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Living on the Margins: Minorities and Borderlines in Cambodia and Southeast Asia

Center for Khmer Studies

International Conference
Supported by

Living on the Margins:

Minorities and Borderlines in
Cambodia and Southeast Asia
Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 14-15, 2008


Published by:
Center for Khmer Studies - Publishing Department
234 Street 450, Tuol Tumpung II, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: (855) 023 991 937 - Email:
Conference Proceedings
Living on the Margins:
Minorities and Borderlines in
Cambodia and Southeast Asia
Siem Reap, Cambodia
March 14-15, 2008
Conference Coordinator: Chean Rithy Men

General Editors: Peter J. Hammer

Graphic Design: KHENG Pytou Kethya

Photo: Fence at a border crossing between Burma and Thailand (Peter J. Hammer, 2007)

The articles that appear in this publication are edited versions of selected papers delivered
during the International Conference Mainland Southeast Asia at its Margins: Minority
Groups and Borders, March 14-15, 2008, at the Center for Khmer Studies, Siem Reap,
Cambodia. The Conference was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of the
Capacity Building in Cambodian Higher Education Program. The contents of this book
and additional papers presented at the conference are available in PDF form from the
Center for Khmer Studies website,

ISBN: 978-99950-51-05-1

Copyright ® 2009 The Center for Khmer Studies

Table of Contents
Preface 5
Introduction: Living on the Margins: Minorities and Borderlines 7
in Cambodia and Southeast Asia
Peter J. Hammer
Part One: Borderlines and Border Crossings
Spaces of Resistance: The Ethnic Brao People and the International 19
Border Between Laos and Cambodia
Ian G. Baird
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 45
Robert L. Winzeler
Women, Pregnancy and Health: Traditional Midwives among the 65
Bunong in Mondulkiri, Cambodia
Brigitte Nikles
Part Two: Development and Indigenous Communities:
Targeting the Marginalized

Development - In Whose Name? Cambodia’s Economic Development and its 91

Indigenous Communities – From Self-Reliance to Uncertainty
Jeremy Ironside
Changes in Gender Roles and Women’s Status among Indigenous 129
Communities in Cambodia’s Northeast
Margherita Maffii
Development as Tragedy: The Asian Development Bank and Indigenous 141
Peoples in Cambodia
Peter J. Hammer
When the Margins Turn One’s Step Toward an Object of Desire: 177
Segregation and Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in Northeast Cambodia
Frédéric Bourdier
Part Three: Constructing Self and Others:
Understandings Beyond Borders
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia: 189
Towards Liberal Multiculturalism?
Stefan Ehrentraut
The Making of an Invisible Minority: Muslims in Colonial Burma 221
Stephen L. Keck
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia: Defining Islam Today and the 235
Validity of the Discourse of Syncretism
Allen Stoddard
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 249
Darren C. Zook

The Important Forgotten – Men Living in Rural Indonesia Who Have Sex With Men: 265
The Implications for HIV Education
Ed Green
Conference Agenda 297

Conference Participants 303

Conference Attendees 305


Cambodia is undergoing dramatic political, economic and social changes, placing

new pressures on minority groups and vulnerable peoples. Some changes are
driven by Cambodia’s uniquely troubled history. Other forces are global, affecting
Cambodia and all other nations in the region. The conference invites innovative
interpretations of “margins,” “borders” and “minority groups.”

The problems of ethnic groups are one central concern. Transnational and cross-
border influences are creating new challenges and opportunities for ethnic
minorities. The Cham and other Muslim communities are reconnecting to
international Islam. Labor markets cross national boundaries. Vietnamese migrant
workers travel to Cambodia, as Cambodian workers travel to Thailand.
International loans, agencies and programs targeting “development,” itself an often
disruptive cross-border force, are transforming many Cambodian institutions and
redefining traditional social margins in the process. This clash of forces is most
profoundly felt by the indigenous peoples of the northeast. The conference invites
examination of other minorities and vulnerable groups “on the margins” who have
been systematically denied access to important social resources. Theories of social
exclusion teach that the landlessness, street children, victims of domestic violence
and gay and lesbian persons are on the margins of different Cambodian institutions
and that borders and boundaries need not be of a strictly geographic nature.

Developing from the fifth semester session of the Center for Khmer Studies’
Rockefeller Foundation-funded Building Capacity in Higher Education program
covering vulnerable peoples and ethnic minorities in Mainland Southeast Asia, this
two-day conference provides a forum in which early career Cambodian academics
present their research alongside international scholars with related interests. With
an emphasis on developing comparisons between Cambodia and other countries
in Southeast Asia, individual presentations and panel discussions provide
opportunities for the presentation of research, trends and analyses covering
minority groups in Southeast Asia.

Chean Rithy Men, Program Director

Peter J. Hammer, Visiting Scholar
Living on the Margins:
Minorities and Borderlines in Cambodia and Southeast Asia
Peter J. Hammer

Important insights into Cambodian society can be gained by looking at the lives of
those living on the margins. So I have learned by wrestling with the topic
“Cambodia at the Margins: Minority Groups and Borders,” while serving as the
Visiting Professor for the Fifth Session of the Center for Khmer Studies’ Capacity
Building in Cambodian Higher Education Program supported by the Rockefeller
Foundation. As the papers in this volume demonstrate, an appreciation of margins,
minorities and borderlines teaches a number of object lessons, but it also suggests
some enlightening methods of analysis. Margins identify fault lines, demarcating
borders where powerful tectonic plates rub against each other, whether these plates
represent conflicting social institutions or the forces of transcendent, but ill-defined
processes like nation-building, economic development or globalization. Engaging
the lives of real people caught on these margins can lead to new understandings of
the often invisible forces shaping and reshaping Cambodia and the region.
This is not an easy journey. Notions of “margins,” “minorities” and “borders”
are multilayered and enigmatic. But even concepts that appear more concrete upon
first impression, such as a physical border or the idea of the nation-state itself
seldom withstand closer scrutiny. For example, what is Cambodia? A country? A
colored space depicted on a map? A people? An idea? Equally difficult problems
arise from asking what it means to be Cambodian. How is it different, if at all, from
what it means to be Khmer? The physical borders of Cambodia have shifted over
time. In the first chapter of this volume, Ian Baird examines the Lao-Cambodian
border, showing how arbitrary such line drawing exercises could be under French
colonial administration. He then examines how changing physical boundaries
affected the Brao People living on each side of the new border. This is not the only
physical border of Cambodia that has shifted. With the redrawing of the line on the
map between Cambodia and Vietnam in the Mekong delta, the Khmer of Khmer
Kampuchea Krom went from being members of the dominant ethnic group in
Cambodia, to being ethnic minorities in Vietnam, demonstrating how facile
designations of majority/minority status can be.
Broader lessons can be drawn from these simple examples. Lines, line-drawing,
colored shapes on a map take on meaning primarily in a political context. The
international community too often takes the building block of the nation-state for
granted, but it is important to remember that Cambodia did not exist as a modern

nation-state until 1953. Yet the Kingdom of Cambodia, with its echoes in the
Angkorian Empire, substantially pre-dates the 1648 signing of the Treaty of
Westphalia, which ostensibly marked the beginning of the modern international
age of nations. It is telling, however, nearly four centuries later, that we still
confront the reality of failed states and the perceived need to engage in nation-
building. Post-World War II theories of economic development have introduced the
parallel notion of market-building to accompany the objective of nation-building.
But how does one build an effective system of governance? How does one build an
effective market? What are the effects of nation-building and market-building on
the lives of people living on the margins?
While we might be rightfully skeptical of the notion of market- and state-
building, there is no doubt that markets and states exist and exert powerful
fields of influence. Moreover, something undeniably significant happens at the
boundaries of states and markets. Official documents and passports are needed to
legally cross national borders. With goods, tariffs are charged and customs must be
cleared. Yet legal frames provide, at best, only partial understandings. People and
goods cross borders illegally, as well. Political boundaries seldom correspond
to the boundaries of increasingly global economic markets. Moreover, the
multiple mismatches between political and economic borders invite predictable
opportunities for strategic behavior. Black markets are formed, goods are smuggled
and people migrate for higher wages. Poor people in Vietnam travel to Cambodia
for opportunities, while poor people in Cambodia migrate to Thailand in
search of better jobs. The potential for human agency is a constant in the face of any
externally imposed boundary. But human agency also has a darker side, as
problems of human trafficking and child sex tourism illustrate. These issues
constitute other problems for peoples living on the margins.
While physical borders are important, not all borders are physical. Distinctions
in class can establish differences more profound than any wall or fence. It is also
important to realize that every social institution is marked by its own borders and
boundaries. These borders define who is in and who is out; who belongs and who
does not; who is visible in the eyes of society and who is invisible. In traditional
Khmer society, for example, the divorced woman and the unwed mother are both
outside the construct of the traditional family and potentially outside the construct
of feminine virtue. Fear of transgressing the demands of family (and the absence of
alternative social institutions to provide surrogate functions for the support of the
traditional family) leaves many victims of domestic violence alone and isolated. The
borders defining family can leave people trapped outside, as well as in. Family
values, traditional gender roles and notions of sexual identity create their own
borders, rendering many gay men and lesbian women invisible and simply
Introduction 9

nonexistent in Cambodian society. Street children may be outside the construct of

family, as well as outside the construct of the bureaucratically defined education
system, living on the margins of a changing economy. Returnees from refugee
camps in the early 1990s, former Khmer Rouge soldiers and recent Cambodian
deportees from the United States are outside the construct of the polity and notions
of community. The disabled can fall outside the construct of what it means to be
healthy, virtuous or respectable, particularly in a value system animated by
Buddhist teachings of karma. There are economic borders as well. The landless,
migrant workers and people with high debt burdens fall outside the construct of
traditional patronage systems and the institutions of property and credit.
The concept of margins may be the most slippery notion of all. Just as borders
have many different dimensions, so do margins. Margins can be geographic,
political, economic, social or cultural. A margin can be an edge, merging into the
notion of a border. But margins are seldom between co-equal parts. Living on the
margin is living on the edge, pejoratively being marginal or marginalized. The
margin is intrinsically a relational concept. To be at the margin, by definition, is to
be removed from the center. The margin and the supposed center stand in
opposition. To be at the margin is also to be on the losing end of power. To
examine the lives of people living on the margins, therefore, is to focus on the most
vulnerable and neglected members of society. To understand the many processes of
marginalization, however, requires an understanding of the workings of authority,
because it is the working of power and authority that create and define the
margins in the first place. This is the perspective of Frederic Bourdier in this
volume, who provides a thoughtful discussion of margins. Bourdier suggests the
necessity of approaching margins in a dynamic sense as a process, not just as a
static state or spacial location. Ian Baird makes a similar point in his discussion
of borders, stressing the importance of human agency and the ability of boundaries
to create “spaces of resistance.” Where there is action, there is also reaction. These
perspectives suggest that power can reside on the side of the marginalized as well,
and that margins can be sites of activism and change. Ironically, economists have a
not dissimilar view. In economics, all of the action is at the margin. Economists
study marginal costs and marginal rates of substitution. Equilibria are defined in
terms of the equalization of marginal costs and marginal revenue. Margins are not
simply dead ends. But this is not to suggest that margins are innocent or safe places.
Without doubt, margins can be rife with danger for their inhabitants, and the
dynamic processes defining them can be threatening.
One frame to approach people living on the margins is through theories of
social exclusion – understanding marginalization as the systematic exclusion of
people from important social institutions or social resources. There are many

important social constructs and institutions in Cambodia: the market, the state
(political structures), the Party (CPP), the community or village, the education
system, patronage networks, the traditional family, the construct of ethnicity, and
the construction of gender roles and notions of sexual identity. We have already
noted how social institutions have their own boundaries and margins. Framing
problems in terms of social exclusion requires first defining the institution or
construct at issue and then identifying its borders (margins). These borderlines are
conceptual, not physical locations, and serve as demarcations of differences – who
belongs and who does not belong? Who is on the inside and who is on the outside?
Who is a member of the majority and who is a member of the minority? Most of
these borders are fluid and contestable, calling for an understanding of the social,
political, cultural and economic forces that cause these boundaries to shift and be
altered over time. The exclusion can have both passive and active dimensions.
Passive elements might simply be the withholding or denial of access to the
resources that are necessary for survival and advancement. Active elements might
reflect more direct forms of exploitation of vulnerable groups through trafficking,
prostitution, child labor, eviction, land grabbing or political disenfranchisement.
Social exclusion was a dominant theme in the CKS Capacity Building Lectures
for the Fifth Session. What is striking about Cambodia (and most of the so-called
Third World) is how far removed every day Cambodian life and Cambodian
institutions are from the hypothesized models of the western state and the western
market. Cambodia is a rural, agricultural economy. In these rural communities,
there is still only a limited role for markets and most social relations have not been
substantially monetized. Here, the family remains the most important social
institution. Patronage systems, not decentralized markets or competition, mediate
access to most important economic resources. Similarly, traditional patronage
systems, not neutral civil service norms or the rule of law, define access to political
resources. In this world, personal relations matter. When relations matter, so does
ethnicity, religion, family status, reputation and, above all, connections. In the CKS
lectures, we examined the role that the ethnic Chinese historically played in the
Cambodian economy and the role ethnicity plays today in determining access to
economic resources. We explored the role of patronage, particularly how patronage
systems historically serve important allocative functions that well-functioning state
bureaucracies and markets aspire to displace. Land and land ownership are critical
institutions in what is still predominantly a rural, peasant economy. The problem of
increasing landlessness and limited forms of credit, therefore, can also be framed
and understood in terms of economic and social exclusion. As people lose their
land, or land is increasingly unavailable to the next generation, there is greater
in-country migration from rural to urban areas. When jobs are unavailable in the
Introduction 11

larger Cambodian cities and when wages are higher for comparable work in
Thailand, a cascading effect of cross-border migration is triggered by people
seeking access to gainful employment. The local, national and international
quickly become connected by the inter-linkages of increasingly global markets.
The family always plays an important role in traditional societies, a role that
becomes narrower and less important with the development of markets and state
institutions. Cambodia has an unusual history. A combination of relatively low
levels of population, relatively easy access to individual land ownership and very
limited interference at the local level from a distant and anemic state, have all
contributed to making the nuclear family the primary building block of Cambodian
society. The family serves a broad range of personal, social and economic functions.
In the lectures, we examined this traditional role, as well as the lives of those living
on the margins of the family, margins that are becoming increasingly difficult
in light of the stresses of a changing economy. Notions of marginalization and
understanding the family as a complex social institution provide critical insights
into contemporary social problems such as domestic violence, street children and
the challenges facing gay, lesbian and transgendered persons (concepts themselves
that take on important localized meanings in the Cambodian context).
Theories of social exclusion facilitate better understandings of the nature of
institutions and the dynamic processes of marginalization. Better understandings,
in turn, create new mental maps that can help actors envision more creative paths
forward. People living on the margins are not helpless victims. Even the most
vulnerable group has the ability to respond to the processes of marginalization in
some fashion. One possibility is affirmatively to engage the political process to try
and redefine the borders and barriers causing the exclusion. While possible, such
action is never easy. Certain obstacles are endemic to political action on the
margins. Action assumes a social identity that can engage in political discourse
(sufficient visibility). Action assumes some awareness of the larger economic and
political forces under way driving the processes of marginalization, such as the
workings of global economic markets or the agendas of international aid agencies
(awareness). Action also assumes sufficient cooperation within the group to permit
effective collective action (cohesion). These elements may be lacking because the
victims of marginalization are often isolated and disempowered, lacking any
tradition or means of coordination. Some stories in Cambodia, however, are
positive. Darren Zook examines how action is taking place amongst certain
communities of disabled persons, and how their work can serve as a model for
others. But Ed Green illustrates how other vulnerable groups remain invisible, like
the men who have sex with men (MSM) in rural Indonesia. Self and group
awareness in this setting is more difficult to establish. It is also worth remembering

that civic engagement and political activism are artifacts of the modern democratic
state – often modern remedies for modern ills. Engaging the political process and
seeking greater access to social resources may not be the answer to all problems of
marginalization. Indigenous communities, for example, have historically been
defined by their isolation from the polity, not their engagement with it. Autonomy
may be a value as well as inclusion. Some groups do not seek greater assimilation,
even on terms that preserve their culture. Many barriers stand in the way of the hill
tribes using the same tactics as disabled persons, even assuming they want to do so.
Social exclusion and access to social resources are not the only frames through
which to approach “Cambodia at the margins: Minority groups and borders.” As
the International Conference held on March 14-15, 2007 in Siem Reap and the
papers in this volume suggest, there are many creative and effective ways to
approach this topic. A more complete collection of conference papers and
PowerPoint presentations can be found by following links at the main CKS website
( The smaller number of papers selected for publication in
this volume take approaches and address themes that are complementary to but in
many ways quite different from those addressed in the CKS Lectures. The papers
here are organized around three dominant themes: 1) Borderlines and Border
Crossings; 2) Development and Indigenous Peoples: Targeting the Marginalized;
and 3) Constructing Self and Others: Understandings Beyond Borders. These
themes will be briefly outlined here, with slightly longer expositions at the
beginning of each section.
The challenges facing indigenous communities constitute a central focus of this
volume. The hill tribes in Cambodia account for only 1% of the total Cambodian
population, but have always constituted the majority of those living in the
remote northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. The reader will be
introduced to important aspects of the language, culture and beliefs of these
peoples in the essays themselves. Suffice it to say here that these vernacular
communities provide an enlightening foil not only to the ethnic Khmer that
comprise the dominant ethnicity in Cambodia, but also to the external forces of
western modernity that are reworking Cambodia and are now making their way
into most remote reaches of the globe. But the lives of other people living on the
margin are also examined in this volume. In addition to indigenous peoples in
Cambodia and Southeast Asia, the reader is exposed to Muslim minorities living
in Colonial Burma, the Cham of Cambodia, the struggles of people living with
disabilities in Cambodia and the lives of men who have sex with men (MSM) in
rural Indonesia. The following outlines the structure and themes of the volume:
Introduction 13

Part One: Borderlines and Border Crossings

This section plays with the idea and meaning of borders and boundaries. Each
paper involves indigenous communities, but each examines a radically different
notion of borders and a very different example of a border crossing. Ian G. Baird,
Spaces of Resistance: The Ethnic Brao People and the International Border Between Laos
and Cambodia, is concerned with physical boundaries between nation states. He
details the artificial way that the border between Cambodia and Laos was drawn
and the impact that this external imposition has had on the Brao people, who lived
in the area long before there were modern nation states and national borders.
Robert Winzeler’s paper, Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia,
deals with the religious beliefs and religious conversions of some indigenous
peoples. Rather than physical spaces, the border here is between different belief
systems. Crossing the border comes not in the form of passing from Cambodia to
Laos, but in the form of changing sets of beliefs and ideas. These borders are every
bit as contentious as those guarded by nation states. Brigitte Nikles, Women,
Pregnancy and Health: Traditional Midwives among the Bunong in Mondulkiri,
Cambodia, provides the third perspective on borderlines and border crossing. At one
level, the paper provides insights into the Bunong People’s understanding of the
universal human crossing represented in the act of giving birth. At another
level, the paper, like Winzeler’s, is about battle lines between competing belief
systems – modern understandings of health and medicine under the umbrella of an
expanding public health system, and traditional understandings of the sources of
health and community well-being. Each paper gives the reader a deepening
understanding of the lives and beliefs of members of these indigenous communi-
ties, while creatively challenging our understandings of borders and boundaries.

Part Two: Development and Indigenous Communities: Targeting the

The crusade for “economic development” is the defining ethos of the modern age.
This section provides a comprehensive assessment of the problems that
development is raising for indigenous communities. Jeremy Ironside, Development
– In Whose Name? Cambodia’s Economic Development and its Indigenous Communities
– From Self-Reliance to Uncertainty, gives the reader an overview of Cambodia’s
recent strategies for economic development and the negative impacts these
efforts are having on indigenous communities. As the title suggests, he argues that
traditional practices have historically afforded these communities a substantial
amount of self-reliance. After all, these groups have survived for centuries on their
own. While the stated aims of economic development are to increase security (food,
income and social), the effect of disrupting traditional practices is often to increase

the uncertainty and insecurity facing these people. Margherita Maffii, Changes in
Gender Roles and Women’s Status among Indigenous Communities in Cambodia’s
Northeast, continues the theme of assessing economic development but focuses on
the lives of women and changing gender roles. Relying on first person narratives,
Maffii provides real insight into these women’s lives and challenges, giving voice to
those living on the margins. Peter J. Hammer, Development as Tragedy: The Asian
Development Bank and Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia, frames the issue of economic
development as a conflict between competing worldviews. The paper dissects two
Asian Development Bank reports about indigenous peoples to reveal what
Hammer argues are the mistaken beliefs driving the tragedy of modern economic
development. Frédéric Bourdier, When the Margins Turn Toward an Object of Desire:
Segregation and Inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in Northeast Cambodia, concludes the
section with a thoughtful meditation on the impact of development on the belief
systems of indigenous communities. He highlights the dangerous and subtle ways
that external interventions can undermine traditional belief systems, but cautions
against the naiveté of simply embracing isolation and segregation as appropriate

Part Three: Constructing Self and Others: Understandings Beyond

The last section returns to the notion of borders and margins, but this time from a
perspective of identity – the construction of self and others. It also looks at
questions of social inclusion and exclusion in the context of modern nation-building
and civic engagement. Stefan Ehrentraut, Minorities, the State, and the International
Community in Cambodia: Towards Liberal Multiculturalism?, is a bridge paper. It
connects indigenous peoples as minorities in Cambodia with Cambodia’s other
ethnic communities. It also connects the discussion of targeting indigenous
peoples for development with the broader issues of nation-building and the role of
international law in affording protection for the rights of indigenous peoples. The
next two papers examine how religion can act as a marker for minority status and
potential marginalization. Stephen L. Keck, The Making of an Invisible Minority:
Muslims in Colonial Burma, takes an historical look at how Muslims were treated in
Colonial Burma. The paper underscores the theme that “invisibility” and lack of
social recognition within the governing polity are important aspects of being
marginalized. To act, a group must first be visible. Allen Stoddard, The Cham
Muslims of Cambodia: Defining Islam Today and the Validity of the Discourse of
Syncretism, examines questions of religious identity, religious belief and how belief
systems change and evolve over time. The Cham simultaneously struggle with
issues of self-definition as a minority group within the borders of Cambodia, as
Introduction 15

well as with defining their understanding of Islam within the international Islamic
community. Zook and Green examine the lives of other groups living on the
margins – people with disabilities and men who have sex with men (MSM).
Darren C. Zook, Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in
Cambodia, details how people on the margins can engage social processes in a
manner that can redefine the location and meaning of the boundaries that define
them. Using narratives similar to Maffii’s approach to indigenous women, Ed
Green, The Important Forgotten – Men Living in Rural Indonesia Who Have Sex With
Men: The Implications for HIV Education, provides important insights into the MSM
community. The paper explores how these men navigate the borders created by
understandings of family, religion and sexual identity in rural Indonesia.

All the papers in this collection were written as stand-alone responses to the
Conference topic, “Minority Groups and Borders: Cambodia and Southeast Asia at
the Margins.” They can be read alone or in different combinations according to
the reader’s interests and inclinations. Collectively and serially, however, the
papers provide a sustained meditation on the themes of margins, minorities and
borderlines. This volume also illustrates how an appreciation of the lives of those
living on the margin can sometimes hold the key to understanding the profound
yet often invisible forces shaping our world. Creative destruction may be the
mediating force of economic markets, but it leaves new margins and new problems
in its wake.

This volume provides other insights as well. This volume is a window into the
Conference, which itself is a window to the Capacity Building in Cambodian
Higher Education Program, which is a window into the broader work of the Center
for Khmer Studies (CKS). CKS’s mission is to promote research, teaching and
public service in the social sciences, arts and humanities as they relate to Cambodia.
This volume and the work of the Capacity Building in Higher Education Program
would not be possible without the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.
It would also not be possible without the hard work and leadership of Chean Men,
Director of the Capacity Building Program, and Philippe Peycam, director of CKS.
Speaking on behalf of the other contributors to this project, we are grateful for their
efforts and support.
Part One: Borderlines and Border Crossings

Borders give rise to notions of division, but what unites us can be just as powerful
as what divides us. The human being, whether it is an indigenous person or a
resident of Phnom Penh or New York City, stands prior to any concept of ethnicity
or minority status. Psychologist Otto Rank stressed the universal significance of the
child being at one with the mother in the womb (unity) and the corresponding
implications of the birth trauma (separation). Cambodians describe the act of
giving birth as its own form of border crossing, chlang tonle, roughly translated as
crossing the river. From the moment of birth, life becomes a series of events
imposing greater degrees of individual differentiation within cultures that mark
their own senses of collective difference. The fascination that any empathetic
engagement with indigenous communities, like the hill tribes in Northeast
Cambodia, holds, therefore, is a simultaneous feeling of oneness with the universal
human condition and a profound sense of what separates modern man from his
origins. The realities of borders and borderlines are undeniable. But what are
these boundaries and how are they formed? Who draws the lines on the map and
what do they mean? Can borders be redefined and redrawn? How can borders be
crossed and what do these crossing reveal? Each paper in this section approaches
these questions in a different way. Ian Baird starts with the physical border
between Cambodia and Laos, drawn by French colonial administrators in 1904.
Through the story of the Broa People, who live on both sides of the border, he
takes the reader on a journey highlighting the importance of human agency,
geographic imaginaries and spaces of resistance. Robert Winzeler examines the
role of religion and religious conversions in indigenous communities on what he
terms the “ethnic margins of Southeast Asia.” Religious beliefs demarcate their
own sets of boundaries and differences. The paper explores an interesting pattern
where members of indigenous communities convert not to the dominant religion of
their lowland compatriots (Buddhism and Islam), but rather to various forms of
Christianity. Finally, Brigitte Nikles provides an ethnography of traditional
midwives among the Bunong People. This window into Bunong society provides
important insights into their religious and spiritual beliefs. But traditional
midwives stand not only at the universal crossing of giving birth; they also stand at
the boundary between traditional and modern understandings of health and
wellbeing. The extension of the bureaucratic reach of the modern Cambodian state
is creating new conflicts between competing worldviews and raising new questions
about the role of modern medicine in indigenous societies.
Spaces of Resistance: The Ethnic Brao People and the
International Border Between Laos and Cambodia
Ian G. Baird

On December 6, 1904, the governor general of French Indochina, Monsieur Paul
Beau, signed a decree that transferred Stung Treng Province (including Siem Pang)
from Laos to Cambodia, thus creating the international boundary inherited by
present-day Laos and Cambodia,1 even if it remains contested by the two countries.2
This paper does not address the present political relations between Laos and
Cambodia as they relate to this boundary, and more generally departs from
examining the boundary from a simply national perspective. Instead, it focuses
on the impacts of the boundary at the local level, in relation to a particular ethnic
group, and over different periods of history. It considers the imaginative geogra-
phies of international boundary creation and the creation of hybrid geographies by
those affected by it.
In making the decision to detach Stung Treng from Laos and add it to
Cambodia, the ethnic Brao people who lived on both sides of the eastern part of the
boundary were hardly considered. No efforts were even made to pretend that such
consultative efforts were being attempted. The opinions of the Brao were hardly
mentioned in French administrative correspondence on the matter; their views
were apparently not deemed important, and it is unclear if the Brao even knew that
the boundary was being established. In addition, the French did not have a clear
understanding of the population along the boundary, at least until Henri Maître
traveled overland from Veun Say to Attapeu in 1910 (Maître, 1912). Chanda (1986)
and Prescott (1975) reported that the French boundary between Laos and Cambodia
was based on geographic features, with streams running north being in Laos, and
those running south being in Cambodia. Thus, the boundary continued along the
peak of the mountain range, running east-west, and often reaching over 1,000 m
above sea level. Chanda (1986) mentioned that there was little consideration of
historic, linguistic or ethnic factors on the part of the French when they established
the boundary. Since then the situation has hardly improved, as there has been very
little consideration by either the Lao or Cambodian governments regarding the
implications of the boundary for the Brao. There have been no attempts to reduce
the hardships associated with villages and families that have ended up on different
sides of the border due to various circumstances. For example, a system to allow
relatives and friends to visit each other has not been developed, and there is not a
20 Baird

border post where Brao people can legally cross from one side of the boundary to
the other in areas populated by the Brao.3 Instead, the nation-states of Laos and
Cambodia have created separate government administrations and separate nation-
alist discourses and practices that have, over time, given meaning to each country
and the international boundaries that are crucial for national identity politics.
Similar to what was reported by Baird (2007) in relation to the history of the
Ay Sa Rebellion in southern Laos in the early nineteenth century, memories of
important aspects of the process to establish the boundary between Laos and
Cambodia differ, often along ethnic lines. Many Khmer see the event as righting an
injustice from centuries ago (see Chhak, 1966); many Lao see it as unjust, since there
were so few Khmer living in Stung Treng at the time (Norindr, 1994); and the Brao
often see the event as separating relatives and friends.
While the international boundary has sometimes acted as a formidable barrier
to the movement of the Brao, the Brao have also often utilised the boundary – seen
here as a powerful and performative state administrative geographical imaginary –
in order to create new hybrid spaces of resistance against state powers. When
conditions in Cambodia have been deemed unfavourable, the Brao have often
crossed into Laos, and similarly, when conditions have been less advantageous in
Laos they have moved into Cambodia.
International boundaries and other kinds of boundaries are ubiquitous in all
societies (Migdal, 2004; Donnan & Wilson, 2001; Wilson & Donnan, 1998; Pellow,
1996; Sahlins, 1989). Although national boundaries as we know them today have a
shorter history than many other types of boundaries, they have certainly been
of great importance to organising and scaling global spaces in recent times.
Thongchai Winachakul (1994) significantly contributed to the study of international
boundaries by illustrating how national boundaries gained prominence in
mainland Southeast Asia during the nineteenth century as a result of contact
with English and French colonial powers, and quickly became a crucial tool for
producing and reproducing the “geobodies” of nation-states, including Siam, even
though it was not formally colonised.
Apart from national boundaries, Frederic Barth (1969) and his colleagues were
amongst the first to clearly illustrate the types of cultural boundaries that exist
between ethnic groups. Lawrence (1996) has helped to illustrate the multidimen-
sional nature of different kinds of boundaries, and Newman & Paasi (1998) have
shown us how boundaries are critical for the construction of socio-spatial identities,
and ideas about the “Us” and the “Other.”
Boundaries are varied. Some are physical; others are social barriers; some
are both. Boundaries occur in many forms, and all boundaries have different
characteristics, serve varying purposes, mean different things to people, and have
Spaces of Resistance 21

multiple effects. Some are open to some and impermeable to others. In some cases
tall fences may act as formidable physical boundaries, but without the ability
to restrict entry due to a lack of social legitimacy, or the inability to enforce it,
people may climb over the fences frequently without being sanctioned, thus
greatly reducing their real-life effects. In other cases, however, physical barriers
and markers to indicate that a boundary exists or to keep people from freely
crossing it may not exist, but the social conditions may make entry difficult or
even close to impossible for particular individuals and groups of people. While
boundaries are being increasingly viewed as inherently partial, flexible and fluid
(Migdal, 2004; Newman & Paasi, 1998; Pellow, 1996), they nevertheless remain
very important for determining how people organise spatially. While their allure of
grandeur may have eroded amongst geographers and other social scientists, who
are less likely to see them as being firm or fixed as in the past, boundaries remain a
fundamental part of everyone’s lives, and even if we now have better tools for
unpacking their meanings, they exist at so many different scales, and have been
created as a result of so many processes, that they are inevitably complex parts of
our social and spatial organisation.
Here, I am concerned with boundaries at two levels. The explicit topic of this
paper is the international boundary between Laos and Cambodia that was created
at the end of 1904, and made effective January 1, 1905 (Preston, 1975). However, I
am equally concerned with the types of boundaries that Pellow (1996), Lawrence
(1996), Migdal (2004) and others are concerned with: boundaries that regulate social
relations but are rarely if ever represented by cartographers on maps. I am
interested in how the international boundary between Laos and Cambodia has
been socially transformed by the Brao, who have interacted with the state-created
international boundary in ways that have transformed its meaning and created new
opportunities to produce spaces of resistance, albeit in various forms. While the
power of state-controlled institutions that Foucault made clear can never be denied
(Foucault, 1991[1978]), neither can the agency of people affected by institutions
(Bevir, 1999).
This paper briefly traces the history of ethnic Brao resistance as it relates
specifically to the international boundary. The boundary has sometimes separated
Brao populations in ways that are upsetting to them, by dividing families and
friends, but it has also made it possible for the Brao to position themselves at the
margins of different nation-states, in peripheral places where states are relatively
less powerful. Thus, the border has sometimes made it possible for the Brao to at
least temporarily exert their control over their own affairs, change their alliances, or
simply try to avoid state control.
22 Baird

Figure 1. Map of the eastern boundary between Laos and Cambodia, 2007
Spaces of Resistance 23

The Brao
The Brao are a diverse Mon-Khmer language-speaking ethnic group found mainly
in present-day Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces of northeastern Cambodia,
and Attapeu and Champasak provinces in southern Laos (see Figure 1).
Comprising a number of different sub-groups – the most prominent being the
Kreung, Brao Tanap, Umba, Kavet, Lun, Hamong, Ka-nying, and Jree (see Figure
2)—about half of the approximately 60,000 Brao people worldwide live in Laos
while the other half reside in Cambodia. There is just one Brao village in Vietnam,
itself only moving there in 1970 from Cambodia, during a time when the tri-border
area in Cambodia (known as the Dragon’s Tail) was being heavily carpet-bombed
by US B-52s and other bombers (Baird, 2008a; Shawcross, 1979).

