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National Minorities: Hill Tribes

  1. Becoming Minorities: Involuntary Incorporation


The previous section has shown that Vietnamese, Cham, and Chinese came as migrants and form ethnic groups in Cambodia. This section aims to show that the incorporation of highlanders into the Cambodian state came about very differently. In particular, the discussion will support the view that hill tribes exercised historical sovereignty over their traditional territories which were taken from them against their will. Various highland peoples are considered the original inhabitants of Cambodia, like the Khmer, or even the Khmers’ ancestors. (Hawk 1995: 12). There is widespread agreement that highland groups and Khmers share a common ancestry. The separate history of Khmers and indigenous groups is believed to date back to the time between the third and the fifth century (White 1996: 340). At this time, the unification of some groups led to the emergence of Funan, which became the kingdom of Chen-La, the ancestral kingdom of today’s Khmers (Chandler 1992: 13-28). Due to their isolation and distance of their territories, other groups kept their independence and are believed to be the ancestral societies of the highlanders. Most of Cambodia’s indigenous peoples share this common ancestry with the Khmers as well as membership in the Mon-Khmer language family. In contrast, the Jorai and Rhade groups belong to the Austronesian-speaking groups and share a common ancestry and linguistic relationship with the Chams (Hickey 1982b: 302).

The history of the highland peoples during the following centuries is mostly unknown. Members of indigenous groups in what is today northeastern Cambodia had sporadic exchanges with traders from various powers during the centuries, and villages were raided on occasion by the Thai, Lao, and Khmer to make slaves. Yet hill tribes were not integrated into the administrative systems of neighboring countries and never subject to external authority and control (Hawk 1995: 12). The French colonizers began the establishment of a French state in Southeast Asia in the middle of the 19th century. From the beginning of the 20th century, this involved attempts to include the Highlands into French Indochina (Sugiarti 1997: 19). Those attempts met considerable resistance. Despite this reluctance on the part of highlanders, plantations and roads were built in their homelands and some villagers were forced to participate in those projects, while others continued to resist the French colonization and maintained their independent existence well into the twentieth century (White 1996: 343). Administrative boundaries were drawn without concern for the social, cultural, or historical circumstances of the population and without the affected groups’ consent or knowledge. Yet, for the most part, these boundaries were merely lines on colonial maps and did not yet affect the lives of highlanders. During the 1940s, the highlands became an autonomous territory first under French and then under Vietnamese authority. This reflected the strategic relevance of the region and its populace in the war with the communist regime in South Vietnam. The former boundaries were restored and internationally recognized through the Geneva Agreements in 1954 (Chandler 1992: 180). It was only at this time that lines on paper became the boundaries of ‘nation-states’, into which formerly self-governing societies of highlanders were incorporated without their consent. Members of independent hill tribes became citizens of different states and their self-governing societies were transformed into cultural minorities. This process of the hill tribes’ incorporation into states happened without their consent or consultation. Highlanders never did cede their rights over their homelands to any of the states involved.


  1. Nation-Destroying: Integrating Hill Tribes into the Khmer Nation


Prior to 1954, the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments attempted to incorporate the highlander’s homelands into the territories of their respective nation-states. However, they did not make much effort to integrate highlanders into the respective nations. The formal status of the area changed at various times, some development projects and small scale in-migration took place, and the beginning of an administration was established. However, this did not change much in the day-to-day life of many groups. Despite some conflicts, indigenous nations had considerable space to maintain their cultures, and in many instances not much in their life was altered. This changed dramatically after Cambodia’s independence in 1954, when deliberate nation-building programs were initiated for the first time. Prince Sihanouk initiated a general policy of integration, aiming at establishing Khmer ownership of the northeastern territory as well as political control over its population (Plant 2002: 7). The state sponsored and organized settlement of Khmer people in the highlands. Hill tribes were encouraged to abandon their ‘uncivilized’ and ‘inferior’ lifestyles and practices and to follow the ‘superior’ way of life demonstrated by Khmer settlers. This assimilationist policy involved the expropriation of indigenous homelands and villagers were forced to work on plantations (Sugiarti 1997: 20). Education in Khmer as well as Khmer clothes were made available and economic development projects were carried out. Communities where relocated along rivers and encouraged to abandon their traditional methods of agriculture and to adapt to lowland rice farming techniques. This policy aimed at alleviating highlanders poor living conditions. But more importantly, it aimed explicitly at their Khmerization, the eradication of the distinct identity and way of life of indigenous groups. In sum, this was a nation-building campaign with the stated aim of replacing the distinct identity of highlanders with “national consciousness” (White 1996: 344). This policy met considerable resistance and occasionally let to clashes, revolts, and armed confrontations (Hawk 1995: 12).

