Claiming widespread discrimination, representatives of the country’s indigenous ethnic minorities urged the government Tuesday to ratify a new UN declaration that protects the rights of indigenous peoples.
“Indigenous peoples such as us face many difficulties resulting from discrimination in terms of language, religion and self-determination,” Tep Tim, 53, a Kuoy ethnic minority, told a news conference in Phnom Penh.
“Of particular concern is the increasing loss of land and natural resources which we traditionally use and own,” said Tep Tim, a member of the Indigenous Rights Active Members Network, which represents 17 ethnic minorities across 15 provinces.
In addition to the IRAMN, NGO Forum, and the Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association, which represents ethnic minorities in Ratanakkiri, Preah Vihear and Mondolkiri provinces, called on the government to ratify the UN measure.
“The Royal Government seems not to pay attention to the indigenous peoples,” said Ros Hang, 55, a Kuoy minority member from Kratie province.
“There is discrimination. It seems that we are not the citizens in same country,” he said.
The UN General Assembly on Sept 13 approved the Declaration on Indigenous Rights, which sets minimum international standards for the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous people.
The adoption of the declaration was the culmination of a 23-year struggle to have the UN’s highest body formally recognize the rights of indigenous people worldwide.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the National Assembly was not aware yet of the new UN declaration, but said parliament would consider its ratification.
Cambodia already has laws in place to protect indigenous minorities, he said, adding that the government does not abuse minority rights.
“According to the Constitution, we must protect them,” he said.
Speakers at Tuesday’s news conference cited numerous examples of alleged exploitation of their ancestral lands, even though the 2001 Land Law protects land used by indigenous communities, making it difficult to buy or sell.
“For indigenous people, land is their life,” Ros Hang said, adding that ethnic minorities are generally naive, and often blindly agree to exploitative land sales, which drive them deeper into poverty.
In Kratie, Ros Hang said, the government has given more than 20,000 hectares of Kuoy minority land to a Chinese firm to grow acacia and teak trees.
Tep Tim said that in Preah Vihear, chemicals used by a local gold-mining firm have sickened local Kuoy villagers.
“We lose land and forest,” she said. “We will try to struggle to protest more. If we stop, we would lose all the land, no forest. We are all dead,” she added.
Ngy San, deputy executive director of NGO Forum, said that although the UN declaration is not binding for member countries, it forms a new standard for promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.
In Cambodia, he said, indigenous peoples are often tricked into leaving their land without compensation, on the grounds that it is state-owned land or a protected area.
“The violations occur without any stopping,” Ngy San said.
Indigenous people in Ratanakkiri province are losing their land to government concessions and wealthy private buyers at an alarming rate, he said.
“The land in Ratanakkiri is in a dangerous situation,” Ngy San added, claiming that “outsiders” have bought up all the Tampuon minority land around Ratanakkiri’s Yeak Lom lake, once a site of worship for the Tampuon.
Ngy San also cited as a troubling example the long-running land dispute between Jarai minority villagers in Ratanakkiri and Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, Keat Kolney, over 450 hectares of O’Yadaw district land, which is now being turned into a rubber plantation.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Governor Muong Poy agreed that land under indigenous control in his province was shrinking, but he pinned the blame on minority groups themselves.
“They did it themselves. The rich and powerful didn’t force [them],” he maintained.
“There is no discrimination, the people who sold have not been forced or threatened,” he said. “They just sold.”