There was a time when success for people of ethnic minorities in Cambodia was measured by the number of elephants, serfs, livestock, gongs and wine jars they owned, along with the extent and quality of their traditional dress and decoration.
As development encroaches on their communities, their notions of wealth and power are shifting toward Khmer standards. But a gulf still separates their traditional ways from the country’s mainstream culture, a fact the government fails to account for in its development strategy for their areas.
These are the conclusions of a report just released by the International Labor Organization, titled “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and Poverty Reduction Strategies in Cambodia” and written by Kristina Chhim of the Center for Advanced Study.
As access to traditional land and natural resources has dwindled, land and food that were once taken for granted have become problems, and have turned into priorities for most communities, she writes in the report.
This is less the case for the Stieng and Mel people of Kratie province, where land disputes have not reached the extremes of Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces. In those two provinces, land grabbing and the establishment of massive plantations have transformed the Jarai, Tampuon and other tribal ways of life, the report says.
Today, according to the report, villagers are seeking not only different forms of work and wealth, but also different power and social structures. Village elders and traditional leaders are increasingly being swept aside by younger villagers who have Khmer-language skills and the ability to deal with the outside world.
Mondolkiri Deputy Governor Keo Horn said Tuesday that traditional leaders typically handle personal and cultural issues, while government-appointed village chiefs handle legal issues.
However, the government is studying the possibility of giving traditional leaders legal recognition as community representatives, he said.
Additionally, the UN Development Program is planning a study on the possibility of recognizing ethnic-minority traditional law and justice, said Jeremy Ironside, an agricultural and natural resource management consultant.
For Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Muong Poy, traditional leaders may still be present, but all the power resides with government-appointed village chiefs.
Whether or not this is the case, villages that are successfully adapting to development often have strong traditional structures, said Graeme Brown, coordinator for Ratanakkiri Community Forestry International.
“Where the traditional structures are weak, the modern structures can do what they like and are very open to being corrupted,” he said.
“To build those structures without the elders as checks and balances is just asking for trouble.”
Problems arise not from modernization per se, but from hasty changes made without allowing for time to adapt, Brown said.
“Where there’s an environment of anarchy, those personal interest things become paramount, so people lose interest in communal wealth,” he said. “If the modernization is so fast that you end up with multiple cultures within one village, there is cultural breakdown…. But if it happens slowly with support for the parts of the community staying together, then the benefits are spread across the community.”