During the late 1960s, Cambodian and Vietnamese communist movements started operations in the highlands and occasionally supported the hill tribes’ resistance. It seems that initially the hill tribes’ premodern and collective ways of life appealed to the Khmer Rouge and vice versa. The movement managed to recruit villagers for their purposes, building on their resentment against Sihanouk’s assimilation policies. “In Marxian terms”, notes Chandler, “the tribespeople had ideological significance. Without access to money, markets, or the state, they enjoyed what appeared to be deeply rooted traditions of autonomy, solidarity, and mutual aid. To Communist cadre, the Jarai, Tapuon, and Brao peoples … participated in ‘primitive communism’ … The relationship between Communists and tribespeople was mutually beneficial. Many tribespeople became trusted bodyguards, messengers, and party members” (Chandler 1999: 76). Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol, who subscribed to an ultra-nationalist ideology and established the Khmer Republic in 1970. The communist movement strengthened its presence in the northeast, while Lon Nol’s forces tried to regain the territory, destroying highlander villages and killing their inhabitants in the process, before finally evacuating the region (Sugiarti 1997: 21). By this time, the Khmer Rouge had firmly established their control over northeastern Cambodia. US warplanes started to bomb Cambodia’s northeastern region in 1969, in an attempt to disrupt the North Vietnamese supply network, most notably the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Shawcross 1986: 280-99). Indigenous groups, which were forcefully resettled and displaced during the previous decade fled to the more remote areas and dispersed further to escape bombings. Some years later, after the bombing ended, the Khmer Rouge started to implement their aggressive communist policies in the northeast, which meant in effect an intensification of the assimilation programs carried out under previous regimes. Villages were displaced and their inhabitants resettled, husbands and wives were separated and villagers were forced to live and work collectively. They were forbidden to speak indigenous languages and forced to learn Khmer. Traditional dress, hair style, and rituals were forbidden and ceremonial jars and gongs were confiscated (Hawk 1995: 13). Thousands lost their life due to executions as well as famines. Many villagers left their homelands and fled to neighboring Vietnam and Laos.



Despite continued attempts to assimilate highlanders, most groups recreated their societies wherever this was possible immediately after the Pol Pot period ended. Following the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese in 1979, villagers returned to their original locations and reestablished their communities, including the indigenous system of agriculture and the relationship to the spirits and environment through ceremonies (White 1996: 348). After the Khmer Rouge lost control of the area, the Vietnamese invasion brought a halt to the in-migration from the lowlands, and the highlands were again at the margins of Cambodian history. The regime in Phnom Penh was occupied with the reconstruction of the heartland provinces while struggling with the remains of the Khmer Rouge. Its activities in the northeast were limited to the establishment and maintenance of some administrative presence, which involved a few hundred civil servants, some soldiers and Vietnamese officials. It did not involve new settlements or integration programs. In the absence of any coordinated policy towards highlanders under the Vietnamese occupation, people were left to their own systems of communal self-government and again enjoyed some degree of autonomy (Hawk 1995: 13).
  1. Nation Building and its Liberal Limits in Cambodia


To recall a central idea of the first part of this paper, Kymlicka suggests that all liberal states have engaged in nation-building, that is, in diffusing a societal culture throughout the territory in order to integrate citizens into common public institutions operating in one national language. State nation-building inevitably privileges members of the majority society and disadvantages members of cultural minorities. In particular, unconstrained state nation-building involves the destruction of minority nations in multination states. So what does the dialectic between state-nation building and minority rights suggest in the Cambodian context? In contrast to Western liberal states, Cambodia is not, and does not pretend to be, culturally neutral. Rather, the Cambodian state is actively engaged in projects of nation-building, and of diffusing a common societal culture throughout the territory of the state. The above discussion has shown already that Cambodia after independence has been nation-building, in the sense that members of indigenous nations were encouraged, pressured, and forced under various regimes to integrate into common public institutions operating in the Khmer language. Lon Nol, for example, declared in 1974 that there were no other nationalities in Cambodia, only the Khmer. Similarly, Pol Pot proclaimed “In Kampuchea there is one nation and one language – the Khmer language. From now on the various nationalities do not exist any longer in Kampuchea” (quoted in: Edwards 1996b: 55). It is important to point out that nation-building policies towards various ethnic groups at times took horrific forms and threatened the very existence of these groups. However, discussing these policies is beyond the scope of this paper.

A short discussion of the Cambodian Constitution is helpful to establish that the Cambodian state today actively promotes the cultural identity of the Khmer majority. According to Article 5 of the Constitution, Cambodia’s official language and script are Khmer. Article 69 charges the state with the protection and promotion of the Khmer language, reinforcing this language provision. The creation of a uniform system of national education further contributes to the reproduction of a particular Khmer ethnonational culture and identity. The Constitution charges the state with the establishment of a “standardized education system throughout the country” and with taking the necessary steps for education “to reach all citizens”. At any rate, education in Cambodia is provided generally in Khmer and based on a standardized curriculum which is uniformly used throughout the country.