Figure 2. Map indicating the approximate Brao sub-group locations at the

middle of the twentieth century

The Brao were historically swidden agriculturalists, heavily reliant on fishing,

small animal hunting, and the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs)
(Matras-Troubetzkoy, 1983; Baird & Dearden, 2003; Baird, 2008a). Only recently
have some taken up lowland wet-rice cultivation, although many continue to
24 Baird

practice shifting cultivation.

The Brao are mainly animists, believing in a wide variety of malevolent spirits,
which they frequently try to appease by sacrificing domestic animals, especially
chickens, pigs and water buffaloes.
The Brao have particular ways of spatially organising, concomitant norms, rules
and taboos. They frequently live in villages organised in concentric circles, with
communal houses in the centres, and ritual gates symbolising the frontier between
village space and village territory. They also practice bilateral residence patterns,
which generally involve couples moving back and forth every few years between
maternal and paternal households (Baird, 2008a & b). Brao society is relatively
egalitarian compared to those of their lowland neighbours, and leadership powers
were historically divided between different community members, although some
imbalances in power and wealth certainly existed.
Despite some important similarities between different Brao peoples, it is crucial
not to present the Brao as a single people. Instead, they have diverse identities, not
only based on ethnic group or sub-group, but also on villages, families and individ-
uals. Customs and livelihoods differ from place to place, based on a wide range of
ecological, political and historical factors (Baird, 2008a).

The Laos-Cambodia Border

Ethnic Lao people dominated Stung Treng at the beginning of the twentieth
century (Escoffier, 1996; Grabowsky, 2004), making it justifiably hard for some to
understand why the French chose to transfer the territory to Cambodia.4 For
example, Volker Grabowsky (2004: 210) wrote, “In spite of the fact that Stung Treng
and the adjacent regions had been under Lao and Siamese rule for centuries and
under Lao cultural hegemony as well, Paris [sic]5 decided to hand these territories
over to the Protectorate of Cambodia.” The demographic situation in
Moulapoumok Province, which was created in 1905 out of the eastern part of Stung
Treng after it was transferred to Cambodia, demonstrates the circumstances. Of the
12,034 inhabitants recorded in the Province in 1911, 10,652 were from highland
ethnic groups, 1,304 were ethnic Lao, and just nine were ethnic Khmer (Klein, 1912),
and in Stung Treng and Siem Pang the Lao were even more dominant (Baird,
However, the French actually had a surprising number of reasons for wanting
to sever Stung Treng from Laos. First, in 1899 Lower and Upper Laos were
amalgamated into a single Laos (Breazeale, 2002). Whereas the capital of Lower
Laos had previously been on Khong Island, in present-day Champasak province
and near Stung Treng, the new capital of French Laos was in Vientiane, hundreds
Spaces of Resistance 25

of kilometres to the north of Khong, making Stung Treng that much more
marginal in relation to the national administration of Laos.
After the millenarian movement led by Ong Keo and Ong Kommadam ignited
conflict in the Bolaven Plateau west of the Sekong River in 1901, the Plateau
became a major headache for the French (Gunn, 2003 [1990]; Norindr, 1994). This
contributed to the opinion of some French officials that Stung Treng was too far
away from Vientiane for the French government of Laos to effectively administer.
The French hoped that they would gain more control over this remote and difficult
to govern region by transferring it to Cambodia (Breazeale, 2002).
Second, the French saw the region as very poorly serviced by roads and bridges,
and felt that the government in Phnom Penh had more financial resources than did
Vientiane to put into improving the infrastructure in the underdeveloped region
(Baird, 2008a).
Third, trade networks linked to Siam were of particular concern to French
authorities, who were eager to sever these links between Siam and the ethnic Lao
royalty in Champasak, which was on the west bank of the Mekong, and was
therefore still part of Siam until February 1904 (Grabowsky, 2004; Breazeale, 2002).
The French wanted to replace these trade links east of the Mekong River—
including in Stung Treng, Siem Pang and Veun Say—with new trade networks that
the French could control and tax more easily (Rathie, 2006). Extracting Stung Treng
from Laos was expected to help reduce the influence of Siam on the region by
adding a new layer of boundary as an obstacle between Siam and Stung Treng.
Fourth, Pierre Guesde and many other French officials viewed Bassac
(Champasak) and Khong as a malaise. Guesde lobbied strongly that Siem Pang
should be included in Cambodia, not Laos. Indicative of the general attitude of
many French to the Lao, in July 1904 French officials accused the Lao of being
parasites by feeding on the ignorance of the tribals and the “peaceful natural
harmony” of the Khmer (Martin Rathie, pers. comm. 2006). Clearly, the French were
friendlier with the Khmer than the Lao.
Fifth, Khmer kings in the French colonial “protectorate” had long claimed that
since the time of Angkor, Stung Treng had been part of Cambodia, and that it
should again be part of Cambodia rather than part of Laos (Guérin 2003; Chhak,
1966). As Paul Beau wrote, “The Cambodians will welcome this [extraction of Stung
Treng from Laos]. They have past national feelings and desires to regain past
power.”6 However, many Lao look to the past couple of centuries and believe that
the region should be part of Laos, and this view continues to exist amongst some,
even today.
Although Breazeale (2002) suggests that French administrators did not appreciate
the importance of ethnic Lao influence in the region since the mid-seventeenth
26 Baird

and eighteenth centuries, my archival research indicates that the French were
well aware of the Lao dominance of Stung Treng. Indicative of this, the French
continued to rely on ethnic Lao leaders long after Stung Treng was transferred
to Cambodia (Baird, 2008a; Guérin, 2003).7 For the Khmer kings, ancient history
was the most important justification, even if it was anachronistic. The real
demographic situation on the ground was of much less importance to them.
Moreover, the Khmer were upset with the French for not securing the return of the
territories of Siem Reap and Battambang from Siam (The Geographer, 1964; Tully,
1996). They argued that they should at least be compensated through having Stung
Treng attached to French Cambodia (Guérin, 2003). They got their wish, but when
they finally got Siem Reap and Battambang back from Siam just a few years later,
in 1907 (Grabowsky, 1997), there was no mention of returning Stung Treng to Laos.
The Khmer royals apparently had the ear of the French colonial government,8 at
least more so than the royals of Laos, especially in the south where relations
between the French and the Lao royals were not good, since many in Champasak
were closely aligned with the Siamese.9 Furthermore, the Lao royals from the south
remained in Siamese territory until just months before Stung Treng was detached
from Laos. The most senior Lao elites in the south were in no position to make any
vigorous arguments for keeping Stung Treng in Laos, thus creating a power
vacuum at the local level.10
To make matters worse, the decision was taken during a period when the French
administration in Laos was administratively weak, and unable to effectively argue
in favour of keeping Stung Treng in Laos (Breazeale, 2002). At least part of the
problem related to a personal conflict between Paul Beau, who replaced Paul
Doumer as the governor-general of Indochina in 1902, and Colonel Armand
Tournier, the Resident Superior of Laos between 1899 and 1903. Tournier had been
the commandant of Lower Laos, based on Khong Island, between 1895 and 1899,
and was a passionate opponent of the idea to dismember southern Laos. However,
a serious conflict between Tournier and Beau arose soon after Beau’s arrival in 1902.
Thus, Beau became opposed to Tournier’s position, largely due to their personal
conflict. In fact, the conflict became so serious that Tournier came to feel that his
position was untenable, and so he returned to France in 1903. However, for various
reasons he was not replaced until after he retired in 1906. Therefore, there was no
fully appointed and functioning Resident Superior of Laos during this period, only
an interim Resident Superior with limited powers. This situation made it relatively
easy for Beau and those who were less committed to Laos, to remove Stung Treng
(Breazeale, 2002).
Nevertheless, it is hard to know what the key justifications were, as Auguste
Pavie of the Pavie Mission had already proposed the idea to detach Stung Treng
Spaces of Resistance 27

from Laos a decade earlier, although his ideas at the time were not heeded (Chhak,
1966). It is likely that all of the above factors played a role in the final decision. Paul
Beau clearly failed to listen to objections from his subordinates, including Tournier
and others, who argued that most of the population of the area was either ethnic
Lao or highlanders, and had also not followed the correct French legal process for
making the change.11

Compare Figures 3 and 4, which illustrate how the spatial administration of the
region in question changed from 1899 to 1907.

Figure 3. Map of southern Laos in 1899

28 Baird

Figure 4. Map of Southern Laos and Northeastern Cambodia in 1907, after

Stung Treng had been transferred to Cambodia
Spaces of Resistance 29

After Stung Treng is Attached to Cambodia

“Pa ta ti do, ti jo klim” (If it is hot in the north, it is cool in the south) Kavet saying
related to the moving across the boundary between Laos and Cambodia

Whatever the reasons for attaching Stung Treng to Cambodia, it was never a
priority of the French administration to strictly demarcate the new 547-kilometre
boundary between Laos and Cambodia, as both countries were part of French
Indochina (Breazeale, 2002; Prescott, 1975; Chhak, 1966). In fact, serious efforts were
not made to do so until the 1930s (Norindr, 1994), and it is unclear if the job was
ever fully completed. Bitard (1952) reported that there was still not a good map of
the border region in the late 1940s when he was posted in Veun Say. Nor was there
a good map showing the various villages in the region.12 However, despite a lack of
formal demarcation, in 1905 the boundary quickly took on real meaning for the
people living near it, as the French Lao and French Cambodian governments had
different policies and practices, thus making the side of the boundary that people
lived on significant in terms of their lives. As Ferguson & Gupta (2002) have
pointed out, international boundaries are not just created and enacted by the
centre and through big performative rituals and displays, although those are
undoubtedly crucial as well. States are also formed, and spatialised, through
everyday and sometimes mundane bureaucratic practices.
In 1905, taxes in Cambodian Stung Treng were considerably higher than those
across the border in Attapeu province. In Attapeu, men between 18 and 60 years of
age were supposed to pay one piastre a year in tax, but once in Cambodia it cost 2.5
piastre for men between 21 and 50 years, and 0.8 piastre for men between 50 and 59.
It also cost three piastre in Cambodia to buy one male adult out of having to
submit to corvée labour, whereas the cost was just two piastre in Attapeu. There
were also new land and rice taxes in Cambodia that did not exist in Laos, as well as
taxes for cutting trees to make boats, and for trading elephants. Of particular
importance, the tax for wielding firearms in Cambodia was 25 piastre, compared to
just one piastre in Laos. This generally upset the highlanders, including many Brao,
who needed guns to protect themselves from tigers and thieves (Tully, 1996; Guérin,
2003). Taxes were lower in Attapeu because the highland uprising in the Bolaven
Plateau resulted in the government not wanting to incite the local population by
charging high taxes. This situation quickly led to highland unrest on the Cambodia
side of the boundary, causing a number of Brao Kavet villages in Siem Pang to
cross over the boundary from Cambodia to Laos in 1906, 1909 and 1912 (Guérin,
2003). Khmer officials installed in government also had a difficult time gaining the
respect of highlanders or their former ethnic Lao overlords, thus creating much
dissatisfaction with Cambodian French administration (Guérin, 2003; Baird,
30 Baird

However, in 1913 unrest increased significantly in Brao areas of northeastern
Cambodia, partially due to particularly poor upland and lowland agricultural
harvests in 1912 (see Guérin, 2001), which accentuated resistance to taxation. This
unrest also coincided with violent revolt amongst non-Brao highlanders in Kratie
province to the south (Guérin, 2003). The French could ill-afford more military
conflict in the region, and in any case, they were spread thin in terms of their
military power, especially considering increased tensions in Europe that were to
lead to World War I. Therefore, on June 23 the French administration in Cambodia,
based on the recommendation of local officials, decided to appease the highlanders
in Stung Treng and Moulapoumok provinces by greatly relaxing tax and corvée
requirements. In fact, the changes were dramatic, and most taxes were eliminated.
The highlanders were only required to provide 15 days of corvée labour a year.
Moreover, in the past Brao villagers were often forced to travel many days to places
where they had to contribute their labour, thus increasing the actual time required
from 15 days to up to a month, when travel to and from the work was included. But
in June 1913 it was agreed that the people could serve their corvée near their
homes, thus significantly decreasing their burden. These changes made the tax
requirements of the highlanders much less than Lowland Khmer peasants at the
time. Furthermore, villages located in remote areas were often exempted from
providing anything to the French authorities (Guérin, 2003). Keeping the peace was
clearly seen as the top priority.
In many ways the situation in northeastern Cambodia was much like it had been
a decade earlier in southern Laos during the height of the Ong Keo- and Ong
Kommadam-led rebellion. In 1913, the French wanted to prevent the Brao, Jarai and
Tampuon peoples from rebelling as the Phnong and Stieng already had in Kratie
Province to the south, just as the French had kept taxes low in Attapeu during
the rebellion in neighbouring parts of the Bolaven Plateau at the beginning of the
twentieth century. This transformed the meaning of the boundary for many Brao,
and led to an influx of thousands of Brao from many villages in Attapeu from 1913
until the 1930s (Lebar et al. 1964; Baird, 2008a).
In addition, many Brao people, including some whole villages, moved back and
forth multiple times during the French colonial period, finding ways to confound
French administrators and the Lao and Khmer officials who were collaborating
with them, so that villages remained unknown to officials, thus preventing
attempts to collect any taxes during some years. Both sides of the boundary were
considered difficult to travel in, and were little known to the French (Maître, 1912;
Baird, 2008a). Importantly, the French government was weak in peripheral places
like southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia. They only maintained a skeletal
Spaces of Resistance 31

administration, including just a few French officials who had very little armed
support. The Brao also frequently tried to hide their villages by moving them to
remote locations and hiding the paths to them, so as to confuse colonial officials
(Baird, 2008a).
Many Brao were able to transform the geographical imaginative that constituted
the state-made boundary—which was of course designed by the French colonial
government to restrict and thus control the population—to their benefit, and to use
it in ways that paradoxically made it more difficult for the French to control the
movements of the Brao and force them to pay taxes and contribute corvée. Just as
the French had transformed the geographical imaginative of the landscapes long
inhabited by the Brao by establishing the boundary, so did the Brao create still
another hybrid geographical imaginative, one that did not ignore the French vision,
but instead incorporated new visions of space, ones constituted by resistance.
The French were, in fact, well aware of Brao attempts to manipulate the French
border to their benefit, and one French official suggested that the only way to
address the problem would be to again reorganise the administrative structure of
the region by combining the upland regions of southern Laos, northeastern
Cambodia and adjacent parts of Annam and Cochinchina under a single
administrative structure that could cross borders as easily as the Brao and
other highlanders, such as the Jarai.14 In addition, in the 1920s the Prince of
Luang Phrabang in Laos, Chao Phetxarat, who was generally sympathetic to
the highlanders, recommended to the French administration that he worked for
that an autonomous highland region be established for the highlands in southern
Laos, much as had been established in Tonkin, in order to appease rebellious
highlanders.15 However, neither of these ideas was ever implemented during the
French colonial period, and certainly neither was ever suggested during the age
of nationalism that followed.

The Central Intelligence Agency and Kong Mi

In 1965 and 1966 the North Vietnamese expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail south deep
into southern Laos, extending it into Cambodia, with this new section of the
network of trails becoming known as the ‘Sihanouk Trail’ (Vongsavanh, 1978; Van
Staaveren, 1993). This resulted in the boundary region between Attapeu in
southeastern Laos and what became, in 1959, Ratanakiri Province in northeastern
Cambodia (Meyer 1979), becoming militarily significant in terms of the war in
Vietnam. North Vietnamese troops poured into Ratanakiri, initially off limits to US
bombing, and established ‘sanctuary’ bases in support of military operations in
South Vietnam. In response, the United States government became increasingly
involved in the region. However, the Geneva Conventions of 1954 and 1962 made
32 Baird

Laos officially neutral, and especially after 1962 the US was very concerned not be
seen as violating Laos’ neutrality by basing US military personnel in Laos.
Therefore, they empowered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to do the job
using small groups of American plain-clothed covert military advisors working
with mainly ethnic minorities recruited to work with them (Dommen, 2001;
Robbins, 2000[1988]; Eckhardt, 1999; Conboy, 1995; Blum, 1986).
In southeastern Attapeu Province, the CIA helped ethnic Brao allies secure a
particular area from communist infiltration, and by 1967 they had assigned two
American CIA officers to work in Attapeu and support Kong Mi, their stronghold
in southeastern Attapeu (Conboy, 1995), and named after a former Brao chief in the
area (Baird, 2008a).
The CIA started off by gathering Brao people in Attapeu into their stronghold at
Kong Mi, either by appealing to them, or by manipulating or coercing them. They
upgraded the airstrip at Kong Mi, and also supported planting a ring of land mines
around the perimeter of the approximately 5 x 5-km area (Baird, 2008a), thus
creating a formidable boundary between Kong Mi and the communist-controlled
areas surrounding it. Many Brao people started to work for the CIA as ‘road-
watchers’, assigned to monitor movements along the Sihanouk Trail in Laos. They
were airlifted to near the Trails by US aircraft and were left to collect data about
vehicle and troop movements along the road (Conboy, 1995; Baird, 2008a).
Apart from working to get Brao people in Laos to move into the Kong Mi area,
the CIA and Brao paramilitary soldiers started to look south to Cambodia as well,
into an area where by this time the Khmer Rouge were gaining increasing influence.
Using Kong Mi as a base, the CIA began to illegally send Brao paramilitary troops
across the border into Cambodia to convince or manipulate Brao populations across
the boundary to flee north and live at Kong Mi. Thus, many Brao Kavet and Brao
Umba people, including whole villages, crossed from Cambodia to Laos in the
latter part of the 1960s to escape from the increasingly dominant Khmer Rouge.
Most young men went to work with the CIA.
One of the things that attracted them to Kong Mi was that it was in the
mountains, and people were able to do swidden agriculture there. Soon half of
those at Kong Mi were Brao from Cambodia. Many believed that they would have
a better chance of being able to continue their lives in the mountains there than
if they stayed in Cambodia (Baird, 2008a). Once again, when the situation was
difficult in the south, the Brao willingly moved across the border to the north. The
boundary provided them with political options that would have not been available
had the international boundary not existed.
Spaces of Resistance 33

Escaping from the Dragon’s Tail

During the late 1960s the US military became increasingly concerned about the
North Vietnamese bases in Ratanakiri Province, particularly in the border region
with Vietnam known as the Dragon’s Tail, or the tri-border region. These bases
were being used as “sanctuaries” for the communists, and were also crucial for
organising communist military operations in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
The US military were also frustrated with what they saw as Prince Sihanouk’s
strong neutralist position and complacent attitude to the existence of tens of
thousands of North Vietnamese troops in northeastern Cambodia. Therefore, in
1969 the US began to secretly bomb the Dragon’s Tail, and by 1970 the bombing
became intense and involved B-52 carpet-bombing (Shawcross, 1979). At the end of
April 1970, following the March 1970 Lon Nol and Sirik Matak orchestrated coup
d’etat that ousted Norodom Sihanouk from power in Cambodia and brought an
end to Cambodia’s neutralist policies, the US military and their Republic of
Vietnam (South Vietnamese) allies, with the implicit support of the new Lon Nol
government, launched a large-scale military operation in the Dragon’s Tail region
that led to very heavy fighting until the US and South Vietnamese forces withdrew
from Cambodia at the end of June (Tho, 1979). Although the North Vietnamese
bases were the main target of this major incursion, the Brao Ka-nying people living
in the Dragon’s Tail were also attacked, since they were communist supporters and
were in the middle of the battleground, making it very difficult for them to remain
in the area. Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge wanted some of the Brao living in
the Dragon’s Tail to move to the south and away from the border with Laos.
Therefore, for a combination of reasons, most of these generally Brao people ended
up crossing the border into Laos, where they moved into communist-controlled
parts of upland eastern Attapeu province. It was at this time that the only Brao
village presently located in Vietnam crossed the border from Cambodia to Vietnam.
None of these communities ever returned to Cambodia, even after the war ended.

Revolt against the Khmer Rouge

In 1973, when US bombing of northeastern Cambodia came to an end, six months
after it ended in Laos and Vietnam (Shawcross, 1979), the Khmer Rouge began
adopting much more stringent and draconian policies, including enforcing
communal farming, eating, and sleeping. They also became increasingly negative
about animism and religion more generally, and began secretly purging those
they believed to be linked with the Vietnamese, including some Brao who had
previously worked closely with Vietnamese communists during the struggle
against the French in the early 1950s (Colm, 1996; 2007; Baird, 2008a).
Not surprisingly, this led to considerable dissatisfaction, even amongst
34 Baird

long-time Brao communists who had worked with Pol Pot in the mid-1960s, and
highly admired him at that time (Baird, 2008a; Colm, 1996). One village of Brao
Umba fled to Vietnam in 1973, but it was not until 1975 that a series of events
transpired that involved the Brao Umba communist leader Bun Mi, and eventually
led to over 3,000 Brao Umba, Lun and Kreung people, including almost the entire
population of present-day Taveng district, Ratanakiri province, fleeing on foot
through the forests to Vietnam and Laos. They first walked to the Vietnamese
boundary, where the Vietnamese, who were by this time well aware of the Khmer
Rouge’s harsh anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, welcomed them. Soon after, half of the
group separated and walked to Laos. Led by Khun and Khamteuang—the former
Brao Umba administrative commune chiefs under the Khmer Rouge in Taveng
Kroam and Taveng Leu communes—they were allowed to enter Laos as refugees.
Later in 1975 more Brao from Ratanakiri fled directly from Ratanakiri to Attapeu.
They were also accepted as refugees. According to the UNHCR, 10,400 Cambodians
fled to Laos as refugees in 1975 (Kiljunen 1984). A large portion of those were
ethnic Brao (Baird, 2008a).

Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire

Although Attapeu was almost all under Pathet Lao communist control beginning in
1970, after the provincial capital fell to joint North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao
attacks (Vongsavanh, 1978), Kong Mi remained a bastion of anti-communist power
in the early 1970s, receiving military support from the CIA up until the ceasefire in
1973. However, in May 1975, at around the same time as Pakse was being taken
over by the communists, Kong Mi’s Brao military leader, Bong Beo, was forced to
surrender, as those at Kong Mi were totally dependent on supplies airlifted in from
Pakse. Once Pakse fell and the supplies stopped coming by air, it was only a matter
of time before Kong Mi would have to give up (Baird, 2008a).
At the time, the communists in Laos were already forcing Brao people living in
mountainous areas in southeastern Attapeu outside of Kong Mi to resettle in the
lowlands and take up lowland wet-rice agriculture. Many Brao living in the Kong
Mi area, but originally from Cambodia, had never lived in the lowlands and were
fearful that they too would have to move down if they stayed in Laos. Therefore,
many of the Brao that moved to Kong Mi from Cambodia in the late 1960s decided
to return to Cambodia to escape the Lao communists. Some tried to establish
villages in the mountains on the Cambodia side of the boundary without attracting
any attention, much as they had successfully done during the French period. Others
were encouraged by Brao Khmer Rouge operatives to cross back into Cambodia.
These operatives told the Brao at Kong Mi what they wanted to hear: that the
political situation in Cambodia was peaceful, and that if they returned to Cambodia
Spaces of Resistance 35

they would be allowed to live freely and do swidden agriculture in the mountains
as they had always done since the time of their ancestors.
However, soon after those Brao stepped onto Cambodia soil, they learned that
they had been tricked, and were all escorted at gunpoint down to the lowlands and
into lowland cooperatives where they were forced to grow wet rice. Most were not
allowed to sleep even one night in the former territories in the mountains along
the boundary with Laos. Those who tried to hide along the border were similarly
forced to the lowlands. Conditions were very poor in the “cooperatives” in the
lowlands near the Sesan River, and those who complained were taken to the
forests and killed. Many more died of disease and hunger-related ailments. In
one particularly grisly incident, almost the whole population of the Brao Umba
village of Savanbao tried to escape from a cooperative along the Sesan River. They
were travelling north, on their way to the Laos border once again, when Khmer
Rouge soldiers caught up with them. Everyone was executed, including the
women, elders, and children (Baird, 2008a). Most of the Brao forced to live in the
cooperatives were not able to leave the cooperatives until the Vietnamese invaded
Cambodia and liberated them from Khmer Rouge.

