Research Design and Methodology
This research utilized primarily semi-structured interviews with members of various indigenous communities as well as members of Commune Councils. Additional interviews were conducted with staff of provincial and district authorities. Interviews were based on a number of guiding questions designed to explore the situations and aspirations of indigenous groups and the relationships between indigenous peoples and decentralization50. Those questions aimed at assessing the role of cultural membership, the meaning of self-government, pattern of representation, language use, changes in indigenous cultures, and the judgment thereof. Other sets of questions addressed dimensions of the relationship between hill tribes and decentralization, such as participation in decentralized institutions, dissemination of information, ability to participate meaningfully in Khmer, attitudes towards, and understanding of, the functions of the Commune Council, interethnic relationships, relationships between traditional indigenous institutions and newly empowered decentralized institutions, access to and costs of services and participation and the like51.
Interviews were conducted in the provinces of Kratie, Rattanakiri, and Stung Treng from July to September 2003. Most interviewees were members of the Jorai, Kraveth, Kreung, Kuy, Lun, Phnong, and Stieng groups. The selection of interviewees was done using criteria associated with the ethnic composition of the constituency. Particular attention was paid to assess differences between communes with majorities of highlanders and communes with minorities of highlanders. Since reliable data about the ethnic identity of citizens was not available, the selection of communes and villages was done in consultation with provincial government staff. In most cases the interviewees were either all members of the same indigenous village or of the same Commune Council. Interviews in indigenous communities were conducted in different settings and usually involved groups of 10 up to even about 80 participants. It should be mentioned that indigenous villagers were careful not to state anything that could be perceived as criticism of the government. This reluctance was reinforced by the unavoidable presence of government officials in some interviews. In order to gain meaningful contributions, interviewees were ensured anonymity and interviews were conducted without voice recording. For the same reasons, the particular communes and villages in which interviews took place will not be identified52.
Hill Tribes: Meaningful Choices through Societal Cultures
To recall ideas introduced in the first part, Kymlicka’s theory classifies indigenous peoples as national minorities. As such, they form ongoing societal cultures characterized by a common language and shared institutions. Those territorially concentrated cultures “provide its members with meaningful ways of life across the full range of human activities, including social, educational, religious, recreational, and economic life” (Kymlicka 1995a: 76). This definition is difficult to make operational. However, it appears to be particularly applicable with regard to indigenous peoples, because what constitutes meaningful ways of life for their members appears to be considerably different from the ways of life of the majority culture. The following section aims to show that highlanders do form ongoing and genuinely distinct societal cultures in this sense, embodied in complete sets of institutions as well as distinct languages and social practices which make meaningful options available to members. Obviously, indigenous cultures are not static and it is difficult to generalize about them, even more so because a number of different cultures make up Cambodia’s indigenous population and because those cultures have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. Yet the following paragraphs will show that the practices and institutions that make up indigenous cultures cover the full range of human activities and make ways of life meaningful to their members which are quite different from the ways of life of Cambodia’s majority nation. Moreover, this section gives an idea of the wealth of indigenous cultures and indicates the significance the associated languages, practices, institutions, and histories have for individual members. In Cambodia, hill tribes’ social organization is characterized by a high level of decentralization with the village as its basic unit. Traditionally, there is no formal organization of communities beyond the village level. Indeed it might be this aspect of indigenous cultures that contributes most to the perception of highland peoples as ethnic groups rather than nations or national minorities. After all, various immigrant groups also live concentrated in communities, where their members maintain aspects of their cultural particularity. The following section will demonstrate that indigenous groups, in contrast, make up entirely distinct societies.