There are other indications in the Constitution that the Cambodian state takes the reproduction of a particular Khmer ethnonational culture and identity as an important goal. Although the preamble starts with “We, the people of Cambodia“, it refers immediately to these people’s membership in the “glorious nation” and their determination “to unite for the consolidation of national unity”. It would appear that the ‘consolidation of national unity’ and nation-building are very similar things. The formulation ‘people of Cambodia’ is open to the inclusion of members of cultural minorities, but other than in the preamble it is not used during the entire text of the Constitution. Instead, the rest of the text refers primarily to ‘Khmer citizens’, indicating that it is a Khmer nation which is being consolidated. Those provisions define membership in the Cambodian state – Cambodian citizenship – exclusively in ethnic terms. This is particularly evident when it comes to the details of Cambodia’s citizen’s rights and duties. The third chapter of the Constitution is entitled “The Rights and Obligations of Khmer Citizens”. This chapter details all the political, social, and cultural rights associated with citizenship in Cambodia as well as provisions for human rights. In most instances, those rights – including the most fundamental human rights and freedoms – are exclusively granted to ‘Khmer Citizens’. The first Article of this chapter stipulates that the Kingdom of Cambodia is committed to universal human rights. Yet the very same Article immediately calls into question this commitment. The next paragraph reads as follows: “Every Khmer citizen shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status”. The wording of this paragraph is in large part similar to Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights yet instead of “everyone”, only “Khmer citizens” are entitled to the associated rights. The provision implies that there are Khmer citizens of different race, language, beliefs, or religions and thus is compatible with a notion of “Khmer citizen” that grants citizenship to “Khmer Loeu” (hill tribes) and “Khmer Islam” (Muslim Cham). However, it does so only by linguistically imposing the majority ethnic identity on members of cultural groups who do not share it. More seriously, this formulation indicates that segments of the population which do not qualify as Khmer citizens are not entitled to any right. Even the fundamental human rights to life, personal freedom and security are granted exclusively to Khmer citizens (Article 32). Clearly, this Constitution demonstrates that the Cambodian state is nation-building and in doing so uses – among others – many of the tools used in Western democracies, such as citizenship policy, language policy, and a uniform system of education. The following sections will show that other tools are being used for nation-building as well, among them settlement policies, public service employment, and centralizing power. Before turning to the public policies towards highlanders, the liberal limits of nation-building as suggested by Kymlicka will be discussed in the Cambodian context.

As was explored in the first part of this paper, Kymlicka shows that state nation-building is not necessarily incompatible with principles of liberal democracy. Rather, nation-building can promote liberal principles and can serve a number of legitimate purposes, associated with individual freedom, deliberative democracy, and social justice36. What distinguishes liberal from illiberal states, then, is not the cultural neutrality of the former. Rather, what characterizes liberal states is that certain limitations and conditions apply to majority nation-building. As was mentioned in section 1.1.3, Kymlicka suggests three such conditions which together can legitimize nation-building in a liberal democracy: (1) No groups of long-term residents are permanently excluded from citizenship; (2) the integration required of ethnic groups is understood in a ‘thin’ sense which does not involve the adoption of particular customs, religious beliefs, or lifestyles; and (3) national minorities are allowed to engage in their own nation-building, to maintain themselves as distinct societal cultures (2001a: 48). All three conditions are deeply problematic in the Cambodian context. Yet it is the third condition which directly concerns the indigenous peoples. Therefore, the following paragraphs will briefly reflect on the first two conditions, while the remainder of this paper will concentrate on hill tribes’ ability to perpetuate their culture.

Clearly, nation-building in Cambodia does not meet Kymlicka’s first condition. One of the effects of the constitutional notion of ‘Khmer citizen’ is precisely to exclude long-term residents which do not qualify for membership on ethnic grounds, in particular members of the Vietnamese and Chinese ethnic groups. “Cambodian nationalism”, notes Edwards, “has from its earliest beginnings been strongly ethnic in content and strictly exclusive in its definition of who, or what, is Cambodian” (Edwards 1996b: 68). As Heder and Ledgerwood note, “the Khmer discuss themselves as a single line of descendants, with a corresponding centrality assigned to notions of ‘flesh and blood’” (Heder and Ledgerwood 1996: 20). Members of the Muslim Cham and various highlanders are included through their classification as Khmer Islam and Khmer Loeu. Although this terminology does not correspond to the ethnic identity of those groups’ members, they are considered Khmer citizen and their citizenship rights are not generally in question. In contrast, Vietnamese and Chinese long-term residents are not considered citizen, but regarded as ‘foreign residents’. The concern seems plausible that the wording of the Constitution can be used not only to exclude various ethnic groups from citizenship but actually from the enjoyment of fundamental human rights as well.

