One hot day in June, 2009, Ven Samin, a member of the ethnic Suoy minority in Kampong Speu province, grabbed her digital camera and headed out of the house.
The 44-year-old arrived at a collection of damaged rice paddies in Oral district and began taking photos.
There are not many photographers or tourists in this part of the country, so local authorities quickly took notice of the woman with the fancy camera who was shooting pictures of empty fields.
Not long afterwards, Samin said, officials acting as representatives for an agricultural company with which the ethnic Suoy villagers had been feuding told her she was not permitted to photograph the sites because she didn’t belong to an accredited news outlet.
“They threatened me and told me to stop. They said I wasn’t a journalist, so I couldn’t take photos,” she said.
Unimpressed, Samin continued shooting, before arranging to send the snaps to the Indigenous Community Support Organization, based in Phnom Penh.
Companies embroiled in land disputes with ethnic minorities will likely find themselves dealing with more Samins before long. Her actions represent changing attitudes among members of indigenous ethnic minorities in Cambodia.
Once cut off from society and relegated to their remote homelands, several groups have grown more media savvy in recent years, using donated cameras, voice recorders, radio stations and connections with news outlets to ensure their voices and complaints are heard.
“They have captured pictures of community problems,” said Sao Vansey, executive director of the support organisation, which provided Samin and members of several ethnic groups with cameras. He has co-ordinated interviews with reporters and tried to let the people speak for themselves, because “they have a right to talk”.
Indigenous groups, Vansey said, represent only 1.3 per cent of the population. Their small numbers and off-the-beaten-path villages make them especially vulnerable to land-grabbing. Moreover, their isolation has made them targets of prejudice. Reaching out through the media is one way of fighting both battles.
And it’s not happening just in Cambodia. The theme of last year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – which minorities have observed here for the past eight years – was “Indigenous Media, Empowering Indigenous Voices”.
Vansey’s organisation has been following that credo. In 2011, they set up a radio show initially hosted by the Voice of Democracy station and which will move to another station this year. Who Are Indigenous People? runs at least twice a month, for an hour, and takes calls on everything from land disputes to language, spiritual beliefs and traditional music.
“We have to publish our problems in public in order to maintain our traditional way of life,” said Or Sothea, 38, a guest on the show and a member of the ethnic Por minority in Pursat province’s Phnom Kravanh district. “I think it’s important, because we can’t live alone.”
Some of the media efforts have resulted in small, but concrete, change. After Chheang Vun, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker, provoked outrage in November by calling Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha a “Phnuong”, the name of an ethnic minority that, when used pejoratively, implies the person is a backward savage, the public backlash and media flurry resulted in an apology.
Dressed in traditional clothing, about 10 members of the Phnuong, Jarai, Kreung and Suoy minorities then came to Meta House in Phnom Penh to hold a press conference urging tolerance and acceptance of their people.
But not everyone is sold on the marriage of media and ethnic minorities.
“There are a lot of initiatives like this, but somehow, it isn’t working,” said Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association president Pheap Sochea. “Sometimes they push so much, but the community does not always see why it’s important to do it.”
“They [ethnic minorities] know how to write only a little, and even when they take the pictures, they aren’t professional ones, and also, they are [over]thinking about what to report. But step by step, I think they are improving.”
Sochea also said because of a lack of internet connection in the communities, by the time some pictures are taken and delivered to news sources or rights groups, the “story” has lost its news value or currency.
The problem has affected Samin in Kampong Speu. Because she doesn’t use email, after she took the pictures of rice paddies in Oral district, she took out her memory card and paid a taxi driver to deliver it to the indigenous support group in Phnom Penh, which later published the images on its website.
Threats to stop taking photos didn’t scare Samin, and she has continued her work while fielding interviews from Voice of America’s Khmer language service and other local news outlets. As long as she keeps her camera, she plans to keep doing the same thing.
“I wasn’t afraid, I still documented the activity of the company that has our land and rice fields to keep, for proof.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]
Sen David at [email protected]