s typology to cultural diversity in Cambodia classifies the country as both polyethnic and multinational. Chams, Chinese, and Vietnamese ethnic groups, among others, are the result of immigration to Cambodia. To varying degrees, these groups show a considerable degree of linguistic and institutional integration. At any rate, they do not attempt to recreate their societal cultures with separate institutions operating in their language. Thus, Kymlicka’s concept of ethnic groups appears to correspond to the situation and aspirations of various ethnic groups in Cambodia. In contrast to these groups, various highland peoples in Cambodia formed ongoing and largely self-governing societies for many centuries and maintain a way of life considerably different from the mainstream society, including different languages and institutions. It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that the French colonial administration started the involuntary incorporation of indigenous nations into various protectorates of Indochina. Administrative boundaries became borders of ‘nation-states’ when these protectorates gained independence after World War II. With independence came nation-building and various programs were initiated to integrate and assimilate hill tribes into the Khmer nation and to eradicate their sense of distinct identity. These programs were met with considerable resistance on the part of various indigenous groups. After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, various hill tribes reestablished their societies and cultures wherever this was possible. Kymlicka’s concept of national minorities appears to correspond to the nature of various hill tribes. These groups were involuntarily incorporated into the Cambodian nation-state after they formed ongoing societies since before the establishment of today’s state. Moreover, highlanders resisted attempts aiming at their integration and recreated their societal cultures after decades of aggressive assimilation, including separate institutions operating in minority languages. Various hill tribes maintain a holistic notion of citizenship with the land and struggle to sustain it.
The difference between national minorities and ethnic groups characterizes two markedly different pattern of cultural diversity in Cambodia. Ethnic groups show higher levels of integration, while national minorities tend to perpetuate their existence as distinct societies. Thus, Kymlicka’s distinction between ethnic groups and national minorities corresponds to the structure of cultural diversity in Cambodia. Applying Kymlicka’s subdivision of national minorities classifies hill tribes as indigenous peoples – as opposed to sub-state nations – because they did not try to establish their own states and did not participate as contenders in the process of state formation70. There are no sub-state nations in Cambodia, that is, there are no national minorities other than indigenous peoples. The concept of indigenous peoples is not foreign to Cambodia and corresponds to what are considered ‘Khmer Loeu’, ‘chun-cheat’, or ‘indigenous minorities’. Taken together, Kymlicka’s typology provides a framework which meaningfully differentiates between various cultural minorities in Cambodia. The argument in the following sections is that other elements of Kymlicka’s theory are also largely valid with regard to indigenous peoples in Cambodia. This concerns in particular the dialectic of nation-building and minority rights and various arguments in favor of group-differentiated rights. Based on the earlier discussion and the findings of the empirical study, this paper supports the view that policy recommendations stemming from Kymlicka’s theory can help to guide the accommodation of indigenous nations in Cambodia71. Kymlicka’s preferred model for the accommodation of national minorities is a ‘multination federation’. However, given the situation of indigenous peoples in Cambodia and the nature of the Cambodian state, it is the local level of governance which is best suited to provide the framework for the accommodation of indigenous groups. More research is needed with the active involvement of indigenous groups to develop a multinational conception of decentralization which corresponds to the specific situations, needs, and interests of Cambodia’s hill tribes.