The second condition also raises problems. The common culture promoted in Cambodia is ‘thick’ in that it involves not only institutional and linguistic integration but particular sets of values and lifestyles. Kymlicka’s theory suggests that it is legitimate to require members of immigrant groups to learn Khmer and to participate in institutions which operate in Khmer language. However, the wording ‘Khmer citizens’ seems to require members of immigrant groups – and of national minorities as well – not only to learn Khmer, but to become Khmer. Because ‘Khmer’ refers to ethnicity, this seems to be not only illiberal but unrealistic. This is not the only indication that the common culture promoted by the Cambodian state involves more than language and institutions. For example, Cambodia has an official, constitutionally recognized religion, which is Buddhism. In addition, the Constitution refers to particular life styles when it promotes the “good national traditions” or “Khmer traditions”. Another example is provided by the existence of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which is part of the Royal Government of Cambodia. Its mission is to “implement policies for protection, preservation, and heightening the values of the national cultural heritage” as well as to “re-gather and promote the values of national culture and traditional customs” (MoCFA 2004). Taken together, the national culture which is being built by the Cambodian state is ‘thick’, in that it involves particular values and ways of life37.



It is the third condition which is at the heart of this paper. Kymlicka suggests that for majority nation-building to be just, national minorities – including indigenous peoples – must be allowed to engage in their own nation-building and to maintain their existence as distinct societies. Because state nation-building involves minority nation-destroying, national minorities should be granted self-government rights and special representation rights to provide protection against unjust nation-building. As was shown earlier, only indigenous hill tribes are national minorities in Cambodia. Accordingly, Kymlicka’s theory suggests that the Cambodian government should support in the states’ territory the perpetuation not only of the Khmer nation but of various indigenous societal cultures as well. This would involve the promotion of indigenous educational, political, social, and legal institutions and their operation in local language. To achieve this, some form of autonomy and self-government would be required. Before turning to the discussion of the Royal Government’s current decentralization program in the light of these ideas, the following section will discuss various policies towards indigenous peoples and their effect on these groups.
  1. Current Policies towards Hill Tribes: Confined Nation-Destroying


The previous section has established that the Cambodian state is engaged in nation-building. This and following sections will discuss more specifically current policies towards indigenous peoples in Cambodia. The discussion will show that various policies target national minorities and that their effect is – in the absence of protective measures – to systematically undermine the integrity of highlander’s homelands, cultures, and identities. As was pointed out earlier, the issue of citizenship has not been addressed by the Cambodian government yet. It appears that the post-independence, ethnicity-based model of citizenship is guiding government policy. While members of highland peoples are likely to be recognized as citizens of Cambodia through their classification as ‘Khmer Loeu’, this has not yet happened. Accordingly, the legal status of indigenous groups and their members remains uncertain, which renders both particularly vulnerable. In general, the Cambodian government does not appear to have an active and deliberate policy towards the country’s indigenous populations. However, a number of active programs and deliberate positions in some instances as well as the absence thereof in other instances can be described as policy. Taken together, the current approach constitutes a more benign form of the national integration program initiated under Sihanouk in the 50s and 60s. “Ever since its formation in 1993” notes Pen, “the Royal Government of Cambodia has pursued a policy aimed at the integration of the ethnic minorities” (Pen 2002: 12). It is important to note that in Cambodia, the integration of indigenous groups into the mainstream society is generally not seen as unjust. Rather, integrating indigenous peoples is considered a noble project, since those groups are considered ‘uncivilized’ and ‘backward’ and are seen as benefiting from integration. Consequently, the government directly and indirectly promotes the integration of highlanders into the mainstream society through a variety of measures: the migration of lowland Khmers to the highlands, large scale economic development projects in the ancient homelands of indigenous groups, the introduction of lowland systems of agriculture, and the encouragement of indigenous groups to settle close to roads and rivers (Sugiarti 1997: 23). It is impossible to discuss these developments in detail here. However, some general remarks will show that the cultural survival of hill tribes is being threatened by current policies and developments.

The northeastern provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri are sparsely populated and the only provinces with majorities of indigenous peoples. A dramatic increase in the immigration of Khmers to the highlands is taking place, which started in Rattanakiri province some years ago and now continues in Mondulkiri province. White mentions that large numbers of Khmers from various provinces are being resettled to the northeast (White 1996: 369). The increasing migration of lowlanders to the highlands is confirmed by other sources. Between the UNTAC population census in 1992 and the National Census in 1998, the population of Rattanakiri grew about 41 percent, while the population in the provincial capital Banlung increased 82 percent. During the same period, the national average population growth was only 29 percent (ADB 2001b: 30). Migration is not being limited, but encouraged by the government. Only recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen visited Mondulkiri and reportedly said that this province is the “best, most beautiful place in Cambodia … it is a place where people come and don’t want to leave” (Coren 2003: 7). This statement has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Migration has been greatly facilitated by a newly built road, which makes it possible to reach the provincial capital Sen Monorom in just ten hours from Phnom Penh. According to a newspaper article, deputy governor Chann expects “many, many people” to arrive next year when infrastructure improvements are completed. “In the future, the government wants more people to live in this province for building and for farming … We want more people to develop this province and we must prepare for them” (Coren 2003: 7).

