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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ethnic minority group Phnoung calls for an apology

Ethnic minority group Phnoung calls for an apology

Asked to apologise for his racist description of opposition members in parliament last week as lawless “Phnoung” by the ethnic minority group’s leaders, ruling-party legislator Chheang Vun yesterday denied the ancient culture even still existed.

Senior members of the Phnoung, who are said by anthropologists to be the second- or third-largest group of at least 25 different ethnic minorities that remain in the Kingdom, sent a letter to National Assembly President Heng Samrin yesterday calling for an apology.

They want Vun to travel to their ancestral heartlands in Mondulkiri province and buy a cow for sacrifice to atone for his parliamentary outburst against members of the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party.

Yun Mane, chairwoman of the board of directors at the Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association, said she was outraged that a Cambodian People’s Party politician had invoked a racist stereotype of her people to attack HRP president Kem Sokha.

“He said [Kem Sokha] was cruel like Phnoung, this is a serious outrage to the Phnoung. We are unaware of what the Phnoung did wrong. Why does he use this stereotype?” she said.

During a meeting of about 50 of her association’s members on Tuesday, they had agreed Chheang Vun should also travel to Dos Kramom Mountain in Mondulkiri province, where 70 per cent of the Phnoung live, for the sacrificial gesture, Yun Mane said.

But Chheang Vun remained defiant yesterday, claiming the word had a separate meaning and that the government no longer recognised individual ethnic minorities but regarded all of them as Khmer.

“This ‘Phnoung’ is to refer to people who don’t obey the law and live without legality, morality and civilisation. ‘Phnoung’ refers to a small group of people who break the law, don’t know law, have no culture and civilisation and break the law that is established,” Vun said.

“If Khmer ethnic people are unsatisfied, it is their problem, not mine because I regard them as not Phnoung,” he said, adding that the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk had banned using the term Phnoung in the late 1960s.

Graeme Brown, an independent consultant on forestry and ethnic minorities, said there were two definitions of Phnoung, including an out-of-use meaning that used to refer to all indigenous people and was a “gross generalisation”.

“Yes, it was racist. It was used in a derogatory manner, and whether he was using it to refer to all indigenous people or just the Phnoung people, it was still used in a derogatory manner, and the Phnoung still exist and have their own rich culture and language,” he said.

Se Oeun, a professor of literature at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that, according to the Cambodian dictionary produced by famous Khmer scholar Choun Nath, Sihanouk had indeed outlawed the term Phnoung as a generalised

term for ethnic minorities, replacing it with the more accurate “Khmer Leu” (Highland Khmers).  

“If the dictionary does not allow us to use it and he uses, it’s very much wrong. If he’s an angry human being, he should not use this word as he’s a lawmaker, because it’s not appropriate to use,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chhay Channyda at channyda.chhay@phnompenhpost.com

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