Decentralization and Indigenous Rights
The empirical study supports the view that various hill tribes form not just sub-groups of Cambodia’s mainstream Khmer society, but constitute largely autonomous societies, with complete sets of political, social, economic, and religious institutions operating in distinct languages. These institutions cover a wide range of human activity and are of great significance to individual group members and their well-being. The effectiveness of indigenous institutions and participation in them extends to formal institutions of local governance, where they adapt to the operations of the existing institutional environment. This is particularly interesting with regard to the very objective of decentralization in Cambodia, which is to promote participatory democracy and development on the local level (NPRS 2002: 108). Participation in local institutions appears to be something indigenous peoples are very familiar with. This is confirmed by other studies. ADB’s Participatory Poverty Assessment notes: “ethnic minority groups are better placed to adopt a participatory approach to operation and maintenance activities than many lowland Khmer communities” (ADB 2001a: 56). Moreover, in contrast to the mainstream society, indigenous peoples can be characterized as groups which did not attempt to centralize political power but developed and maintained a decentralized mode of social organization. Indigenous peoples have created and maintained strong and effective institutions of local governance and members have a strong sense of shared values. Those institutions can be seen as valuable social capital, with critical importance in the process of development. While decentralization represents an attempt to build social capital by creating effective institutions of local governance, cultures and traditions of highlanders are distinguished not least by the existence of such institutions. While Cambodia’s indigenous peoples are commonly seen as ‘undeveloped’ and ‘uncivilized’ segments of society, it is particularly with regard to decentralization that these groups’ social organization holds important lessons and insights for the rest of Cambodia’s society. The challenge for decentralization here is not to overcome, but to understand, accommodate, and formalize existing institutions, and to ‘tap’ their potential contribution to local development. In contrast, inconsiderately imposing the decentralization framework is likely to undermine traditional institutions, to destroy social capital, to further marginalize indigenous cultures, and to disadvantage their members.
Hill tribes are underrepresented in Commune Councils. At the same time, highlanders interests and needs are frequently considerably different from those of the Khmer constituency and indigenous and non-indigenous development priorities tend to conflict. In these instances, various mechanisms make it likely that indigenous interests and needs loose out. There is a strong contrast between communes with a majority of highlanders and communes with a minority of highlanders. Councils in communes with strong majorities of highlanders allow for distinct indigenous needs and interests to be represented and addressed. However, where indigenous communities form minorities in the constituency, the specific needs of hill tribes are very difficult to address. In these communes, majority decisions are likely to become a mechanism which reinforces the poverty and disadvantaged situation of highlanders.
The trend of increasing migration to indigenous homelands will change the ethnic composition of many communes and members of indigenous groups will increasingly be outnumbered and outvoted, even in their traditional homelands. The number of communes with a minority of highlanders will grow, and with it the problems of addressing their specific needs. This trend will undermine indigenous languages and institutions of self-government, leading to the marginalization of indigenous cultures and further disadvantages for their members. As a result, indigenous citizenship with the land is being slowly diminished72. These findings are in line with Kymlicka’s assertion that a general decentralization does not always facilitate the accommodation of indigenous groups’ fair interests and needs. In fact, indigenous cultures are being undermined by a decentralization that divides their territorially concentrated and self-governing societies into different units in which they form minorities and then empowers these units. The following section aims to justify granting some measure of self-government rights and special representation rights to various indigenous groups, by applying the arguments introduced in the first part of this paper to hill tribes in Cambodia. The discussion will concentrate on the equality argument, the value of cultural diversity, and the analogy with states.
The Case for Indigenous Rights
The equality argument states that minority rights are needed to create genuine equality, because minorities face specific disadvantages which are not faced by members of the majority. Such disadvantages with regard to indigenous peoples in Cambodia were discussed throughout the second part of this thesis. However, because of the major importance of this argument, the most severe of these disadvantages will be summarized in the following paragraphs. The most important sphere in which indigenous peoples are disadvantaged is language. In Cambodia, all public institutions operate in Khmer language, which is exclusively used in public education, legislation, courts, for the provision of services, in local government and so on. Moreover, the state is actively engaged in a project of diffusing a Khmer societal culture throughout its territory, attempting to integrate all citizens into common institutions operating in Khmer language. While nation-building serves important purposes, it inevitably disadvantages members of minority cultures. In particular, Khmer nation-building involves the undermining of indigenous cultures and identities. By deciding the official language, the government provides the most important support needed for the sustaining of a societal culture. In particular, schooling provided in Khmer language guarantees that Khmer language, history, and customs are being passed on to the next generation. In contrast, not to provide schooling in Phnong, Jorai, Kuy, and other indigenous tongues almost inevitably condemns those languages and the associated cultures to marginalization and eventually to extinction. Because membership in various indigenous groups is of great importance for the individual, providing support exclusively to members of the Khmer majority represents a serious inequality, potentially leading to grave injustices for members of indigenous groups73. A good case can be made that the ‘development industry’ compounds these injustices. Khmer language plays a very significant role in the operations of local and international development organizations in Cambodia which contribute significantly to the preservation and modernization of the majority culture74. Many employees learn Khmer language and English documents and speeches are regularly translated into Khmer and vice versa. In the process, concepts and ideas are introduced that used to be alien to Khmer culture, transforming and in some ways updating and modernizing language and culture. Moreover, considerable opportunities are being created for persons who speak and write Khmer well. However, only the cultural majority is provided this privilege, while no such support is being given to various indigenous nations.