The dramatic increase of migration to and settlement in Cambodia’s northeast leads to a multitude of problems for the areas’ original inhabitants. Immigrants from the lowlands use the vulnerable situation of indigenous nations and the absence of regulations to claim lands traditionally occupied by hill tribes and to register for legal title38. The land surrounding villages and along roads is frequently monopolized by newcomers. In addition, powerful government officials and military officers have been and continue to be involved in large scale land grabbing.39 There are increasing numbers of conflicts over land between indigenous villagers and outsiders and between rival land grabbers. Highlanders are in a particularly vulnerable situation due to reasons that stem from their cultural identity. These problems are reinforced by their uncertain legal status, which makes officially receiving legal land rights to their ancestral lands very difficult. Moreover, they rarely have the money necessary to register for such a title. In addition, highlander’s views and expectations reflect their culture and customary law, according to which they have a title in the form of their historical claim to the land of their ancestors. Yet even if individual title would be granted, this still puts highlanders’ cultures at risk, because it does not correspond to traditional patterns of land use and the communal understanding of property. Other problems stem directly from highlanders’ cultural membership. For example, the system of swidden agriculture practiced by most hill tribes is perfectly sustainable yet turns unsustainable if the available land base is too small. Migration contributes to population pressure, which in turn puts the livelihood of local groups at risk.

An equally severe and related problem for highlanders is the commercial expropriation and exploitation of their traditional lands by corporations as well as individual business people40. Newly built roads, land pressure in the lowlands, and the rapidly growing population has increased the interest of domestic and international investors in the resources of the highlands. In this regard, the most troubling development is the granting of logging concession by the central government to mostly transnational corporations41. It is an open secret that the destruction of Cambodia’s forests has been going on at a catastrophic rate over many years. Anarchic illegal logging operations in Cambodia’s northeast have continued for more than a decade with the involvement of the armed forces and provincial authorities (Global Witness 1997). Reports state that the government has granted concessions covering the major part of the forested areas in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri to an Indonesian company. About 50.000 to 60.000 highlanders live in the respective zone and have never been consulted, and even today have not been informed about this development (Pen 2002: 19). As of 1999, more than half of the 4.7 million hectares included in the concession list of Cambodia’s 21 concessions are located in the four northeastern provinces where most indigenous peoples reside (ADB 2001b: 36). Recent reports indicate a strong intensification of logging operations in the area (Cambodia Daily 2004a: 1; Davis 2004: 5; Roeun and Pyne 2004: 3)42.

Logging has had immediate impacts on people’s livelihoods and well-being. Most importantly, the forest on which the survival of the population depends is being destroyed. Wildlife crucial to their livelihood has disappeared. Villagers have been mistreated and disrespected, and crops have been destroyed by logging activities. Concessionaires continue to desecrate the spiritual base of highlanders by cutting the spirit forest (Global Witness 2000: 9). Legal and illegal logging is not the only form of commercial exploitation of indigenous lands threatening the local population. For example, forests are being turned into plantations of various cash crops by outsiders, and dams are being planned and built along the rivers (Sugiarti 1997: 118). Government policies encourage tourism in the area. Rattanakiri, for example is number four on the government’s list of tourism development priorities. These developments are being planned and carried out in the complete absence of consultation or informing of the local population. But they have immediate – and frequently negative – impacts on their lives (Lindberg 2004: 3). Roads are being built for better access to the previously remote provinces, opening up indigenous homelands to new migration and commercial exploitation. The Yali Fall Dam is causing rapid rises and falls of water levels and has drowned villagers, continuously destroys fishing gear and fields, and decreases the water quality, thereby causing a decline of fish stocks and sickness in domestic animals (ADB 2001b: 35). Hotels and guest houses pop up in the provincial capitals and the prospect of increasing numbers of tourists adds to land grabbing and speculation. Increasing numbers of visitors disrespect highlanders’ sacred sites while provincial authorities are reluctant to offer protection, because they do not want to discourage tourists or investors43.

Settlement and commercial exploitation directly and indirectly put highlanders under pressure to integrate into the majority culture. Other policies have a similar effect. For example, the government encourages members of indigenous groups to practice lowland rice farming, to move closer to roads, and to stop their semi-nomadic lifestyle, which is associated with traditional methods of agriculture (Hasselskog and Chanthou 2000: pp. 13). The design of public space can be seen as another dimension of the attempt to integrate highlanders into the Khmer culture. Observations indicate that most public buildings in northeastern Cambodia have a design strongly informed by Khmer architecture, which is radically different from the way various indigenous groups construct their buildings. In the same spirit, the government currently plans to implement a project to construct a considerable number of Commune Council buildings in various provinces, including provinces with indigenous populations. The design of these buildings is uniform and strongly informed by Khmer architecture. Reportedly, the major intention of the uniform Khmer design is easy identification. The way these buildings are designed can be seen as nation-building, as promoting a sense of national identity and common membership in the institutions of a particular Khmer national culture44.



