An historical photo exhibit and book illustrate the history of Cambodia’s highland people.

The book, “From Montagnards to Ethnic Minorities,” tells a story of arrogance and thoughtless decisions, unsound goodwill and oversight.

The four authors lean on the side of the threatened, but they also present situations from the points of view of all involved. As they tell of the last 50 years on the plateaus of Vietnam and Cambodia, one odd fact emerges—having managed to salvage their world throughout the US war in Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge regime that decimated their families, those highland communities could nonetheless soon fall victim to peacetime development.

This book looks at the highland populations of Cambodia and Vietnam during the last century and reviews the two countries’ policies toward them.

Commissioned by the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia—a Bangkok-based research center of the French Foreign Affairs Ministry that focuses on the effects of development in the region—it is meant as a scientific work for the general public, said institute representative Gregoire Rochigneux.

Just released in French, the 354-page work will be published in English by the National University of Singapore toward the end of the year, Rochigneux said.

To mark the publication of the book, the institute has brought to the French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh a collection of historical photos never exhibited in the country.

They were taken by Adhemar Leclere, who was a colonial administrator in Cambodia from 1890 through 1911, said Mathieu Guerin, co-author of the book. A former journalist, left-wing activist and union man in France, Leclere loved Cambodia; he learned Khmer and studied Cambodia’s culture and traditions, which made some French colonialists accuse him of neglecting his official duties.

“They didn’t know what to make of him,” said Guerin.

First based in Kampot, Leclere spent 16 years in charge of the area from Kompong Thom to Kratie and ended his career in Phnom Penh. During all those years, Leclere took pictures of daily life in the countryside, and was among the first Europeans to become interested in the Phnong hill tribe, said Guerin.

At his death in 1917, his photos‚—277 on paper and 144 on glass plates, plus 700 objects he had collected in Cambodia—were donated to the Museum of Fine Arts and Lace-Work in his native town of Alencon. Photos on exhibit at the French Cultural Center until July 14 are on loan from that French museum.

The book mentions that these hill tribes were the first ones to live in a region that covers the central plateaus of Vietnam, spreading over Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces and on to Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

At one point, the French considered making the region a separate territory since the tribes went back and forth over the Cam­bodian/Vietnamese border. Colonial administrators dropped the idea and divided the hill tribe territory based on their own bureaucratic requirements, said the book’s authors. As a result, some Phnong were successively Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and finally Cambodian, they said.

Unlike the Khmer, whose Hindu roots go back two millennia, and the Vietnamese, who were under Chinese occupation more than 2,000 years ago, the highland communities “remained nearly impervious to Indian and Chinese influences, creating a strong cultural distinction with neighboring civilizations,” the authors wrote.

Throughout the centuries, the various hill tribes have shared cultural traditions but life centers on their villages, they said. Today in Cambodia, the Brao, the Brou, the Tampuon, and the Jarai live in Ratanakkiri; the Stieng and especially the Phnong in Mondolkiri.

In Vietnam, the government has been encouraging poor Vietnamese to migrate into the highlands and have built vast coffee plantations. Clashes between hill tribes, pushed out of their ancestral land, and Vietnamese authorities in early 2001 led some highland people to flee to Cambodia, US hill tribe organizations to come to their help, and the US to welcome some of them as refugees.

More than 3.5 million poor Vietnamese found a living in the highlands, where 800,000 to 900,000 hill tribe people used to be, said Guerin. “One cannot deny that this is a matter of national interest,” he said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk conducted a colonization and “Khmerization” campaign, authors wrote in the book. The word Phnong, which was used as a generic term to describe hill tribes, was banned and replaced by Khmer Leu, or upland Khmer, they said. Hill tribe men could no longer wear loincloths in public.

Few Khmer moved to Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces. However in Rat­anakkiri, Brou, Tampuon and Jarai, whose land had been taken and who had been pushed around by soldiers, revolted in 1968. In the course of the following two years, some of their villages were slaughtered.

On both sides of the border, hill tribe people greatly suffered during the war in Vietnam as Viet Cong forces took refuge on the Cambodian side and the US bombarded the whole region.

From 1970 until 1978, Cambodia’s northeast was controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Hill tribe communities were relocated; nearly one hill tribe person out of five died during that period, wrote the authors.

Highland communities recovered from the war, as did other Cambodians and Viet­namese. But in the Vietnamese highlands, they cannot go back to their old way of life.

Communities in Cambodia may also be close to this point of no return. In spite of good communication at the provincial level, the government and international organizations have so far made little effort to plan what should be done, said the authors.

The colonialists of another era who were trying to Westernize countries in the name of “civilization” have been replaced by agencies eager to “develop,” they said.

Assuming that a brick or wood structure is better than straw one, they will impose them on highland people, with no consideration to the fact that their lifestyle is based on moving to a new field every few years and that permanent houses could shatter their world.

Ever since the French administration, governments have attempted to prevent hill tribe rotation agriculture. In fact, communities keep on returning to the same fields over a 15-year period, and this gives the land time to rejuvenate, the authors wrote in the book.

As to productivity, they said, “the red land that can be found in Ratanakkiri, Mondolkiri and Dak Lak (in Vietnam) yields 1.5 to 3.5 tons of paddy rice per hectare, depending on the year. This is far from negligible when one realizes that in the lowland of Ratanakkiri, yield rarely exceeds two tons per hectare in permanent fields.”

One of the biggest dangers for hill tribe communities that have lived in and from the forest for millennia is deforestation, said the authors. Chopping down a forest amounts to crushing the basis of their civilization, they said.

Hill tribes believe that without trees the spirits can no longer be honored, and therefore every activity and behavior must be changed. Fighting illegal logging and mismanaged forest exploitation is vital for them.

Finally, migrations of demobilized soldiers and other Cambodians is having its effect on the northern provinces. Many hill tribe people have lost their land in the process. The 2001 Land Law recognizes their right to own community land, but the sub-decree that would spell details for its implementation has yet to be written.

“From Montagnards to Ethnic Minorities” was written via the Internet. Guerin, who is completing his thesis on the highland people in colonial times at Paris VII University, lived in Cambodia from 1997 through 2001.

He taught French at the Faculty of Law and Economy in Phnom Penh, and spent 2000 studying archives, meeting researchers in Phnom Penh, and interviewing hill tribe people in their villages.

The other authors are Andrew Hardy, a British researcher with the Hanoi, office of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient; Nguyen Van Chinh, an anthropology professor at the National University of Vietnam in Hanoi who obtained his doctorate at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands; and Stan Tan Boon Hwee, who is working on his doctorate at the Australian National University of Canberra and is an associate researcher in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Singapore.

After one year of research, the four authors met for three weeks to discuss the book, and spent the following year writing the copy over the Internet.

“We would tear each other apart, going from loathing to loving each other,” said Guerin.

None of them is totally satisfied with the final version, he said. But the participation of both Western and Asian authors from different fields of specialization has produced a more objective work, he said.

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