Other disadvantages stem from the decision not to publicly recognize indigenous languages. Some of these disadvantages are closely related to decentralization: Khmers can participate in Commune Councils anywhere in the country in their native language. In contrast, members of various highland peoples are not even provided with the opportunity to do so in their ancient homelands. Khmers are free to choose local leaders among themselves, while the choice for hill tribes is limited to members capable of functioning in Khmer language and institutions. Due to the Khmer requirement, few public positions are occupied by members of indigenous nations even where they form a majority in the commune. Since elders frequently do not speak Khmer, their authority tends to be undermined and traditional institutions are being weakened by the requirement of Khmer literacy for public office.
Language provisions are not the only disadvantage faced by highlanders in the framework of decentralization. As was noted before, various mechanisms work against them: the requirement of certain numbers of users for local development projects, the requirement of financial contributions and the neglect of such projects for indigenous peoples because they might move from one place to another. Furthermore, dividing indigenous societies into communes with minorities of highlanders and subsequently empowering these communes undermines these groups’ institutions of self-government. As of today, hill tribes do not have any legal title to land due to their uncertain citizenship status. Yet even if highlanders were given individual land title, this would result in great disadvantages, because it does not recognize the particular form of communal land use traditionally practiced by highlanders. Generally, indigenous groups’ more communal understanding of property and ownership and their delicate relationship to the environment puts members at a serious disadvantage in the market place. Indigenous peoples face serious disadvantages in the sphere of religion, too. In contrast to most Western democracies – on which Kymlicka’s theory is based – the state of Cambodia has an official religion and promotes actively the values, practices, and ways of life of Buddhism. Not only is no such promotion given to indigenous religions. In many instances, indigenous religious practices are discouraged and treated as obstacles to development that need to be overcome.
In contrast to the cultural majority, highlanders face the real threat of cultural extinction due to political and economic decisions by the larger society. Highlanders have only a small area where they have a realistic chance to form local majorities, maintain their institutions in their language, and perpetuate their cultures. Yet the government is encouraging migration to and settlement in the traditional homelands of indigenous groups. Increasingly, hill tribes are being overrun by settlers and outnumbered and outvoted in growing numbers of communes, even in their traditional homelands. If this trend continues, it is unlikely that indigenous cultures will survive. Moreover, major logging concessions are granted by the government without the involvement of indigenous groups yet covering vast parts of their traditional lands. Indigenous cultures are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing devastation of their homelands, because of their holistic relationship to their natural environment and because the well-being of members depends on the ecological and spiritual integrity of their traditional homelands. For them, it can be in a real sense the end of the world if those homelands are being transformed and economically exploited (White 1996: 334).
It is worth pursuing the issue of settlement and economic exploitation a bit longer. In many countries, governments have settled indigenous lands in a similar manner. In most cases, governments justified the settlement policy by insisting that the land inhabited by indigenous peoples belonged to the whole country and should be used for the benefit of all people. Frequently, the promotion of settlement was used by elites precisely to deflect efforts at reforming dramatically unequal systems of land ownership. However, the likelihood that settling indigenous lands would promote a more equitable distribution of property is small. Even where elites justify settlement policies on the grounds that these policies benefit the urban poor, this is often a dishonest rationalization for their own enrichment. In most instances, such settlement policies have made the poor poorer and the rich richer75. So far, Cambodia has been everything but an exception in this regard. Yet even where well-intentioned, those developments – such as turning rainforest into farms and plantations – are unsustainable most of the time. Perhaps the only sustainable forms of land use are those already practiced by the indigenous peoples. This is not surprising, since they have inhabited the lands for centuries and know about the possibilities and limits of their environment76. Indigenous groups in Cambodia are among the poorest segments of the population and in many instances struggle to maintain the bare minimum of land necessary to sustain their communities. Given the extremely unequal distribution of land, the ongoing devastation of forest, and the weak rule of law, it is unlikely that equality will be promoted by settling traditional indigenous homelands.