In this context, it should be noted that the Cambodian state functions in important ways differently from states upon which Kymlicka’s theory is based. Kymlicka’s theory assumes states in which there is a political will to approach problems stemming from cultural diversity through the design and implementation of deliberate policies. In Cambodia, ruling elites have little interest in aspects of political life beyond their individual or party-political gain. The government does little to regulate social life and rarely collects taxes or fights crime. Sectors like education, health care, or minority issues do not receive attention as long as they are not perceived as a security threat. For example, when assessing the situation of minority education, it is interesting to see how the educational needs of the majority are being met. In Cambodia, the funding available for education has been decreasing over the past few years and teacher wages have progressively eroded (UNDP 2003: 96). Today, only 1.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are spend on education and adult illiteracy rates increased between 1990 and 2001 from 60 percent to 63 percent (UNDP 2003: 279). Similarly, in the field of public health, under-five mortality rates rose from 115 to 138 and infant mortality from 80 to 97 during the same period of time (UNDP 2003: 37, 57). In fact, according to the Human Development Report, Cambodia might be the only country in the world where both mortality rates and illiteracy rates have increased over the last ten years, in spite of massive and continuous international assistance. A recent UNDP report concludes that Cambodia has gotten poorer during the last decade (UNDP 2004b: 14). If the government fails to address the basic educational needs of the cultural majority, it seems unreasonable to expect it to operate a system of minority education. This holds true for other sectors as well. As was pointed out before, the Cambodian Constitution and various policies and institutions demonstrate that the Cambodian state is nation-building, engaged in diffusing the language and culture of the majority throughout the territory. However, in practice, the state does not reach its citizens. This is particularly true of indigenous peoples due to various reasons, among them their geographical isolation. As a result, nation-building in Cambodia is very ineffective. Consequently, a very benign approach is applied to indigenous peoples which leaves these groups to a considerable degree to their own systems of self-government. A number of ministries, committees, and task forces are involved in different aspects of indigenous issues. However, there is no single power centre in charge of implementing the existing fragments of minority policy. To the contrary, various power centres occasionally promote diametrically opposed policies. Frequently, no policy decisions are made, or they are made and not implemented. The subsequent benign approach towards indigenous minorities is for the most part not the result of consciously planned minority policy. It is the result of weakness on the part of the state, which is incapable of meeting the basic needs of the members of both the majority and the minority.
  1. Current Policies towards Hill Tribes: Accommodation


While a number of policies put pressure on Cambodia’s indigenous peoples to adapt to the majority culture, not all relevant policies in Cambodia aim at highlanders’ integration. Rather, the explicit objective of various public policies and initiatives is the accommodation and perpetuation of indigenous cultures, most notably the following: in 1994, the Royal Government created the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples’ Development (IMC). With considerable support of various organizations – including ADB, UNDP, and ILO – the IMC drafted a ‘General Policy for Highland Peoples Development’ (IMC 1997b). This document is strongly informed by ILO Convention No. 169 – in strong contrast to the current approach of the Royal Government – and details a considerable number of objectives, intentions, and even specific measures aiming at the accommodation – as opposed to integration – of hill tribes. The objectives spelled out in this policy are in most instances in line with the argumentation of this paper and, in fact, the aim of this paper is in large part to justify such a policy. To a considerable extent, this policy would provide indigenous groups with protection against majority nation-building. It calls for the preservation of indigenous cultures, languages, and belief systems and for the provision of culturally appropriate services. It charges the government with the protection of traditional land and forest use rights, the promotion of traditional farming systems, the remedy of unlawful intrusion upon indigenous lands, and forbids further deforestation in areas inhabited or used by highland peoples. According to this policy, indigenous knowledge, cultures, languages, and belief systems shall be strengthened and incorporated into education curricula. A comprehensive educational system shall be implemented to provide adequate opportunities to Highlanders, and a Centre for Highland Peoples’ cultures shall be established45. This policy was submitted to the Council of Ministers (COM) in 1997 and discussed in two sessions. Due to objections by various ministries it was not approved. Currently, the IMC is still in the process of incorporating comments and objections, adapting the policy, and resubmitting it to the COM.

Surely, the fact that this policy is not in force indicates that the accommodation of indigenous cultures is not among the governments’ priorities. Yet the objections are voiced towards various elements of this policy, not against the policy as such46. The establishment of the IMC as well as the drafting of this policy can be seen as a demonstration that the accommodation and preservation of indigenous peoples is not out of context with multicultural practice in Cambodia. In addition, developments in the fields of education and land rights attest that the government’s special considerations apply to indigenous groups, aiming at what could be described as group-specific citizenship rights for indigenous peoples. For example, the government’s Education For All program (EFA) – currently at its planning stage – will feature culturally-tailored curricula for ethnic minorities, which aim at the preservation of their knowledge, according to the programs secretary-general Dr. Hath Bunroeun (quoted in Font 2003: 6). A number of schools in Rattanakiri form pilot projects and are run by NGOs in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. This project is based on ideas of ‘Community Schools’, in which the community is largely responsible for the governance and the day to day operations of the school (Watt 2003). School Boards are elected by the community and in turn select teachers from the local population to provide bilingual education to highland children (Thomas 2002). This arrangement can be seen as promotion of indigenous cultures and as granting group-differentiated rights to indigenous groups in the form of some level of self-government47.

