O’beang district, Mondolkiri province – The lives of Mondolkiri’s ethnic Phnong are changing faster by the year as pressures big and small, from bulldozers to DVD players, alter the physical and social landscape.
On Christmas Day, 2004, there were parallel celebrations in Bou Sra commune: Christian Phnong attended services in their village churches, and traditional animists held a counter-celebration of their own beliefs at the top of Bou Sra waterfall.
In the churches, Phnong Christians mostly sat quietly and listened, standing periodically for prayer. Some songs were sung in both Phnong and Khmer, including a stilted version of Jingle Bells at one church, backed by electric guitar, bass and drum machine.
Many Christians no longer play traditional instruments like the gong, which is used to contact spirits in which they no longer believe.
“Before turning Christian, Phnong were always intimidating themselves to drink alcohol and believing in various bad spirits,” said Yung Soth, president of the Khmer Evangelical Church. “Then they got God’s good news from their fellow people that drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco is self-punishment.”
At the top of Bou Sra waterfall, however, about 100 traditional believers gathered to do just that—to drink wine, eat, play traditional music and pray at their newly built “spirit house,” dedicated to Phiya Ya, spirit guards of the waterfall.
“We built a small spirit house here to pray to the spirit owners of this majestic waterfall,” said Plan Reth, 51, a Bou Sra commune clerk. “We want to preserve the ancient Phnong belief from extinction. Now, people can find a spiritual place where they can gather to worship.”
The celebration at the spirit house beneath a large tree, where Phnong prayed and left offerings of food and incense sticks to please the spirits, had nothing to do with Christmas Day, Plan Reth said.
“We are not Christian, we are the believers of Preah Sen,” he said, adding that about 40 percent of the commune’s population is Christian now, and the rest worship spirits.
Amid efforts to preserve traditional elements of Phnong culture, outside influence has increased exponentially since the late 1990s, when roads made more of the province accessible to Khmer, Cham Muslims and foreigners.
Between 1999 and 2004, the annual number of tourists visiting Mondolkiri rose from about 100 to 6,000, Governor Thou Sonn said. Approximately 10 of 36 km of a new toll road up the once near-impenetrable mountain to Bou Sra waterfall have already been completed.
The history of this region has nevertheless been shaped by the influence of outsiders. The Ho Chi Minh trail and associated US bombings impacted the province during the 1960s and early 1970s. Mondolkiri and neighboring Ratanakkiri province were also early Khmer Rouge strongholds, and thousands of indigenous people became Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Khmer Rouge leaders regarded hilltribes as uncorrupted by modernity, a clean slate for radical communist ideology. As the regime became increasingly paranoid, however, traditional clothing and worship were banned. Hilltribe villagers, especially those close to the Vietnamese border, who were vulnerable to suspicion of contacts with Vietnamese hilltribes, fell victim to executions and purges.
Throughout the conflict, many Phnong fled to Vietnam, where some of them converted to Christianity before returning to eastern Mondolkiri in the 1980s.
“The [Vietnam] border is kind of insignificant here…because there are Phnong on either side,” said Megan MacInnes, project supervisor for health NGO Nomad RSI.
The close ties between ethnic minorities on opposite sides of the border are at the center of current political controversy related to the predominantly Christian Montagnards, who are fleeing political and religious persecution in Vietnam and seeking asylum in Cambodia. Christianity has been a uniting force for the diverse tribes of Montagnards, who have politicized the religion to find a common voice for their social and political grievances.
Late last year, RCAF Deputy Commander in Chief General Meas Sophea urged authorities to prevent Ratanakkiri from becoming a “place of Christianity,” while Cambodia’s National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy ordered hundreds of police officers to guard the province’s border to prevent the asylum-seekers from entering the country, and alleged that Christians were serving US policy.
Before war came to Mondolkiri, the Phnong were a much different people from even the most traditional villagers of today.
As night fell on Puham village in O’Reang district, scores of villagers filed into a traditional-style house, where they crowded in front of a TV and DVD player hooked up to a car battery, playing a Khmer language karaoke video.
But gathered together, Puham villagers had more urgent concerns to discuss: The loss of their farming and grazing lands to investors and plantations.
Traditional land rights are respected under the law, but there have been numerous complaints that the lack of official titles has been used to grab land throughout the province.
That loss of land, and with it livelihood, has been exacerbated by an especially poor rice crop this year, villagers said. With industry just beginning in Mondolkiri, there are few means other than farming to support a family, and Christianity is increasingly seen as a more economical alternative to traditional beliefs.
“Phnong people in Mondolkiri province become Christian because they have seen that the converts have more money to support their family,” Yung Soth said.
Maly Len, son of the pastor of a Bou Sra commune church, explained: “The Christians don’t drink wine like the typical Phnong, and they don’t waste their resources on events such as buffalo sacrifice.”
He added: “The world is changing, so we have to make ourselves more economical, so our families can survive.”
Maly Len said the Christian Phnong are also more comfortable with private ownership, as opposed to traditional communal sharing, as well as other steps toward modernization.
“There are definitely economic divisions emerging in communities where there weren’t any before,” MacInnes said. “Previously, the majority of all transactions in the community were in kind…whereas now things need to be bought. Everything has monetary value.”
Once unheard-of ways of earning money are now being adopted by some groups.
“Now, when the government builds the road through the forest, they have to clear the forest, so they need the Christian Phnong to cut the trees, because the Christians don’t believe in the spirits as do the traditional believers,” Maly Len said. “If a traditional Phnong needs to chop down a tree, he waits to have a good dream before cutting.”
With encroaching development, traditional farming methods practiced by the Phnong, which involve shifting cultivation, have also increasingly come under threat.
In the Vietnamese highlands, where land pressure is much higher than Mondolkiri, the establishment of permanent farming locations has led to drastic changes in social life, including a move away from communal housing toward nuclear families on individual plots, Oscar Salemink wrote in his essay “The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands.”
The end to rotation farming also led to cash-cropping on the small family farms as opposed to growing rice and raising cattle on open, shared lands and collecting diverse materials from the forest for consumption and trade.
Cash-cropping is sometimes effective, but it makes farmers extremely vulnerable to global fluctuations in price. An instance of this problem arose in Mondolkiri when coffee prices dropped after the government distributed free coffee seeds in the 1990s, a former Mondolkiri NGO worker said.
In addition to differing religious and economic practices, geographic divisions have also emerged between the Christian and traditional Phnong, who generally live in separate villages.
“Because a Christian in a village doesn’t appease the spirits anymore, if something happens, if someone gets sick, they blame the Christian and force them to pay for sacrifices,” said Diethelm Kanjahn, consultant for Christian NGO International Cooperation Cambodia.
“That is one of the reasons that Christians tend to live in separate villages here.”
In spite of the divide, the evangelism of Phnong and Khmer Christians is explicit.
“Jesus will spread all over and rule the whole world, and everyone will kneel down in front of him,” Yung Soth said.
That is exactly what the traditional Phnong fear. “We are worried that our traditional beliefs will become extinct if we don’t mobilize,” Plan Reth said.