Yet even if such settlement policies would contribute to a more equitable distribution of land and resources, there is still a strong case to protect indigenous groups with special rights, because of the unique disadvantages faced by its members. The Khmer majority always has the power to support its language and institutions and to ensure the continued existence of its societal culture. In contrast, highlanders are increasingly deprived of the opportunity to maintain their distinct languages and institutions, and ultimately threatened with cultural extinction. In order to avoid serious injustice, similar rights should be given to various indigenous groups, suitable to provide protection against relevant political and economic decisions of the larger society. Those rights should not be considered special privileges, because they compensate for unequal circumstances which put members of indigenous groups at a systematic disadvantage. In other words, members of the majority are afforded important privileges and fairness requires that the same benefits are given to indigenous peoples. Self-government rights and special representation rights for hill tribes ensure that the good of cultural membership is equally protected for all citizens.
The case for group-differentiated rights for indigenous peoples is further advanced by arguments associated with the inherent value of cultural diversity. In Cambodia, supporting the survival of indigenous cultures can make additional options and cultural resources available to all citizens. Moreover, protecting indigenous groups’ alternative models of social organization can be of great value to the larger society. For example, highlanders have proven their capability to sustainably manage their natural environment, in particular the forest. This provides a strong contrast to the way Cambodia’s larger society manages its natural resources. Highlanders’ abundant knowledge regarding their natural environment can aid the development of more effective and sustainable models for natural resource management throughout Cambodia. A similar case can be made with regard to decentralization. Decentralization aims at promoting the creation of participatory and effective institutions of local governance. As was pointed out earlier, the social organization of various hill tribes is characterized by the existence of strong and effective local institutions and high levels of both decentralization and participation. It is not unreasonable to expect that those models hold important lessons for the design and implementation of decentralization policy for Cambodia’s wider society.
Stressing the analogy with states provides more argumentative support for granting additional rights to indigenous peoples. As was discussed earlier, this argument refers initially to traditional liberal theory, which has taken for granted the existence of nation-states while being silent on the rights of national minorities. Interestingly, this argument has particular weight with regard to political practice in Cambodia: From French colonization as well as various Vietnamese occupations and invasions by Thailand, Khmers have the historical experience of being overrun, dominated, and colonized by other peoples, and of having institutions and language imposed on them77. And since the decline of the Khmer empire, Khmers have experienced the loss of land, too. Throughout history, Khmers have strongly resisted attempts at their colonization and integration and struggled for independence. Even today, many Khmers subscribe to the idea – even obsession – that their societal culture is threatened with extinction and doomed to share the fate of Champa. “Many Cambodians think,” notes Hawk “as they have thought for centuries, of Cambodia as ‘srok Khmer’, the land of the Khmer: a people, culture and distinct way of life that once was the jewel of South East Asia, but now, in the minds of many Khmer, is threatened with extinction” (Hawk 1995: 28). As Edwards notes, “Cambodian nationalists have terrorized the public imagination with prophecies that Cambodia is about to disappear … Fears that Cambodia will disappear … have reverberated at the core of political statements by successive leaders across the ideological spectrum” (Edwards 1996b: 56). It seems that members of the Khmer majority tend to think of their societal culture as a national minority78. Matters of immigration and of territorial integrity are at the heart of contemporary political debate in Cambodia79. The point of this argument is not to justify associated political claims or the way the underlying concerns are being instrumentalized. The point here is that most Khmers and most of their political representatives very much support the idea of having a separate state and restricted access to citizenship, explicitly in order to ensure the survival of the Khmer societal culture. External protections for indigenous peoples in the form of self-government rights can be justified on the same grounds. The cultural survival of various indigenous nations is being threatened by in-migration and the loss and fragmentation of traditional homelands. The devolution of powers to Commune Councils with majorities of particular groups helps to protect indigenous cultures and promotes equality and fairness between members of the Khmer majority and members of various hill tribes.