Fleeing to the Border with the Khmer Rouge

In the last days of 1978, tense relations and cross-border skirmishes between the
Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese communists, where the Khmer Rouge were often
the aggressors, finally led to major armed conflict between the two sides. The
Vietnamese were fed up with the Khmer Rouge for raiding Vietnamese villages
along the border and massacring all the Vietnamese people they could find, and
thus invaded Cambodia to oust Pol Pot’s government from power. Before long, they
had ended Khmer Rouge domination in most Brao areas that had spanned close to
a decade. Although the Vietnamese made up the vast majority of the invading
military power, the Khmer National United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK),
which was sponsored by the Vietnamese and was made up of refugees in Vietnam
and Laos who had escaped the Khmer Rouge, also participated in the invasion from
Vietnam and Laos. This group included 1,800 highlanders from Cambodia, most
being ethnic Brao. However, the Vietnamese did not want these people to suffer
serious casualties, and thus large numbers of Vietnamese soldiers were assigned to
protect them. According to one Brao man who was part of the invasion force,
sometimes ten Vietnamese soldiers were assigned to protect every Brao soldier. The
Vietnamese had plans for the Brao once they gained control of Cambodia (Baird,
Once the Vietnamese had gained control of the main urban centres of the
country, and the Khmer Rouge government in Phnom Penh had been toppled in
36 Baird

early January 1979, many of those in FUNSK became political and military leaders
in the new Vietnamese-dominated government that replaced the Khmer Rouge, as
they were trusted more by the Vietnamese than other Cambodians who had lived
under the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore, by the early 1980s most of the Brao civilian
refugee population in Laos and Vietnam also returned to Cambodia (Baird, 2008a).
However, the invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese not only marked the
beginning of the return of Brao refugees from Laos to Cambodia, but it resulted in
many Brao people (especially those from the Kavet sub-group) who had lived in
Cambodia throughout the Khmer Rouge period, to flee to the Thai and Laos
borders with the Khmer Rouge to try to escape the Vietnamese. For example, some
Brao Kavet tried to reach Thailand by crossing through southern Laos and crossing
the Mekong River. Others crossed into Laos and became refugees. Thus, just as
some pro-Vietnamese Brao refugees were returning to Cambodia, others who were
aligned with the Khmer Rouge arrived in Laos (Baird, 2008a).
Some Brao did not actually cross into Laos, but stayed in remote areas along the
Laos-Cambodia boundary, where they continued to live as Khmer Rouge, running
from and occasionally fighting against Vietnamese forces and their Cambodian
government allies. The conditions were terrible. Some were killed in battle; many
more died of illnesses associated with poor conditions, including malnutrition.
They were living in the forest, always fearing Vietnamese attacks, and unable to
regularly practice swidden agriculture. They often felt like animals being hunted.
But the remoteness of the border region helped protect them. It was not until the
late 1980s that most of the Kavet living near the border surrendered to the
Cambodian government and moved to the lowlands (Baird, 2008a).
The last group of 34 ethnic Brao Kreung and Tampuon people who had been
hiding from Vietnamese soldiers in the forests along the Laos-Cambodia boundary
did not emerge in southern Laos until 2004, after which time they were deported
back to Ratanakiri. They did not know that the Vietnamese soldiers had already left
Cambodia 15 years earlier. They acknowledged that they had fled to the border
region to escape the Vietnamese (Phann & Purtill, 2004).

Since the Laos–Cambodia boundary was established at the end of 1904, the Brao
have frequently fled to and across the border to try to escape from powers that
wanted to control them. These Brao have frequently transformed the geographical
imaginary, making unintended use of spaces established by the state to control
their movements. While they were not always successful in their efforts, they were
sometimes able to make use of the remoteness of the region, the “peripheralness”
of the border in relation to the capitals of both nation-states, and the difficult
Spaces of Resistance 37

terrain, to produce spaces of resistance for those who did not want outsiders to
interfere in their lives, or thought they would be better off on the other side of the
While James Scott might call these spaces of resistance ‘non-state’ spaces (see
Scott 1998), since they have been created to stifle state control, I prefer to think of
them as fundamentally constituted by the state, even if they have been distorted
and appropriated by the Brao for their own purposes, and against the wishes of
nation states. My position is similar to the one argued by Tania Li (2001). It seems
that even in remote areas like those included in the Laos-Cambodia boundary
region, there are no spaces that are not somehow influenced by state power. In fact,
efforts to resist states through making use of the international boundary indicate
the power of states and the reasons why the Brao have often opposed them.
National boundaries are particular geographical imaginaries of the state that
are designed to extend state power within a particular territory. They are an
essential part of what Sack (1986) calls “territorialisation,” a process that inevitably
involves processes of “deterritorialisation” and “reterritorialisation.” The Brao
have, however, inserted their own geographical imaginaries, creating spaces of
resistance, but their imaginaries are not produced in a vacuum. Not only are
they affected by state power, but they are constituted by it, and therefore these
geographical imaginaries have not erased the international boundary, but have
instead recognised it while also performatively resisting the powers that created it
and transforming it into hybrid spaces constituted initially by state power, but
refigured through human agency.
As much as Michel Foucault’s ideas about disciplinary power and governmen-
tality are crucial for understanding how spaces are produced and reproduced
through the proliferation of power (Foucault 1991[1978]; 1979[1975]), Bevir (1999) is
right in pointing out that despite the importance of Foucault’s work, and its
continued usefulness, one of its weaknesses is that it did not sufficiently appreciate
the role that individuals and groups can play in bringing about change, even when
faced with overwhelming power. Human agency is important, even though this
does not refute Foucault’s ideas. It simply indicates the need for balance between
power and agency.

As Baud & Van Schendel (1997) have usefully pointed out, the creation of
international borders often has unexpected results, and the results of the
creation of the Laos-Cambodia border certainly illustrate this point. While
national governments can certainly have important effects on borders and those
affected by them, it is equally crucial to recognise the importance of local
38 Baird

circumstances, including the roles local bureaucracies and their various practices,
in affecting international boundaries.
Hopefully this paper has helped clarify the nature of the little-known eastern
part of the Laos-Cambodia boundary in relation to the ethnic Brao people who lived
near it and the ways that they have transformed imaginative geographies and
creatively reconfigured them to create new spaces of resistance. These spaces are
constituted by the state power vested in the creation of an international boundary,
but many Brao have been able to manipulate these spaces of state power for their
own purposes, to escape from those they did not like, and sometimes to gain a
certain level of autonomy through their appropriation. For most, the main
justification for crossing the border has been to gain more independence from state
power compared to what they were facing if they did not cross.
This paper demonstrates that boundaries or borders created by state geograph-
ical imaginaries are indeed constituted with state power, but that this power is
never monolithic or complete, thus allowing Brao people to transform state spaces
that both recognise boundaries established by state power, but have also been
defined by Brao geographical imaginaries, thus created complex and layered spaces
that bring both resistance and state power together.

Thanks to Keith Barney, Kennon Breazeale, Volker Grabowsky and Martin Rathie
for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. However, the author
takes full responsibility for any errors that remain.
Spaces of Resistance 39

1. Beau, Paul and Broni 1904. New territory to Cambodia from Laos, Stung Treng.
Hanoi, December 4, 1904, Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer (CAOM), Indochine
2. Despite both countries establishing a joint commission to clarify the border in
early 2000, with the goal of demarcating the boundary to the satisfaction of both
sides by the end of 2001 (Voice of America, 2000), at least three locations along
the border remain disputed. In addition, this paper also does not deal with the
circumstances surrounding recent efforts to establish protected areas along the
border, including Virachey National Park (see, instead, Baird, 2008a & c).
3. The only legal border-crossing between Laos and Cambodia is in the lowlands
near the Mekong River between Stung Treng province in Cambodia and
Champasak province in Laos, far to the west of where Brao people live.
4. Siam agreed to renounce claims to territories east of the Mekong River in October,
1893, following the “Pak Nam” incident (Breazeale, 2002).
5. Kennon Breazeale has pointed out (pers. comm., 2008) that there is little evidence
to suggest that French authorities in Paris had anything to do with the decision to
give Stung Treng to Cambodia. Instead, it was an initiative of the French Indochina
government that made the decision, without much involvement from “Paris.”
6. Beau, Paul. 1904. Rattachment au Cambodge de la province de Stung Treng de
fintant du Laos - arrete de 6 Decembre 1904 (1904-1905), June 24, 1904, CAOM
Indochine 15104.
7. For example, Ya Chao Tham (Chao Tham Phoui), an ethnic Lao nephew of the
King of Champasak (he was born in Champasak), continued to play a major role in
the governance of the region even after it became part of Cambodia. He was, for
example, appointed governor of Moulapoumok Province (presently much of
Ratanakiri Province) more than once after 1905, and his children and grandchildren
also held important political positions for decades afterwards (Guérin, 2003; Baird,
8. With the exception of Prince Si Votha, who led a major revolt against the French
(Tully, 1996).
9. In fact, Auguste Pavie did not get on well with Chao Khamsouk, the king of
Champasak, the first time they met. He was much more favourable to the Luang
Phrabang royals (Pavie, 1999).
10. In February 1904, Champasak was ceded by the Siamese to French Laos
(Breazeale, 2002), but this change was apparently too late to allow the royals of
Champasak any real opportunity to influence the plans to transfer Stung Treng to
Cambodia. The Lao elite in Stung Treng, all of whom had close ties with the royal
family of Champasak, did not want Stung Treng to be transferred to Cambodia, but
40 Baird

their opinions apparently had little impact on the French (Martin Rathie, pers.
comm., 2008).
11. In fact, in 1915 a colonial inspection mission found that the processes of
territorial redistribution within French Indochina that largely took place during the
Paul Beau era, including the above changes and others not particularly relevant to
this paper, were largely incorrect, and they determined that the result was a
legal mess, in which documentation was incomplete and contradictory. The
mission also determined that decisions had been made arbitrarily and without
proper authority. However, the changes had been made, and by then it did not seem
realistic to reverse them. Thus, in September 1915 France ratified the earlier
territorial changes, but restricted the governor general of Indochina from making
any further changes without full authorisation from Paris (Breazeale, 2002).
12. Bitard (1952) was the first to attempt to create an ethno-linguistic map of the
Cambodian side of the border in Moulapoumok Province.
13. Pierre-Bernard Lafont reported that 3,000 Lave (Brao) crossed from Laos into
Cambodia in the 1920s and 1930s (Lebar et al. 1964).
14. Le Résident Superiéur au Cambodge, 1917. Situation politique de la haute
région des tribus Khas de Stung-Treng, le 29 juin, 1917, Phnom Penh, CAOM
Indochine 19175.
15. Chao Phetxarat, 1926. Correspondence No. 22 from Phetxarat at Thongvay Phou
Luong (in French), February 22, 1926, Résident Superiéur Laos, CAOM.
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Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia
Robert L. Winzeler

This paper is about religious developments on the ethnic margins of Southeast Asia.
As elsewhere in much the developing world, the conversion to one of the world or
universal religions is a fundamental part of the changes now taking place among
many of the indigenous minority groups of Southeast Asia [SEA]. While scholars
and researchers have often described and sought to explain specific, countrywide
or regional developments in conversion among such peoples, no one to my
knowledge has attempted to deal with the entire region. This is where I aim to
make some contribution. I shall first discuss the changes, suggest why they are
taking place and then note their consequences.
Although information is uneven, the pattern of religious change seems fairly
clear. Before their conversion most of the interior and highland minority peoples
adhered to their own indigenous religious traditions. In contrast, the dominant
lowland and coastal peoples generally followed one of several universal or world
religions; that is, mainly Buddhism throughout most of mainland Southeast Asia
above Malaysia (or the far south of Thailand), Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia and
Christianity in the Philippines. Some of the indigenous minorities throughout
much of mainland Southeast Asia have converted to the religion that prevails
among the dominant lowland or coastal population of the country in question. For
example, some Karen and members of other highland minorities in Thailand have
become Buddhists. However, the general direction of change among the indigenous
minorities has been conversion to Christianity. In contrast, the loyalties of the
lowland peoples to the religious traditions to which they have long adhered have
changed relatively little. The same is true of much of insular SEA where the
dominant religion is Islam. In both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo for example,
some Dayaks and members of other indigenous groups of the interior have
converted to Islam. Most, however, have become Christians of one sort or another.
Although again few specific numbers are available, the same appears to be true of
much of the rest of Indonesia outside of Java and Bali. In Indonesia, the government
requires that all inhabitants of the country adhere to a “monotheistic” religion,
which includes Islam, Christianity (Protestant or Roman Catholic), Hinduism,
Buddhism or Confucianism. While members of several indigenous minority
peoples in Indonesia have succeeded in having their religious practices officially
recognized as a version of “Hinduism,” most have accepted either Christianity or
46 Winzeler

Islam, and for the most part it has been the former.
One way of summarizing the general pattern of conversion in much of
Southeast Asia is to say that the indigenous minority peoples are mainly converting
to a religion other than that followed by the dominant people in the countries
concerned. From this perspective what is occurring seems somewhat paradoxical.
The separation between the indigenous minority groups and the dominant
lowland/coastal national populations has been declining through acculturation and
political and economic integration. Roads are being pushed into the forests and
mountains of the interior, national schools are being built all over, and the highland
and interior peoples are learning national languages. Many are living, working, or
trading in lowland and coastal regions, while lowlanders and coastal peoples are
moving into the interior and highlands in search of land or for other, mainly
economic, reasons. To varying extents and at different rates in different countries,
these changes are occurring in most regions. More specifically, the Philippines
appears to be the only major country in Southeast Asia that forms an exception to
the pattern. Because of early Spanish colonization, most of the peoples of the
Philippines north of Mindanao and other far southern islands have long been
Christian. In the Philippines, therefore indigenous-minority converts to
Christianity have entered the world religion that prevails among the national
majority, though differences between conversion to Protestant denominations as
opposed to the prevailing Roman Catholicism may be of some significance.
Leaving aside the (perhaps only partial) exception of the Philippines, it would
appear that ethnic considerations have influenced the pattern of conversion
that is taking place; that is, the minority peoples have tended to avoid embracing
the religion of the dominant majority because of negative associations and/or
because doing so would seem to them to lead to assimilation. Such considerations
are undoubtedly part of the explanation, but probably only part, and I shall discuss
other factors as well. Finally, ethnic considerations also loom large for an
understanding of the consequences of the processes of conversion. Put simply, are
the indigenous ethnic minorities helped or hindered in terms of their political
status and economic development by adopting a world religion that sets them
further apart from that of the dominant majority of the state in question? This is not
a question that is easily answered, and any answer may also vary from one region
or country to another and from one period in time to another. Observers who are
deeply sympathetic with the position of various minorities appear to be ambivalent.
But one highly knowledgeable authority takes the position that one major group in
one area at least have been hurt in the sense that their poverty and marginality have
been made worse as a consequence of becoming Christian, and his argument could
probably be extended to other groups as well.
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 47

Indigenous Religious Traditions and Conversion

Understanding conversion requires some consideration of what people are
“converting” from; that is, in this case, the indigenous religious traditions of the
minority peoples of the interior and highlands of Southeast Asia. These indigenous
religious traditions are hardly everywhere the same, but they do have certain
commonalities. At the most general level, these religions are commonly referred to
as “animism” or the belief in spirits. This august term is in some ways unfortunate.
It reflects the Western tendency to think that religion is primarily a matter of
belief or faith, rather than a combination of belief and behavior (or ritual),
which is actually always the case. The understanding of these indigenous religious
traditions is further impeded by the tendency to see religion as a separate realm of
activity for which people should have a label, as is the case in the modern West. In
fact, for the indigenous peoples no such separation or recognition exists, except
A further source of misunderstanding common to Westerners and probably to
many interpreters of all of the world religions is the notion that religion is mainly
about “transcendental” or “spiritual” matters – the meaning and purpose of life and
death, the nature of the universe, and the existence and the role of a supreme being
or beings. Such concerns are of course not absent in indigenous religions in
Southeast Asia and elsewhere. But what this conception leaves out is the
recognition of the extent to which religion is also very much about the practical
matters of earthly life, including protection from physical harm, curing sickness,
hurting enemies, making the crops grow, success in mating and procreation, all of
which are common concerns in “religion” as it is actually believed and practiced.
Nor do these concerns and efforts to deal with them in supernatural or mystical
terms cease with conversion.

The Extent of Conversion

The conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity began in the nineteenth
century, or earlier in some places, but increased considerably throughout the
twentieth century. In a large area of Mainland SEA including Vietnam, Laos
(see the paper by Ian Baird in this volume), probably Burma, and for a time
Cambodia, the proselytizing by Christians in much of the second half of the
twentieth century has been limited by war and governmental restrictions. But in
some areas of these countries extensive conversion had already occurred. And
where such impediments have not existed the spread of Christianity has been
extensive enough to suppose that it may eventually prevail among the indigenous
minority peoples in much of Southeast Asia, as already appears to be the case
throughout the insular countries. Accurate figures or estimates are difficult to find
48 Winzeler

but those that exist illustrate these points. A recent estimate regarding Laos, where
the spread of Christianity from the 1960’s to the present has been very restricted in
the ways noted above, suggests the number of Christians among the Hmong
amounts to between twelve to fifteen percent of the Hmong population (Ovesen
2004: 460). In contrast, for Thailand, where Christian proselytization in recent
decades has probably been less impeded than in any other country in mainland
Southeast Asia, an estimate published in 1995 (Keyes 1995), places the number of
Christians at between one-third and one-half of the population of all of the hill
tribes, and this portion has probably increased since then. In the case of the Karen
of Burma and Thailand, a recent estimate suggests that the majority of Karen in
Burma are Buddhists and that twenty percent are Christians, while in Thailand,
where Christianity and Buddhism are both widely received, Christians form
approximately ten percent of the population (Hayami and Darlington 2000: 141).
Whatever the number of Buddhists in Burma (about which accurate information
does not seem to exist), this estimate seems too low in the case of Christian Karen
in Thailand.

Conversion and Colonialism

Why has this pattern of religious change developed? One answer is that it is rooted
in Western colonialism. The links between colonialism and efforts to spread
Christianity are undeniable. Colonial takeovers and pacification often preceded
efforts at proselytization and provided the opportunity to do so more safely. It
would be impossible to explain the pervasive nature of Christianity in the
Philippines except in terms of Spanish colonial rule. Colonial policy did not
generally require that Christian proselytization efforts be directed specifically at
the indigenous minorities rather than the dominant lowland peoples, and in the
early phases of colonization it probably was not. But except among the Vietnamese
such efforts had little success, with the result that missionaries became aware that
their best or only chance for spreading Christianity was among the minority groups
(see Keyes 1993 on Thailand).
Yet colonialism only explains so much. Missionary efforts sometimes preceded
colonial control, and once established, colonial governments in Southeast Asia were
not necessarily always much interested in missionary activities, and sometimes saw
them as a source of trouble. And since colonialism ended decades ago in Southeast
Asia, it no longer has the relevance it once had as an explanation for the spread of
Christianity. Except in those countries noted above where its further spread has
been limited or blocked by war and government policy, the growth of Christianity
has been greatest in the postcolonial period, although it can be said that what has
taken place is rooted in the developments that occurred under colonial rule. In
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 49

Indonesia the greatest increase in conversion among adherents of indigenous

religions appears to have come in the mid-to-late 1960s when the acceptance of a
world religion was coerced by governmental and military threats against those who
did not follow an approved monotheistic religion (Kip and Rodgers 1987: 19). And
moreover, Thailand, where conversion to Christianity among the hill tribes has
been particularly extensive, was never colonized, which is not to say colonization
elsewhere or Westernization had no effect.

Economic Reasons for Conversion

The link of conversion to colonialism is also associated with the notion that many
of those who have converted to Christianity have done so for economic or other
material reasons – to take advantages of resources or services provided by
missionaries in order to escape poverty or to achieve upward mobility through
education. Sometimes persons who convert for such reasons are referred to as “Rice
(or Rice Bowl) Christians.” Literally this term refers to persons who are poor and
hungry and therefore convert in order to obtain food. Both Western missionaries
and critics or opponents of Christianity have used this term as a derogatory label
for what is deemed to be inauthentic or non-spiritually based conversion. More
broadly it has been applied to people who convert in order to gain material benefit
or to improve their life chances. Rice Christians in the most literal sense are
associated with India and China more than Southeast Asia, which lacks a
comparable history of famine and starvation.
However, the possibility that people convert for support or other material
reasons has some applicability to Southeast Asia as well. The provision of relief for
refugees and survivors following natural disasters or the aftermath of war has
provided opportunities for religiously linked assistance in Southeast Asia as well as
in other places. In Thailand the string of refugee camps along the Burmese border,
which contain 170,000 or more mainly Karen refugees from Burma, are supported
by a consortium of Western-based NGO’s, most of which are religious organiza-
tions. These camps also have Christian churches supported by mission efforts, often
several or more. In Mae Ra Ma in southern Mae Hon Song Province there is a
Baptist church, a Roman Catholic Church, as well as a Buddhist temple. I do not
know if any of the refugees in Mae Ra Ma had become Christian in order to
improve their chances for leaving the camp or otherwise improving their lives, but
it would not be surprising, for their prospects for doing either are generally bleak.
Elsewhere in Thailand—in Chiang Rai (northern Thailand)—I met a group of
American Baptist volunteers in 2006 who were there to build churches in Akha
Christian villages. I also visited an Akha Christian village whose inhabitants
also told me they had received or were expecting such assistance. In such cases,
50 Winzeler

however, the conversion had already occurred, and it would be difficult to know if
the anticipation of material support was a factor or, if so, how important it was.
In the past, Christian missionaries throughout Southeast Asia often established
schools and hospitals to which people were attracted and for which they were
grateful. In the case of mission schools there is the opportunity of influencing
The role of missions in providing medical services and education may have
been greater in the past than it has been in the recent period. Previously, Christian
mission schools and hospitals were all that existed in some regions. This is no
longer the case in most places but it probably continues to be so in some. In Borneo,
Dayaks who had been politically or economically successful often told me their
success was due to mission schools. And in West Kalimantan, Baptists run the
reputedly best hospital in the province. There is a strong mission presence in
some areas such as northern Thailand, but here and throughout many regions
government hospitals, clinics, and especially schools are now also widespread.
While I have never heard the phrase “Rice Buddhists” or “Rice Muslims,” the
notion that people may be attracted to material benefits that organized religions can
provide is not limited to mission Christianity. I have been told by individuals in
both Borneo and mainland SEA that they were drawn to Christian missions in order
to learn English or to gain an education. However, I also heard the same thing about
entering Buddhist monasteries by both Buddhist and non-Buddhist men in Laos. In
Laos, I was told of even more elementary practical motives for entering a
monastery. In southern Laos one man from an indigenous non-Buddhist ethnic
minority group told me that he and a friend were able to survive the civil war (and
get an education) only because they were taken into a monastery and put under its
As might be expected, conversion is often viewed critically or cynically by
others. In the interior of Borneo the occasional individual or village conversion to
Islam is sometimes seen by non-Muslims in this way; that is, becoming a
Muslim in Malaysian or Borneo or Brunei is interpreted as a strategy for obtaining
development assistance for a village, or for improving an individual’s prospects of
getting a desirable government job or improving the prospect for advancement in
one. The latter has also said to be the case in Kalimantan or Indonesian Borneo.
Scholars who have written about conversion among Hmong of northern
Thailand have stressed the importance of economic motives, though not to the
exclusion of others. Nicholas Tapp (1989: 100) notes the primary motivation for
Hmong to become Christian was to achieve some form of social or economic
advantage. This was shown by the many cases in which impoverished families or
individuals adopted Christianity in order to be sponsored educationally by
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 51

missionaries. Similarly, in his account or several Hmong villages, Robert Cooper

(1984: 82, 169, 179) states that Christianity appealed to the poor and that the six
families who converted to Christianity in the village of Khun Sa were the poorest
in the community (Cooper 1984: 77). Both of these scholars also found that the
attraction of conversion to Christianity was not only a matter of gaining the support
and resources that missions and missionaries could provide. It was also a means of
escaping costly traditional ritual obligations. Cooper suggests the poor Hmong of
Khun Sa were led to convert because it spared them from paying bridewealth
and having to provide animals they could not afford for sacrifice in traditional
Cornelia Kammerer (1990) has offered the same argument in greater detail
regarding the conversion of the Akha of northern Thailand. She writes that for
many years Western Christian missionaries sought to spread Christianity among
these Akha with little or no success. However, when she returned some years after
her first period of study many Akha were converting. The question was why. She
does not think it was because the Christian message had finally gotten through in a
way that it had not earlier. She argues that the Akha remained indifferent to
Christian theology. What had changed therefore were the economic circumstances
of the Akha. Because of the policies of the Thai government, especially in
restricting shifting cultivation, the Akha had become poorer. They were forced to
become more integrated into the lowland cash-based Thai economy. They could
therefore no longer afford their customary ceremonies and Christianity provided
a way out.
Religious conversion in Borneo has sometimes been interpreted along similar
lines, although with certain differences (Metcalf 1989: 214-215; Rousseau 1998: 26).
Here also the appeal of Christianity has been attributed in part to its liberation from
burdensome traditional religious practices, in this case ones involving taboos and
other ritual restrictions. These were burdensome not so much in terms of material
but in time. Seeing or hearing an omen bird from a wrong direction would bring a
journey or even a trip to work in the fields to a halt and a return to the villages, with
the loss of a day or more of work. Similarly, a death would also close a village to
either entry or exit, again with a loss of work for a number of days. As missionaries
began to work among the Dayaks they became aware of the role of the omens
and taboos of the traditional religion and used this as an argument in favor of
conversion to Christianity. Some Dayaks or whole villages did convert and others
watched to see if disaster struck, and when it did not others followed suit.
The appeal of shedding the burden of the omens and taboos of customary
religious traditions took another form in the northern part of central Borneo. While
many Dayaks here converted directly to Christianity, some took a roundabout route
52 Winzeler

via a religious movement known as Bungan (named after Bungan Malam who was
a lesser goddess among the Kenyah until she was elevated to the main deity of the
movement). The movement was almost certainly provoked by Christian missionary
activity and formed an alternative to it. It was a reform movement rather than a
messianic or millennial one, for it mainly got rid of most of the taboos and much of
the ritual of the old religion without requiring conversion to Christianity. While
Bungan practices lasted a number of decades (and still survive in a few places), it
has generally been replaced as well by Christianity.

Mystical Appeals
In addition to such diverse materialistic attractions, the appeal of Christianity
among some groups has also been linked to indigenous mythical themes. In
northern mainland Southeast Asia the Hmong, the Karen and evidently other
highland indigenous minorities have similar myths that explain their status
regarding their more powerful lowland neighbors in terms of literacy, scripts or
books—the idea being that these were the key to wealth and power. In some sense
such notions are undoubtedly true, but in any case the myths tell how the scripts
and books were lost and how one day a mystical hero or heroes will return. In the
Karen version the creator deity Y’wa gives books to his children, each of whom is
the ancestor of a different ethnic group. The Karen foolishly let their books be eaten
by animals or destroyed by fire from their practice of shifting cultivation, hence
their inferiority to the Thai, Shan or Burmans who had kept their books. But
someday foreign brothers will come and bring back their magical books. When the
early Christian missionaries to the Karen learned all this they bought into it
themselves. They supposed that Y’wa was none other than Yahweh of the Old
Testament and the Karen were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and they associated
themselves with the mystical brothers who would return the Golden Book (Tapp
1989b: 76; Keys 1977). Tapp similarly attributes the messianic fervor that followed
the arrival of first Christian missionary among the Hmong in southern China to the
rumor that the missionary had a book meant for them and that he was in the
process of translating it into Hmong.
Although myths about the return of lost scripts and books were not involved,
Jennifer Connolly (2003: 205-211) argues in her study of conversion to Christianity
in East Kalimantan, Indonesdia, that many Dayaks attracted to Christianity were
seeking new forms of supernatural power. For them, at least, the great theological
claims were of less interest than practical applications. While the missionaries
stressed salvation as the ultimate and central purpose of conversion they also
offered prayer as a means of gaining divine help for their earthly concerns. Dayaks
were thus especially interested in stories about miracles and the possibilities of faith
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 53

healing—one of the few specific forms of material help modern Christians were
prepared to offer. Such observations fit with what was said at the outset—that for
people in Southeast Asia and many other places, religion has a strong practical side.
This is in accord with my own experience. Sometimes Bidayuh in Sarawak
(Malaysian Borneo) erect small wooden crosses in their swidden fields before
planting rice in them to help insure a successful crop. And a Dayak villager in West
Kalimantan, Indonesia once told me that he had made the right decision in
becoming a Baptist rather than a Catholic because the Baptist parts of the village
were getting better rice harvests than the Catholic one.

