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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt approves study of ethnic minorities

Govt approves study of ethnic minorities

C AMBODIA is about to begin tackling the thorny problems of its ethnic minority

communities.

The Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy has confirmed most of the

$260,000 it needs from UN agencies for a nine-month research project.

The

study - headed by Academy Doctor Pen Dareth - was initiated earlier this year

with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The all-important

green light for the project has been given by, it is understood, all political

parties and the Monarchy.

Political leaders in Cambodia have avoided the

issue because it was considered a low priority and for fear of being seen,

especially by Khmer Rouge propoganda, as being "insufficiently nationalist or

even pro-Vietnamese," according to a conclusion in a recent survey on minority

groups by Minority Rights Group International.

The latest Ministry of

Interior statistics (March 1995) say there are 21 ethnic groups in Cambodia

totalling more than 370,000 people.

The statistical findings of the

Academy's research will be interesting enough: some observers put the ethnic

Vietnamese population up to one million more people than the ministry's figure

of around 100,000; and the population of ethnic Chinese could total a further

400,000.

UNHCR representative Serge Ducasse said the KR still spoke about

four million Vietnamese in Cambodia; BLDP founder Son Sann reckoned there were

one million; UNTAC estimated 300,000 and the latest Ministry of Interior figure

was 103,000 "so no-one really knows" and the numbers were manipulated according

to various political interests. "It is very difficult for the Government to move

with all this uncertainty, rumors and xenophobic feeling," he

said.

"People need to know real data [on ethnic minorities] and on the

Vietnamese in particular, he said. "The government is somehow hostage to these

feelings of xenophobia expressed particularly by the local media".

One in

every ten people living in Cambodia belong to ethnic minorities, according to a

rough estimate in the study proposal.

Dareth, in the proposal, said that

the lack of reliable information - demographic, socio-economic and cultural - on

ethnic minorities contributed to misunderstanding, tension and in some cases

discrimination.

The study will confront sensitive issues, among them the

almost 3,000 Vietnamese still stranded at Chrey Thom after fleeing racially

motivated attacks on the Tonle Sap in early 1993; the passage and affects of the

controversial Immigration and Nationality Laws; and the issue of ethnic Khmer

Krom living in Vietnam.

Dareth said that indignous minorities - called

highlanders, uplanders or hill-tribes - "are a very proud people who value their

culture and language. However, they have never commanded much scholarly or

public attention, either inside or outside of Cambodia."

"The... Academy

believes that for the sake of the rights of all the people of Cambodia, ethnic

problems should be resolved in a peaceful if not amicable manner," he

said.

The study will gather reliable assessments of group numbers; and

data into their socio-economic, cultural and legal-political status and history.

The research will also identify problems on their integration into Cambodian

society and reveal to what extent they enjoy basic rights such as constitutional

protection under the law, equal voting privileges and health.

"Through

sustained, independent research, the Academy's efforts can point to solutions

that can help peaceably reconcile the peoples of Cambodia as well as contribute

to more harmonious relations between Cambodia and her neighbors," Dareth

said.

The study would help dispel "myths" about minorities, including

that, "like a virus invading the body, [they] bring about confrontation and

violence in a State," he added.

He said the study could provide

information to a proposed National Ethnic Minorities Committee to prepare laws

defining ethnic status.

He said that Cambodia was a "classic example" of

a country where history and political maneuverings by external powers had

created havoc and "stood in the way of the evolution of a stable and peaceful

policy, and distorted the picture of stable ethnic relations. It is this type of

historical consciousness that has made Cambodians obsessed with being destroyed

by the Vietnamese."

There will be seven three-person teams conducting

social-anthropological research into an ethnic groups. Two teams will each

research Vietnamese and hill-tribe groups; and three others will research the

Chams, the Chinese and the Lao, Thai and Burmese groups.

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