Cultural Identity and Democratic Citizenship in Cambodia
A central idea of Kymlicka’s theory is the dialectic of state nation-building and minority rights. Liberal states use various tools to diffuse a single societal culture throughout the territory. Without protective measures, nation-building inevitably privileges members of the majority society and disadvantages members of cultural minorities. In particular, state nation-building involves the destruction of minority nations in multination states where it is not restrained by external protection for these groups. In contrast to Western liberal states, the Cambodian state does not pretend to operate culturally neutral, but is actively engaged in diffusing a Khmer societal culture throughout the territory and in integrating all people in the territory into common public institutions operating in Khmer language. This is particularly evident in Cambodia’s Constitution, which limits membership in the political community to ‘Khmer citizens’ and by doing so defines citizenship exclusively in ethnic terms. This definition imposes an alien identity on members of national minorities and excludes various ethnic groups from citizenship. The Cambodian state uses various tools of nation-building, such as language policy, citizenship policy, education policy, settlement policy, infrastructure policy, economic development projects, and public service employment to diffuse a single national Khmer culture throughout the territory. This national culture is ‘thick’ in that it involves not only institutions and language but particular values, lifestyles and the religion of the Khmer majority. Decentralization policy, too, contributes to nation-building, in that it promotes a particular national identity based on participation in common institutions operating in Khmer language. Commune Councils anywhere in Cambodia are supposed to operate in Khmer and candidates are by law required to be literate in the majority language. Moreover, this framework takes the Constitutions’ ethnically exclusive concept of citizenship to the local level. Only ‘Khmer citizens’ can be elected into the Council and ‘Khmer nationality’ is required to vote in local elections. Decentralization involves a national system of local institutions, tailored towards the needs of the national majority and operating in the national language. The shape of communes divides indigenous societies and together with the subsequent empowerment of Commune Councils through the decentralization program contributes to the undermining of highlanders’ institutions and cultures.
Obviously, and in line with Kymlicka’s theory, the effect of using various nation-building tools on indigenous groups can be described as nation-destroying. In the absence of measures to protect indigenous cultures, these policies and developments systematically undermine the integrity of indigenous societies, homelands, and identities80. However, the capacity of the Cambodian state and its institutions to reach and integrate its citizens is very limited. And so is its ability to engage effectively in nation-building (Gottesman 2003). The state is largely incapable of meeting the most basic needs of its citizens with public services due to its low capacity and lack of implementation. Accordingly, the effect of nation-destroying is rather moderate. Where the state fails to provide education even in Khmer and to the majority, the absence of a system of minority education is not felt as a strong disadvantage81. In contrast to states on which Kymlicka’s theory is based, there is little political will to approach minority issues, there is no deliberate and consistent policy towards indigenous peoples, and there is no single power center in charge and capable of designing and implementing such a policy. In effect, a benign approach is applied to indigenous peoples in practice – partly as a result of the weakness of the state – which provides considerable cultural space to indigenous groups. Furthermore, group-differentiated measures aiming at the accommodation of indigenous peoples are not alien to Cambodia. Various initiatives have been developed to promote indigenous cultures and facilitate their perpetuation82. Here again, the situation in Cambodia is not inconsistent with Kymlicka’s theory, insofar as such measures can be said to provide protection for national minorities against unjust state nation-building. The dialectic between state nation-building and minority rights seems to offer a valid description of ethnic relations in Cambodia. The fact that various indigenous groups do not claim minority rights more emphatically can be explained by the low capacity of the state to actually implement existing nation-building policies as well as by the emergence of various external protections. Inversely, the strong resurgence and resistance of indigenous groups in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand can be explained with those states’ higher levels of state capacity and absence of external protections. The contrast is particularly strong with regard to Vietnam, where the government has initiated various campaigns of deliberate nation-destroying against the country’s indigenous peoples83.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to give detailed recommendations. More research is needed with the active involvement of the groups in question to develop models of minority accommodation which effectively correspond to the specific situations, needs, and interests of Cambodia’s various cultural minorities. Although ethnic groups are not the major subject of this thesis, it should be stressed here that there must be a way to become members of the political community for those who live inside the borders of Cambodia and yet find themselves outside Cambodia’s concept of citizenship and nation. Concerning indigenous peoples, the following appears plausible in the light of the discussion. Generally, Kymlicka’s theory, as well as the above findings, suggest that existing provisions do not suffice to protect indigenous peoples against unjust nation-building and to enable them to maintain their existence as distinct societies. Equality and fairness require that special representation rights and self-government rights are given to various hill tribes in the form of external protections. Regarding the former, Cambodia’s political system does not allow for the representation of indigenous interests, and various hill tribes are systematically underrepresented in Commune Councils. These patterns and levels of representation have to change if Cambodia is ever to enjoy an inclusive citizenship and democracy. Generally, the redrawing of commune boundaries based on ethnic criteria would contribute to ensuring indigenous representation on the local level. In addition, it is worth considering separate lists for indigenous peoples in local elections. Special representation on relevant government bodies is needed on the state level. This includes guaranteed seats and veto rights for decisions with direct impact on indigenous groups.