Religious Conversion, Ethnicity and Development

Whatever the various possible motives or attractions may be, patterns of conversion
in Southeast Asia are also ethnic in nature. As noted above, the adoption of
Christianity does not occur equally among all ethnic sectors. It does occur across
ethnic lines among the highland and interior groups, but it rarely or at least much
less frequently occurs among the dominant lowland and coastal populations. The
latter groups are generally reluctant to convert because they are already adherents
of a world or universalistic religion. These named religions have great prestige and
authority and are a fundamental part of the identity of their adherents. In Malaysia
both the official and the popular definition of being Malay is being Muslim—and to
become a Muslim in Malaysia is popularly referred to as becoming a Malay (masuk
Melayu). In Thailand the situation appears to be more complicated. Here the
government has sought to make “Thai” a nationality rather than a specific ethnic
or religious one; that is, equivalent to “Malaysian” rather than “Malay”. The
government of the Lao PDR is somewhat similar in that it has sought to define all
inhabitants as “Lao” rather than just the lowland, Lao-speaking Buddhists.
Here the government has attempted to deal with ethnic differences by defining
them in terms of the altitude at which the different ethnic types of people live;
that is, as “lowlanders” (lao lum), “mid-landers” (lao theung) and “highlanders”
(lao theung).
None of this really explains why the indigenous ethnic minorities are
converting mainly to Christianity rather than to religions of the dominant lowland
and coastal peoples. One possibility is that the ethnic minorities have been
approached by the Christians rather than by the Buddhists or the Muslims. In the
past it may have been the case that the dominant lowland and coastal peoples or
their rulers had little interest in spreading their religions to the highlanders, and in
some places it may still be true. However, in other instances serious efforts have
been made to convert indigenous peoples to the dominant national religion, and
such efforts appear to have had only limited or little success. For example, in the
54 Winzeler

case of the Orang Asli (or Original People) in the interior of the Malaysian
Peninsula, according to Robert Dentan and Kirk Endicott (2004: 44-45), Muslim
Malays were permitted to proselytize among them, but were not encouraged to do
so. By 1968 only about three percent of the Orang Asli had converted to Islam.
After this time, the government began an effort to convert the Orang Asli, but after
thirty years of heavy proselytization only about 16% had become Muslim.
In the case of Thailand, several researchers have commented on efforts of the
government to promote conversion to Buddhism among the hill tribes (Gillogly
2004: 122; Keyes 1995: 261; Tapp 1989a: 5). Such efforts began in the 1960s, in part
as a result of a shift in policy towards integrating the highland minorities into the
national state. Encouraging the indigenous minorities to become Buddhist was seen
as a way of strengthening ties with them and increasing their loyalty to the nation.
By this time the Thai sangha had also become interested in spreading Buddhism to
the hill tribes and began to attempt to do so under the Thammacarik program
sponsored by the government. Although no figures are given, these accounts
suggest the effort had only limited success overall—though it did have some effect
among the Karen (Hayami 1996: 345-346). The possible reasons suggested for the
limited success of efforts to convert hill-tribe peoples are that it was “culturally
inappropriate,” or that the tribal peoples were too poor to build temples or support
monks. Tapp (1989a: 88) writes that “It is because the type of Buddhism presented
to the Hmong and other ethnic minorities is so closely associated with the
fundamental values and orientations of Thai Society that it has largely failed to be
adopted by them in any widespread or meaningful sense.”
The same sort of government effort to promote Buddhism among non-Buddhist
minorities is reported to have been made in Burma, although in a much more
heavy-handed manner. Here, according to a recent account, the government has
been attempting to disrupt the practice of Christianity among some groups, and of
Islam among others, by closing religious schools operated by the adherents of
these religions, and by preventing people from attending religious services or from
proselytizing, while promoting the construction of Buddhist monastic schools in
minority areas. Also, reports of forced conversion to Buddhism by the army
have been noted (Lambrecht 2004: 163). Of course, these governmental efforts to
promote Buddhism among non-Buddhist minorities took place before Burmese
Buddhist monks began to openly oppose and confront the government on a
massive scale in 2007.
Throughout Southeast Asia, the indigenous peoples of the mountains and
forests of the borderlands of the mainland countries and of the interior of the
islands of the insular countries have become “national minorities” in a way that
they previously were not (Duncan 2004). Though never completely isolated, they
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 55

have also become much more involved with and knowledgeable of the countries in
which they live and of the wider world. Traditionally looked down upon by the
dominant society as backward and primitive, if also sometimes fierce, as reflected
in the widespread use of terms like “savage” and “slave” to refer to them, their
status in the national societies is still often not high. For various reasons the
indigenous minorities do not want to give up their identity or their “culture.” But
they do want to raise the respect they get and to improve their economic fortunes
and gain the other benefits of development. Conversion to Christianity is therefore
attractive in several ways apart from the material benefits and support discussed
earlier. First, it gives them a real, named religion, since their traditional religion of
“animism” is often not regarded as a religion (in Indonesia this is officially so).
Second, it gives them a religion that does not lead to assimilation, as the adoption
of Buddhism is assumed to do in Thailand or as Islam is assumed to do in Malaysia.
And third, Christianity gives them a prestigious religion, one on at least the same
level as Buddhism or Islam, in the sense that Christianity is the religion of the rich,
powerful and developed western world.
The fact that Christianity is linked to colonialism is probably not a matter of
much negative concern to the indigenous minorities in Southeast Asia to the extent
that they are even aware of such a thing. According to Tapp (1989b: 77) Hmong
Christians now believe they have always been Christian, their old myth of the loss
of their books having been forgotten or disregarded. But even if they are aware, it
probably does not matter. Many Westerners and Southeast Asians view colonialism
as a form of oppression from which liberation was a great national achievement. It
does not seem to be widely known that the indigenous minorities do not always
view things this way. A friend of mine who was a Christian Dayak schoolteacher in
Sarawak once told me that he had said to some Malay schoolteachers when they
were critical of British colonial rule that Sarawak was now a colony of west
Malaysia. Some Dayaks have a cultural view of the colonial period in Sarawak
as a sort of golden age, despite the fact that some of them had fought against the
colonial takeover and had remained rebels throughout much of the colonial period.
The Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia appear to regard the colonial period as one
in which the British were their friends and protectors, who reduced or ended
Malay slave raiding among them; in contrast, they see the postcolonial period of
independence and development as one in which they are treated badly in regard to
land rights and pressured by the government to become Muslims and assimilate
into Malay society (Dentan, et. al, 1997). Farther to the north, in mainland Southeast
Asia, some indigenous minorities formed close relations with colonial rulers—the
Karen in Burma being a well-known example.
56 Winzeler

The Consequences of Conversion

The consequences of conversion in Southeast Asia are both national and local.
At the national level the fact that many among the various ethnic minority
communities have converted to a recognized world religion that is different from
the one followed by the lowland or coastal population means that ethnic diversity
is strengthened and sharpened by religious diversity. This means that efforts to
absorb ethnic minorities into the dominant majorities are prevented or hampered
notwithstanding other tendencies to acculturation and assimilation. Most countries
in Southeast Asia officially proclaim themselves to be multicultural and multi-
religious and to guarantee the rights of ethnic minorities and religious freedom,
though how much they do so in reality is sometimes a different matter. Indonesia
perhaps goes the farthest in defining itself as a multicultural nation and in
specifying defining Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism as
legitimate and acceptable religions for its citizens.
At the local level conversion can have various consequences. In some instances
entire communities may convert at once or within a short period of time, but if only
part of a community converts, the village may split. Missionaries who proselytize
may urge converts to disassociate from non-converts or at least to withdraw from
participation in traditional ceremonies, which is a problem when everyone in the
community is supposed to be involved. Sometimes the differences are reconciled in
one way or another but sometimes the village physically divides into separate
sections, or one side or the other leaves entirely and forms a new community
elsewhere. All of these developments have been common in the interior of Borneo
in relation to conversion. How frequently they also occur in mainland Southeast
Asia is a matter with which I am much less familiar. However, two years ago I
visited an Akha village in northern Thailand where, I was told, anyone who became
a Christian had to leave the community. Nor do such divisions develop only when
a part of a village converts while another part does not. Sometimes, in Borneo at
least, everyone converts but to two or more different religions. Bidayuh villages in
Sarawak very often consist of several kinds of Christians living in separate areas.
Messianic religious movements can be another consequence of proselytization
and conversion, though other developments and stresses are probably always
involved as well. In northern mainland Southeast Asia such movements have been
frequently noted among the Hmong, for whom these movements were often linked
to political turbulence (Tapp 1989a). Writing during the civil war in Laos, Halpern
and Kunstadter (1967: 242) observed, “…the Meo [Hmong] messianic myth foresees
Jesus Christ as the messiah, appearing among them in a jeep, giving them arms and
summoning them to action. According to this myth, the Meo will dispose of the
local Lao officials, and will then take over the national capitol”.
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 57

While not necessarily or usually leading to messianic religious movements,

conversion can bring new political alignments. Robbins Burling (1967: 220-222)
reported several decades ago that among the Nagas of far eastern India all political
leaders, including ones in the rebel movement, were Christian. This suggests at
least that conversion was seen among these people as a prerequisite or a means to
achieving political influence, though it may have also been partly that Christianity
provided access to an education that had become necessary to modern political
leadership. In either case, the same pattern can be seen in the interior of Sarawak in
Malaysian Borneo. Here also, for whatever exact reason, modern Dayak political
leaders tend to be Christian. Once everyone has become Christian such a distinction
ceases to be relevant.
The more distinctly religious consequences of conversion may vary significantly
according to whether Buddhism or Christianity is involved. Yoko Hayami (1996:
346, 348-349), who studied conversion to both Christianity and Buddhism in Karen
villages in Thailand, reports a difference between those who converted to
Christianity and those who became Buddhists in terms of the perpetuation of
traditional Karen ritual practices. The Karen Christian converts were required to
immediately give up the traditional practices but the Buddhist converts were not
and did not, or at least if they gave them up did so only gradually, even after a
Buddhist substitute for them had been provided.
Karen Christians include both Baptist Protestants and Roman Catholics,
although the Karen Hayami studied were Baptists. In any case, she notes no
differences between Baptist and Catholic converts regarding the abandonment of
traditional ritual practices or other consequences of conversion. In contrast, Tapp
(1989a: 99) asserts there are major differences in the consequences of conversion to
different versions of Christianity among the Hmong of northern Thailand, both
regarding the perpetuation of traditional rituals and in other important ways. The
Hmong have also become both Protestants (again mainly Baptists) and Catholics,
and the missionaries for each have taken different approaches to traditional Hmong
beliefs and ritual practices. The Catholics were more tolerant and took a more
gradual approach in leading the Hmong converts toward Christianity than the
Protestants (in which case they appear to be more like the Buddhists among the
Karen). Such differences were based on different views of Hmong beliefs in spirits.
The Catholic missionaries were skeptical of these beliefs but also therefore
understanding and permissive of them. The Baptist Protestants, in contrast, tended
to believe that the Hmong spirits were real in the sense they took them to be
manifestations of the devil, whom they believe is real; therefore they regarded
traditional Hmong rituals as devil worship, to which they strongly objected. The
Catholics permitted the Hmong to continue many of their customary ceremonies as
58 Winzeler

well as the use of alcohol, which the Protestants did not. As a consequence of these
differences, conversion to Protestantism has been more stressful. And this in turn,
Tapp argues, is linked to a greater likelihood of messianic religious movements
among the Hmong who have been proselytized by Protestants rather than by
Such differences in the nature and consequences of Protestant versus Catholic
mission efforts among the Hmong seem similar to what has taken place in Borneo,
according to my knowledge. Here also Roman Catholicism is widely associated
with a greater tolerance of traditional religious beliefs and practices, and beyond
this with a positive encouragement for Dayaks to continue or perpetuate or
revive much of their rituals and culture. This can be seen in various places in the
interior, especially in the elaborate artwork to be found in some Kenyah and
Kayan longhouses, mortuary structures, and churches in Sarawak and Kalimantan,
which I have described elsewhere (Winzeler 2004). The interior of the old Catholic
church at Long San on the upper Baram River in central Sarawak was covered with
spectacular Kenyah painted spirals and whorls and the main crucifix showed Christ
in a Dayak loincloth and ceremonial helmet. You can (or could) also find upriver
Kenyah and Kayan longhouse murals showing Christ on the Cross flanked by
dragons making offerings of flowers. And on the middle Mahakam River in East
Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) I also once witnessed a traditional funeral for a
Dayak Catholic teacher which culminated in a water buffalo sacrifice and the dab-
bing of blood on a post carved as an idol. Afterward I talked to the French priest
who was present and asked him what he thought of the funeral; he said that he did
not approve of all the drinking and gambling that was going on but that otherwise
the ceremony was interesting and that he planned to write about it. On another
occasion I talked to a Catholic priest in Kuching, Sarawak, who had recently
transferred downriver after many years on the upper Baram, where he had been
much loved by his Dayak parishioners. He told me that all that was really
important was to be a Christian, and that what the Dayaks continued to believe and
practice from their old religion was secondary.
However, there are also differences from one area to another that seem to be
associated with when people converted. The Catholic Bidayuh in far western
Sarawak retained much less of their old religion and culture than had some Dayak
groups in central Borneo. This may have been in part a result of the length of time
these Bidayuh had been Catholic and the extent to which they had been influenced
by other modernizing influences. However, my Bidayuh Catholic friends also said
that when they had been converted the missionaries had been too strict about
getting rid of their old practices. They now regarded themselves as devout
Catholics, but expressed some bitterness about having to give up things like
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 59

playing drums and gongs that were not necessarily wrong from the perspective of
religion. Now they were free to play drums and gongs and were making an
effort to use these and other traditional things in religious ceremonies, but the
young people were not much interested and much of the old culture was gone and
beyond recovery.

Conversion and Marginalization

Perhaps the most important question regarding the consequences of the conversion
of interior and highland and minority peoples to Christianity is whether it serves
their interests. Most of those who have studied and written about conversion to
Christianity in Southeast Asia make similar statements about its ethnic dimensions
and consequences: it is a way for these groups to gain greater respect from other
groups including the dominant majorities, it contributes to the development of
broader ethnic awareness and solidarity with others who have also converted, and
it keeps those who convert from disappearing into the dominant majority. The
question is whether this is entirely a good thing, or whether there are costs as well
of benefits of remaining apart.
To begin with, in many areas, pressures on the indigenous ethnic minorities
to convert to a world religion will probably continue to increase. The sort of post-
Christian movement now occurring in parts of the developed world (especially
Western Europe) will probably not arrive in Southeast Asia anytime soon if it does
at all. Hence the real question in most places will be which world religion to
embrace rather than whether to do so at all.
While the accounts of conversion in Southeast Asia agree on the ethnic
consequences noted above, they do not answer the question of whether these are
necessarily good for the group in question. In her account of conversion among the
Karen of Thailand, Yoko Hayami seems to have a positive view. She describes the
Karen as having some understanding of conversion to either Buddhism or
Christianity. Conversion to Christianity furthers the development of broader
Karen identity, creates wider networks and contacts with the greater world of an
international religion, and removes some of the stigma of being regarded by the
Thai as primitive animists. Conversion to Buddhism on the other hand strengthens
their relationship to the Thais and their status as citizens in Thailand (where,
though she does not say so, they are unquestionably far better off than the Karen in
Burma and probably know it). Nor does conversion to Buddhism necessarily mean
they cannot keep some of their customs and thus protect their identity. At the same
time, the younger Karen who move beyond their own villages and experience the
Thai world also realize they are looked down upon and will still be even if they
become Buddhists. So there are things for and against conversion to either religion.
60 Winzeler

The question of why some Karen have chosen Buddhism and others Christianity
(and she does not offer even rough estimates of how many have done each) is a
matter of local history and circumstances: close geographical links and good
relations with local Thais, or the influence of charismatic Thai Buddhist monks in
some places but not others, and so forth.
Nicholas Tapp (1989b) is more positive about the effects of conversion to
Catholicism than to Protestantism among the Hmong, but he is ambivalent about
the eventual consequences of either. He notes that early in the twentieth century in
southeastern China, conversion to Christianity helped raise the status of the Hmong
and end the abuse of the Hmong by the more powerful Yee and Han Chinese
landlords, but eventually this led to a backlash and repression by the Chinese
government, which presumably left them even worse off and led to millenarian
movements. More generally, he argues that conversion has led to the further
marginalization of the Hmong in Southeast Asia.
In China, Tapp (1989b: 78) points out, the minorities are among the poorest
peoples in a poor country, and the Hmong are among the poorest of the minorities.
Thus enhancing ethnic identity and marginalization from the dominant majority
may not necessarily be a good thing for a people living close to the economic
margins and lacking food security. This interpretation, however, seems more
questionable when applied to the Hmong in the Southeast Asian countries. For one
thing, it seems difficult to separate the effect of conversion from other changes that
have affected the Hmong. In Thailand these include the reduction in their isolation,
the end of opium growing, and the efforts of governments to reduce or end slash
and burn cultivation, all of which appear to have affected the status of the Hmong
in the view of the lowland Thais. Or in Laos there is the fact that many Hmong
fought with the Americans against the communists who won and now control the
government. Further, in Thailand the issue of conversion involves the question of
whether to convert at all and, if so, to Christianity or Buddhism, whereas in China
and in Vietnam, Buddhism does not appear to be part of the equation.
The question of the extent to which conversion to Christianity is a positive
development has also been raised in regard to the Dayaks of Indonesian Borneo,
specifically those of East Kalimantan, by Jennifer Connolly (2003). This question is
also applicable to other regions of Borneo and, for that matter, to other indigenous
minorities of Indonesia and Malaysia as well. Throughout these regions the
indigenous minorities of the interior face or have faced the same range of choices
as have those of Thailand and other predominantly Buddhist countries of the
mainland; that is, whether to convert at all, and if so to which religion. And again
the pressure to convert (or in Indonesia to have their own religion officially
declared a form of Hinduism) is such that remaining outside of a world religion will
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 61

generally not remain an option for much longer. However, the question of whether
to convert to Islam or to some version of Christianity remains and is important.
After reviewing the choices facing the Dayaks, Connolly (2003: 304) concludes that
while Christianity is risky, given their circumstances, it may be the only real option.
In Malaysian the situation is different both from the national perspective as well
as from that of local regions. Here, there are no official national requirements
that all citizens must adhere to a recognized monotheistic religion. The national
government is controlled by Malays, has Islam as the official religion, and would
like to further Islamize the country. Yet the government is also committed to
economic development and political stability, especially ethnic and religious
stability, and has never had the degree or severity of religious strife that has taken
place in Indonesia in recent decades. And, while the Malays form one half of the
population, the Chinese, Indians and various indigenous and other minorities—
most of whom are non-Muslim—form the other half. The Malays continue to be
officially favored but it is because they are bumiputera (native sons) not simply
because they are Muslims, which means that their favored status is based on birth
and cannot be gained by conversion to Islam. Further, the indigenous minorities
are also supposed to have the same special rights as the Malays whether or not
they are Muslim, all of which lessens pressures to convert, at least official
governmental ones. While as noted above, the government has brought pressure
on the indigenous Orang Asli groups in Peninsular Malaysia to convert, it has not
been very successful (Dentan, et al.). In Malaysian Borneo the national government
has far less leverage over the indigenous minority populations than it has over the
Orang Asli or than the Indonesian government has over the Dayak populations. In
Sarawak, Dayaks considerably outnumber Malays and if their numbers are added
to those of the Chinese, who are also numerically very large (not to mention very
economically powerful) in relative terms, Muslims are greatly outnumbered by
non-Muslims. The national Malaysian government is run by Malays who would
like to promote the further spread of Islam in Sarawak and make efforts to do
so. But since migration from peninsular Malaysia to Sarawak is restricted by the
original terms of federation, and since the ruling national party’s political control of
the state depends upon the inclusion of both Dayak and Chinese parties, there is not
a great deal they can do. Here also, however, the main choice for those Dayaks
wishing to be modern or to receive the benefits of development will not be whether
or not to convert, but whether to become Muslim or Christian. Most of them, as
noted, choose Christianity.
62 Winzeler

Burling, Robbins. 1967. “Tribesmen and Lowlanders in Assam.” In Southeast Asian
Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, Vol. 1, edited by Peter Kunstadter, 215-229. Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Connolly, Jennifer. 2003. Becoming Christian and Dayak: A Study of Christian
Conversion Among Dayaks in Eat Kalimantan, Indonesia. Ph.D. Dissertation, New
School University. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Dissertation Services.
Cooper, Robert. 1984. Resource Scarcity and the Hmong Response. Singapore:
Singapore University Press.
Dentan, Robert Knox, Kirk Endicott, Alberto Gomes and M. B. Hooker. 1997.
Malaysia and the Orang Asli: A Study of the Impact of Development on Indigenous
Peoples. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Duncan, Christopher, ed., 2004. Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government
Policies for the Development of Minorities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Endicott, Kirk and Robert Knox Dentan. 2004. “Into the Mainstream or into the
Backwater: Malaysian Assimilation of Orang Asli.” In Civilizing the Margins:
Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, edited by
Christopher Duncan 24-55. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Gillogly, Kathleen. 2004. “Developing the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand.” In
Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of
Minorities, edited by Christopher Duncan, 116-149. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Halpern, Joel and Peter Kunstadter. 1967. “Laos: Introduction.” In Southeast Asian
Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, Vol. 1, edited by Peter Kunstadter, 233-258. Princeton,
New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Hayami, Yoko. 1996. “Karen Tradition According to Christ or Buddha: The
Implications of Multiple Reinterpretations For a Minority Ethnic Group in
Thailand.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27(2): 342-449.
Hayami, Yoko and Susan Darlington. 2000. “The Karen of Burma and Thailand.” In
Endangered Peoples of Southeast and East Asia: Struggles to Survive and Thrive, edited
by Leslie Sponsel, 137- 155. Westport, Connecticut: The Greenwood Press.
Kammerer, Cornelia Ann. 1990. “Custom and Christian Conversion Among Akha
Highlanders of Burma and Thailand.” American Ethnologist 17(2): 277-291.
Keyes, Charles F. 1977. The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland
Southeast Asia. New York: MacMillan.
Keyes, Charles F. 1993. “Why the Thai Are Not Christians: Buddhist Christian
Conversion in Thailand.” In Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological
Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Southeast Asia 63

Perspectives on a Great Transformation, edited by Robert F. Hefner, 259-303. Berkeley:

University of California Press.
Kipp, Rita and Susan Rodgers. 1987. “Introduction: Indonesian Religions in
Society.” In Indonesian Religions in Transition, edited by Rita Kipp and Susan
Rodgers, pp. 1-31. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
Lambrecht, Curtis W. 2004. “Oxymoronic Development: The Military as Benefactor
in the Border Regions of Burma.” In Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian
Government Policies for the Development of Minorities, edited by Christopher Duncan,
150-181. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Metcalf, Peter. 1989. Where Are You/Spirits: Style and Theme in Berawan Prayer.
Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Ovesen, Jan and Ing Britt Trankell. 2004. “Foreigners and Honorary Khmers: Ethnic
Minorities in Cambodia.” In Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government
Policies for the Development of Minorities, edited by Christopher Duncan, 241-270.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Ovesen, Jan. 2004. “All Lao? Minorities in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.” In
Civilizing the Margins: Southeast Asian Government Policies for the Development of
Minorities, edited by Christopher Duncan, 214-240. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Rousseau, Jérôme. 1998. Kayan Religion: Ritual Life and Religious Reform in Central
Borneo. Leiden: KITLY Press.
Tapp, Nicholas. 1989a. Sovereignty and Rebellion: The White Hmong of Northern
Thailand. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
Tapp, Nicholas. 1989b. “The Impact of Missionary Christianity Upon Marginalized
Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20(1):
Winzeler, Robert L. 2004. The Architecture of Life and Death in Borneo. Honolulu: The
University of Hawaii Press.
Winzeler, Robert L. 2008. Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think and
Question. New York: AltaMira Press.
Women, Pregnancy and Health: Traditional Midwives among
the Bunong in Mondulkiri, Cambodia
Brigitte Nikles

In Cambodia, many women deliver their babies at home with the assistance of a
traditional midwife, or contact her at least once before, during or after giving birth.
This is particularly the case for indigenous people. For the Bunong, one of the
indigenous minorities in the north east of Cambodia, traditional midwives, or
kru njut ndüll – the traditional healer who holds the belly1 – have offered their
services to pregnant women and mothers as far back as people can remember.
Accordingly, there is no doubt that the traditional midwives play an integral part
during pregnancy, delivery and the time of early motherhood. In general, their role
is to take care of mothers as soon as labour starts, to massage their abdomen, to cut
the umbilical cord, to wait for the placenta to be expelled, to advise the women to
drink traditional medicine and to eat the right food. She will prepare weng oing,
the fire that warms the woman’s body, and will visit her regularly during the first
few days after she gives birth. Prenatal visits are only carried out in case of
problems and pain. The traditional midwife is usually a relative or a close friend of
the family, and needs to be informed a few weeks before the couple would like to
call on her skills for the upcoming event.
The high level of activity of traditional midwives is reflected in official statistics.
According to the most recent Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey (CDHS,
2006: 144-145) conducted in 2005, 83.2% of the deliveries in Mondulkiri are assisted
by traditional midwives and 90.6% of newborns are delivered at home.2 These
numbers might be even higher if they focused solely on the Bunong. A study by the
international NGO, Health Unlimited (HU), in Ratanakiri Province showed
that 99% of the interviewed village women gave birth with the assistance of a
traditional midwife or a family member (HU, 2006: 13). Unfortunately, similar
studies are lacking in Mondulkiri. The end of the midwife’s services that she
offers during pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood is usually marked
with a ceremony. This paper looks more closely at this ceremony and at the
status of traditional midwives within Bunong communities in Mondulkiri
Province, Cambodia.

Trends towards marginalization

The indigenous people in Mondulkiri province are facing increasing pressures
66 Nikles

caused by fast changing transformations in terms of land issues, immigration, a

weak public health system, difficulties of accessibility, and international and local
agencies that underestimate or ignore local practices (NGO Forum, 2005: 12; Seidel,
2005: 312; Maffi, 2006: 7). Therefore, indigenous communities in general and
indigenous women in particular, are challenged and pushed toward the margins.
In a context where the health system is weak and villages remote, one of the main
challenges lies in the problem of accessibility. Overall, public health care facilities
are difficult to access; the roads are in especially poor condition during the rainy
season, the distances wide and health staff often absent from the health posts
or health centres. However, even though the villagers sometimes have the
opportunity and the possibility to access public health care facilities, they still
decide to give birth at home with a traditional midwife. To understand why women
hold onto traditional childbirth practices, it is crucial to consider historical,
political, cultural and economic factors that influence the women’s and family’s

National and international policies in relation to midwifery

The maternal mortality ratio is very high in Cambodia (472 per 100,000 live births;
CDHS 2006:120).3 This fact has led the Cambodian Ministry of Health (MoH) to
state: “As such a high maternal mortality ratio is one of Cambodia’s most pressing
health concerns to which the Ministry of Health and its development partners are
committed to addressing as a priority. […] For the MoH, midwives are one of the
critical cadres for achieving the overall improvements in health, especially in
rural and hard to reach communities” (MoH 2006: 2). The Ministry of Health has
developed a Safe Motherhood policy and set up strategies and activities in a five
year plan (MoH 2001: 10) where the MoH sees professional midwives at the
health centre level as the key for safe motherhood activities. Even though the
policy recognises that traditional birth attendants (TBAs) are contributing to the
provision of community and maternal health care, and that they are the care
providers most used in the villages, it holds the opinion that:
The TBAs are not officially integrated into the health services workforce and there is no
plan to do so. TBAs are not considered skilled birth attendants; they are traditional
practitioners who are valued for their role as birth attendants (MOH 200: 33).

The Ministry of Health’s position is in line “with the most recent trend at WHO
and UNICEF toward diminished support for traditional midwives coupled with
increased support for professional midwives” (Davis-Floyd 2003: 6). “[S]afe
motherhood initiatives worldwide are based on the premise that pregnancy,
childbirth and postpartum care are safer when provided by skilled birth attendants
Women, pregnancy and health 67

in a modern health care facility” (Hoban 2002:12).

In the 1970s, the WHO began to promote the training and incorporation of
traditional birth attendants into formal health systems in many places around the
world (Pigg 1998; Goldmann/Glei 2003). Since that time, TBAs have caught the
attention of researchers, development and governmental agencies. These trainings
usually do not seek to replace other medical practices, but try to enhance them
by improving health services in relation to delivery through cooperation with
existing indigenous systems. But as Pigg (1998:2) argues: “Many programs fall
short of the ideals of ‘enhancement’ and ‘cooperation.’” This is because it is not easy
to identify who needs to be trained or to introduce new practices and techniques
into existing routines. As a matter of fact, most training programs simply try to
redefine the practices of the trainees (ibid: 15). Governments and development
institutions define birth assistance as a “medical” fact, subsuming the varying
social, emotional and protective roles that the trainees might actually be playing. By
classifying the traditional midwifes as “TBAs,” the international community is
implying that their knowledge does not count in the global system. As a result,
recent anthropological ethnographies question the appropriateness of this
approach (Davis-Floyd 2003:6). While the positive impacts of TBA trainings on safe
delivery practices remain controversial (Hobson 2002; Furey 2004), evaluation
reports show that TBAs can reduce mortality rates, if referrals are possible and if
training occurs as part of a multi-system approach. Nevertheless, training courses
for TBAs have been criticized for their pedagogy and ideology. The general purpose
is mainly to educate the traditional midwives in how to identify risks and to
improve prenatal and postnatal care. But the content of such courses are often
inappropriate to local realities and always designed by biomedical personnel
(Davis-Floyd & Jenkins 2005). “Because in most places 30 years of TBA training
programs have not resulted in any demonstrable drop in maternal mortality,
UNICEF and other agencies are now withdrawing support for TBA training all
over the Third World and increasing support for midwives who meet the WHO
definition”4 (Davis-Floyd et al. 2001:9).
But birth is never simply a biological act. It is as Brigitte Jordan (1993:1) states:
“Birth is everywhere socially marked and shaped.” On the one hand, ideas and
practices related to illness are inseparable from the domain of religious ideas and
practices. On the other hand, health beliefs are related to social organization, for
example, illness has a meaning for the community and not just for the individual.
Therefore, local systems of medical care are rooted directly in everyday social
relations. “Illness, in short, is not simply a physical or physiological state: it is
symbolic of moral issues that implicate the patient and others in a web of social
rivalries and jealousies” (Pelto & Pelto 1997:150). Besides these essential cognitive
68 Nikles

components, the economic, material, and political factors must be joined for a
full-scale understanding of behavioural patterns, in the present case the under-
standing of treatment-seeking behaviour and decision-making processes (ibid:161).
The term “traditional birth attendant” – as it is introduced by the WHO and
taken over by development workers – implies that these women form a
homogeneous category. However, variations exist even within one country, not
only in what these women actually do, but in the nature of their relationship to
the women they assist (Pigg 1998:10). The only real unity among them is their
international classification as “traditional birth attendants” (Davis-Floyd 2003:4).
Although such variations are sometimes recognized by researchers and health
planners, and attempts are made to understand the full medical and social
significance of the ideas and practices, national programs such as TBA trainings are
always designed to contain a certain amount of generalizations and are structured
so as to systematically remake the trainees in the image of the midwife.

