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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Minority council plans could be seen as "state within a state"

Minority council plans could be seen as "state within a state"

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

region.

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

process.

"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.

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