Previous sections have already supported the case that the history of various indigenous groups is quite different from the history of Cambodia’s cultural majority. Moreover, various hill tribes speak languages which differ greatly from Cambodia’s official and majority language, Khmer. Members of indigenous nations continue to teach their native tongue as the first language to their children and community affairs are almost always discussed in the vernacular. Most of these groups’ members do not speak Khmer. Since there is no written form of indigenous languages, the group’s history is not manifested in written texts but in myths, legends, songs, and stories, which are preserved and handed down primarily by group elders. Despite assumptions to the contrary, indigenous languages are neither simple nor primitive. They hold a wealth of expressions, mirroring a rich indigenous knowledge which is bound to their own environment (White 1996: 364). Thus, indigenous languages reflect those groups’ ways of life, which are significantly different from the Cambodian mainstream society and in fact, from any modern culture. Highlanders not only speak different languages but also share comprehensive sets of social and political institutions which cannot be found in the majority society. Those institutions vary significantly from group to group. Most importantly, village elders represent the center of traditional authority to which group members are expected to conform. There is a great variety of processes by which elders are selected. Generally, procedures emphasize the consent of group members and the wisdom and virtue of the candidate. In many interviews, these procedures were defended in terms of democracy and fairness. Elders are instrumental in decision-making and conflict resolution, not so much as decision makers but as moderators of the deliberation and negotiation processes by which decisions emerge. Those processes seem to ensure high levels of accountability. Other functions of elders include the conduct of religious affairs and the preservation and perpetuation of the group’s oral history and collective identity, which manifests itself in stories and myths. Hill tribe societies are regulated by complex systems of customary law which governs political, economic, and religious affairs and ensures a high level of social cohesion and communal unity. Sets of traditional rules govern land use, the relationship with the natural environment, and various aspects of social behavior such as sexual conduct. Generally, various rules are associated with the spirits of the forest and the spirits of ancestors. Economic and agricultural systems are also fundamentally different from those of the mainstream society. Most highland groups practice rotational agriculture, which involves moving the village to another place every few years. In contrast to lowland Khmer cultivation of paddy rice, hill tribe’s subsistence systems are dominated by the production of upland dry rice. In addition, villagers live on fruits and vegetables, fish, small animals and other forest products. Various communal systems of mutual assistance serve to provide social security, frequently involving the exchange of labor or resources or the maintenance of collective stores or fields (Sugiarti 1997: 117).
In contrast to Cambodia’s cultural majority, most highland groups follow animist religions which involve the spirits of ancestors and of the particular natural surroundings. Indeed, much of what makes up indigenous culture is closely tied to those religious beliefs, including the relationship to the environment, social behavior and economic activity. “This spiritual sphere,” notes Pen, “which acts as a reference and a cocoon around the living place, must not be perceived as mere superstitious beliefs, like the ones found in a Khmer village, but as a pattern of sensitivity providing a deep meaning to the life of the people” (Pen 2002: 18). The highlander’s sense of membership is closely associated with the relationship shared with others to the spirits of the home village (White 1996: 350). Various indigenous nations maintain special relationships with their natural environment which can be described as citizenship with their land. When highlanders refer to their identity in Khmer language they do not use the term Khmer Loeu. They refer to the collectivity of indigenous groups mostly by using the Khmer term ‘chun-cheat’, which means nation or nationality, or ‘chun-cheat pheak-tech’, which – consistent with the typology used in this paper – means ‘national minority’. Interestingly, many Khmers are also familiar with these terms. Khmers are considered a separate ethnic group. While highlanders are well aware of their Cambodian citizenship, this is defined through their membership in their particular ethnic group53.
Taken together, the common cultures shared by the various hill tribes encompass a wide range of important aspects of life with great significance to individual members and their well-being. In turn, persons growing up in one of those groups acquire its particular culture, and their identity is determined to a considerable degree by this membership. Membership in various highland nations is of high social relevance and serves as the primary focus of identification, in turn shaping the expectations and perceptions of others. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume a strong connection between the prosperity of those groups and the well-being of individual members. This argument is further supported by the fact that various hill tribes resisted enormous pressures towards their integration and rebuilt their societies after decades of assimilationist policies of various regimes. This demonstrates that highlanders’ cultures are pervasive, and members are determined and capable of sustaining their cultures as distinct societies. Highland peoples do not simply form sub-groups of Cambodia’s Khmer society, but constitute largely autonomous societies, including distinct histories and languages, political, social, and economic systems, religious practices, and customary law. Accordingly, these societal cultures make ways of life meaningful to their members which are different – on occasion radically – from those of the majority culture. Surely, indigenous cultures have changed and developed over time and particularly dramatic changes have taken place over the last decades. However, these changes should not be misunderstood as integration into the mainstream society. Rather, they reflect the incorporation of elements of the outside world into various indigenous cultures. Even where indigenous groups incorporate practices of Khmer society, it is still their own culture and language which attaches meaning to those practices.
