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Preserving a unique culture

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.



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