On the second day of his two-day visit to Ratanakkiri, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday cajoled indigenous minority members about their ready adoption of new technology amid the shift away from traditional ways of life, and extolled the benefits of rubber plantations over their rotational farming methods.
Mr. Hun Sen, who was speaking to more than 500 mostly ethnic Tampoun minority members in the province’s Andong Meas district, also had words for an unnamed foreigner whom, he said, had angered him by blaming the government’s promotion of rubber plantations on the destruction of indigenous minority culture.
“Do you want to continue collecting vines and harvesting resin?” Mr. Hun Sen asked the assembled crowd before requesting that those in attendance raise their hands if they owned a car, motorcycle or mechanical tiller.
Focusing on the rattan baskets that the minority members carry on their backs in Ratanakkiri, Mr. Hun Sen said that the traditional baskets and modern lifestyle co-existed, and that the government’s policies on agro-industry, particularly rubber, would ensure that ethnic minorities would advance socially and economically.
“Although there are rattan-made baskets still existing today. They [ethnic minority members] carry rattan-made baskets out of houses with tiled roofs. They have rattan baskets and they drive motorcycles and use telephones,” Mr. Hun Sen said at the ceremony where he delivered 521 private land titles to mostly Tampoun families.
“That is why I blasted a foreigner for saying that the development of rubber plantations in Tumring [Kompong Thom province] would lead to the loss of indigenous minority culture. I became hot tempered,” Mr. Hun Sen said, adding that he had rebuked the unnamed foreigner, asking him if he wished to see minority communities always living just from the collection of forest vines, rattan and tree resin.
“They want me to develop. But on the other hand, they give me a lesson in the planting of rubber plantations and how they will lead to the loss of [indigenous] culture. This is too bad,” the prime minister said.
“Don’t be confused. Wearing shoes, driving motorcycles and so on is not against indigenous lifestyles,” he said. “The spirits will not kill those who are driving motorcycles…our ancestors never banned us from driving motorcycles,” he added.
Privately owned rubber plantations, both large scale and small holder, now cover 29,235 hectares of land in Ratanakkiri, the prime minister continued, emphasizing the province’s potential in producing rubber and the need to build more roads to exploit the nascent rubber industry in the northeast.
Describing Ratanakkiri as the country’s fourth “economic hub” after Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, Mr. Hun Sen on Thursday announced the building of three new roads that would link remote areas of Ratanakkiri to allow for agro-industry penetration.
Andong Meas resident and ethnic Tampoun member Rocham Poeun, who attended Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, said that minority members are in favor of development, but development should not come at the cost of the destruction of minority cultures and traditions.
Mr. Poeun said he was particularly concerned that the promotion of individual land titles, which are being assigned under a program led by Mr. Hun Sen’s student volunteers, was ruling out the possibility of communities receiving communal titles. And without communal titles, where will land be set aside for spirit forests—which are sections of the forest considered sacred ground—and forest graveyards, Mr. Poeun asked.
“We are happy to see development, but it doesn’t mean that we should get development in order to kill our culture and tradition…. Without our culture and traditions it means we cannot be recognized as indigenous people. So we want communal titles to protect our identity,” he said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, which has represented many minority communities in their fight to save their land from speculators, illegal loggers and economic land concessions, said that Mr. Hun Sen had disappointed members of the minority community by not addressing the pressing issue of land disputes.
“We have received a lot of complaints from minority people when Samdech Hun Sen just raised the matter of development, but not the issues of deforestation and land grabbing committed by powerful people,” he added.