The Value of Cultural Membership: Citizenship with the Land
The importance of preserving indigenous culture was stressed by members of virtually every indigenous community visited. Maintaining indigenous culture, religion, and language and their perpetuation in the next generation is seen as a matter of great concern54. Yet there is uncertainty about how culture can be preserved. And it is a subject of regret that substantial elements of what previously constituted indigenous culture are felt to be lost. The most obvious dimensions of change concern aspects of material culture. Modern dress is worn rather than traditional clothing, young people dance to pop music rather than traditional dances, and wooden ‘Khmer’ houses are being built rather than bamboo houses in traditional styles. Those changes on the surface reflect less obvious dimensions of recent and radical change, most prominently the erosion of the ‘spirit of togetherness’ and ‘sharing happiness’. Indigenous cultures are particularly vulnerable to being lost because of the absence of a written language. In some communities, the cultural memory manifested in songs, myths, and stories is very close to being lost. In one Stieng community, for instance, there was said to be only one old and confused person left in the village who still knew the old songs and stories.
The assessment of recent changes is complex. In general, people accept and frequently embrace changes associated with modernization. There appears to be a different perception depending on the age of the person in question. Typically, the older members of the community are more concerned about tradition and the preservation and perpetuation of culture. Young people tend to care less for tradition, embrace changes associated with modernization, and, in some instances, are not averse to adapting to specifically Khmer ways of live. On many occasions the difference between the modernization on one hand and the loss of culture on the other hand was stressed. Many interviewees assumed that it is not necessary to lose the cultural identity in the process of modernization. In a number of cases, members of indigenous groups stated that they are the agents of their culture’s change. In other instances, mostly in areas with minorities of indigenous peoples, villagers stated that they were changing their lifestyles following government policies. On occasion, what was felt to be current government policy was directly linked to the assimilation programs of earlier regimes. On occasion, interviewees stated they were told to change their primitive ways.
Members of various indigenous groups expressed their appreciation for their particular culture. When asked, members of all indigenous groups stated that they were proud to be members of their particular group and valued their membership in it. This sense of pride has various sources, most prominent among them the practice of solidarity, unity, and honesty. In addition, membership appears to be grounded in a sense of shared history and great achievements and deeds in ancient times55. Highlanders were well aware of their Cambodian citizenship. In addition, highlanders appear to maintain a holistic understanding of citizenship, which includes their land and natural environment56.
There was no case where members of indigenous peoples considered themselves Khmer. Khmer are considered a very different ethnic group. When asked, interviews frequently stated “Khmer are Khmer and Stieng are Stieng” or “Phnong is Phnong”. Intermarriages between Khmers and members of indigenous groups, as well as between members of different indigenous groups, are very rare. Indigenous communities are familiar with the term ‘Khmer Loeu’, but members use the term ‘chun-cheat’ to refer to themselves. While villagers conceded that they must ‘follow Khmer’, they considered themselves traditional inhabitants of ‘Kampuchea’ along with the Khmers. It is interesting to note that the importance of language as a marker of cultural identity is increasing. While members of different groups could distinguish each other by their traditional costumes and hair styles, those physical markers do not function any more due to the proliferation of modern dress in recent years. At this point, language seems to be the primary means by which members of groups recognize each other and distinguish insiders and outsiders.
Observation and interviews indicate that members of various indigenous groups try to hide their ethnic identity57. This was the case particularly in areas where indigenous peoples form a minority of the population. But even in areas with a majority of highlanders, there were many indications that members of indigenous groups felt ashamed of their cultural membership when confronted with outsiders. For outsiders, it is frequently impossible to recognize individuals as members of one or the other ethnic group. Yet this identity appears to be persistent and of high social relevance. Given the importance of cultural membership, it seems to indicate serious obstacles to the individual’s self respect and well-being that highlanders feel induced to hide their identity.
