C AMBODIA is about to begin tackling the thorny problems of its ethnic minority
The Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy has confirmed most of the
$260,000 it needs from UN agencies for a nine-month research project.
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
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
"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".
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.