Tampoun Culture Threatened by Exploitation of Resources

There are 23 indigenous groups in Cambodia, all of which are marginalized to some degree. In Ratanakkiri province, a tide of outside influences has changed the way of life of the Tampoun minority particularly drastically. Adapting to modernization has eliminated some of their oldest traditions, including making handicrafts, traditional dancing and music, and speaking the local language. Dancing and music are now typically performed by elders in paid shows for tourists, and words are also disappearing quickly. Assimilation into mainstream schools where only Khmer and English are spoken leaves little space for diversity.

Other traditions have been wrestled from them more abruptly, by the land grabs and deforestation that are rife in Cambodia’s northeast. Among these are the elaborate funerals that Tampoun and other minorities have practiced for hundreds of years, involving multiple days of feasting, animal sacrifice, funeral processions, coffin-making and grave adornment. Although funeral ceremonies are one of the last remnants of Tampoun tradition in this area, they are on the verge of being eradicated.

While members of the dominant Khmer culture tend to cremate their dead to free their souls, indigenous people usually bury their dead in the ground as a way to reconnect with the Earth and spirit world in a more literal way. The spirit of the dead is believed to leave the body and become a part of the spirit forest, along with generations of ancestors. Bodies are usually laid to rest in an ornate roofed enclosure, decorated with desirable material objects that might be useful in the afterlife, such as TVs, radios and cigarettes. Older graves even have roof carvings of helicopters and planes because of U.S. flyovers during the war. It is important not to disturb or desecrate these burial sites, to which families frequently return to replenish offerings. This is a value which anyone who has lost a loved one can easily understand.

However, in Yeak Lom commune, which consists of five mostly Tampoun villages directly adjacent to Banlung City, widespread natural resource exploitation and land rights violations are leading to deforestation and ownership disputes over indigenous cemetery sites. The large trees that were formerly located in the area have all been cut down. These trees were considered to have powerful souls, but after years of logging, the protected area’s rich biodiversity has been severely compromised, and much of the Tampoun spirituality is disconnected. The trees were also prized for the burial and funeral ceremony, which requires a mature tree for making a coffin, signifying the dead person’s oneness with nature. A coffin building is a large-scale community event that traditionally occurs on the second or third day after a death in a Tampoun village.

In Yeak Lom commune, a burial site for the villages of Sel and Lapo has been designated as private property and further burials there are being prevented. Unless indigenous groups manage to acquire a communal land title—only eight of which have been granted since the program began in 2001—there is nothing they can do if local officials allow businesspeople to purchase cemeteries or spirit forests. These villages have a second burial site that is deeper inside the Community Protected Area around Yeak Lom lake and has approximately 200 graves, but the site will soon be full.

It is common to see Khmer business owners in the area purchase and display items that were raided from indigenous burial sites, such as totem poles, gongs and jewelry. The plunder of these artifacts is a symbol of control over the original inhabitants of the area.

The Tampoun land losses have exacerbated their struggle for identity and equality. They seek the same privileges that are bestowed by the government on the dominant Khmer populace, including the right to have a sacred place for their ancestors.

Yeak Lom commune would be much worse off if it wasn’t for an agreement the Tampoun community made with the provincial government allowing it to retain its land in the No. 1 tourist destination in Ratanakkiri, Boeng Yeak Lom volcanic crater lake. The Community Protected Area around the lake was formed with help from international development groups, and it receives thousands of visitors each year. But now, rampant logging in the area means that there is nothing but a 30-meter buffer of degraded forest around the lake left to be protected, and the protected area’s 25-year lease will be up in 2022, with speculators circling for opportunity.

But selling off land to private companies, economic land concessions and wealthy Khmer businessmen has decimated the original 5,067 hectares in the Yeak Lom Protected Area. The land was originally divided into small, 5-hectare plots for local families to use for swidden farming, but a number of sales have been made out of desperation, or as a result of manipulation or forced removal. Sometimes, businesses simply clear more land than the villagers agreed to sell; other times, buyers have been known to visit villages, host drinking parties and collect thumbprints under false pretenses before declaring it a signed land transfer agreement.

A local NGO in Ratanakkiri, Indigenous People for Agricultural Development in Cambodia, has started a program working within the commune to establish an Elder Service Association Fund, which creates committees to help source funds for burials and land rights. At the moment, several of these committees have joined together to formally request that the provincial governor grant them official land titles to their traditional cemeteries.                         The five villages in Yeak Lom commune, where more than 500 families reside, have asked for four new burial sites of about 5 hectares of land each, but it is still far from clear that these will be granted. The need for timber to make coffins is another problem, as wood must now be imported from outside, increasing the cost of the already expensive funerals. The latter conundrum is ironic, because the point of designating the area as “protected” was to conserve its rich bio-cultural diversity.

The government in Phnom Penh pays ample lip service to the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, but since the 1990s, when significant Khmer migration to the area began due to a government push to develop the country’s northeast, only indigenous displacement and disenfranchisement has transpired. Indigenous people are seen as needing their “older brothers”—the Khmers—to take care of them and lead them into the market economy. The frontiersman have plundered graves, wildlife, gems, luxury wood, and, most importantly, the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. They are becoming an underclass whose poverty and lack of resources are hindering their ability to have a voice—a process symbolized by the loss of centuries-old funeral traditions.

Andre Papadimitriou is pursuing a Ph.D. in human geography with a focus on the impacts of land laws on indigenous peoples of Cambodia and is an adviser to the Highlanders Association.

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