BAN LUNG, RATTANAKIRI-The sight of highlander people walking or riding elephants
along the bumpy roads and tracks of this isolated province, men dressed in loin clothes
and women smoking large pipes, bearing elaborate woven baskets with field produce,
is a familiar one in this corner of Cambodia.
Referred to as the hill tribes or uplanders-frequently with a sense of contempt or
connotation of primitiveness by Khmers-the indigenous highlander peoples of north
and northeastern Cambodia have traditionally received little attention from their
Ethnically and culturally distinct, these groups face not only encroachment from
economic development but also the diffusion of their distinct highland traditions
through increased contact and assimilation with Khmer moving into their areas.
Different Cambodian governments have tried over the years to assimilate the highlander
minorities, who live out in the hills in remote villages that become all but inaccessible
during the rainy season.
In the past the highlanders, who represent 80 percent of the population of Rattanakiri,
lived an independent existence with the forest. But today, they experience social,
cultural, and economic pressures, and have more and more contact with other people.
Their environment is changing and becoming more modern, and the highlanders must
adapt. At the same time, they must take steps to protect their unique culture.
The expanding highlander population's constant need for new land may bring them into
conflict with the Khmer people and provincial authorities and the potential for a
clash of cultures is in the offing. The highlanders practice subsistence swidden
agriculture, also known derisively as "slash and burn," which involves
burning clear plots of land and planting dry rice and tubers for a few years. After
a few years' cultivation, they move on to clear new land, leaving the previous plot
fallow to regenerate for up to 15 years before returning to it. As subsistence farmers,
they have not developed much of a cash economy and have little bargaining power when
they do sell things at the local markets.
Under the Sate of Cambodia government, "the indigenous minorities have fared
the best," said one commentator, "not for its overtly benign policies to
safeguard the minorities but because of the lack of any coordinated policies toward
But the formation of a new government following the national elections in May and
interest in tourist and commercial development of the region may pose land conflicts.
Schemes under consideration to develop the area commercially include logging, farming,
livestock grazing, and tourism. Rubber plantations surround the provincial capital
of Ban Lung.
A newly built hydroelectric plant provides free electricity to the provincial capital
of Ban Lung and surrounding areas, another incentive to develop the area. Several
new hotels are being planned in Ban Lung, although one proposed for the hilltop site
of an existing Buddhist monument was successfully opposed by the local monks.
The newly established Khmer Highlander Association, headquartered in Ochum, is an
indigenous Cambodian NGO whose express goal is to protect and preserve the unique
highlander culture from assimilation and disappearance.
Registered with the SNC in 1993, the Association is intended to provide a mechanism
for the deferent highlander peoples to preserve their traditional culture in the
face of encroaching pressures of development and modernization. As KHA President
Choung Pheav said, "the whole reason for forming the Highlanders Association
is to have democracy for the people. It is a way for the highlanders come together
and be a strong force as a cohesive group, in order to preserve the unique culture
of the highlanders."
The association is just getting underway, and one of its aims is to establish a market
center and cooperative to market some of the highlanders' products, including produce,
handicrafts and artifacts. One observer noted that developing a cash economy would
help keep the highlanders on their land and continue their traditional way of life.