Traditional and Formal Institutions
As was pointed out earlier, many indigenous groups possess various strong institutions. The most obvious examples are elders. Where they exist as an institution, elders are the center of traditional authority within the group and serve many important social, political and spiritual functions. Elders are said to have lost some authority in many communities over the last decades. However, they still represent an effective institution, particularly regarding conflict resolution. When conflicts between individuals arise, people turn to elders first. Strong leadership and respect for decisions is characteristic of the way elders govern the group. Despite this leadership style, decision making and conflict resolution emphasize consensus and involve mediation and negotiation. Traditional selection procedures and leadership style were justified and defended explicitly in terms of democracy and fairness. In Kymlicka’s words, there were only rare indications that groups would demand internal restrictions. In line with his theory, nothing suggested that group leaders would consider restricting the liberties of group members in order to maintain some sort of cultural purity. An important exception in this regard could be gender equality58.
There are a variety of levels at which elders are involved in Council affairs. It is a common attitude among many Councilors that elders do not have a role to play in interacting with the Council. However, there were a number of examples where elders were explicitly invited and encouraged to be involved in Council concerns. There does not generally appear to be the perception of conflict between traditional institutions and state institutions. Commune affairs were said to be of formal and legal nature while traditional institutions and leadership were associated with virtue, tradition and wisdom.
In most communes, indigenous and non-indigenous interviews indicated that customary law is still effective in regulating the group’s affairs. While Khmers tend to refer to state law, highlanders tend to turn to customary law and practice. Accordingly, wrong-doers in indigenous communities are held accountable according to traditional requirements. Interviewees could not remember a situation in which Cambodian law and customary law were in conflict. Councilors stated that in the case of criminal acts, the authorities would intervene and hold anyone accountable according to formal law. But nobody could recall a case in which a serious crime was committed by a member of a hill tribe. Conflicts were said to be rare and mostly solved by elders.
Respect for the Commune Council was said to be as high as respect for traditional institutions. The Council’s authority appears to be widely accepted and it is well understood that this institution is backed by law. In most cases, interviewees stated that there are no conflicts between elders, Village Chiefs59 and the Council. The mode of interaction was said to be cooperative and characterized by a functioning division of labor. It is very difficult to verify such statements, since villagers are generally reluctant to challenge government decisions or institutions. This reluctance was reinforced through the presence of government officials in some interviews.
Generally, it seems plausible that new structures of participation and decision-making weaken existing participatory structures and institutions. In contrast to statements during this research project, case studies offer a more complex picture. In the observed communities, the authority of elders had given way to the emergence of younger Khmer-literate leaders. In one case, formal and traditional leaders collaborated and village elders where included in decision making, which led to high levels of accountability. In another case, elders were excluded from deliberations and as a result, leaders did not consult widely with the people. The study concludes that cooperation between various institutions allows for capable local governance structures necessary to resist land sales and to adapt to the rapidly changing environment (McAndrew et al. 2000). This and other studies suggest that formal institutions undermine indigenous cultures where they do not take into account, and adapt to, local institutions (Hasselskog and Chanthou 2000).
Disadvantages in Service Provision and Public Institutions
In virtually every commune visited, members of indigenous groups were considered the poorest constituents. Regardless of the ethnic composition of the constituency, the ranking of groups in terms of poverty in every case indicated that members of indigenous groups were the neediest constituents. This perception was shared by members of indigenous and non-indigenous groups. At the same time, indigenous communities exhibit lower levels of intra-communal inequality compared to other communities.
The level of and access to education was ranked lowest for members of indigenous groups in virtually all communes visited. Here again, this judgment was shared by all constituents regardless of their ethnic identity. In most instances, this is simply because there is no school in areas inhabited by highlanders. In those cases, the community was typically trying to establish a school but frequently did not reach the numbers of students or the financial contributions necessary to mobilize funding. In rarer cases, the physical infrastructure was in place but teachers were not available. Generally, teachers are sent within the framework of the countrywide educational system. It is very difficult to find teachers willing to serve in the remote areas of the country. Where teachers are available, they frequently come from other provinces and do not know the local language, culture, or circumstances. Those teachers’ effectiveness as well as their motivation tends to be low. Interestingly, there were a small number of communes where members of the local indigenous group were trained during the times of Sihanouk and Pol Pot and now work in the government education system. As a result, the availability of education is significantly better in those areas. In addition, it appears that these teachers represent an important link between the state system and local communities.