The status of traditional midwives

Traditional midwives are well-known and found in many rural villages, as well as
in many urban neighbourhoods worldwide and throughout Southeast Asia (Rogers
& Solomon, 1975; Hoban, 2002). However, age, status and skills of midwives
worldwide vary considerably. In Southeast Asia, their prestige and status within
the community is generally high. Rogers & Solomon (1975: 126) point out two
reasons for this: The first reason concerns their perceived “safety,” due to the
similarity between their socioeconomic status and lifestyle and those of their
clients; the second factor is related to their “competence,” due to their advanced
age, religiousness, and special knowledge and skills. If this is compared to other
regions such as South Asia, the same high social status among traditional midwives
cannot be found. In India and Bangladesh for example, the dai usually belongs to a
low caste, as contact with blood from birth is perceived as polluting and defiling
(Obermeyer, 2000: 186; Hoban, 2002: 56).
Because human blood, in this case from parturition, can also be a source of
power, one has to be careful about who comes into contact with it. Obermeyer
(2000: 186) showed that that in Morocco spilled blood during pregnancy can be
used for sorcery to create a dispute between the new mother and her husband. This
fact has consequences for the traditional midwife and her status: it is crucial to call
a midwife who can be absolutely trusted, and she is the only one who washes the
mother’s clothes and stays with her a few days after the delivery. The midwife’s
role in this case is far from being despised; rather she is a person with whom
the mother has a special bond of trust. Moreover, if a woman cannot find the right
midwife, she would rather go to deliver at a public health facility, than risk
Women, pregnancy and health 69

becoming a victim of black magic.

Among the Bunong, it is known that the time around delivery is highly
dangerous for the mother and her child in relation to spiritual intervention.
Therefore, we will explore what consequences this insecure period has for the
status of the traditional midwife. Our aim is to describe and analyse the link
between the respect given to the traditional midwife and the fact that she puts
herself in close contact with spirits.

The main objectives and methodology

This paper highlights aspects of a broader social anthropological research project
that is being carried out on behalf of Nomad RSI Cambodia.5 It looks at the
Bunong’s perceptions, attitudes and practices when dealing with pregnancy,
delivery and early motherhood. In order to fully comprehend the decision-making
processes, all opinions and impacts resulting from it must be included as part of the
context (Pelto & Pelto, 1997: 154). In addition, this issue is examined in light of
Brigitte Jordan’s concept of ‘authoritative knowledge’. Jordan observes that, for any
particular domain, when more than one knowledge system exists, one kind of
knowledge often gains ascendance (1993[1978]: 152). The legitimizing of one
way of knowing as authoritative often leads to the devaluation of all other ways of
knowing. Therefore, one system of authoritative knowledge appears to be natural,
reasonable and right. It is accepted as legitimate, is socially sanctioned, and serves
as grounds for action (Sargent & Bascope, 1996: 214).
Within this conceptual framework, the main focus for this paper is on the
traditional midwife, especially her status in the communities, her role, duties and
responsibilities. This research presents one specific ceremony, carried out by the
majority of people interviewed, and performed in honour of the traditional
midwife a few days after the delivery. From an account of this ceremony, the
core subject matters are derived: on one side the pregnant women and the new
mothers respectively, and on the other side the traditional midwives. Through
this event, some of the most important issues revolving around traditional
midwives in these communities are revealed: the tremendous respect afforded
the traditional midwife, the critical role that spirits play as part of the birth
process, and the fearful motivation that potential maternal death plays for the
community as a whole.
A classical social anthropological approach is used to accomplish the research.
The methodologies applied include participant observation, semi-structured and
open-ended interviews, as well as key informant, expert and group interviews.
On the basis of the women’s narratives about their birth experiences and the
observations made, this article seeks to understand their health-seeking behaviour
70 Nikles

and their decision-making processes, and to identify the resources mobilized and
the social networks engaged when dealing with a delivery. To get a broader idea of
the present practices, beliefs and perceptions, semi-structured interviews are
conducted among the villagers in the respective villages. These surveys include
more general questions about health and illness, with the specific focus being
on pregnancy, delivery and motherhood. Besides this research in the selected
villages, key informant and expert interviews were carried out, for example,
with “professional” midwives in the health posts and health centres, with people
from the referral hospital in Sen Monorom, and with representatives from
governmental institutions and NGOs that are working on maternal and child
health issues.
The villages where the research was carried out were chosen according to
different locations and access conditions to public health services and facilities.
Lauka is the closest village to the provincial capital6 and can be reached within ten
minutes by motorbike. The road condition is good all year around and there exists
no public health facility in the village. Roveak, on the other hand, is the most remote
of the places selected. In dry season, it can be reached by motorbike within five
hours (approximately one hour to the next health centre/ health post). In the rainy
season, it takes at least eight hours to get from the provincial capital to Roveak. In
all of the sites chosen, indigenous people are in the majority.

Bunong communities
The research was carried out in Mondulkiri province, which is located in the
eastern highland region of Cambodia, bordered by Vietnam to the east and to the
south. It has a population of around 49,000 inhabitants and covers 14,682 km² of
land, which largely consists of forest landscape.7 The roads are often very poor.
Most of the villages are remote and isolated and therefore difficult to access,
especially during the wet season. According to the latest numbers from the
Department of Planning for 2006, approximately 60% of people in Mondulkiri
province belong to an indigenous group. Most of them are Bunong (54%). Stieng,
Kreung, Kraowl and Tampuan make up 1% or less, ethnic Khmers 34%, Cham 4%
and Lao 2% of the population. Sen Monorom is the provincial capital, inhabited by
approximately 7,000 people.
The Bunong are mainly subsistence farmers. Like other indigenous groups, they
traditionally practice swidden agriculture, gather forest products for food and sale,
raise livestock, and practice fishing and hunting. Today, they still carry out these
activities, but some people pursue them more intensively, due to technological,
economic or environmental developments and changes. Nevertheless, the Bunong
are largely dependent on access to natural resources. Guérin (2003) states the
Women, pregnancy and health 71

The primary resource of the Mnong is the forest, from which they draw almost every-
thing of what they need. The ethnologists speak of “society of vegetation” to mark the
overlap of human social life in the framework of the forest, more or less cultivated, and
perceived by some groups as controlled by supernatural powers (p.19).8

Research shows that resin tapping is the main income source of the Bunong
(Evans et. al., 2003). Most Bunong families farm hill rice as their main form of
agriculture, often inter-cropped with a wide variety of vegetables, though in areas
where paddy rice cultivation is possible it is often adopted.
The traditional belief system of the Bunong is animism. They believe in
spiritual forces which are present in the natural environment – like the forest, sky,
earth, hills, stones, water and rice, as well in the houses and household items
like jars. These spirits have the power to influence the health, well-being and
prosperity of the villagers (White, 1996; Bequette, 2004) and play an important role
during pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood, as these periods are considered
very dangerous in terms of spiritual activity (White, 1995: 60). The spirits of the
ancestors are highly respected as well, and have the power to protect or to harm
people. Therefore, a wide variety of ceremonies are carried out to appease these
various spirits.
Typically, villages are autonomous, self-governing entities where village elders
exert traditional jurisdiction. A settlement has two to five elders, who are known
for their skills in conflict resolution, are asked for their advice, implement
customary law, and can be distinguished from other villagers by their
understanding and comprehension of Bunong culture. People respect and trust
the elders and they influence village life, but their authority is not absolute (Leclère,
1908; Guérin 2003). Customary law governs different aspects of life, such as social
and economic behaviour, and is coupled with obligations to the spirits and to the
ancestors (White, 1996: 353). This is key to upholding community harmony and
traditions. Harmony must be maintained with the world of the spirits. For this
reason, the traditional legal system still works, because people believe that the
spirits will know if a person is not telling the truth or lying in front of the elders,
who are linked with the spirits and can bring great misfortune to a dishonest
person. But traditional leadership and arbitration of conflicts has been and remains
largely in the hands of men (Ironside, 2007). Even though the Bunong, like other
indigenous communities in north-eastern Cambodia, are highly egalitarian in many
ways, there exists a strong gender division regarding certain areas, tasks and
activities in daily life (Berg, 1999: 3). Women and girls are much more involved in
reproductive activities9 than men, but at the same time are taking care of many
72 Nikles

agricultural tasks that leads to a heavier workload and less free time for women.
The general level of education among the Bunong is low and is even lower among
women. Wealth is traditionally controlled by the wife’s family. However, nowadays,
men individually have more control over their money. They engage more often in
wage labour, market transactions (selling resin, wild animals or land) and therefore
have assumed greater control over many high value resources (Bequette, 2004).
The relationship between men and women here is based on the desire for
solidarity, especially as they face a harsh and challenging environment. “Solidarity
is aimed first at the survival of their family, kinship and group, leaving little room
for more mundane considerations” (Maffi, 2006: 72). Despite the gender division of
labour, men and women interact as equal, behave as full members of the same
community and share the same space without any sign of one gender being
submissive to the other. “The indigenous society as a whole does not seem to share
the same misogynistic trends that characterise Khmer culture” (ibid: 75).
To summarise, women do have influential roles in the community, such as
spirit women and healers, traditional midwives and as the head of the family.10
Spirit women are usually selected by the spirits through dreams; they are able to
cure sickness caused by spirits and black magic or any other kind of inexplicable
illness. As head of the family, the woman is responsible for looking after children,
collecting firewood, cooking, fetching water, managing the family’s property,
leading the family level ceremonies, and controlling the family members (Ironside,
Nevertheless, the fast-changing environment is strongly affecting indigenous
women. “Indigenous women have been forced to find new sources of livelihood
and have multiplied their activities and intensified their work and skills. The
system of belief, their identity and their social status within the communities have
been strongly shaken by these changes” (Maffi, 2006: 7). At the same time, a
generalized trend toward the disruption of solidarity links between men and
women has been noted. The status of indigenous women is transforming, even
though the consequences of this remain to be fully understood. As mentioned
before, the kru njut ndüll, the traditional midwife, takes over a central role for
women and their families in Bunong communities before, during and after
childbirth. In order to understand her roles and responsibilities better, the
ethnography of the ceremony in honour of her is briefly recounted below.

Ethnography of ceremony for the kru njut ndüll

Cam, the husband, is busy. He just returned from Sen Monorom, the provincial capital,
where he bought two chickens and a few litres of sra sor (distilled white wine). Children
are running around, a few people sitting on the floor, drinking and talking in a lively
Women, pregnancy and health 73

manner. The wife Peng, mother of four children, is sitting on her bed, separated by a
few wooden boards from the rest of the room, holding her three-day old son in her
arms. Today, the ceremony for the kru njut ndüll, the traditional midwife, is taking place.
It is also time to stop weng oing,11 the roasting. kru njut ndüll means lighting a fire under
or next to the mother’s bed after delivery for around three or four days, or, depending
on her health status, even longer. Around her, the preparations are going full steam
ahead. Her sister is chopping vegetables, her husband is plucking the chickens, and a
few children are looking after the fire in front of the house where a big pot full of water
is boiling to cook the chickens. People arrive; three wine jars are placed next to the wall
and filled up with water. Chuch Den, the kru njut ndüll, is laughing; she assisted the
delivery together with another midwife. Because labour lasted for many hours, Cam,
the husband, called the second one after a while. However, Chuch Den was also
the one who looked after the mother during weng oing. During these three days of
weng oing, the mother and her baby are especially vulnerable to any kind of spirit
intervention. In particular ndreng ong, the fire spirit, is feared, as this spirit can cause
the mother and her baby to die if he enters their bodies. To prevent any kind of spirit
interference, a ceremony is usually done before the delivery, during the mother’s eighth
month of pregnancy. Despite this protection ceremony, it is absolutely necessary that
the midwife and the husband always be around the mother and her child after she gives
birth, to take care of them. So today is the time to repay the midwives’ services by
arranging the ceremony. Besides the kru njut ndüll, relatives and friends are invited to
join the celebration. As visitors arrive, they are offered sra sor, glasses of alcohol which
are empty quickly. The smell of food spreads throughout the room, plates are filled up
with rice, and more alcohol is served, this time from the wine jars. But before opening
the jars, it is necessary to pray to the spirits, to thank them for their help and support.
Cam prays loudly together with a few relatives, offers a small part of the chicken to the
spirits and spreads some drops of blood on the pot. Next, the visitors are invited to drink
rice wine with a straw out of the jars and as soon as everybody has arrived, people start
to eat. After the feast, bowls of uncooked rice with money on top are prepared and
handed over by Cam to the midwives, their husbands and to the relatives who were
present during the delivery. The mother joins the group and sits down with her son in
her arms. It is the first time since her delivery that she leaves her bed. The visitors start
to bless the baby by tying a string with some money around his wrist which was dipped
in blood and wine, and wish the baby good health, a lucky and wealthy life. Peng starts
to recall her experiences and memories from the delivery, telling those present how she
felt, what she did and who came to help her. The atmosphere is very cheerful and
happy. The party goes on for hours, but even though the ceremony will be completed
soon, Peng is still not able to leave the house for another five days. Her body is not
dried yet, an expression that refers to her bleeding, which means that she could attract
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the spirits’ attention to her, putting everybody in the village in great danger of death.

In order to understand the different meanings, values and necessities behind

this ceremony the following sections put the various elements in a broader context.
The purpose is to explore why the traditional midwife is so valued, respected and
consulted in the visited villages and what kind of considerations influence the
villager’s decisions and strategies when dealing with a delivery and motherhood.

The necessity to respect the traditional midwife

Because Bunong communities, like other indigenous groups in this region, are
largely based on principles of reciprocity (White, 1995: 23f.), arranging a ceremony
post-delivery is indispensable. The family has to repay the services offered by the
traditional midwife during the time of pregnancy, delivery and weng oing.
Therefore, this ceremony marks the end of the traditional midwife’s engagement
with the mother and her family.12
During pregnancy, women will visit a traditional midwife only in case of
pain and indisposition. Through massaging the abdomen and the provision of
traditional medicine the midwife releases her from discomfort. At the moment
when labour starts, it is the husband’s duty to look for the midwife and call her to
their house. The midwife is never going to assist a delivery on her own initiative,
even if she knows that a woman is giving birth soon. The husband has to call her;
anything else is considered impolite. In case the traditional midwife is not at home,
he will try to find her in the fields, in a neighbouring village or wherever she might
be at that moment. If it happens that she is not available, they will have to call
another midwife or any woman regarded as having the necessary skills. In most
cases, more than just one traditional midwife is present in one village, some of them
more experienced than the others. Those with substantial experience will be more
frequently in charge of assisting the delivery. The couple will choose the one they
know best; sometimes she is a relative or a close family friend.
The way of becoming a traditional midwife varies and it is possible for any
woman to acquire these skills. Either a woman gains the knowledge from an
experienced midwife, who does not necessarily need to be a relative, through
accompanying and watching her, or she has to do it on the spot, as certain situations
require. One woman in Valyeung village described how she had to help her sister
deliver the baby. They were in the field far away from the village, they did not have
any means of transportation to return home and there was nobody else around to
help. Therefore, she acted as the midwife, and since that time people call her to
assist deliveries. Additionally, a few women reported, they have been called by the
spirits to become a traditional midwife or had a specific dream. One traditional
Women, pregnancy and health 75

midwife from Lauka village recounted the following story:

I had a dream. At that time I was 27 years old and not yet married. In this dream a
woman came to me and handed me over a gourd filled with uncooked rice. The woman
asked me to press on the gourd; if the rice dispersed it would be a sign to become a
traditional midwife. I pressed on it and the rice dispersed. Thus, the woman said, it
would be very easy for me to become a traditional midwife. The dream did not teach
me what to do to assist a delivery, but after that I just started to do it. I observed other
midwives through which I gained my knowledge.

To deliberately stop being a traditional midwife is not possible; as long as

people call on her skills, a midwife cannot refuse to assist a delivery. One midwife
in Lauka village shared the following:
In fact, I don’t want to be a traditional midwife anymore, because it is tiring and I
am already old. But the neighbours keep on calling me, they ask me to come when
somebody is in labour, so I cannot refuse. But to assist a delivery is very exhausting.
Sometimes I have two women in one night and I cannot sleep and I am very busy.

As soon as the midwife arrives at the woman’s house or birthing hut, she will
start to check her abdomen, massage it and give her traditional medicine to drink.
She will ask the husband to boil water; she will put a string from wall to wall where
the mother can pull herself up during her pains; and she will wash her and clean
the bed. After the baby is born, the umbilical cord is cut with a blade and tied with
cotton and strings. The placenta is buried next to the house to prevent animals from
eating it. Some people use a special hut for the delivery that is built a few weeks
before, and where the woman will stay until she is allowed to go outside again and
return to her house. Losing blood after the delivery can still attract the spirits and
put the woman in danger. The use of a birthing hut is not practised by everybody
in the same way. Some people move to this hut, which is usually situated next to
their house, only for the birth itself, and as soon as the baby is delivered they return
to their home. Others stay in the hut for several days, together with their husband
and children. The reasons for using a birthing hut are various: Depending on the
family size, a couple sometimes prefers to have a quiet place. It is very common
to have up to ten people living in the same house and, often, they do not have
separate bedrooms, but all sleep in the same room, only using curtains to have
some privacy. Other people reported that giving birth in the house could cause
problems with the house spirits, as they do not like to be disturbed; therefore, they
would use a birthing hut. Occasionally villagers do not dare to go inside and visit
the mother and baby if she stays in the main house for fear of the spirits. Therefore,
the birthing hut is seen by some people as a place where there is less potential for
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spiritual interference and where they have a more intimate space.

Regardless of whether the villagers use a birthing hut or not, they all practise
weng oing, the roasting. This practice is common throughout Cambodia, as well as
Southeast Asia (Hoban, 2002: 1).13 As soon as the baby is born, the traditional
midwife lights a fire either under or next to the mother’s bed. As the body is
believed to be cold after the delivery because the mother loses a lot of blood, the
heat of the fire is needed for warmth and to bring back the mother’s strength,
energy and good health. Besides maintaining the fire, the midwife massages the
mother’s abdomen several times per day. The frequency depends on her health
status and level of pain. The midwife’s pressures are deep, strong and very precise.
The mothers feel relieved afterwards. The traditional midwife will also prepare
traditional medicine for the mother and advise her on how to take it. Most of the
women interviewed use parts of bark from three different trees. These pieces are
either mixed with local distilled wine or prepared as hot tea. The purpose of taking
it varies: it is either used to enhance the production of breast milk, to have good
health in general, to encourage a healthy appetite, or to clean the body of the
remaining blood in the mother’s abdomen. It was also reported by a few women
that they eat kun, a certain kind of ginger, after the delivery to prevent spirit
activity.14 The midwife also gives the mother advice on her diet and explains what
kinds of food she is allowed to eat. During pregnancy, women eat mostly as usual
and are not restricted to certain kinds of dishes. After the delivery, diet is generally
reduced to rice, salt, and some kinds of fish, pork and beef. Vegetables are often not
eaten, as people think it will give the baby diarrhea.
On the fourth day after delivery, the husband arranges the ceremony for the
midwife. Some families organize it at a later point of time, depending on their
financial situation. This is a very important event, practised throughout all the
villages included in this study. For the first-born baby, the sacrifice of a pig is
required, as the family is very relieved that everything is over and has gone well,
since the first delivery is considered more risky than those that follow. For the
next children, they only sacrifice chickens.15 Depending on the family’s economic
condition, the event can either be held in a small family circle or involve many
relatives, friends and neighbours with substantial food and alcohol provided for
the guests and visitors.
Most of the people interviewed stated that they prefer to deliver at home in the
presence of a traditional midwife. They feel more comfortable with her and all the
relatives around to help and support. Sometimes, the villagers mentioned the
high costs of delivering at the hospital or the health centre which includes
transportation, medicine, payment for the delivery itself (which is between 10’000
and 20’000 Riel, approximately 2.5 - 5 US$) and the cost of living in the health
Women, pregnancy and health 77

facility for the husband or other relatives. However, if this is compared with the
costs of a ceremony for the traditional midwife, which includes 20’000 – 30’000 Riel
(5 - 7.5 US$) for the midwives, small amounts of money for relatives present during
the delivery, a pig and/ or a few chickens, the jars of rice wine, the local distilled
wine and the food provided for the visitors, it can be estimated that a delivery
carried out in the village is more expensive than one in the hospital. One can argue
that this preference relates to the problem of accessibility, as roads are often poor
and it is difficult for a woman in labour to travel long distances. But in fact, if
women do give birth at the health facility, they will still perform a ceremony after
returning home. Therefore, the choice of the place has no impact on whether a
family carries out a ceremony or not; they will do it in any case. As a result, the
expenses are higher if visiting the health facility because costs are almost doubled
when including the ceremony once returning home. This situation certainly affects
decision-making regarding delivery choices; however the beliefs and practices
surrounding the spirit world are even more significant factors.

The necessity to respect the spirits

Among Bunong communityies illness is often understood to be created by the
anger of spiritual forces, especially in long-enduring cases which cannot be treated
and where the causes are unknown and inexplicable. People consider the time
during and after delivery as potentially very dangerous for the mother and her
child in relation to spirit intervention (White, 1995; Brown et al., 1996; Hoban, 2002;
Crochet, 2001). These authors conducted research about women, pregnancy and
delivery in Cambodia and all – despite the differences of settings – talk about the
precarious situation regarding spiritual activity at this specific stage of life. White
and Brown et al. worked with indigenous people in Ratanakiri province. Brown et
al. found that most of the pregnant women contact the traditional midwife as their
first choice. If they have a problem and her treatment and the advice does not help,
they look for the traditional healer to find out what kind of spirit is causing the
problem and what steps need to be taken: “Only once the sacrifice had been
performed would the woman be allowed to leave the village to seek ‘modern’
health care (ibid. : 214).” White (1995) states that “children are considered more
vulnerable and prone to sickness caused by particular spirits (ibid.: 45).” Hoban
and Crochet researched the role of traditional midwives in Khmer communities and
found similar results regarding the danger of spirits.16 “These spirits are all
harmless if properly propitiated. However, if individuals or families disrespect,
anger or fail to thank the supernatural beings, retribution in the form of illness or
death could befall the perpetrator or their family” (Hoban, 2002 : 142f.).
Therefore, it is essential to set boundaries of protection for mothers which
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prevent spirits from entering her body, making her physically and mentally sick or
leading to death. One protection ceremony is carried out in the eighth month of
pregnancy, where the kru boran (traditional healer) or the traditional midwife
ties strings around the woman’s wrists, ankles, waist and neck. At the time of
the delivery, a few branches of thorn bushes are put under the bed, under the house
or next to it to avoid the appearance of spirits, as they like to eat the blood that
might have dropped down during delivery. The protection from the strings is often
renewed a few days after the child is born, by tying new strings around the
mother’s body.
One of the spirits that is feared the most is ndreng oing, the fire spirit. It is the
one that is primarily present during the delivery and the phase of weng oing, as the
fire is constantly burning. If this spirit enters the mother’s body, people reported
that she will fall unconscious, talk in a strange way as being another person, walk
around in the birthing hut or the house and she will be in great risk of death. One
woman interviewed in Sen Monorom recounted a time when a woman tried to pour
petrol onto the fire at that state. It was also reported that if the fire spirit appears,
the mother will see a rainbow or a flame. The ndreng oing can only be seen by the
women giving birth and is not visible to any other person. Yet having the fire is
obligatory, as the mother depends on it to recover from the strain of labour. The
fire-wood needs to be selected carefully, as certain kinds of wood are more likely to
draw the attention of the fire spirits. For this reason the fire is not only beneficial
but, at the same time, precarious if not watched carefully. Therefore the husband
and the traditional midwife, who are not at risk from these spirits, are around the
mother all the time and should never leave her alone. Besides the protection
through the strings, there is another way to keep the fire spirit away during
delivery. The kru hom17 chews on a piece of kun18 (a kind of ginger) and spits it on
the mother’s forehead which will keep the fire spirit away. Various types of kuns
exist that are used in different ways and for numerous reasons. Some of them are
used for ‘simple’ diseases such as fever, headache, stomach pains etc. and some of
them only if spirits or black magic are involved (Schmitt, 2004: 59; Crochet 2005).
The mother is not allowed to leave the house for about ten days after the
delivery, especially not to wash herself or her clothes next to a well, pond or river.
Her blood would contaminate the water sources, anger the spirits and attract their
attention. “The mother can only leave her house and wash herself at the well when
her body is dried and not weak anymore,” as one villager stated. But she is allowed
to receive visitors in her home and contact with her is not considered dangerous for
them. To wash, hot water is used together with sour leaves that are believed to have
a revitalizing effect on her body. These spiritual beliefs play a strong role in the
decision-making processes of villagers when they decide where to give birth, who
Women, pregnancy and health 79

to involve and how to behave. However there is another dimension of spiritual

beliefs when it comes to the death of a woman in the village, or to the death of
somebody that take place outside the village.

The case of maternal death

Fear of maternal death is overwhelming. If a woman dies during pregnancy,
delivery or shortly after, nobody from the village is allowed to attend the funeral
except the closest relatives. Friends and neighbours are prohibited from entering
the family’s house or joining the ceremony. Every single material belonging of the
mother has to be burned, including all the assets belonging to the rest of the
family members and the house itself. Ignoring this rule puts every villager in great
danger of death – these belongings attract the bad spirits. For the funeral, when the
closest family members bury the mother, a big ceremony must be carried out,
including the sacrifice of a buffalo or a cow. The mother’s death can be explained in
different ways: either the ceremony during the eighth month of pregnancy was not
carried out, or not in the proper way, the mother might have done something to
anger the spirits (for example not respecting the rules concerning the forest spirit)
or another person may have cast black magic upon her. To summarize, the time
around delivery is extremely dangerous in relation to spiritual activity – a time
when the woman and her baby are very vulnerable. Moreover, it is not only death
that is feared, but also the possibility of dying outside the village. If anyone dies
outside the village, the whole community is put in danger. A large ceremony needs
to be performed, including the sacrifice of a buffalo or a cow to satisfy the spirits.
Everybody has to take part in this ceremony and if they do not, every villager puts
him or herself at great risk of death.
These spiritual concerns and their consequences strongly influence the
Bunong’s decision-making processes regarding choice of delivery location. The
likelihood of giving birth in a public health facility is evidently reduced.

The ceremony for the traditional midwife is an important event. First, it is necessary
to repay the midwife for all her time and skills used during pregnancy, delivery and
early motherhood. During that time, she is a central person for the family and the
woman. She contributes to the woman’s and baby’s wellbeing, makes them feel
comfortable, creates a space of intimacy for them and advises on medicine, food
and drink. Even though the traditional midwives interviewed share some general
characteristics in how they assist a delivery, they do have different levels of
expertise, functions and roles. This heterogeneity in the roles of people who
provide birth assistance has already been demonstrated in previous
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anthropological research on birthing (Davis-Floyd et al., 2001: 8). Some Bunong

midwives have more experience, some have broader knowledge of traditional
medicines, and some have the skills to set protection boundaries for the spirits to
prevent spiritual interference. The process of learning and the motivation to become
a traditional midwife also differ. Furthermore, some midwives received trainings
and delivery kits from national training programs while others have either never
been invited to such training, or have refused to take part in it. Those who rejected
training said that they did so because they already know best how to assist a
delivery, that they have years of experience and do not see any incentive for
changing their practices and attitudes. Thus, the category of traditional midwives
is very heterogeneous. Nevertheless, the traditional midwives in general do enjoy a
high status within the communities, they are respected, totally accepted, and their
advice much sought-after and followed.
The Bunong do use modern medicine; in fact they are very fond of taking all
kind of pills and getting injections. During the research, nobody was interviewed
who followed just one health system, only the traditional or only the biomedical
one. People use these medical resources pragmatically. They usually combine
different paths of treatment, and if one method does not have an effect on the
patient’s health status, another way is sought, often using them simultaneously,
even if these approaches are contradictory or opposite to each other. Indigenous
people in general in Cambodia, and Khmers, have behaved this way for some time
(White, 1995; Hobson, 2002; Baird, 2008: 332). This poses questions about why the
villagers do not use public health care facilities more frequently when dealing with
pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood, especially if taking into account the
various complications they face19.
As outlined above, spiritual beliefs have a strong influence on how villagers
decide to use health care options. Fear of angering the spirits, dying outside one’s
village and maternal death are widespread in the communities. In addition, using
a traditional midwife to assist a delivery is common. It has been a widespread
practice for as long as the Bunong can remember. Wiley’s study (2002) describes
different factors influencing people’s likelihood of using biomedical maternity care.
She concludes that communities with strong traditions of using traditional mid-
wives meet the introduction of biomedical facilities with indifference, which has
also been found in this study, to an extent. However, discussing only the strong
culture and traditions for not using public health facilities is too simplistic. As
Obermeyer (2000: 182) argues, such a culturalist trap should be avoided, as well as
its opposite – the view that culture does not matter. Multiple factors influence
and affect people’s behaviour and decision-making. Other issues that must be
considered are a lack of transport and the inaccessibility to public health facilities,
Women, pregnancy and health 81

low trust in these “modern” systems, as well as in the “professional” staff members
themselves, and other economic and financial constraints, such as the necessary
expenses to stay in the hospital or health centre coupled with the additional
ceremony back at home.
It is well known that the majority of women in Mondulkiri prefer to deliver at
home. Different agents in this area have tried to deal with ‘traditional birth
attendants’ by developing training programs and giving education in safe delivery
practices, prenatal and postnatal care.20 However, little information exists about the
Bunong’s customs, beliefs and perceptions regarding pregnancy, delivery and early
motherhood. Attempting to estimate the impact that TBA training has had on the
traditional midwifes’ practices and behaviours is difficult. Many of the interviewed
trained midwives stated that, from their point of view, they did not change
anything. Den from Lauka village explained it as follows:
I didn’t change the way I assist a delivery. They [the people who trained her] provide
me with a kit (soap, knife etc.). I think these things are very useful. And at the training
they explain everything about hygiene. Now, I have to note the date of the delivery and
the weight of the baby. After, I will give this information to the hospital. If I report back
to them, they will provide me with more material. But I don’t know the difference
between me and the midwife in the hospital; she only has more modern material.