Another initiative aiming at specific indigenous rights has to do with land rights. Led by the Ministry of Planning, a national task force was established in 2004 which is working towards the registration of indigenous land rights. This was made possible by the Land Law of 2001 which allows indigenous groups to gain communal titles to their land. Various ministries are represented on this task force which works towards communal land titles for hill tribes and a consultation forum has been set up to allow for the involvement of indigenous peoples and civil society. The interpretation of the Land Laws’ chapter on indigenous communal land is still unclear and requires a new Sub-Decree for its implementation. Accordingly, no communal title has yet been granted. However, this development not only shows that special considerations are given to indigenous peoples. If established, a communal land title for indigenous groups – in contrast to individual titles for members of the mainstream society – would constitute a group-specific right which is granted exclusively to members of indigenous groups based on cultural membership. These developments in Cambodia are highly consistent with Kymlicka’s theory.

To sum up, the Cambodian state is nation-building and uses various tools to promote the majority Khmer culture and language, such as language policy, education policy, and citizenship policy. Other policies directly and indirectly promote indigenous peoples’ integration into the majority nation, such as the encouragement of settlement of indigenous homelands, the implementation of economic development projects in the northeast, the promotion of tourism to the area, the introduction of lowland systems of farming and the aversion to sharing public space with indigenous cultures. In the absence of measures designed to protect highlanders against unjust nation-building, the effect of these policies is nation-destroying, by undermining the perpetuation of indigenous peoples’ distinct cultures, languages, and ways of life. This case will be strengthened during the following chapters.

However, due to the weakness and low capacity of the Cambodian nation-state, nation-building is not very effective. The government does not reach its citizens and in many instances fails to meet the basic needs of both members of the majority and various minority cultures (UNDP 2004b). There is no consistent policy towards indigenous peoples and no coordination among various organizations in charge of indigenous issues. In effect, this situation leads to a rather benign approach towards indigenous peoples and provides these groups with considerable cultural space. But the approach towards these groups is more than just benign. In line with Kymlicka’s theory, various group-specific measures were initiated, arguably precisely to provide protection against unjust nation-building. These initiatives include the establishment of the IMC and drafting of the ‘General Policy for Highland Peoples Development’, the inclusion of culturally tailored curricula in the framework of the EFA program, the establishment of bilingual education in selected schools, a provision for communal indigenous title in the 2001 Land Law and the creation of a national task force to establish communal indigenous land titles.

As was discussed in the previous sections, Kymlicka’s theory suggests stronger provisions to protect indigenous peoples against unjust nation-building and to enable them to maintain their existence as distinct societies. Most notably, these rights include self-government and special representation. The following chapters will assess the extent to which this is plausible in the case of Cambodia. Since Cambodia is a unitary state, federalism is not an option for the accommodation of such provisions. Therefore, the following analysis focuses on the decentralization program that is currently being implemented by the Royal Government of Cambodia and assesses its relationship to indigenous rights in the light of Kymlicka’s theory. The analysis will include the results of empirical research carried out in three northeastern provinces in Cambodia. The objective of this discussion is threefold: First, it assesses the situation of various indigenous peoples within the framework of decentralization. Second, it explores how the decentralization process can help to accommodate the needs and fair demands of indigenous groups. Third, it reflects on the validity of Kymlicka’s theory with regard to indigenous peoples and decentralization and explores ways to adapt this theory to the specific situation in Cambodia.


  1. Decentralization: Taking Nation-Building to the Local Level


Decentralization in Cambodia is a key area of administrative reform and a fairly recent project. It creates an additional level of democratically elected government through the transfer of power to popularly elected Commune Councils. The Royal Government’s decentralization program is accompanied by a deconcentration of powers and functions to the provincial and district levels of government. Decentralization is associated with downward accountability of the Commune Councils to the citizens who elect them. In contrast, deconcentration implies upward accountability of the Commune Councils to the central government. Accordingly, the roles of the Council are twofold: the first set of roles is associated with local affairs, while the second set of the Council’s roles involves the performance of agency functions for the central government. The following illustration shows the position and accountability of Commune Councils relative to citizens and higher levels of government.



Illustration 7: Decentralization in Cambodia, cp. Ayres 2001: 5

Decentralization represents a sharp break with the political practices of Cambodia’s past. Communes were established by Royal Decree in 1908 and since then served various regimes to achieve central control of the local level of administration. After 1943, commune leaders and their deputies were elected by the provincial governor with the approval of the French resident. Communal administration was interrupted during the Lon Nol period and abolished under the Khmer Rouge (Ayres 2001: 52). The system of commune administration was reestablished under the successor regime, Peoples Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), with Commune Chiefs appointed by provincial governors again. This system remained in place until recently. Commune authorities were used in large part as an instrument for political control and to mobilize forced labor and soldiers. Accordingly, people in Cambodia tended to associate communes with state control and coercion (Roome 1998: 15).