The gap in education is closely linked to poverty: poor parents cannot afford not to have their children working in the field. After all, work in the field provides short terms tangible benefits, while the advantages of education are long term and involve more uncertainty. Poverty makes it a rational choice for parents not to send children to school. As long as members of indigenous groups are poorer than members of other groups, this mechanism will affect their opportunities and choices more severely. On the other hand, opportunities increasingly depend on the level of formal education, particularly on literacy in Khmer. Education is also linked to political representation, and this relationship was stressed during several interviews. Villagers pointed out that members of indigenous groups have difficulties interacting with the government due to their low level of education and knowledge of the Khmer language. They stressed that the provision of better schooling would allow the election of better qualified leaders who represent more successfully the group’s interests and manage local development more effectively. Education is linked to participation as well. In particular, villagers who are illiterate in Khmer tend to have difficulties understanding Council affairs and tend to feel incapable of participating in discussions.
Where education is available, it is conducted entirely in Khmer, even in those rare cases where members of indigenous groups are teachers in local schools. The curriculum is designed nationally without the involvement of indigenous communities60. Accordingly, it does not give recognition to indigenous languages, cultures or knowledge and does not consider the different cultural, economic, and social circumstances of indigenous groups. Not surprisingly, there are strong indications that formal education does not respond satisfactorily to the specific educational needs of highlanders. Moreover, interviews suggest that children of indigenous groups are afraid to go to school, particularly in areas where they form a minority in class.
The priority of having education available was stressed more often by members of indigenous groups than by members of other ethnic groups. Discussions frequently revolved around the following dilemma: members of various indigenous groups pointed out that they want their children to understand the local language and history. At the same time, they are well aware that children’s opportunities increasingly depend on literacy in Khmer. In many instances, indigenous interviewees stressed the benefits associated with a better command of Khmer language. Facing this dilemma, many parents ask for education in Khmer, while regretting the progressive loss of culture61.
The emerging pattern with respect to access to health services parallels that in the field of education. The provision of health services was among the top priorities in most indigenous communities. At the same time, access for those groups’ members is most limited due to various and interdependent causes, which will be discussed later in this section. To varying degrees, indigenous villagers expressed confidence in modern medicine, while traditional medicine continues to be practiced. It was pointed out that the worst and most pervasive suffering in the community stems from the absence of health services. Such statements were occasionally accompanied by the expression of feelings of neglect. In many cases, members of indigenous communities do not qualify in terms of the required numbers of users to get support for the establishment of health centers. The provision of health services takes place in Khmer, is tailored towards the needs of the Khmer population, and frequently is at odds with traditional medicine and belief systems. Accordingly, where those services are available they might be of lower value for highland peoples.
In general, the following turns out to be the obstacle to equal access to public services: Whereas the non-indigenous population tends to live territorially concentrated in or close to district or provincial towns, members of indigenous groups tend to live dispersed in areas where public services or transportation are not available. Accessing those services is associated with unrealistic distances and costs. Regulations for building schools, health centers and the like require certain numbers of users which frequently cannot be reached in thinly populated areas inhabited by highlanders. Accordingly, various public services and facilities are much more easily accessible for the predominantly Khmer inhabitants of district towns, while similar services are not available to members of indigenous groups. As one Jorai elder noted: “Khmer stay close to town and the government thinks everybody does”. Even in areas which are considered traditional homelands of indigenous peoples, services tend to be more easily available to recent in-migrants than to the traditional inhabitants.
