Oun Champei, the La Ak village chief and a Kreung indigenous community member, fears that urban culture is threatening his people’s traditional way of life.
To confront this, older members of the community started an initiative in 2009 to revive their culture by holding traditional dance and music classes for young people in the village.
However, only twenty people have participated in the classes since 2009. One class member, Hen Sophat, 16, said she was learning the dances to keep indigenous traditions alive, but would prefer to live an urban lifestyle. She added that she had tried skin whitening lotion and had multiple ear piercings because she thought it was fashionable.
Elders from the indigenous Kreung community in Ratanakkiri are up against stiff competition as they work to instill their cultural heritage in younger community members who are swayed by urban culture and lifestyles.
Not only do their efforts matter for cultural preservation, but exhibiting tradition is part of a larger effort for indigenous communities to register collective land, a right first granted in the Land Law of 2001.
“We put a lot of effort into preserving our culture, because we fear it may disappear with the younger generations. Now we see other cultural influences, such as modern music, drawing the attention of our youth. The next generation may forget their traditions,” said Veng Bunmorng, community leader in La Ak village.
“We are seeing rapid changes with youth, especially in communities that are close to towns. Groups in remote areas are maintaining stronger ties to tradition, and some are even strengthening their identity,” said Sao Vansey, managing director of the Indigenous Community Support Organisation, which helps fund the classes.
He added that groups trying to preserve traditional ways of life may be aware of what is at stake, as identity and recognition as an indigenous group is now closely related to whether a group will secure collective land rights with the government.
Since the government will not register collective land without an official legislative process, an NGO-sponsored pilot programme launched in 2003 has created a three-step process for indigenous recognition, registration and land titling, according to Yin Sopheap, a land rights advisor for UNDP at the time.
Indigenous communities must request recognition as an indigenous group from the Ministry of Rural Development, apply for legal recognition with the Ministry of Interior, and finally submit an application for a community land title from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.
During the first phase, groups submit an application to the MRD and are visited by a working group, which then submits a second report to the ministry for consideration after having interviewed community members.
Sao Vansey said to be recognised by the Ministry of Rural Development, a community needs to prove it is a collective unit sharing common language, customary law and culture, including art, dance and ceremonial events.
“We had to tell them about our dances, ceremonies and arts, such as weaving, to show our ethnic identity through our culture and tradition,” said community leader Veng Bunmorng.
He said his community was successfully recognised as an indigenous group by the Ministry of Rural Development and has submitted community bylaws and an application for legal recognition from the Ministry of Interior.
The ICSO’s Sao Vansey said the Kreung in La Ak have recently received an official recognition letter from the Ministry of Interior and will move ahead with the land registration phase in 2011.
According to an International Labor Organization update in December 2010, 17 communities, excluding the 3 pilot groups, have been legally recognised by the Ministry of Interior and are eligible to apply for land registration. Thirty-one have been recognized by the Ministry of Rural Development and will now apply to be certified as legal entities.
However, no indigenous group has received a communal land title in the 10 years since the Land Law was passed.
Sao Vansey said, after the pilot program, each step has taken roughly one to two years for each group, and that it remains unclear how long the land titling step may take.
After a seven to eight year process, the three pilot communities are still waiting for their land titles after approval was granted in 2010, according to Sek Sophorn, the national project coordinator for the Support to Indigenous Peoples Project at the ILO.
There is hope that by increased communication among different communities and NGOs, indigenous groups can strengthen their culture and community, Veng Bunmorng said.
“We have contact with other ethnic minority groups and share many of the same traditions. If we all work together we have a better chance of not losing our heritage.” Additional reporting by mom kunthear