However, Den, for example, is now much more respected in her village because
she received various trainings. When pregnant women and mothers in this village
are asked which traditional midwife they would choose to assist their delivery, the
answer is usually Den. She is considered more competent and able to deal with
difficult situations than other midwives from the same village. Even though
traditional midwives do not always believe that their practices changed
demonstrably as a result of trainings and courses, there was an effect on how some
villagers perceived, respected and valued the midwives’ status, skills and role.

This paper presents some findings from a broader, ongoing research project
about childbirth practices, perceptions, attitudes, decision-making processes and
transformations related to pregnancy, delivery and early motherhood within
Bunong communities in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. The main findings for
this paper include the following: Many factors are influencing the decision-making
process of villagers when deciding who to contact and where to give birth. The
most important point concerns the feeling of comfort, safety and security in a
well-known environment – women want to deliver in their village, surrounded by
family and relatives at home, or near to it. Due to the potential danger of spiritual
82 Nikles

interference, pregnant women and new mothers like to have the traditional
midwife nearby. She is the one who can be trusted and asked advice; she is
experienced, knows how to react and what kind of measures to take. Even though
the kru njut ndüll gives instructions to the prospective woman and the relatives
present, she does not put herself in a superior position. The woman can set her own
pace and can have a say in the process. For example, she and her family have to
determine the moment to call the midwife, they decide who to choose, where to
give birth, if they want to have a spirit protection ceremony or not, and who else to
involve in the procedure. This reinforces the traditional midwives’ status within her
community. This paper has reflected on the high levels of respect that traditional
midwives are treated with. On the other hand, economic, infrastructural and social
factors are also significant as the individual weighs up difficulties with lack of
transportation, inaccessible roads to travel, the disinclination towards public health
facilities and their respective staff, additional costs, and poor knowledge about
basic health problems and issues. In this sense, the villager’s decisions depend on
various internal and external factors and in each case they have to judge the
specific circumstances.
Women, pregnancy and health 83

1. kru njut ndüll is the Bunong expression for traditional midwife. In Khmer the
term is chmoab boran.
2. This number includes the percentage of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri province.
3. Maternal deaths are defined as any death that occurred during pregnancy,
childbirth, or within two months after the birth or termination of pregnancy.
4. The WHO (1996) uses the following definition for midwife: “A midwife is a
person who, having been regularly admitted to a midwifery educational program
duly recognized in the country in which it is located, has successfully completed
the prescribed course of studies in midwifery and has acquired the requisite
qualifications to be registered and/or legally licensed to practice midwifery.”
5. Nomad RSI is a France-based NGO, established in 1997, which specialises in
research and action relating to health and health practices among remote and
ethnic minority communities in developing countries. The organisation has been
working in Mondulkiri province since 2000, focusing on appropriate health
education and the improvement of village level health care for ethnic minority
groups. The research is supported by the French Embassy. See as well The information presented in this chapter is part of an ongoing
research project. Its findings do not claim to be completed yet as the author is still
carrying on with the research. Therefore, this paper only highlights some of the
6. Sen Monorom is the provincial capital of Mondulkiri where the only hospital in
the province is located. Sen Monorom itself is 380 km or a one day journey by car
away from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
7. These numbers are derived from the Department of Planning in Mondulkiri from
8. “La resource première des Mnong est la forêt, don’t ils tirent presque tout ce dont
ils ont besoin. Les ethnologues parlent de ‘civilisation du végétal’ pour marquer
l’imbrication de la vie humaine et social dans le cadre du végétal, plus ou moins
domestiqué, et perçu come gouverné par des puissances surnaturelles.” (Free
English translation from the original text). Mnong is another way of writing
9. Reproductive activities include running the household, like cooking, collecting
firewood, fetching water, cleaning etc. Productive activities on the other hand
consist of planting rice and vegetables, weeding, collecting wild vegetables and
fruits, looking after pigs and chicken, fishing etc. (Berg, 1999 : 3).
10. Recent research showed that the roles of women leaders in indigenous commu-
nities are diverse and differ from village to village, as well within the families in
each village (Ironside, 2007).
84 Nikles

11. weng oing is Bunong and can be translated as “lying next to the fire.” The Khmer
term is ang pleung.
12. In case of pain or problems for the mother, the traditional midwife will still
come and treat her even if the ceremony already took place.
13. For further reading Hoban quotes Manderson, 1981; Laderman, 1983 for
Malaysia; Tran, 1999 for Vietnam; Cabigon, 1996 for the Philippines.
14. More explanation about the use and purpose of kun will fallow in the next section.
15. The bigger the sacrificed animal, the more important the ceremony. This applies
to every kind of ceremony among the Bunong.
16. In present day Cambodia, Khmer beliefs are rooted in an animist folk religion;
therefore Theravada Buddhism co-exists with animism (Hoban, 2002 : 129).
17. The kru hom is different from the kru boran. Both are traditional healers, but
while the kru boran gained his skills and knowledge through studying and
accompanying another kru boran, the kru hom was selected and taught by the
spirits in the dream. The kru hom is usually called if the sickness is believed to be
caused by spirits or black magic.
18. In Khmer the term protiel is used.
19. Almost every woman interviewed reported having lost at least one child, either
during pregnancy or within a few months after the delivery.
20. The first TBA trainings in Mondulkiri were done by Médecins du Monde in
1998. After they stopped in 2002, the Provincial Health Department and the
Operational District, supported by the NGO Health Net International, continued to
work with TBAs and still provides some support.
Women, pregnancy and health 85

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BEQUETTE, Todd. 2004 A Livelihood and Gender Study of three Bunong kroms,
Mondulkiri province, NE Cambodia, Phnom Penh, International Cooperation
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Ban Lung, CARERE Ratanakiri.
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Part Two: Development and Indigenous Communities:
Targeting the Marginalized

Indigenous communities in Cambodia are facing a crisis where their very survival
is at stake. From a range of interdisciplinary perspectives, this section provides a
thorough assessment of the problems that “economic development” is raising for
Indigenous Peoples. A common theme in these papers is a sense of urgency.
Ironically, this same sense of crisis is not to be found in the official documents of the
Royal Cambodia Government or the international development banks. The official
documents strike celebratory and optimistic tones, detailing the numerous alleged
benefits of the modern enterprise of nation-building and market-building.
According to the development banks, the threat to indigenous communities, if there
is one, is that they will be excluded from the benefits of economic development.
To prevent this from happening, indigenous people have been expressly “targeted”
for development. Moreover, international aid agencies and the development
banks are inviting indigenous communities to “participate” in the process of
their own development. The papers in this section provide a sustained critique of
contemporary development practices and illustrate the emptiness of promises of
participation. The papers also detail the problems associated with the darker side
of economic development – public corruption, illegal land grabbing and the
destruction of the natural environment. Indigenous communities are on the margins
of Cambodian society and are increasingly on the margins of economically fueled
processes of globalization. Their continued existence, as autonomous, cohesive and
functioning communities is in serious question.

Jeremy Ironside provides the reader with background and context on contemporary
development strategies in Cambodia and how these strategies are playing out in
practice in two particular indigenous communities. Gender differences often
provide special insights into the lives of those living on the margins. Margherita
Maffii examines how “development” is affecting the lives of women in indigenous
communities, giving effective voice to their experience. Peter Hammer goes inside
the development paradigm, deconstructing Asian Development Bank documents
concerning Indigenous Peoples and demonstrating the biases and limits of their
underlying economic theories. Turning from economics to anthropology, Frederic
Bourdier stresses the complexity and inevitability of conflicts between indigenous
communities and the economic and political forces of modernity. Today, no matter
where we live, we are parts of the whole. How can indigenous communities define
themselves and engage their own future in a world where isolation is not a viable
Development – in Whose Name?
Cambodia’s Economic Development and its Indigenous
Communities – From Self Reliance to Uncertainty
Jeremy Ironside
There is much discussion and significant resources being allocated to reducing the
poverty of marginal and vulnerable groups throughout the world. Despite this,
experience has shown that even in countries which have successfully reduced
poverty, indigenous minorities often represent deep pockets of the most vulnerable,
marginalized and impoverished segments of society who are being left behind
(UNDP, 2003). These groups “continue to endure below average living standards,
unequal access to justice and loss of traditional territories…” (UN News Centre,
2004). In several countries, widening socio-economic gaps have had a negative
impact on overall development. Managing cultural diversity has become one of the
central challenges of our time.
This paper describes the socio-economic situation in two indigenous
communities in a province in the very northeast of Cambodia, to understand why
they are not likely to reach the Cambodian MDGs by 2015.1 The first part of the
paper presents a general introduction to Cambodia’s indigenous people, and some
of the problems they are facing. The economic development of Cambodia and the
development dynamics presently found in Ratanakiri Province are also briefly
described. The second part presents villagers’ perspectives on the Government’s
poverty reduction strategies and the relevance of these to their situation.
The government hopes to reduce poverty of these groups and bring them into
the ‘mainstream’ of the country’s development process. It has set an ambitious
agenda in line with the internationally agreed MDGs of halving poverty, ensuring
free education for all up to grade 9, etc. by 2015. However, these standard and cen-
trally developed poverty reduction strategies and targets do not take into consider-
ation the special needs of marginal indigenous groups to maintain their identity
and self determination in the face of relentless change.
In Cambodia, 10-15 years of economic growth and international assistance has
not resulted in any significant poverty reduction for the majority of the population
living in remote provinces, where the majority of Cambodia’s indigenous peoples
are found. Indications are that for these indigenous groups their poverty is deepen-
ing and is likely to continue to do so.
92 Ironside

Part 1: Cambodia’s economic development and its indigenous people

Indigenous peoples currently make up the majority of the population in two of
Cambodia’s twenty-four provinces (Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri). Compared to the
overwhelming Khmer majority in the country, however, their numbers are small.
Their culture is village-based and only very recently have pan-village indigenous
organisations begun to develop. There are no precise figures on the populations of
these groups as it is not collected. The last census (1998) asked about mother tongue
only, and concluded that there are 17 different indigenous groups numbering
101,000 or 0.9 per cent of the population. A World Bank Screening Study of
indigenous populations in Cambodia, however, found large differences between
“mother tongue” data in the national census and their empirical research (Helmers
and Wallgren, 2002).2
Ratanakiri’s indigenous population is shown in the following tables. These
figures indicate a decline in the overall percentage of indigenous peoples in the
province. However, as seen in Table 2, some groups show a decline or little growth
in population over a five-year period, despite high population growth rates of
2.29% in the country’s northeastern provinces (NIS, 2005). These statistics therefore
do not appear to be credible. From a 2005 population of 124,403, the Ratanakiri
population is expected to grow to 181,864 by 2013 (PDP, 2005).

Table 1: Population and percentages of indigenous peoples in Ratanakiri Province.

Year Provincial Population Percentage Source

Population of IPs of IPs
1998 94,243 63,953 67.86% 1998 Census mother
tongue data
2000 99,721 68,457 68.65% Helmers and
Wallgren (2002)
2005 124,403 71,405 57.4% Provincial Dept. of
Planning (2005)

IPs - indigenous peoples

Table 2: Ratanakiri’s indigenous peoples

Ethnic Group Population Percentage of total

Provincial population
1998 2000 2005 1998 2000 2005
Tampuan 22,128 23,765 28,266 23.48% 23.83% 22.72%
Kreung 14,877 16,052 16,093 15.79% 16.10% 12.94%
Development -in whose name? 93

Jarai 15,669 15,794 15,398 16.63% 15.84% 12.38%

Brao 7,132 8,051 7,938 7.57% 8.07% 6.38%
Kavet 1,726 1,893 2,129 1.83% 1.90% 1.71%
Kachok 2,054 2,645 1,026 2.18% 2.65% 0.82%
Lun 136 300 0.00% 0.14% 0.24%
Phnong 367 121 257 0.39% 0.12% 0.21%

Ratanakiri Province also ranks at the bottom of many of Cambodia’s socio-eco-

nomic/MDG performance indicators, as shown in Table 3 below. This gives an idea
of the problems faced by Ratanakiri’s and Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, as
Cambodia as a whole is not likely to meet several of the MDGs.

Table 3 – Ranking of Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia MDG statistics (MoP, 2003)

Cambodian MDG` Ranking (out of 24 Provinces) Likelihood of

(CMDG) Achieving the MDGs
1 – Food and Income Security 24th Poorly placed
2 – Education 23rd Poorly placed
3 – Gender 21st Poorly placed
4 – Infant Mortality 22nd Poorly placed
5 – Maternal Mortality 24th Poorly placed
6 – HIV/AIDS, Malaria, TB 19th Poorly placed
7 – Land and Forests 22nd Poorly placed
9 – Mine Clearance 11th Intermediate

However, in addition to these conventional indicators, “poverty” in these

communities also results from such factors such as: no participation or consultation
in Government strategies and development plans in their areas; a lack of policy to
guide these plans; little assistance to allow them to deal with new and changing
circumstances; coercive imposition of outside cultures; a lack of recognition of their
own cultures and the contribution these make to a multi-cultural Cambodia; no
legal recognition of their rights to the lands and other resources which they depend
on for their livelihoods, etc.

A Summary of Cambodia’s Economic Development

The development paradigm for the country, largely imposed by international
financial institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund) through
economic reforms implemented since the early 1990s, is a strategy of free market
economics and trade liberalization. The private sector, it is argued, will be the
“engine” which drives economic growth resulting in poverty levels falling.3
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However, macroeconomic reforms designed to promote financial stability and

economic growth have also resulted in a widening urban/rural divide in the
country.4 Cambodia’s dual economy, with the urban economy largely based on the
US dollar, and the rural economy largely based on the riel (Cambodian currency),
has exacerbated this imbalance. Estimates show that while poverty rates have
fallen significantly in the urban and more accessible rural areas to around 28%,
poverty rates are much higher in the remaining rural and less accessible areas
where indigenous peoples are found around 45.6% (MOP, 2005). Over the past
decade, economic growth has been restricted to urban enclaves and rural growth
has barely kept pace with the population increase.
Despite present efforts to reverse this urban/rural gap, a focus on “significant
improvements in poverty rates in urban and more accessible rural areas” (NSDP
2005 p. 27) will likely mean that the gap will become wider or at least persist for the
foreseeable future. Under present conditions, there are few incentives for firms to
invest outside urban areas, even though in 2004 91% of poor Cambodians lived in
rural areas (World Bank, 2006). A policy bias towards the wealthier segments in
society means that the poor and rural households have few choices outside natural
resource dependency (IMM et. al. 2005).
The assumption, therefore, that overall economic growth will trickle down to
the remote marginalised populations, and particularly to indigenous people, does
not seem credible. Indigenous peoples are in the lowest poverty quintiles in nearly
all countries where they exist (UN 2004), and ‘the implied association between
liberalization and growth is not well established for Lesser Developed Countries’
(Beresford et. al. 2004: 67).5
With the joining of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2004, Cambodia has
committed itself to implementing a range of economic measures aimed at opening
the economy to free trade. Donors are supporting an Integrated Framework (IF),
which combines rapid global integration with a pro-poor trade strategy. The IF
aims to enable all people in urban and rural areas to enter into domestic and
international trade as an important step toward poverty reduction (Beresford et. al.
2004). However, although current policy statements emphasize pro-poor trade,
other necessary macroeconomic polices are not yet in place and trade liberalisation
in Cambodia will likely not contribute to poverty reduction (Beresford et. al. 2004).
Impediments to international economic competitiveness in Cambodia
include: ‘lack of enforcement of existing regulations; the weak legal framework
(particularly to safeguard rural businesses); the high formal and informal public
sector administrative payments; poor infrastructure and support services; the
absence or low quality of government services; and the limited availability and high
costs of inputs, including energy and financial services.’ (Beresford et. al. 2004: 7).
Development -in whose name? 95

Also, a dependency on open markets and free trade risks leaving Cambodia more open to
external shocks such as recession. Export transactions are carried out in $US and Cambodia,
therefore, cannot regulate its own currency to retain international price competitiveness. Its
narrow export base leaves Cambodia vulnerable to competition (Beresford et. al. 2004). All
these factors have the potential to exacerbate poverty, rather than reduce it.
Beresford et al. (2004) argue that “[a]ddressing the immediate constraints in the
country of governance, infrastructure, and poor human capital will go further in
addressing pro-poor trade growth, since it will expand the number of products that
can be exported and widen the proportion of the population that can benefit from
trade liberalisation, and … re-distribution of growth” (Beresford et al. 2004: 171).
The many obstacles preventing rural people from participating in trade-oriented
activities mean that “[g]rowth with increasing inequality …could actually increase
the incidence of poverty.” (Beresford et al. 2004: 38). In other words, while there are
possibilities of strong market growth, this could, at the same time, result in the
“underdevelopment” of the more marginal members of society, mainly small
farmers, women, children and indigenous peoples.
Where trade competitiveness is considered satisfactory and Cambodia is
earning revenue, such as the garment and tourism sectors, these revenues also
remain in urban enclaves (around Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang). The
garment industry is characterised by high import content of raw materials and
machinery, as well as significant amounts of repatriated profits.6 Tourism is similar,
with low value-added content and a large percentage of profits repatriated by
foreign-owned airlines, hotels, casinos, package tour companies, and even
“Cambodian” souvenir shops (Beresford et al. 2004). Also, despite the large
increases in tourism in Siem Reap Province (to visit Angkor Wat), it continues to be
one of the poorest provinces in the country (Beresford et. al. 2004).
There is, therefore, “limited impact on the majority of the (rural) population and
by implication on poverty reduction” (Beresford et al. 2004: 171) from the present
economic growth models. From the above examples, trade liberalization is likely to
remain concentrated in the enclaves and unlikely to contribute significantly to
pro-poor growth.7 Diversification is unlikely to occur in the short term.

Private Sector Development and the Process of Underdevelopment in

The Government’s stated policy for its northeastern border provinces is to
develop the region as an engine of economic growth, with cash cropping,
agricultural land concessions, etc. The Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) has
recently developed a “Development Triangle” with the governments of Laos and
Vietnam to link the remote neighbouring provinces of Cambodia, Laos and
96 Ironside

Vietnam.8 These plans have not been made public, but they apparently emphasize
infrastructure development and large scale commercial agriculture (cashew, rubber,
etc). Donor representatives, who have seen these plans, expressed concern about
the impacts on local cultures and livelihoods, and on further encroachment into
forest areas for these plantation crops. Vietnam is also proposing a free trade zone
at the border with Ratanakiri and is loaning Cambodia $26m for sealing Road 78
(between the provincial capital – Ban Lung and the Vietnam border). These policies
and plans have been prepared without the participation of the affected indigenous
and non-indigenous communities.
As seen with the experiences in the garment and tourism industries, large scale
industrial agriculture development, not structurally linked to the wider economy,
will not result in the poverty reduction of the rural poor. There is also the risk
of foreign-owned plantation companies repatriating much of their profits overseas.
Small farmers have to compete with larger scale commercial farmers and compa-
nies, often literally for the same piece of land. They are also at a disadvantage
accessing credit, markets, technologies, etc. The only benefit that large scale
industrial agriculture may bring to small farmers is low paid employment.
Unproductive forest and land concessions, illegal land clearing, logging of
community forest areas, large scale (often forced and illegal) land buying/grabbing
at ridiculously cheap prices in Ratanakiri and other provinces are typical examples
of the reality of the much talked about private sector economic development
models. Many forest and land concessions have hardly returned a single riel of
revenue to the Government.9 There is no public scrutiny of these contracts and
concessionaires take advantage of the weak regulatory framework, poor
enforcement of property rights and corruption, and conduct widespread land
grabbing (Beresford et. al. 2004). The irony is that many of these investments are
promoted in the name of poverty reduction. Many of these “private sector”
activities are what is causing the impoverishment of small local farmers, the
widening gap between urban and rural areas, and between the traditional and the
new “market oriented” sectors within rural areas.
The natural resources on which people depend “are under threat from
government schemes, larger commercial interests and powerful people…”
(Danida/DFID 2006: ix). Logging blitzes by the military soon after the fighting
in Phnom Penh in 1997 and the recent (2004) plundering of the forests in
Virachey National Park near the Laos and Vietnamese borders are examples of
unaccountable officials and private interests, devouring the country’s resources and
terrorizing people who get in their way. The fact that rural/indigenous populations
have lost faith in the country’s security and law enforcement services means the cost
is many times more than the loss of revenue to the national treasury.
Development -in whose name? 97

The biggest tragedy is the waste and destruction of the very resources required
for long term sustainable development. In one of the study villages for this paper
(Leu Khun), villagers reported that logging started in the early 1990s with
Vietnamese loggers, but in the late 1990s many trees (high quality hardwood
species) were simply felled and left in log depots to burn in the dry season, because
deadlines passed, the border was closed and the loggers could no longer export
their logs. Leu Khun villagers said that after the companies cut all the best quality
wood, villagers cut their remaining resin trees (which were being tapped for
income) to build their houses and soon they said it will not be possible to find trees
to build their houses.
With the forests and wildlife largely exploited, attention has now turned to a
rush to buy the communal land of the area’s indigenous communities. People are
frustrated to see powerful people buying big areas of land, and the double standard
of officials telling people not to sell land when they are making money from
approving these land sales. There are stories of land brokers actually working for
high District officials.
For indigenous communities, the contrast between traditional and the new
market oriented system couldn’t be more stark. Where traditional communal
land and forest management systems offer/offered livelihood security for all
community members, market oriented systems are leading to the dispossession of
several villages from their land and large scale deforestation. The transfer of the
productive land from the poor small indigenous farming communities to the few
outside rich large investors means the poor have to move aside for the industrial
agriculture steamroller. Local people are powerless to prevent the destruction of
their livelihoods and the alienation of their land.
The fact that the new big landowners have bought their land at considerably
less than its real value from indigenous peoples, who do not have a tradition and
hardly understand the concept of private land ownership, adds to the injustice. This
situation is no better illustrated than by the case of local officials working for a
Ratanakiri businessman in 1999 asking Tuy villagers if they would like to give their
land for “development.”10 The Tuy villagers naively assumed that they would be
giving their land for their own development. Now, this land has been expropriated,
developed and fenced into a 100ha rubber plantation by private interests.
Eco-tourism is also touted as a key part of Ratanakiri’s development future.
Potentially, villages along tourist routes could host visitors and sell handicrafts and
other products. However, experience of community-based tourism in Ratanakiri
has shown that, without a secure land base and community solidarity, communities
will not be able to manage the income or the rising land prices that tourism will
inevitably bring. Outside tourist operators and hotel owners have been the real
98 Ironside

beneficiaries of recent increases in tourist numbers in Ratanakiri, with indigenous

communities often being intruded on for photograph sessions and lacking the skills
and business acumen to seriously compete.
In other words, economic development models being followed in Cambodia
(and several other countries) ostensibly to reduce poverty are actually the main
cause of the widening gap between urban and rural areas, and between different
groups within rural areas. Those that end up paying for this economic ‘develop-
ment’ through impoverishment and destroyed subsistence livelihoods are the
already more marginalized and vulnerable local/indigenous communities. If
existing “models” are anything to go by, the term “development” will mean the
wholesale replacement of existing ways of life and cultures. In their place will be
industrial agriculture, controlled by the powerful few.
This clash of worldviews is explained as the tendency of the prevailing
economic system “to produce poverty and wealth, underdevelopment as well as
development…splendour and squalor simultaneously” (Singh 1978: 66).
The indigenous populations are, therefore, intrinsically linked to the economic
development of their region. To understand how local indigenous communities will
cope with these changes, it is important to ask what kind of growth is being
advocated and followed. The economic structural adjustments which have been
implemented in Cambodia simply do not cater to, or allow, the participation of
powerless traditional communities.

Implications for Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples

Apart from the likely impact of economic development models, Cambodia’s
indigenous peoples are unprepared for the invasion of the outside world that
is currently happening in their homelands.
Thirty years of civil war has meant that many indigenous areas were closed to
the outside world up to as late as 1998. The French Colonial Government in the
1940s and 50s, and the Cambodian Government under Prince Sihanouk in the late
1950s and 60s exerted some control in indigenous areas, but in 1970 the whole of the
northeast of the country (where the majority of Cambodia’s indigenous peoples
(IPs) live) was abandoned to the Khmer Rouge. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge
in 1979, the populated areas of the country have been able to rebuild, whereas in
many indigenous areas fighting persisted and many groups could not return to
their homes until relatively recently.
Now that peace and stability have finally been re-established in the country’s
remotest provinces, there is a growing trend for Cambodians to relocate to these
areas.11 A decreasing land area for a growing population in lowland areas, rural
underemployment and the availability of fertile cash cropping soils in Ratanakiri
Development -in whose name? 99

and Mondulkiri (Beresford et al. 2004) are fueling these trends. Migrants are
largely youths and young adults and Cambodia has one of the youngest popula-
tions in the world. Ban Lung, the Ratanakiri provincial capital, is one of the fastest
growing towns in the country (Ehrentraut, 2004). High population growth rates are
leading to increasing land pressure, both within communities and from the outside.
Weak governance, widespread corruption and the ease with which indigenous
peoples can be duped, coerced and intimidated has resulted in what could be
termed an “open season” on the traditional lands and forests of the people in these
areas. A Ratanakiri official commented that levels of corruption have increased with
the establishment of elected Commune Councils, with corruption now affecting up
to 80% of Commune and District officials, he said.12
Several senior Provincial Government officials also commented on the
difficulty of getting the national level to understand the unique livelihood and
cultural circumstances of IPs in Ratanakiri and their needs. There is confusion and
competing interests and visions between different levels of government and
different agencies over the development of the country’s indigenous peoples and
the areas where they live. Each of the different layers and agencies follow their own
agendas, visions and policies, variously promoting cash cropping, plantations,
mineral exploitation, etc. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of these remote
areas are border areas involving sensitive security issues.
Despite present efforts to decentralise, planning is centralised and consultation
and participation of IPs in national development agendas is at best superficial.
Ironically, the government’s policy of decentralisation, instead of increasing local
peoples’ voice in government, has actually resulted in indigenous communities
being much more strongly linked with the national government. Coordination is
also made more difficult because of a lack of overall policy to guide development
activities in these areas and with indigenous peoples.13 Responsibility for delivering
local development is transferred to local institutions without the corresponding
financial resources, capacity or authority. Indigenous people working in these local
institutions have low levels of literacy and capacity to implement development
programmes. Often they become the pawns of higher level government and
business people intent on building their own empires.
The result of the fast changing demographics in these areas means the
indigenous voice, which has never been strong, will likely to continue to receive
limited attention, unless more effective strategies are developed. There is also a lack
of reliable statistics, disaggregated by ethnic group, making the specific problems
these people face invisible. New data are also required about landlessness, land
buying and selling, indigenous social structures, etc.
A typical central government view is that indigenous groups themselves are
100 Ironside

destroying their culture and future through land selling, etc. While this is not an
entirely fair assessment, it does highlight the difficulty these cultures are having
in getting decisionmakers to understand their situation. Due to the absence of
participation in government plans and the limited implementation of these plans,
indigenous communities are forced to develop their own strategies to improve their
lives. Several obstacles need to be addressed to avoid local indigenous communities
being pushed to the margins of the new society.

Part 2: The perspective from the village about the Government’s poverty
reduction strategies.
In order to get a more detailed picture of the socio-economic situation, two villages
with slightly differing profiles were chosen for comparison. Important differences
between the two villages are their contrasting records in controlling the sale of their
land, the effectiveness of their traditional leadership, the amount of outside
development assistance received, the schooling opportunities for the village
children, etc.
The author and an indigenous research assistant spent approximately four days
in each of the villages conducting semi structured interviews, group discussions,
village meetings, as well as carrying out participatory research activities.14 The
languages used during the research were Tampuen and Khmer.
Both villages (Tuy and Leu Khun) are situated in Bokeo District in the middle of
Ratanakiri Province, which has experienced a rapid conversion to cash cropping
over the past 10 years. The fertile, cheap land has attracted large numbers of
migrants from other parts of Cambodia. The expansion of cash cropping,
predominantly of cashew nuts and soy beans, has resulted in the deforestation of
large areas of the District.

Tuy Village and Tuy Tet (Tampuen – Small) Village, Ting Chak Commune
Tuy village comprises 451 people (237 women) – 101 families (four Khmer, one
Lao and the rest Tampuen). Out of these, 23 families have formed another Tet
(Tampuen – small) village. There are also 22 new migrant Khmer families living
1km along road 78 from the main village in Tmey (Khmer – new) village. Tuy
village is situated on the central basalt plateau, which indigenous farmers have
long used for swidden agriculture due to its fertile soil, good yields and rapid
fallow regrowth. The immediate impression of Tuy village is one of abundant land
and forest resources. There is significant potential paddy land, red upland soil,
good water supply near the village and forest with high quality timber trees and
other products.
Development -in whose name? 101

Leu Khun (LK) Village, Ke Chong Commune.