In a number of instances, indigenous groups live in unstable settlements, moving after a few years to another place. The fact that indigenous groups live widely dispersed and occasionally move their villages is mostly culturally determined and associated with traditional agricultural practice and religious beliefs. Yet unstable settlement patterns pose a special challenge to the provision of services. For example, constructing a modern school building in remote areas in order to make education available causes significant costs. Yet when the community moves to a different place the benefit of this investment might diminish. Therefore, providing services the way they are provided in other parts of the country is associated with uncertainty and risk. This uncertainty was stressed by various government officials as among the most significant obstacles to development projects in indigenous communities. A group might even leave the jurisdiction of one Commune Council and settle in another commune. Interviews suggest that there is a tendency on the part of the government to neglect development projects in areas inhabited by highlanders due to this uncertainty, and that this tendency is mirrored in the behavior of NGOs62. Avoiding commitments to indigenous communities seems to be particularly a problem at the District Integration Workshop. This workshop is an important event within the framework of decentralization, on the occasion of which communities present their development priorities and negotiate contributions from government agencies and NGOs. In effect, this mechanism disadvantages indigenous communities and puts them under considerable pressure to change their ways of life.
Taken together, members of indigenous groups have very limited access to public services and institutions compared to Khmer constituents of the same communes63. To a large extent, this is directly related to their cultural membership. However, an important point of this paper’s argumentation is that members of indigenous groups are disadvantaged even if they do have equal access to services provided in Khmer, and to institutions operating in this language. Consider the case of education. Education is not a culturally neutral undertaking. What matters is not only the level of its availability but its content and the language in which it is provided. In Cambodia, education is conducted entirely in Khmer. It is designed nationally without the involvement of indigenous communities and does not give recognition to indigenous languages, cultures or knowledge. The more trivial consequence is that the content of education is not as relevant for members of indigenous groups and therefore of lower value. In addition, the playing field on which students with different languages compete is not even. More seriously still, by relying on a culturally exclusive knowledge base, formal education conveys to indigenous children a sense of cultural or intellectual inferiority and is likely to undermine the self-respect of individual members of indigenous groups (Battiste 2002: 33-44). Most seriously, through the provision of education in Khmer, the government gives crucial support to the survival of the Khmer culture, by guaranteeing that the associated language, history, and ways of life are passed on to the next generation. In contrast, no such support is being given to indigenous cultures. Not providing education in local language contributes to the marginalization of indigenous cultures.
In virtually all communes visited, the local, indigenous language is the first language children learn at home and is, in most cases, the only language used for interaction in the village and between members of the same linguistic groups. In contrast, Khmer is commonly used in Commune Councils and exclusively so where there is only a minority of indigenous peoples in the constituency. Even in communes with a strong majority of highlanders, the Council is likely to operate entirely in Khmer. During this research, there were only two Councils where the local language was used in deliberations rather than Khmer. The constituencies of both Councils consisted almost exclusively of members of the same indigenous group. Yet in another commune with a constituency almost entirely consisting of highlanders, the Council was operating in Khmer. Where there is a relatively small minority of one or more indigenous groups in the constituency, Khmer is likely to be used not only for discussions in the Council but also for the interaction between the Council and the indigenous constituency and for the dissemination of information on the village level.
In many communities it was stressed that the local language should be used for interaction between the Commune Council and the indigenous constituency. In some cases, interviewees suggested that the understanding of Council affairs depends on whether or not matters are discussed in local language. Yet in other cases, interviewees indicated that a number of constituents understood enough Khmer to participate in commune affairs and to translate for those who do not understand. In a number of communities, the importance of translation was pointed out, and it was complained that the government does not provide for translation. While members of various indigenous groups make considerable efforts to learn Khmer, only very few Khmer constituents or government officials learn the local language64. The requirement for counselors to speak and write Khmer was perceived as a disadvantage to indigenous constituencies in a number of cases65. There is a tendency among indigenous villagers not to admit language problems in order not to be considered stupid. Communication with government official above the Council takes place exclusively in Khmer and is regarded as very difficult by most indigenous interviewees.
