Cambodia’s minority languages receive little recognition, both in this country and abroad. Though the French colonial administration drew a distinction between the ethnic Khmer majority and the highland-dwelling “Montagnards” in the north-eastern provinces, there has been little appreciation, either by colonial administrators or post-independence governments, of the remarkable linguistic and cultural diversity among the residents of these areas.
These languages are now being rescued from obscurity and the threat of extinction, under a radio initiative designed – with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation – to safeguard parts of the Kingdom’s cultural heritage.
In 2001, UNESCO compiled the second edition of its Atlas of Endangered Languages. The findings were striking: of the 6,000 languages spoken on the planet, more than half were projected to disappear by the end of this century. The numbers in Cambodia were even starker: 19 of the country’s 24 catalogued languages have been classified as endangered.
Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO’s representative here, recalls discussing the Atlas findings with her predecessor when she was working for UNESCO’s International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding of Angkor.
After a brief interlude working on World Heritage projects overseas, Lemaistre returned to Phnom Penh to lead UNESCO. When she arrived, she found that the groundwork was already being laid to reach out to the country’s ethnic minorities.
“My colleagues were working on HIV/AIDS awareness programs. One of the ideas was using traditional theatre to convey the messages of prevention in the Khmer language,” Lemaistre told 7Days. The project was an unprecedented success, “and in fact, the lesson from this project was the one applied to indigenous communities”.
In 2007, UNESCO began tentative steps towards engaging minority language speakers in the country’s highlands, with the aim of raising awareness about the spread of HIV/AIDS. To that end, a radio drama was produced in the Krueng language, which is spoken by about 18,000 people in the northeast. While many of the younger generations of Krueng speakers are fluent in Khmer, a high proportion of the older generations have no Khmer vocabulary.
“We realised the only way to target and to be understood by these minority indigenous populations was to be able to speak in their languages, to transmit all those messages we wanted to transmit. And the result was a very funny, very successful radio drama,” Lemaisrte said.
At the same time, UNESCO was collaborating with other UN agencies in the Creative Industries project, largely funded by the Spanish government. The purpose of Creative Industries was to develop income generation activities for indigenous peoples who have traditions of producing beautiful crafts but, through their geographic isolation and lack of exposure to Cambodia’s wider economy, have lacked access to local, regional and national markets to buy and sell goods.
As a result of the success of these two programs, UNESCO decided to widen its ambitions in the engagement of minority language speakers. A licensing agreement was struck between UNESCO, its cooperating partners and Radio National Khmer to allow a guaranteed amount of time for the broadcast of minority language content.
Engaging a team of locally based producers with strong ties to their villages and communities, the program now has two hour-long broadcasts each day to service the speakers of four minority languages found in Mondulkiri province.
These broadcasts have supplemented UNESCO’s other efforts to achieve preservation of the country’s other endangered languages. In the last five years, UNESCO has published a number of books cataloguing Cambodian languages for posterity.
A recent bilingual publication provides a pictorial list of common words, with their equivalents in Khmer and the Brao language spoken in the northeast. A French language book charts the cultural practices of the Bunong minority in Mondulkiri Province, which includes a section on poetry recited in the ethnic group’s mother tongue. Most recently, linguist and Professor Gerard Diffloth has catalogued common words found in the Kuay language, which is spoken in eight provinces across the country and will be a focus for future minority-language radio broadcasts.
Over the long-term, in addition to incorporating other languages and expanding syndication to other provinces, UNESCO hopes to hand over the production of these radio broadcasts to local communities.
Such a move, according to Lemaistre, is the apotheosis of the organisation’s mission to promote cultural diversity.
“We want to give to these indigenous people the opportunity to talk about their own culture on national radio, to have a space for indigenous people in the nation,” she says. “It’s very important for them to be informed, to reinforce their pride, and to allow them to maintain some of their control over their traditions and their languages.”