Leu Khun village is the Ke Chong Commune centre. This commune consists of
4,000 people in nine big villages of around 500-600 people each. Some villages are
Tampuen and some are Jarai ethnicity.15 Leu Khun is a predominantly Jarai village
with a population of 525, or 104 families. It is situated on the edge of this basalt
plateau with lesser fertile black sandy soils. Originally, the land area of the village
was larger but now there are three other villages using this land – Doich, Sa Lev and
Pa’or. In the early 1980s, the former Leu Khun village chief invited these villages to
relocate to Leu Khun village land, because these villages were constantly getting
attacked by Khmer Rouge soldiers and many people were getting killed. Leu Khun
village is very organized with strong traditional leadership.

“A lot of flowers but no fruit”‘

Like all indigenous villages in Ratanakiri, and especially those along main
roads, Leu Khun and Tuy are going through a profound period of transition with
the introduction of the market economy. From a situation only 10 years ago when
neither village had problems with land sales and managed their land communally
under the authority of traditional elders, both communal land management
systems and the role of the traditional elders is increasingly under threat.
After a presentation of the Cambodian MDGs, a Leu Khun Village leader
With regard to poverty reduction there is a lot of talk and not much action - a lot
of flowers but no fruit. This village gets little support from the outside. We see
organisations giving a lot of assistance to neighbouring villages - irrigation systems,
cow and pig banks, etc and we would like the same, but no-one comes here.
In this village the growth of rice is not good and people do not have enough.
Education is also difficult. The school is falling down but it is only 5 years old. Parents
are afraid to send their children to school in case the termite ridden wood falls on their
child. The small school is also packed and children can only learn for half a day and
only up to level 3. There is no well in the school and 132 students don’t have anywhere
to get water and to wash their hands. This is very unhygienic. It is very important that
some of us get an education, but it is very difficult to get past 4th or 5th grade and
impossible to get to 9th -12th grade. We would like non-formal education classes so
people can learn reading and writing.
We also see that it is difficult to get positions in the government and with
development organisations. It seems that people don’t really want to take Jarai people
to work. They prefer to look for corrupt people. If people want to pay money they get
the position. The education committee in Bokeo for example is all Khmer.
People in Leu Khun want to be in front of others but it is very difficult without
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education and support. We want to be a model village and want to develop this village.
As for gender, we need to select the person with the best capacity for the job and not
just their gender.
With regard to infant mortality, parents look after their children as best they can
and then people come and blame them for letting their child die. When we go to the
Health Centre they give us medicine that is out of date, so what can we do for our sick
children16. The 3 MDGs that deal with health (CMDG 4, 5, & 6.) can all be rolled into
one priority for this village and that is a Commune Health post. Our three priorities are;
• Repair, and upgrade the school. Also build a junior high school to 9th grade.
• A health post
• A rice bank.
We also have other priorities but there is no point thinking about these until we
see something being done about these 3 things. We have sent requests to the higher
levels and organisations but these are usually not answered.
Villagers look after their forest and land resources as best they can but it is very
difficult to stop powerful people coming and logging and buying land. People accuse
villagers of selling the land but this is like the monkey eating the rice and then wiping
the mouth of the goat. It is not the land broker that is buying the land, it is all the big
people who are coming to buy land but small villagers get the blame for not standing
up to these powerful people. The person buying all the land in a neighbouring village is
a high ranking Government official. Other high ranking officials have come here and
taken a lot of logs. The Government also has the stamp that is required to recognize
these land sales, so they are closely involved. People are very angry about this and
there could be fighting and violence in the near future. As for the forest, why is the
forest gone? The land has been cleared of all trees so tractors can plough the land for
cash crops. People come and cut and transport trees in the night. Villagers are
powerless to stop them.
As for agriculture, people would like to find things to grow for the market. We
need help in developing processing and finding the right crops. As for preserving our
culture we need land and forest for our culture. If we want to make our traditional
baskets, tools and implement, we need bamboo to make a basket.

Tuy villagers also felt many people are getting rich, but the indigenous people
are getting poorer. People are angry about powerful people taking their land. Some
said the indigenous people are also afraid of the authorities because of the
significant power they have always held over them. Fear makes them take money
and not speak up about injustice.
Villagers in Tuy said in the past, they had everything. There was plenty of land,
forest, animals, other resources in the forest, water and everything they needed.
Development -in whose name? 103

Even people around 45 years old remembered clearly these times. The Government
came and didn’t allow us to wear our clothes and practice our culture, they said.
Some also questioned this new period of democracy, where everyone gets the
vote but then nothing happens. People said it would be better to go back to earlier
(Sihanouk) times when there was less democracy, but the government was active
and people saw some benefits. People questioned whether the government was
interested in indigenous people or not. Some said without development
organisations here the indigenous people would be in trouble.
The Tuy and Leu Khun villagers, therefore, see the government’s CMDGs
targets as just words on paper. They had little expectation that these words would
actually be translated into any concrete benefits for them on the ground, even if
they felt many of the problems the MDGs are trying to address were relevant for
their situation (food shortages, problems with getting an education, accessing
health services, etc.).
Villagers are angry about a lot of things, but they accept a status quo where the
Government has limited presence in their lives and they expect little from it. People
solve their own problems because it is their tradition, and because they know if they
go outside the village it will cost them money they don’t have.
The impact of the Government on peoples’ lives might change, of course, with
the arrival of some big donors in the near future.17 However Tuy village has had a
large amount of recent development input from the Royal Government of
Cambodia’s Seila decentralisation programme (supported by the UNDP). Since
1998, this programme has assisted Tuy village with a school, a rice bank, non-
formal education teacher training and materials, traditional birth attendant training
and equipment, agricultural training and equipment; cow, buffalo and pig
banks, chickens and ducks, and a village land use plan. Despite this, there is little
reduction in food and income insecurity, or real improvements in education to
show for it.
Some of the reasons for this include; programme changes within Seila, very
limited Provincial government capacity to implement development activities in
indigenous villages, a yawning cultural divide between the Khmer-dominated
government and local villagers, and the conflicts of interest of several government
staff when addressing land issues in these villages. The reason indigenous peoples
have lost trust and faith in government staff to address their concerns is because
these have been the people who have been involved in taking their land and
logging their forests. One lesson from these experiences in Tuy village is that there
has to be land tenure security before other development can happen.
While disputes within and between villages are intensifying, people said that, in
some ways, things were also easier for them. People in Leu Khun said, compared to
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10 years ago, livelihoods are now 40% better because of income from cashew nuts,
and to a lesser extent from soybeans, etc.18 Many families (though not all) can now
earn $600 - $700 per hectare from cashew nuts. This allows an income at a time of
the year when rice and other foods can be in short supply.19 This also allows people
access to health services when absolutely necessary. Table 4 below gives and
estimate of the income from cashew nuts for indigenous farmers in the province.

Table 4: Ratanakiri Cashew Nut Production (Ratanakiri Dept. of Agriculture)

Total Estimated income

Year Total area approximate Price/kg to Indigenous
l Income
production farmers20

21,000 ha -
2005 half> 5yrs 7,500 tonnes 3000+riels (US 75c) $8,943,750 $6,250,000

2006 8,000 tonnes ~2000riels (US 50c)

For those without other means of income or who have sold their land,
agricultural labouring for outsider cash cropping farmers, despite the relatively
low wages, has become an important part of the livelihood strategy. For some
villages/villagers who have sold a lot of their land, this has become their survival

Food and Income Security

A key goal of the Cambodian Government is to eradicate extreme poverty and
hunger (CMDG 1). Food and income security for both of these villages is closely
tied into how much they can maintain their productive resources and community
solidarity. The productivity of swidden agriculture has declined over the past
decade in Leu Khun village, and the numbers of people who do not have enough
rice to eat for the whole year has increased. Food security is also a problem in Tuy,
where only around 30% of families generally have enough rice for the year. Apart
from rice shortages, people are also concerned with shortages of many kinds of
food in the dry season, shortages of small wild animals and fish, etc.
The increasing reliance on cashew nuts is changing traditional farming systems
in Ratanakiri, with more and more conversion of old swidden fields away from
food production and fertility building. Swidden rotation cycles are reducing,
threatening the sustainability of upland rotational systems. In Leu Khun fallow
Development -in whose name? 105

periods are now 3 years.

At the same time there is also a break down of other community coping
mechanisms. In 1999, Seila built a rice bank and supplied 13 tonnes of rice in Tuy
village. The rice bank functioned from 1999-2003 under a community committee,
with low interest repayments. Some families repaid but other families who
borrowed a lot of rice didn’t. Debts of 200 kgs and even 800 kgs of rice were run up
and, when people couldn’t pay back, it caused the collapse of the bank and disputes
in the village. This bank was very important for people when they were short of rice
or had problems. Now, when people are short, they have to borrow in the market
and pay high interest. People want the rice bank to function again.
People in Leu Khun also complained about the high interest charged by the shop
owners/rice mill operators when they lend rice. They said a loan of one bag of
milled rice from the merchant requires a repayment of 10 bags of unmilled rice.21 As
well as high informal interest rates when borrowing rice and money from these
merchants, villagers complained bitterly that when they sell things they have to use
the outside traders’ scales and when they buy things they also have to use their
same scales. Villagers from both villages mentioned a lack of skills and confidence
in market negotiations, resulting in blatant and severe exploitation by market savvy
Other difficulties mentioned are an increase in theft of productive assets, such
as buffaloes. This caused 15 families in Tuy to abandon the lowland rice farming
they were doing. This is combined with high rates of animal death and limited
veterinary services. In Leu Khun, the problem is more that buffaloes from four
different villages roam over the village’s farmland, especially in the dry season.
In general, therefore, there is an increase in risk and vulnerability in village
livelihood systems. Forest resources are in decline, there is an increasing
dependence on one crop (cashews) with volatile prices, and increasing dependence
on low paid labouring.22
A case from Kak Village (neighbouring Leu Khun) illustrates the increased risks
involved in cash crop farming and the limited options indigenous communities
have when they need money. When at the end of the soy bean season a villager
couldn’t repay a loan he borrowed to pay workers, the lender took the borrower’s
child as a kind of indentured servant. The borrower then had to sell land to get
his child back. Land is sold for ridiculous prices of 200,000–300,000 riels/ha (US
$50-$75) Leu Khun villagers said. Distress land selling will be an ongoing problem
in the foreseeable future, until other forms of credit can be established.
Villagers in Leu Khun also explained the problems of reliance on labouring.
They said that neighbouring villagers, who have sold a lot of their land, are in a
weak bargaining position and have to work for very cheap rates. Villagers said
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these people will go and work for one basket (15kg) of rice for 2-3 days work
(approximate value $2.50 - $3.00). However, Leu Khun villagers said when outside
cash cropping farmers come to their village looking for seasonal labourers, villagers
can choose whether they want to go and work or not, as they still have their land
and have other options. They said they bargain and are able to charge 10,000 riels
($US 2.50) or even up to 12,000 riels ($US 3) per day. People say it is not worth their
while to go and work cheaply. The shape of the future in this area could be large
numbers of indigenous, landless labourers earning only enough to subsist on.
With Cambodia’s entry into the WTO, farmers will be exposed to increased
international price competition for a range of crops. Ratanakiri’s indigenous
farmers’ position as price takers does not bode well for the longer term, if lessons
from coffee production in Vietnam are any indication.23 Competition with
Vietnamese merchants and factories will be an ongoing problem in border areas,
such as Ratanakiri.24 Whether a poor indigenous farmer should emphasize food or
income first is an important question, and “food first” approaches are losing out to
market production.

The Cambodian government hopes to achieve universal nine-year basic
education by 2015 (CMDG 2). People in both villages recognise the importance of
education – to get work, to learn other skills, to know how to read and count to
avoid getting cheated in the market, to learn their own language, etc. In Tuy Village,
however, there are only eight people who are literate. This puts people at an
enormous handicap when dealing with Khmer systems.
Compared to 10 years ago, things have definitely improved, as neither village
had a school. However, in villages where only a handful could write at all, and
where in Tuy village the school was barely functioning, the idea of all children ten
years from now attending school even to the 6th grade seems incredible. Only one
person in Tuy village had reached 6th grade and only a handful in Leu Khun. While
the school in Leu Khun village is well attended with 132 students from four
villages, only 20+ students come to Tuy village school. Many of the regular
attendees in Tuy school are from the neighbouring Khmer community. Children in
Tuy Tet village do not (due to distance) go to school at all. Low attendance is also a
problem in villages neighbouring Leu Khun, where villagers have recently been
selling their land and have some (short term) income.
Comparing the two villages, community support and ownership is a major
factor in improving village education. In Leu Khun, the village school committee is
working with the teachers to have the school repaired, extra classrooms and a
junior high school (7th – 9th grade) built on land the village has set aside. In Tuy
Development -in whose name? 107

village, however, the village school committee hardly functions and relations are
poor between it and the young teachers.
This lack of support is due in part to a contract teacher elected by the villagers
(with a 6th grade education) being removed and replaced by more qualified outside
teachers. Villagers said when the village teacher was teaching there were 80 students
and he worked full time. With the present teachers, teaching hours have been
intermittent and Tuy students felt that preference is given to the Khmer students.
Another problem mentioned was the lack of recognition of local languages and
cultures in the classroom. Some students do not understand Khmer language very
well. Leu Khun villagers have requested an education NGO to extend bilingual
education they are supporting in a neighbouring village to their village.
However, one of the major reasons for students in both villages not being able
to advance to higher grades is the lack of money to pay the extra costs. Students are
required to pay considerable extra informal expenses for tutoring to progress
through the education system, and bribes to pass exams. Leu Khun youth said only
richer families can afford to pay for tutoring for their children. No one from the
village is currently studying in Bokeo (where the nearest secondary and high school
is located). Achieving an education above 6th grade is economically beyond the reach
of ordinary villagers, and indigenous people are at a considerable disadvantage.
In Tuy village, also, students over 12 will begin labouring for cash cropping
farmers, and this is seen as more necessary than sitting in a classroom learning
irrelevant information. The Khmer teacher in Tuy village commented that the
villagers are hard-working and there are many demands on children, with many of
them requesting classes at night when they are more free. The teacher said the
children tell her that if they go to school they will not have anything to eat, and that
if she wants them to learn she should give them money. With other employment
options, poor prospects of progressing through school and the costs involved, many
students and parents believe that schooling will do them little good.
Government administrative capacity to deliver education and infrastructure in
remote areas remains a challenge. Several communities are still without a school. Of
the 126 state schools in the Province, only 24 have classes through the 6th grade. Leu
Khun school has no room to begin 4th grade classes, and there are also no toilets or
water. The nearest well is over 200m away. Leu Khun villagers also suspect
corruption is the cause of the poor quality wood that was used for their school
building, which is now getting eaten by termites.
Finding sufficient teachers who can speak the local languages is also a problem.
In 2006, there were only about five Ratanakiri indigenous students in Teacher
Training College in Stung Treng town.25 In Ratanakiri, in 2006, there were only 175
indigenous students in lower secondary school (7-8th grade), or around 1% of the
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total number of potential students.

In addition to low salaries, teachers often have to wait three months for their
pay. When their pay does arrive it is sometimes only for one month (100,000 –
120,000 riels or $US25 - 30), not the three months they are owed. Villagers in Leu
Khun said that during Sihanouk times (1954 – 1970) a teacher was given food and a
A Leu Khun leader summarized the situation by saying there are three main
things required for the school to function properly;
- The parents need to encourage their children to attend school,
- The school needs to be in good order,
- The teachers need their salary every month, so they have enough to eat. The
Assistant Village Chief said the government teachers’ month is 93 days long.
For indigenous students to see the benefit of going to school, the teaching must
be of a high standard, regular, relevant to their needs and in a language they
understand. Otherwise, as seen in Tuy village, students vote with their feet.

Gender Equality
The Cambodian government also plans to promote gender equity and to
empower women (CMDG 3). Women in these two villages considered it important
that girls have the opportunity to attend school, to learn how to read and write, to
receive appropriate training and information in their own language, to have the
opportunity to find employment, to have strong social support networks, and to not
have to get married too young, or suffer domestic violence.26 Many girls do not
receive even a basic education because parents often do not have the money to send
them to school. Older village women in both villages said domestic violence does
occur, but it is dealt with in the village and there have been no cases of the woman
being badly injured. An older woman in Leu Khun said her priorities are rice to eat,
and money and land to plant, which perhaps summarises the situation for many.
In Tuy village, there was one female assistant Commune Chief, and in Leu Khun
one young woman from Leu Khun was working for a health organisation in the
Provincial town. Despite high participation rates of women in meetings in Tuy
village, male elders said that it was not appropriate for women to share their
traditional management role with them. A comment from a Leu Khun leader was
that gender issues are something that urban people talk about, as in the countryside
everyone, women and men, has to work hard.
Some women said that some things are easier for them than before. Motorbikes
reduce the amount of time and effort needed for carrying heavy loads and going to
the market, rice mills ease the work of hand-pounding rice, there are some new
water points in the village and some women said that their husbands help them in
Development -in whose name? 109

collecting water, etc.

A key gender issue is the lack of confidence indigenous women in remote
communities feel when dealing with the market. This is partly because men
have the task of dealing with outsiders and women are also heavily involved in
subsistence and reproductive tasks. The vast majority of indigenous women are
unable to read or even speak Khmer language very well. Leu Khun women said
that no one in their village has ever taken goods to Bokeo market to sell. They said
they are too shy and they have no experience with this. These women are
especially vulnerable to being cheated.
This raises the question of what will it take for village women who cannot read,
do not know weights and measures, cannot read weighing scales and are afraid to
go to the market, to benefit from policies intended to integrate them into the
market economy. Cambodia’s indigenous peoples are likely to be at the bottom of
the market pecking order for the foreseeable future. A lack of people in rural areas
in Cambodia with good basic education is a major factor limiting the acquisition of
enterprise and technical skills for livelihood diversification (IMM, 2005).
Land security is also another key gender issue, as a major consequence of land
loss in indigenous villages is the loss of equal access to land, which women have
traditionally enjoyed. Links have been made between poor health and nutritional
status in indigenous communities and the loss of customary land and forests, in
particular the loss of women’s access to land (ADB 2001). In a neighbouring village
to Leu Khun, a high ranking government official, who has been buying this village’s
land, recently married a young village girl. This could be an increasing trend, as
marrying into the village can allow outsiders to get control of some of the
community’s land and have a say in community decisions about it.
The story of a Tuy village traditional birth attendant (TBA) perhaps illustrates
the situation indigenous women face. Too poor to buy a pair of shoes (US 0.75c), she
was adamant that she had sold no village land. This woman married a Khmer man
who planted 2 ha of rubber trees in the 1960s. In 1995 (after her husband had died),
another Khmer man took over the tapping of her trees. The TBA said that in 2005
the new Khmer “owner” came and asked the names of the people who planted the
rubber in the village, and the TBA said he then used this list to say to the District
that the people on the list had sold their rubber plots to him (28.5ha). The Khmer
“owner” took all this rubber land, including the TBA’s 2 ha. She asked the new
“owner” for 200,000 riels ($US50) for her rubber trees, but he only gave her 20,000
($5). The TBA said this money was for giving information about who planted the
rubber trees, not as payment for them. The TBA continues to ask the new “owner”
for payment for her rubber trees, but he always says he has no money. The TBA
maintains that the trees are hers until she is paid for them. She became worried
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when the new “owner” started to delineate the rubber plantation with concrete
posts. Unconfirmed reports are that the rubber trees on the village land have now
been sold for thousands of dollars.
The TBA also recently lost three ha of her land when the village split in 2005
over internal disputes related to land selling and illegal logging. She said she has
two other pieces of land left.

Health Issues
As part of its health programme, the Government aims to reduce child
mortality (CMDG 4), improve maternal health (CMDG 5) and combat HIV/AIDS,
malaria and other diseases (CMDG 6). As well as land issues, the cost of accessing
health services was a key concern in the two villages. Villagers felt there had been
some improvement in infant mortality and in their health in general compared to
10 years ago. One reason, they said, was that there were some motorbikes in the
villages to take sick people to a health centre and people had some money when
medical assistance was really needed.
Infant mortality rates in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, however, are twice as high
as in the rest of Cambodia, which are triple those of Vietnam and the worst figures
in Asia (FAO 2003). Figures for child stunting (70%) are worse than for Cambodia
as a whole (HU 2002a). Malaria, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases are endemic.
Vitamin A deficiency (2% of children and 6.8% of pregnant women have night
blindness) is also high (HU 2002b). Awareness of HIV/AIDS in the two villages
was also limited and the potential for it to become endemic in these and other
indigenous communities is high (NGO Forum 2006).

Health Reforms to Improve Health Service Delivery

A significant impediment to achieving the government’s MDG targets is dealing
with a largely dysfunctional public health system. The health and education sectors
(along with agriculture and rural development) have been targeted as priority
sectors for government spending. Health service delivery in the poorer performing
provinces has been contracted out to health organisations as part of market
oriented reforms instituted by donors, notably the Asian Development Bank. The
concept is to encourage people to use the hospitals and health centres, and to
improve the use, affordability and access of the health delivery service.
A system of health user charges has been instituted. For the poor who cannot
pay the charges, an equity fund has been established at the hospital. Equity funds,
however, were quickly exhausted when they were first implemented, due to the
“unexpectedly” high numbers of poor people in Ratanakiri. Incentives and salary
supplements are paid to doctors and staff to encourage them to work full time in
Development -in whose name? 111

the hospital (instead of in their private clinics).27

NGO health workers pointed out the problems in transplanting health delivery
models that have been designed for more densely populated areas, to areas where
distances are greater, access is difficult and where community-based alternatives
might be more culturally and geographically appropriate. For example, in addition
to poor roads, limited awareness of the population, etc., District health centres in
Ratanakiri lack the minimum package of equipment to function. Health staff with
only eight months medical training have to diagnose and treat diseases. Obtaining
good medical treatment is problematic.
NGO health workers also reported that government health funds (including
salaries and reimbursements) are commonly delayed by more than three months,
adding to the problem of low capacity, poor motivation and confidence, and the
misuse of funds. When indicators are not met, penalties are imposed, which does
not help to improve a health system that is problematic in the first place. The donor
perspective, nevertheless, is that the contracting system is a definite improvement
on the government’s past performance in implementing the health system.
Villagers, however, were clear that the earlier health systems they knew (and
some received training from) during earlier socialist regimes were superior to what
they have now. During the 1980s, for example, villagers said health workers spent
time in the village, took health statistics and knew what problems there were. For
the past 5-10 years, villagers said the only time they have seen health workers in the
village is when they come to vaccinate. Villagers said health workers get paid piece
rates for vaccinating which is why they come.
People said now health staff want to know whether the patient has money
before they will treat him/her. People felt the role of the health staff is to heal
people and they should do this and think about the money later. Villagers said
health staff in the centres work when the monitors come, but as soon as the
monitors go the service is poor. In the past, they said the system treated everyone.
“They didn’t have a lot of resources but they tried.”
Villagers said, for them, the health charges are prohibitive. They said that they
go to the public health system because they cannot afford to go to a private clinic.
Admission to Ban Lung referral hospital costs 20,000 riels ($5) per night, and
villagers said this is like going to a private doctor. People complained that they do
not have enough money to buy medicine and they cannot read what is written on
the bottles anyway.
Ironically, also, some indigenous villagers have received some basic health
training (either during the Khmer Rouge or the later Vietnamese backed State of
Cambodia regimes).28 These people are often appointed as village health workers,
but in contrast to earlier regimes, they are given no equipment to work with. Their
112 Ironside

main task is to refer people to the health centres and hospital.

Land and Forest Issues

Ensuring environmental sustainability (CMDG 7) is a further key goal of the
Cambodian government. However, conventional poverty reduction/development
paradigms as represented by the CMDGs are weak in addressing the structural
issues resulting in the ongoing takeover of powerless marginalised peoples’ land by
those with power and money. For example, in line with national trends, provincial
and district towns in indigenous areas are expanding economically, and as seen in
Tuy village, people from these towns are buying land and dispossessing the rural
indigenous populations. A further structural problem is lack of recognition and
support for communal systems of land management, which allow for equal access
to land for all members of the community.
As a result, land distribution in Ratanakiri is increasingly unequal, with
important consequences for other poverty reduction strategies.29 The Village Chief
in Tuy estimated that half the village land area has been lost, with 500ha of village
community land left (for a present population of 451 people). Tuy village has been
losing its land to outside powerful people and more recently to opportunistic and
illegal land buying and selling. Encouraged by outside interests, four to five
community members have been brokering land sales. The money they earn for the
destruction they cause their communities is pitiful.
Leu Khun village has been strictly controlling land sales to outsiders and its
future looks slightly more secure. However, some villages neighbouring Leu Khun
have sold great portions, and, in some cases, all of their land, and now some of these
villages are trying to claim and sell Leu Khun and other villages’ land.30
Villagers in Tuy say the abuse of power and internal disputes caused by a 1999
land deal is the cause of much of the subsequent land selling in the village.
Commune and District authorities (acting as land brokers) asked if Tuy villagers
would like to give their land for development. The promise of future employment
was given. On 3 March 1999, officials visited the village to get the villagers to agree
to this transaction. About 20 villagers tried to protest.
Officials who were present in these negotiations told the villagers that the plans
for this land came from higher levels and people did not have the right to disagree
or argue. They said the sky is bigger than the land, the land is not bigger than the
sky, meaning that those lower down have no rights to stop what those higher up
want to do. They also said that the upper part of the leg is above the lower part of
the leg and the upper part of the leg can walk on the lower part as it likes, it cannot
be the other way around.
Villagers were also told by one of the officials that Junjiets (Khmer - ethnic hill
Development -in whose name? 113

tribe people) have no rights to be along the road because it is state land and this
land is for development.31 He also said that Junjiet people do not know how to live
along the road and plant orchards. He said that far away from the road is better for
them. A District Police official said that he has the human right to manage the land,
not the villagers, and the land was to be for development. Villagers were also told
that it was useless for them to resist and complain to higher levels, as the
officials/land brokers had “knong miek” (Khmer - strong backs) meaning that the
buyers had high connections and support.
Villagers were asked to agree to this deal by thumb printing and accepting
money. Villagers thought they were thumb printing to give their land for their
development. The actual price paid was $6,000 for 100 ha. Out of this the village
received only 1,500,000 riels ($US 375). Some 20 families received 30,000 riels ($7.50)
if they had an old field on this land. Those families who had not been using this
land received 6,000 riels ($1.50) each. In some cases, those that spoke up got more
money, while those that were quiet did not receive the full 30,000 riels for an old
field. Seventy dollars was kept for the village.
On the same day, the officials drank two litres of rice wine with five village
elders and gave each elder 10,000 riels ($2.50). They told the elders that it was
forbidden to talk to the younger people about the selling of village land. They were
told to say that the land had been given for development. The elders were
frightened. It is tradition that agreements are sealed with the drinking of rice wine.
The elders had drunk these officials’ rice wine and were afraid to disobey their
Tuy villagers were using this land for subsistence rice farming and cashew nuts.
Six hundred cashew trees planted by one villager were cleared by tractors.32 Because
this villager spoke out, he received 80,000 riels ($20), but received nothing for the
cashew nuts trees, or the annual harvest of nuts he would have received. Other
villagers’ fields which had been prepared for planting rice were obliterated by the
tractors. The affected villagers could not plant any rice that year. Several other
established jackfruit and mango trees were also cut down. A rubber plantation has
since been planted.33
Several villages along the main road 78 and throughout the Province have had
similar experiences. A neighbouring village to Leu Khun has sold many hundreds
of hectares to a government official, where forest is now being cleared for planting
rubber. Leu Khun villagers said in this neighbouring village there are now many
new motor bikes bought from three large land sales in 2005 and 2006. Villagers said
that the time will soon come when people are out of rice and there will be many
cheap motor bikes for sale in this village. Leu Khun people say that they have been
able to buy motorbikes also but they have done it with their brains and ideas,
114 Ironside

through growing and selling things on their land.

The ability or inability to control land selling, perhaps more than any other
issue, will likely differentiate these two villages in 2015 and beyond. Also, in the
eyes of local villagers, government officials have no credibility when they talk about
trying to control forest clearing and land buying. Both villages have stories of
government officials being involved in many illegal land and forest activities.
People are frustrated about the perceived injustice of powerful government officials
and private interests buying and benefiting from sales of large areas of indigenous
land. This is causing a simmering resentment both within and between villages and
between local villagers and outsiders.
Tuy villagers explained that before 2002 the price of land was around 50,000 –
100,000 riels/ha ($12.50-25). Land selling and buying escalated in 2002, with prices
jumping to 200,000-300,000 riels/ha ($50-75) and in 2003-2004 to 400,000-800,000
riels/ha ($100-$200). Tuy villagers said in 2005 people from Ban Lung (Provincial
town) were coming to buy land all the time. Prices jumped further to 800,000-
1,200,000 riels/ha ($200-300). In 2006, the problem was reduced, though not
stopped, because people said villagers start to understand about selling land and
there is not much land remaining to sell. Villagers say they still have land for
upland rice, but some said the village children will not have any land when they
grow up.
Leu Khun village, for now anyway, is in solid agreement that the villagers will
not sell any more of their land. They say they only have around 500-600ha of land
and this is barely enough for the population. Leu Khun and some neighbouring
villages (Dan, Pa’or, Sa Lev, Bolair) are an island of calm in a sea of land-selling
around them. Leu Khun villagers see the disintegration of the communities on all
sides of them and it is not hard for them to see that the future of these communities
is bleak. It is not certain what the future impact of large numbers of landless
indigenous peoples will be on villages which have managed to maintain their land
Some in Tuy are also genuinely trying to control land selling through
developing a No Sales Agreement with assistance from a local indigenous peoples’
network (the Highlanders Association). One leader said some villagers don’t
respect or believe this agreement. A Tuy village leader said that most of the land
sales have been conducted in secret. In some cases, no one in the village actually
knows who sold some pieces of land. However, they say District and Commune
authorities often know the details, with the implication that they are secretly
facilitating land sales in the village. The Village Chief said he is often forced to sign
land sales documents and recognise them because the sale has already been
completed in secret.
Development -in whose name? 115

Secret land sales have led to several cases in the Province where two people
have bought the same piece of land from two different buyers. In Tuy, villagers
explained that buyers from Ban Lung do not dare buy land unless the land sale
document is signed by the authorities. However, Khmer people from the new
village one kilometer down the road buy land to plant soybeans with or without a
signature from the Village Chief.