Patterns of Participation: Well Equipped for Local Democracy
Highlander’s participation in the Commune Council is generally constrained by the same obstacles that limit their access to public services and facilities: The Council office is located in town and difficult to reach due to great distances, the absence of infrastructure, and the geographical features of indigenous homelands. Yet in contrast to schools and health centers, highlanders appear to be the most active participants in Commune Councils in many areas. Only in some communities, overwhelming obstacles systematically prevent communities from attending meetings. Councilors in many communes emphasized that members of indigenous groups are not only the most regular and patient participants, but most sincere and honest in their commitment to local development projects. The contrast in terms of participation was frequently striking in Councils with a constituency of different cultural groups. According to a number of Councilors, Khmers tend to participate only for individual gains and without much respect for the Council and its members. In contrast, members of various hill tribes have great respect for the Council, are more communally-minded, and very willing to commit. Those commitments are valid over generations. Members of one Council were particularly explicit about this difference and went to great length to explain it. These Councilors – a majority of them Khmer – pointed out that indigenous communities have a high level of respect for the Council, while “Khmers do not care”. The indigenous constituency had a lower understanding of Council affairs and had to travel a great distance to reach the office. Yet members attended regularly and participated in a very serious way. When leaders of these groups agree to commit to a project, the entire group will make sure that it is carried out. In contrast, Councilors claimed that the Khmer population understands much better about commune affairs and can easily access the office. Yet they do not care about meetings and “look down on the Council”. Khmers attend meetings only when they expect profit from participation. Although they are not as poor, they are not willing to contribute to development projects. Consequently, the Council has to “beg the poor people”. In this commune, a road was being built to which Khmers were reluctant to contribute. However, once the road was constructed with significant input of indigenous communities, Khmers used it for logging, overloaded their cars and spoiled the road. When Councilors objected, they were ridiculed by Khmer constituents asking “you built the road for driving, didn’t you?” Surely, such examples should not be generalized. However, in many communes, Counselors noted the different mode of participation of indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Interestingly, members of indigenous groups were said to have a higher level of appreciation for different opinions.
Attitudes among Government Officials: Integration
Generally, various government officials on the provincial and district level acknowledge that the situation of indigenous communities is inadequate and that actions should be taken to elevate their living conditions. At the same time, there is uncertainty about how this can be achieved. While attitudes towards indigenous communities do not seem ill-intentioned, they frequently reflect a low level of knowledge of indigenous cultures and a considerable measure of paternalism. For many officials, the adaptation of indigenous peoples to the way of life of the majority is the precondition for alleviating their living conditions. In many instances, the assumption is that providing education will automatically lead indigenous peoples to appreciate and follow the Khmer way of life. The underlying understanding is that the major difference between Khmers and indigenous peoples is that the former are ‘developed’ while the latter are not.
Positions created through the decentralization framework – other than in the elected Council – are rarely occupied by members of hill tribes. There was no case where members of the District/Provincial Facilitation Teams (PFT/DFT) or the Council Clerk were members of a local indigenous group66. The procedures for the recruitment of PFT/DFTs vary from province to province. Positions are filled mostly with members of provincial government departments and it appears to be impossible for highlanders to reach the technical expertise required for this job. At the same time, current members of PFT/DFT and Commune Clerks do not speak and do not appear to learn the local language. Frequently, these officials stressed the difficulties of having to facilitate decentralization without knowledge of the local language. In many instances, they were surprised by the fact that highlanders persist to have a language quite different from Khmer that is impossible for them to understand. A common attitude was that highlander’s lacking command of Khmer language is a serious obstacle to the implementation of decentralization policy. None of these officials seemed to feel that it was he or she who needed translation. Generally, they suggested that indigenous peoples should learn Khmer to overcome language related implementation problems.
Commonplace among various government officials, including some Councilors and Council Clerks, were statements like “they must keep what is reasonable and change what is undeveloped”. In a number of instances, the Council seems to understand its responsibility precisely as bringing about the changes needed for indigenous communities to ‘develop’. Obviously, this is not a culturally neutral affair. Khmer society provides the standard towards which the reasonability of indigenous culture is being judged67. For many government officials, traditional dress and houses, playing the gongs, and singing songs are regarded to be the essence of indigenous culture. In contrast, not much consideration is given to indigenous languages and institutions. Many elements of indigenous cultures, such as swidden agriculture and sacrificing, are widely considered uncivilized behavior, superstition or just bad habits. Directly and indirectly, development projects in the framework of decentralization seem to be used as incentives to adapt indigenous communities to the mainstream way of live. Given the high level of poverty among indigenous groups, this puts communities under considerable pressure. A number of indigenous communities expressed their belief that government policy requires them to stop moving, settle along roads and rivers and adapt to majority methods of agriculture.