Self-government can take several different forms, of which a sovereign state or an autonomous region are the most extreme. Obviously, self-government for hill tribes in Cambodia would take a form much closer to the other end of the spectrum84. ‘Multination federation’ is Kymlicka’s preferred model to accommodate national minorities. However, federalism is not an option for highlanders, since Cambodia is a unitary state. Moreover, there is only one group which forms a provincial majority. Therefore, the current decentralization program is the only chance for the realization of self-government rights. For the time being, only the establishment of local governance can enable indigenous groups to democratically determine the course of their own development. Moreover, in contrast to countries on which Kymlicka’s theory is based, Cambodia’s indigenous groups form only a very small proportion of the country’s population and consist of many, very small groups, which display low levels of political organization and mobilization. Providing self-government rights to Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, the largest of which has hardly 40.000 members, is a matter of local governance. Given this situation, the devolution of powers to Commune Councils in the framework of decentralization appears to be generally well-suited to accommodate Cambodia’s indigenous groups. In some communes with strong majorities of highlanders, local models of minority accommodation are already emerging. However, additional measures are needed to better capitalize on decentralizations’ potential to protect indigenous peoples against unjust nation-building. Where possible, commune boundaries should be redrawn along ethnic lines to ensure that particular groups form a majority in the respective constituency85. The local tongue should be recognized as official language in these communes. Enabling indigenous peoples to maintain their distinct cultures is likely to require the devolution of additional powers to indigenous Councils, such as competencies regarding language, education, the provision of health services, natural resource management, and vocational training86. Customary law as well as various indigenous institutions should be incorporated and formalized, as long as they do not violate fundamental human rights. Resources need to be made available to make self-government meaningful and to prevent ghettoization in indigenous communes which are already among the poorest in Cambodia87. Granting self-government should not be an excuse to leave highland peoples and their problems to themselves. Moreover, indigenous groups should be enabled to put restrictions on migration to their communes in order to maintain the social and political integrity of their cultures. Legally recognized land claims should reserve certain lands for their exclusive use. Indigenous land titles should allow holding land in common which cannot be alienated without the consent of the community as a whole. Outsiders who enjoy indigenous land should be expected to meet standards that allow for the reproduction of indigenous cultures, such as respecting the autonomy of highlanders’ communities and learning the local language. Meaningful solutions need to be found for groups whose numbers are too small to form the constituency of a Commune Council. These solutions are likely to involve their native language and reserved lands.
Many countries in various regions of the world have confronted difficult challenges, including ethnic violence and even civil war as indigenous peoples struggle for greater recognition and accommodation of their rights. In contrast, indigenous peoples in Cambodia during the last decade have enjoyed significant ‘cultural space’ and interethnic relations generally reflect a considerable level of tolerance and mutual understanding. Yet, despite the governments’ benign approach and substantial efforts, Cambodia’s indigenous peoples continue to face systemic disadvantages that must be addressed on all levels of the state. It is only with the active and informed involvement of members of these groups that Cambodia can successfully cope with the associated challenges. A decentralized framework offers many opportunities for improved protection of indigenous rights, as well as for more inclusive democracy and highland peoples’ active participation. To realize those opportunities, differentiated measures to promote indigenous peoples are called for. Those measures should not be seen as ‘privileges’ or ‘special advantages’, but as balancing disadvantages exclusively faced by members of indigenous groups. A multination conception of decentralization helps to compensate for those disadvantages and to ensure that the value of cultural membership is equally protected for all citizens of Cambodia.