The Royal Government’s decentralization program – “Seila” – was established in 1996 with the aim to reduce poverty through improved local governance. Seila started experimenting with decentralized and deconcentrated planning in a few pilot communes and expanded gradually over the years. By 2001, the adoption of the Law on Commune Councils and the Law on Election of Commune Councils created 1.621 decentralized Commune Councils and provided for their election. Local governance was established through Cambodia’s first democratic Commune Council election in February 2002. Decentralization in Cambodia changes the governmental environment dramatically and involves a number of major challenges48. The following section will highlight those aspects of decentralization which bear directly on the question at hand, that is, the accommodation of indigenous peoples. It should be kept in mind that, since Cambodia is a unitary state, decentralization is the only way to provide indigenous peoples’ with self-government rights and for those groups to democratically determine the course of their own development.

Generally, the legal and policy framework governing decentralization is silent on questions related to the accommodation of cultural diversity. However, that does not mean it is culturally neutral. The absence of provisions regarding indigenous languages and the fact that Khmer is the only official language in Cambodia imply that Commune Councils everywhere in the country operate in the majority language. Explicitly, the Law on Administration of Communes determines in its Article 14 that the only persons who qualify to be elected into the Commune Council are those who are “able to read and write Khmer script”. Moreover, the laws making up the legal and policy framework of decentralization extend the ethnically exclusive concept of Cambodian citizenship to the local level of government. The Article in the Law on Administration of Communes quoted above determines that only “Khmer citizens” who have “Khmer nationality by birth” can be elected into the Commune Council. The Law on Elections of the Commune Councils contains a similar provision in its Article 94. The same law determines that “Khmer nationality” is among the requirements citizens have to meet in order to register as voters for the Commune Council election (Article 19). At the same time, there are no provisions which would give recognition to indigenous peoples and their different languages.

Quite clearly, the decentralization framework as laid out in those laws can be said to promote a national culture and language and a sense of membership in common institutions operating in that language. The promotion of citizen’s participation in local government is among the official objectives of decentralization49. And the laws governing decentralization determine clearly that these institutions are to operate in Khmer language and that participation in those institutions is limited to Khmer citizens. Although decentralization involves communal institutions, those institutions are part of a national system, tailored toward the needs of the national majority, and operating in a national language. Particularly problematic with regard to the accommodation of indigenous peoples is that Councilors are required to read and write Khmer. Given the low level of literacy in Cambodia, this is challenging for many of Cambodia’s citizens. However, this provision creates a considerable disadvantage specifically for members of indigenous peoples, because Khmer is not their first language and writing as well as reading is alien to their traditionally oral cultures.

Another aspect of decentralization relevant to the perpetuation of indigenous cultures is whether or not the drawing of commune boundaries creates units with majorities of highlanders. At this point, it is not possible to give a comprehensive answer because no statistics about the ethnic composition of communes are available. Accordingly, it is not possible to determine how these boundaries relate to the homelands of various indigenous groups. However, what is known is that the areas of jurisdiction of the current Commune Councils were fixed by previous regimes primarily with the intention of policing and controlling the population. It appears that, at best, boundaries were drawn without recognition of the population’s cultural identity. Based on the empirical research it seems plausible to assume the following for the time being: Most communes in the northeastern provinces of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri provinces appear to contain majorities of highlanders, although not necessarily members of the same group. In contrast, many communes with minorities of highlanders were found in provinces with minorities of indigenous peoples such as Kratie and Stung Treng. As was mentioned earlier, many of Cambodia’s twenty-four provinces contain indigenous populations and it is plausible to expect that in many instances these populations form minorities in the constituencies of the respective Commune Councils. Accordingly, the drawing of commune boundaries appears to have divided previously self-governing indigenous societies into minorities in separate Commune Councils. And it seems reasonable to expect that the separation of indigenous peoples into different administrative units undermines these group’s institutions and cultures. The current decentralization program subsequently empowers these administrative units and thus is likely to directly contribute to the destruction of indigenous nations and to the marginalization of hill tribe’s culture. Moreover, decentralization contributes to the trend of increasing in-migration in two important respects: First, it establishes institutions in the highlands which operate in Khmer language and are tailored towards the needs of the majority society, allowing settlers to easily participate and advance their interests. Second, infrastructure projects carried out by and funded through Commune Councils make it easier and less costly and risky for settlers to move to areas which were regarded ‘wilderness’ before and to take advantage of significant economic opportunities.

Taken together, a good case can be made that decentralization is nation-building, in that it promotes a particular national identity based on participation in common institutions of the Khmer societal culture operating in Khmer language. In the absence of provisions that recognize and protect indigenous cultures, decentralization is nation-destroying as well. Integrating members of indigenous peoples into institutions of the mainstream society operating in Khmer will lead to the marginalization of highlanders’ distinct languages, institutions, and ways of life. The division of indigenous societies into minority populations of separate communes is likely to reinforce this development. The following chapter presents the results of empirical research carried out to assess the situation of indigenous peoples within the framework of decentralization.

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