Gaps in Representation
Cambodia’s political system is ill-suited to allow for the representation of indigenous groups. The election formula favors big parties and an indigenous political party – even with the undivided support of the diverse indigenous population – would have no chance to win a seat in parliament. Political representation of indigenous interests in the formal institutions of local governance is problematic as well, because Councilors are elected from party lists. Accordingly, Councils are mostly composed among party lines, which creates conflict and deadlock between members of different political parties. Through the dominance of political parties, political power can be said to remain effectively on the central level (Sokheng 2004: 3). Consequently, Councils in many instances are neither responsible nor accountable to local needs and interests. While this situation is unfavorable for the constituency of any commune, it is particularly disadvantageous for indigenous peoples, who rely on the local level of governance for democratic representation and self-government. Countrywide parties have no incentive to respond to their needs68. At the same time, there is virtually no indigenous self-representation. In the absence of indigenous civil society organizations, no alternative ways of political participation and representation are available.
There is a strong tendency for indigenous communities to be underrepresented in the Commune Council. This tendency becomes stronger the smaller the proportion of highlanders in the constituency is. Where the constituency consists almost entirely of highlanders, the Council is likely to be entirely indigenous, too. In contrast, where indigenous groups form a minority in the commune they are frequently not represented in the Council at all. In most cases, the share of indigenous Councilors is smaller than highlander’s share of the constituency. In many communes, it was found that the needs, interests, and consequently the development priorities of indigenous and non-indigenous communities deviate considerably. This is due to different ways of life as well as diverging living conditions. In many instances, non-indigenous constituents emphasize the need for ‘hardware’ development projects such as roads and bridges. In contrast, members of indigenous communities tend to stress the need for health services and education. Many Councilors confirmed that the development priorities of indigenous groups are frequently different from the rest of the constituency. Consequently, priorities of indigenous and non-indigenous communities tend to conflict. In such a situation, Counselors stated they would go ahead with projects for which funding is available. As was pointed out earlier, various mechanisms make it unlikely that funding is available when it comes to priorities of indigenous communities: Firstly, to mobilize support for projects, decentralization procedures require a certain number of users, which indigenous groups frequently do not reach due to culturally determined settlement pattern. Secondly, decentralization procedures require local communities to contribute a certain proportion of the costs. Indigenous groups are unlikely to have sufficient financial resources available, due to their poverty and low level of participation in the market. And thirdly, because of uncertain development benefits due to moving communities, government agencies as well as NGOs are less likely to support projects for indigenous peoples. Taken together, those mechanisms make it likely that indigenous priorities go unmet. And indeed a number of Councilors indicated that this might well be the case.
In interviews, some members of indigenous groups suggested that they should be represented on higher levels of government, to have a voice in the design of national policies that affect them as well as to create awareness of indigenous cultures in the larger society. Some interviewees stated that they wanted their cultures to be known and recognized. Occasionally, this was combined with the request to the government to provide information and education in a way that promotes the local indigenous culture within and outside the group. In rare instances, equal right to public positions and offices was claimed. Most of the time, the demand for recognition and representation took the form of requesting the government to permit and provide for it. Generally, members of any indigenous group appear to be disempowered to a high extent. They appear to feel that they have neither the right nor the capability to create and maintain their own representation in the political system of the larger society.
A strong contrast was found between communes with a majority of highlanders and communes with a minority of highlanders. In communes with strong majorities of highlanders, decentralization provides groups with a voice in the political process, allowing for distinctive needs and interest to be represented and addressed, while there was virtually no such representation in the larger political system before. In contrast, the specific needs of indigenous communities are not likely to be addressed where these groups form minorities in the commune. This is partly due to the mechanisms mentioned above. More importantly, it is due to the fact that local development priorities are determined by majority decisions. This situation is not transitional, but permanent. A minority of supporters of a particular political program or party can become a majority, but a minority of highlanders in the constituency won’t become a majority at any point. Consequently, majority decisions are likely to become a mechanism which reinforces the poverty and disadvantaged situation of highlanders, further widening the existing gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous groups69.
Illustration 8: Cultural Composition of Constituencies and the Effect of Decentralization