A draft plan to form a Khmer Leu Council to represent the views of ethnic minorities
on the development of their region has immediately been queried by the government.
"The Khmer Leu Council could be misunderstood as the creation of a state within
a state," Ngy Chanphal, Under Secretary of State for Rural Development, told
an international seminar in Ratanakiri last week.
"The Constitution states that Cambodia is an indivisible state," he said.
The conference produced a draft policy statement, which included the creation of
the council, and asked the government to formulate a strategy for developing the
The Feb 26-Mar 1 conference on sustainable development of Cambodia's northeast, held
in Banlung, Ratanakiri, recommended that minority representatives be permitted to
take part at all levels of decision-making about development plans.
"It is the responsibility of the State to ensure that the process [of development]
is orderly and just. If the Khmer Leu communities are to have the opportunity to
control their own destiny, within the fabric of our life and civil society, then
they must have access to the mainstream decision-making institutions of government,"
the draft said.
To enable the highlanders to participate fully and effectively, a Khmer Leu Council
should be formed, it said.
Some foreign participants acknowledged that the proposal could be sensitive, but
others were concerned that without such a council, minority groups could be prevented
from having an equal say in development plans.
"We're not recommending that each minority should have an association but we
want a fair representation. The Khmer Leu Council must be independent and kick politics
out of it," said a foreign observer who asked not to be named.
Another said: "You can't expect a villager picked up by the PRDC (Provincial
Rural Development Committee) to speak his mind in a high environment in Phnom Penh.
He will lose his confidence and be intimidated by people wearing ties."
In his opening remarks at the conference, First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh
said the government would not allow investment projects to proceed if they threatened
the livelihoods and cultures of highland people.
Sok An, co-Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, representing Second Prime Minister
Hun Sen, delivered a similar message at the seminar's closing session.
"Development is unavoidable. The main issue is to coordinate it so it does not
affect culture, customs and living conditions of the ethnic groups," An said.
The draft document also called for "interim regulatory policies", requiring
all investors, including those already signed, to submit management plans and environmental
and community impact assessments before beginning projects.
"What's important is that culture is not just song and dance but it is the livelihood
of people," said Andrew McNaughton, resident senior program officer of the International
Development Research Center (IDRC).
Seminar participants also called for minority people to be encouraged to learn to
read and write Khmer language if they wanted to effectively participate in the development
"Development comes from education. People need to understand each other,"
said Sam Siphal, a provincial education official.
Of Ratanakiri's 76,000 people - 85 per cent of them are from minorities speaking
a number of languages - less than one third are literate, according to statements
at the seminar.
"If many villagers can speak, read and write Khmer they will be better able
to help in planning the future of this province. They can let their opinion be heard,"
said Charles Keller, an independent researcher.
The seminar discussed the problems of educating hilltribes people, such as a reluctance
to send their children to government schools, and the best ways to do it.
Siphal suggested a non-formal system of selecting volunteers to be trained as teachers
"Choose a volunteer, buy him a bicycle with a board attached to its back, so
the teacher can teach people at their farms," he said.