Government Actions
A major part of the problem is that there is, at best, only limited effort being
made to sort out the anarchic state of land management and registration of owner-
ship in the province. All layers of local authorities, as well as private interests, are
benefiting from ongoing land sales. Disputes over ill-defined village boundaries are
common. Land brokers also exploit a general lack of understanding about land
ownership laws. They tell villagers incorrectly that the government will soon come
and take the land and they are stupid not to sell their land. They also come and
show people money and ask people if they want money or a motorbike, a car, a
bicycle. The result in another neighbouring village to Leu Khun is that people now
only have their village houses and a little bit of land around the village left.
Along with a lack of official land ownership documentation and prosecution of
illegal activities, developing the procedure for indigenous communities to register
their land communally (as outlined in the 2001 Land Law) has been slow. Pilot
activities have been underway in two Ratanakiri villages since 2002. These villages
are now legally recognised by the Ministry of Interior, which will allow them to
eventually hold a communal land title.
Part of the reason for the slow pace of indigenous land titling is an antagonism
by some decision makers to the expressed wish of indigenous communities in
Ratanakiri for communal land titles. Both villages said they want communal titles
because with individual titles all their land would be lost (sold).34 Communal
titling is seen by some provincial and national leaders as crucial for indigenous
communities to participate in their own and national development and to maintain
their cultural identity.
The slow pace of indigenous land titling and a widespread disregard of the
Land Law have now led to a situation which could be described as a land
management systems failure in Ratanakiri. It will be some years before this
situation will be brought under control. Some villagers have predicted that there
would soon be fighting and violence over land, if the anarchic land situation in the
province is not brought under control and if there are no other options to deal with
increasing numbers of land conflicts.
116 Ironside

Forest Issues
Control over the community’s forest areas is also important to local indigenous
communities’ sustainable future to allow them to adapt to new circumstances and
improve their lives. However, the opposite is happening. Compared to 10 years ago,
Leu Khun has lost all its forest areas. Forests are being cleared in Tuy and many
other villages by communities retreating from land-buying pressure to new areas,
and by outside farmers and investors clearing land for cash cropping, plantations
and speculation.35
Tuy still does have areas of good forest and valuable trees and regularly reports
cases of illegal logging and land clearing to the Commune and District authorities.
Elders want to fine the loggers and confiscate the wood, but they say they have no
power. Their authority will depend on what rights they are given to manage their
forests. Tuy villagers have defended their forests from outside encroachment using
their village map to report forest clearing infringements. Now, however, the people
that were clearing the forest have since been buying village land.
A Leu Khun villager said there is a lot of talk a letting the community protect
and manage the forest, but in reality the community has no authority to manage
anything. The Tuy Village Chief said that recently the District Governor came to the
village with the Commune Chief and the District Police to say that people can no
longer just cut trees as they wish and need to get permission beforehand to build
a house. Villagers are now afraid to cut trees but outsiders continue to do so,
meaning stricter controls may be selectively applied mainly to villagers.
Provincial Government officials explained that the Forest Administration (FA)
and the Department of Land Management are now taking some cases of illegal
logging and land clearing to court.36 However another official said that despite this,
forest clearing is increasing. “We have the knife (laws) but we haven’t been able to
use it, or the knife is blunt,” he said.

Discussions with community members in these two villages have shown that many
of the priorities expressed in the MDGs do resonate with them, but these
communities have not been consulted when developing priorities or strategies for
poverty reduction. This highlights a bias in the MDGs towards a top-down model
of technocratic development. As governments strive to meet their MDG targets,
standardized models of development may lead to poorly thought through and
inappropriate programmes that will not be able to accommodate the special needs
of groups who do not fit the model.37
Villagers’ own priorities could largely be summarised as dealing with their own
powerlessness. Commentators have pointed out that the MDGs fail to address these
Development -in whose name? 117

structural imbalances that are at the root of rural poverty, and do not question the
underlying development paradigm, or the “social, political and economic context in
which they are to be implemented…” (Corino 2005, p. 29). As a result, inequalities
are widening and conventional anti-poverty policies currently being implemented
in Cambodia fail to tackle the social and economic exclusion facing these peoples.
Policies and actions are required to both understand and deal with these
marginalisation processes.
While there are some improvements, none of the Government services now
being provided in Ratanakiri could be called satisfactory for dealing with all the
complex issues outlined in the MDGs. Apart from possibly achieving universal
education for primary school (Grades 1-6, in one of the villages only), achieving the
other MDGs will require more resources than are available at present. It will also
require land and forest tenure security, if communities are to have any chance of
maintaining their livelihood base. Instead, local indigenous groups are faced with
the destruction of their resources, increasingly insecure livelihoods, as well as
insufficient funds coming from the central government to allow for any concrete
local actions.
Achieving the MDGs requires one step at a time, but also long-term coherent
strategies that coordinate and mobilize all resources. At present the approach is
fragmented. An important lesson from this study is that, what has to come before
delivery of the development hardware (or achievement of poverty reduction goals),
is the solid social base onto which poverty reduction strategies can be laid. The
basis of indigenous peoples’ poverty reduction strategies is their culture, land and
natural resources. Instead of looking at development targets, it is necessary to first
focus on the social organisation and governance required to make the delivery of
the development assistance feasible and achievable in the first place.
This paper has shown that this village social fabric is already starting to fray and
rip. In remote areas with indigenous peoples, a range of community-based options
may be more effective in empowering local communities to deal with their
development priorities in their own way. Local indigenous communities have
long-established processes to manage their affairs. These options are being
neglected or missed, because they cannot be easily measured. Leu Khun residents
realise the need to maintain their culture and social organisations in their refusal to
sell their land.
Nearly all indigenous communities are currently having to deal with a
conflicting dynamic in their communities between personal and collective interest.
Internal division in many communities is increasing. Indigenous social structures
are dealing with the disputes and dispossession as best they can, as long as they
remain intact. The case of Tuy village is typical of many communities, where a part
118 Ironside

of the village disagrees with activities such as land selling and logging, and cannot
get the entire village to agree. Internal division in Tuy village eventually led to the
splitting of the village in 2005. With the splintering of traditional structures,
important leaders are marginalised and others are able to increase their influence
through the easy money they can make by selling the community’s social capital –
their land and forests.
The more traditional institutions and communities splinter, the harder it will be
for them to defend their interests and resources, and the more the government will
need to take over the work that is now being done by them. This work includes
control of petty and even serious crime, internal dispute resolution, counselling,
moral and life skills education, ensuring welfare to the needy, elderly, hungry and
infirm, etc. These hidden functions of traditional governance make a significant
contribution to overall community welfare, with women playing a leading role.
A further key lesson from this study is that poverty prevention is much easier
and more effective than poverty reduction. It is important to understand the
consequences of increasing landlessness and the potential impacts of trade
liberalisation in indigenous areas, while there is still time and there are still intact
communities to develop alternatives and mitigating measures. Lessons from other
countries could usefully be drawn, in particular the future social costs that have
been incurred from bad policy and governance.
One Provincial government official commented that it is easy to go to a village
and find something villagers need, because they are short of everything. He and
some other provincial officials argued that the basis of any poverty reduction
strategy in these communities must be the central government providing
communal land titles and clear rights to use forest and natural resources. The
official said that with land and forest tenure security, everything else can be solved
easily, one step at a time. Without this, he said, there will be no sustainability of
development activities in the province.
For the moment, the social disintegration from an absence of land security is
able to be downplayed. However, some in the provincial government recognise the
looming social problems that will have to be dealt with (including the difficulty in
implementing poverty reduction programmes) if local cultures and communities
are not kept intact.
On top of this, local communities are expected to either pay for or contribute to
the poor health and education services they receive and to school buildings that
soon fall down. Corruption exacerbates the already poor quality of services at the
provincial level and below (Beresford et. al. 2004), leading inevitably to a growing
sense of powerlessness. Exploitation in trade and markets which are little
understood adds to the latent anger.
Development -in whose name? 119

Pimbert (2005) argues that local livelihood systems are being ignored, neglected
or actively undermined by the international development community, and
alternatives often offered to poor farmers are migration to urban areas or finding
new and better jobs.38 The current emphasis on market-based approaches also
ignores the huge potential of non-monetary forms of economic activity – gifts,
reciprocity, etc. – in meeting human needs and achieving the MDGs (Pimbert 2005).
People in Leu Khun said that, in the 1980s, people were organized into groups and
the chief of the group got people to do a communal rice field and a communal rice
bank. Now, people said there are no solidarity groups, only a village chief. Leu
Khun suggested establishing a community credit scheme as part of the rice bank
they requested. Group marketing also needs to be looked at.
Policies that encourage local organizations to manage their food systems and
their environment would perhaps be one of the few viable alternatives to the crisis
of governance currently being experienced in Bokeo District, and in most other
indigenous areas in the country. These strategies could be summarised as:
- Build on local institutions and social organization.
- Build on local systems of knowledge and management.
- Build on locally available resources and technologies to meet fundamental
human needs.
- Use process-oriented, flexible projects.
- Support local participation in planning, management and evaluation.
(Pimbert 2005). “Linear views of development and narrow assumptions about
‘progress’ and ‘economic growth’ must be replaced with a commitment to more
plural definitions of human wellbeing, and diverse ways of relating with the
environment.” (Pimbert 2005, p.155).
The approach, therefore, implies a refocusing on community-based options and
self-reliance, which is largely the opposite of what is being proposed and
implemented at present. In education, villagers have proposed bilingual, non-
formal and vocational training to assist people to learn new practical skills. As has
been seen, a key factor in ensuring good attendance and community support to the
village school is an active community management board, which has a say in the
selection of the teacher, etc.
Indigenous women also need to be assisted to have a voice and a place in
decisions which are being made about them, within and outside the village. A key
issue is the desegregation of indigenous women’s issues in national statistics, so
that the problems they face can be identified and addressed.
Culturally appropriate, community-based health options should be considered
to overcome problems of distance, access and cultural barriers. Indigenous
communities need to be given a stronger role in the design of the health service,
120 Ironside

rather than simply being a recipient and a paying client. People need health
information in their own language, and the indigenous perspective needs to be
much better understood if health messages are to have any impact. The discussion
about health also needs to be integrated with self-help prevention, such as good
nutrition. Villagers requested that the truly poor should be exempted from paying
user fees.
Community-based options would also mean giving traditional authorities more
authority to control the large scale alienation of the community’s productive assets.
A Tuy elder said that people do not think about the negative consequences when
they sell to outsiders, nor do they care when outsiders come and cut trees in the
forest; everyone is just thinking about getting money. Funds need to be allocated to
provide technical and financial assistance to support securing land rights,
delineating land, developing land management plans, etc.
Ultimately, not much can be done without the government’s active engagement
and encouragement of culturally appropriate village-based development options.
The ratifying of Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples Development Policy would
establish a clear statement of the Government’s desire to promote a multi-cultural
society. This could also lead to provincial and national consultation platforms
for discussion between government and indigenous communities’ own representa-
tives. Affirmative action policies enacted in indigenous areas to improve their
participation in local government would be another sign of support for indigenous
peoples’ own strategies to improve their lives.
Also, not much can be done without the rule of law. Existing legal provisions in
Land and Forest Law need to be implemented to ensure that land conflicts and
illegal activities are dealt with and resolved. This includes the principle that
nobody should be above the law.
Poverty reduction and pro-poor trade strategies require an assessment of the
causes of marginalisation and vulnerability faced by small farmers in remote
provinces. At present, economic development is accelerating the depletion of
natural resources, resulting in fewer livelihood options and increased poverty
among those already vulnerable. Cambodia’s indigenous peoples need fair, not,
free, trade.
To ensure marginalization issues are dealt with and indigenous peoples have a
say in this process, strategies need to be developed to bridge a general clash of
worldviews. Differences/contrasts to be dealt with include:
- Culture and language differences,
- Finding the correct mix of monetized and non-monetized development
options, as well as supporting villagers to actually deal with the money economy.
- The concept of land as a resource and livelihood base for the development of
Development -in whose name? 121

the whole community verses the individual right to own/sell (the communities)
- The clash between urban concepts of progress and rural needs to ensure a
secure and viable livelihood base.
- The rights of the indigenous insider verses the rights of the outsider.

It is an understatement to say that the task of achieving the MDGs in Leu Khun and
Tuy villages is daunting. This is not so much because of the villagers themselves,
but has more to do with the lawless environment they live in. The story of both
these villages is the story of powerful people dominating their lives. These two
villages are typical of the situation of many remote indigenous groups throughout
the country, where people live in close association with local natural resources.
Indigenous areas are rich in nature and resources, but these resources are more
often than not being plundered and wasted by local and national elites for their
own gain. Any revenue earned almost never returns to the Cambodian state. In
Bokeo District, the flagrant abuse of national land and forest laws, and the
dispossession that indigenous peoples are confronting could be described more
accurately as a process of systemic non-governance, more akin to an uncontrolled
abuse rather than wise use of power.
The centrepiece of the RGCs policy for the next five years (known as the
Rectangular Strategy) is good governance. In many ways, however, these two
communities, like many others, are trying to defend their rights, manage their
affairs and make some progress toward their goals, often in a governance vacuum.
Perhaps what the villagers are saying is they are waiting for this promised good,
honest governance.
There are a myriad of reasons why indigenous communities are losing their
land. However the loss of a livelihood base, ongoing insecurity and anger is not a
good basis on which to build a programme for indigenous community development.
For many small farmers, keeping their land offers them options for both
subsistence and production for income, without needing to hope for help from the
outside. Ensuring livelihood security allows people to experiment with other
livelihoods, which up to now they have never known. Perhaps one of the few
comparative advantages these villages have, apart from their labour and their land,
is their ability to work together.
A key message from this research, when comparing these two villages, is
“united we stand divided we fall.” It is too early yet to see the real consequences of
landlessness, ongoing and unresolved land disputes and the fragmentation of
communities. In Ratanakiri, the introduction of the market will likely mean
122 Ironside

widening inequality, both within and between villages, and increased vulnera-
bility of the weaker sections of society. This inequality seems to have been what
market oriented reforms have produced in Cambodia as a whole, and what the
National Strategic Development Plan 2006-2010 is so adamantly trying to correct.
One consistent message about poverty reduction in Cambodia is that while
returns may be easier and higher in other sectors of the economy, the only real way
to reduce poverty on a large scale is by targeting support to thousands of small
farmers to develop labour-intensive agriculture and rural non-farm employment.
This would reduce the country’s present over-dependence on the garment industry,
reduce poverty in areas where 90% of the poor are concentrated and allow small
farmers to be the private sector engine of their own village’s and the nation’s devel-
So while cross-border/international trade is potentially very important for the
economic development of Ratanakiri and other border provinces, the experiences to
date do not bode well for this trade benefiting indigenous communities. For trade
to be truly pro-poor, small farmers need to have safeguards against uncontrolled
and unfair competition and somewhere they can take their complaints where they
will be acted on.
This research has shown that these villages are not currently able to deal with
rapidly increasing competition from the outside. Unless these communities are
given the support to compete effectively with better off, more educated, more
influential members of society, then creating opportunities for growth will be
of little benefit to them. These opportunities will be quickly appropriated by the
better off. Perhaps the real test of any development strategy in the two villages
studied, as well as several others throughout the country, is in what ways will
development activities allow these communities to gain advantage over their
competitors. At present, it is not certain whether villagers are making progress
(however slowly) toward the achievement of the MDGs targets, or whether these
targets, like shifting goal posts, are actually regressing away from them.
Development -in whose name? 123

1. See Ironside, J. Poverty Reduction or Poverty Creation? - A Study on Achieving the
Millennium Development Goals In Two Indigenous Communities in Cambodia.
International Labour Organisation, Phnom Penh, May 2006.
2. The study estimated the Kuy population in 2002 at 19,496 (or 14.67% of the
Provincial population), which was more than four times as large as that shown in
the 1998 census (4,536).
3. Estimates put Cambodia’s growth rate at 9.8% for 2005 (Wasson and Kimsong,
Cambodia Daily 31/3/06).
4. Ironically, these reforms are known as the Poverty Reduction Growth Facility
5. These other policies include institutions to regulate the market, judicial and pub-
lic sector reform, investment in social services and rural development, and land
6. For every $100 of exported garments, $63 is spent on imported materials and $4
on utilities. Value added is thus only 1/3 of the total value, with labour costs esti-
mated at $13 and “bureaucracy costs” at $7, with total gross profits at 13%. Three-
quarters of these profits are repatriated. Therefore only 25% of the sale price of the
garment is the net value added which stays in the Cambodian economy (Beresford
et al. 2004, pp 159-160).
7. The Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey (CSES) 1999 reported an annual per capi-
ta income of $250 for Cambodia, $197 for rural people, and $691 for people in
Phnom Penh. IMM, 2005.
8. The provinces are; Cambodia - Ratanakiri, Stung Treng; Laos - Attapeu, Sekong;
Vietnam - Gai Lai, Kon Tom, Dac Lac.
9. Malaysians and Chinese are the two most prominent concession holders. A
Chinese/ Cambodian tree plantation covers 315,000 ha in Kompong Chnang and
Pursat Provinces. A Chinese pine tree concession covers 200,000 ha in Mondulkiri.
A 60,000 ha Chinese concession for rubber in Preah Vihear has recently been
announced (Cambodia Daily April 4 2006).
10. Tuy village is the other village discussed in this paper; see “Land and Forest
Issues” section
11. A World Bank survey found the level of unofficial payments in Cambodia was
more than double that found in parallel surveys in Bangladesh, Pakistan or China
(In IMM et. al. 2005, p. 48).
12. The first nationwide election for Commune Councilors was held in 2003 and the
second in 2007.
13. A general Policy for Indigenous Peoples Development was first developed in
1996 and submitted to the Council of Ministers in 1997 and again in 2006. Both
124 Ironside

times this policy has been rejected and is currently being revised.
14. The author lived and worked in Ratanakiri from 1996-2007.
15. In this and other areas of the province, the Tampuen and Jarai groups could be
described as having culturally intermarried.
16. Development health staff said this may have been the case in the past, but now
there are penalties and regular monitoring.
17. International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), Japanese International
Cooperation Agency, Dept. for International Development (DFID)/Danida, etc.
18. In the province, 20,000ha of cashew nuts has been planted over the past decade.
Yields average from 1.2 tonnes/ha (Leu Khun) to 1.4 – 1.5 tonnes/ha (Tuy),
however there is no technical assistance for villagers to deal with low yields, tree
diseases, etc.
19. The cashew nut harvest lasts from March-May, soybeans are harvested in
September and rice from September-December.
20. Thirty percent of the total area of cashew nuts is taken up by farms of 10 ha or
more. Seventy percent of the above income in 2005 therefore went to small
farmers, the majority of whom would be indigenous.
21. Assuming a 50% milling rate for upland varieties (upland rice has more husk),
this means an interest rate of 250% over 4 - 6 months. Other figures given were
borrowing 10kg of milled rice required the repayment of 1 sack of unmilled rice at
harvest. People said they didn’t know how heavy a sack of unmilled rice was.
22. Ten families in Tuy village have stopped planting a swidden field altogether.
They work as labourers for daily (5,000 – 10,000 riels/day - $US1.25-$2.50) or piece
rates, collect non-timber forest products, etc. Tuy leaders said, in some cases,
people have sold land just to buy food.
23. From 1990 – 2000 Vietnam increased its coffee production from 1.5 million
to 15 million bags. Massive deforestation, environmental devastation and the
displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands by lowland migrants result-
ed. Due to the oversupply, coffee prices dropped from $1,500/ton in 1998 to less
than $700/ton in 2000 (Tauli-Corpuz 2005).
24. Recently Cambodia’s only cashew nut processing factory in Kampong Cham
closed. It lacked capital and government support, and could not compete with
Vietnamese paying higher prices.
25. To attend Teacher’s Training College, a student has to have completed 9th grade.
26. Girls generally get married from 15-18 years of age, which some older women
felt was too young. There was one case of a girl getting married at 11 in a
neighbouring village.
27. Sixty-eight percent of the user fees go to the hospital staff as an incentive, 1%
goes to the National Treasury, 1% to the Provincial Health Dept and 38% are
Development -in whose name? 125

running costs of the referral hospital.

28. The Khmer Rouge occupied the northeast including Ratanakiri from 1970-79.
The State of Cambodia regime lasted from 1979-1993.
29. In Cambodia as a whole in the late 1990s the top 20-30% of landowners owned
70% of the land while the poorest 40% owned only 10% (Beresford et. al. 2004, p. 46).
30. In 2007, Leu Khun also lost land to an outside company in a dubious and secret
land deal.
31. A boundary dispute with a neighbouring village to Tuy in the late 1990s allowed
this same official to buy perhaps 300ha of land for only $450 because the owners
feared the neighbouring village would sell it before they did.
32. Costs for establishing this cashew nut plantation were 120,000 riels ($30) per
hectare for cutting, one cow and 60,000 riels ($15) per hectare for clearing, and
300,000 riels ($75) every year for weeding it twice. In addition there were the costs
of a cow and pigs to be sacrificed in ceremonies to the local spirits.
33. In 2001, a petition was signed by all the villagers asking the authorities to inves-
tigate the legality of this sale. Officials visited the village and found the land had
been bought “legally.”
34. A draft policy outlining the indigenous land titling process is under review by
the inter-Ministerial Council of Land Policy.
35. A recent land use change study around Tuy village found annual deforestation
rates of 4.88% from 1989-2006 (Fox et. al. 2008).
36. The Ratanakiri Governor was removed because of his suspected role in logging
in Virachey National Park (Ratanakiri) near the Laos and Vietnam border.
37. For example, “Poverty Reduction in the fastest possible manner is the RGC’s
foremost priority” (NSDP 2005 p. 28).
38. An example is the “need for a transformation from a primarily subsistence-ori-
ented agriculture … to a more commercially-oriented more intensive agriculture”
(Beresford et al. 2004, p. 52).
126 Ironside

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1, A Journal of Tebtebba Foundation, Baguio City, Philippines 2005.
Ehrentraut, S. The Theory of Multiculturalism and Cultural Diversity in Cambodia,
Masters Thesis in Political Theory, 2004, University of Potsdam, Germany.
Fox, J. McMahon, D. Poffenberger, M. and Vogler, J. Land Use and Tenure Change in
Ratanakiri: 1989-2006, Community Forestry International and the East West Center,
Hawaii, Jan 2008.
Hardy, F. Situation Analysis Health, Ratanakiri, Cambodia. 2001, Health Unlimited,
Ban Lung, Ratanakiri.
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Project: Indigenous Upland Minorities Screening Study, The World Bank, East Asia and
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Cambodia, Health Unlimited, Ban Lung, Ratanakiri, 2002.
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Livelihood Diversification in Coastal Cambodia. IMM Ltd, Exeter, UK, 2005.
Ironside, J. Land expropriation in Tuy Village, Bokeo District, Ratanakiri Province. May-
June 2001.
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Millennium Development Goals In Two Indigenous Communities in Cambodia.
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Penh, November 2003.
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Phnom Penh, October 2005.
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National Institute of Statistics Cambodia Social Economic Survey 2004. Ministry of

Planning, Phnom Penh, 2004.
National Institute of Statistics, Cambodia Inter-Censal Population Survey 2004, General
Report at Province Level – Report 2 - General Report at the Province Level - Kratie,
Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng Provinces. Ministry of Planning,
Phnom Penh, May 2005.
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Cambodia, April 2006.
Pimbert, M. Supporting locally determined food systems: the role of local organiza-
tions in farming, environment and people’s access to food. In How to Make Poverty
History - the central role of local organizations in meeting the MDGs. Edited by Tom
Bigg & David Satterthwaite, IIED, 2005.
Provincial Department of Planning (PDP), Ratanakiri Provincial Development Plan
2006 – 2010. Ban Lung, Ratanakiri, 2005.
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Special theme: Millennium Development Goals and Indigenous Peoples. Permanent
Forum on Indigenous Issues, Fourth session, New York, 16-27 May 2005, UN Doc.:
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Unofficial Translation from Khmer Version, Phnom Penh, November 2005.
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Indigenous Perspectives, Making the MDGs Relevant for Indigenous Peoples. Volume
VII, Number 1, A Journal of Tebtebba Foundation, Baguio City, Philippines, 2005.
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among nations to end human poverty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
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Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2004.
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Expert, New York, Sept. 23, 2004.
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Penh, Feb 2006.
Changes in Gender Roles and Women’s Status Among
Indigenous Communities in Cambodia’s Northeast
Margherita Maffii
“They came, they saw, they named, they claimed” Decolonising methodologies,
Research and Indigenous People. Linda Tuhiway Smith (1999).

At least 20 different indigenous ethnic groups live within Cambodia. Some of
them are represented by very small populations, while others, the Kreung with
the subgroups Kaveth and Brao, the Tampuan, the Jarai and the Bunong, are
numerically significant and constitute the majority of the population of two
provinces in the Northeast, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. Their agricultural practices,
culture, social organisation and system of beliefs (described by Baird I. 2000, White
J. 1996, Bourdier F. 2006, Ironside J. & Baird I. 2003) are a homogeneous ensemble,
despite their ethnic and language diversity.
Since the mid-nineties, the progress of peace and the rehabilitation of the main
roads linking northeast indigenous provinces to lowland Cambodia, have broken
the indigenous enclaves and opened up their territories to exchange with the
mainland. Unfortunately, the concomitant expansion of land speculation all over
the country has triggered a craving for indigenous land, and has brought into
the region companies, land speculators, middlemen, cash crops planters and
adventurers. Intense in-migration into indigenous areas has occurred, on a scale
overwhelming for indigenous people.
Many villages have already fallen into a spiral of land alienation and social
disintegration, while many others are menaced by massive land seizures, land sales
and the occupation of land by new immigrants (NGO Forum of Cambodia, 2006).
Changes in the social order and threats to the cultural identity of indigenous
people are having an impact on indigenous societies, which are pushed to adapt to
modernity and assimilate to the mainstream Cambodian society. This occurrence is
not without shocks and, under this pressure, some communities have entered a
process of disintegration, where the loss of resources, land and forests, accompanies
the loss of community solidarity, links and shared values.
This is triggering very significant changes in gender roles and status. It is,
unfortunately, a statement of fact that women pay an exaggerate toll when their
ethnic group’s material and cultural existence is under threat. The experience of
many Native People in the world shows that the collapse of indigenous societies
130 Maffii

under the pressure of colonisation or assimilation, results in a dramatic loss of

status for indigenous women and increasing acts of violence against them (Native
Women Association of Canada, 2006).
This study has been undertaken in order to understand how women of the
indigenous ethnic groups in Cambodia perceive and interact with the changes so
deeply affecting their communities and their lives.
It is intended to investigate the grey zone where indigenous gender perspective
and culture begin to reveal the shock that the indigenous society is suffering.

A gender and ethnic prejudice shapes the image of indigenous women in
Cambodia, stressing their shyness and reluctance to speak, thereby reducing their
role to that of simple spectators in a male-dominated social life, diligent executers
of agriculture techniques and silent listeners. This view, reiterated by different
informants, solicits a further query: is this the consequence of a gender/ethnic
prejudice or, instead, a true characteristic of indigenous women in Cambodia.
The research was conducted during three different missions from May to
September 2006, in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Kratie Provinces. The indigenous
communities involved were ethnically diverse, reflecting the various composition
of the indigenous population in Cambodia. Most of the discussions needed
translation into indigenous languages. Discussions occurred either in private
houses, or in the village’s community house, and often lasted the whole day long.
We addressed indigenous women directly, asking their consent to our method,
explaining to them the purpose of the research: to bring their voices, testimonies
and problems to a broader audience. We collected their testimonies and oral
histories, gathering their perceptions according to their own hierarchical ordering
of relevance, without imposing on them an external agenda.

The women communicated in a lively and eclectic fashion and discussions were
punctuated with instances of intense emotion. Their great sense of humour helped
to play down some uneasy issues. As a researcher, it was a great privilege to come
in touch with these women and I will be forever grateful to them. The following
testimonies are part of the women’s perspectives collected during the research.

“...My land has been seized to plant rubber trees. It is our ancestor’s land, but now this
land belongs to some government officials. They came and started to measure it. We
are worried because we have heard that government officials will come and take all the
Changes in gender roles and women’s status among Indigenous communities 131

land, even the land where we plant vegetables. First they take and then they discuss.”
A Tampuan woman in Lumphat District, Ratanakiri

“...They sold nearly 6000 hectares of community land. They didn’t discuss it with us.
We don’t know the new owner; we only know that it is a company. Apparently the
district chief and the commune authorities have signed the sale, asserting that the land
belongs to a Khmer man living in the district, allowing him to resell it to the company. “
A Kachak woman in Andong Meas District, Ratanakiri

The majority of the villages we visited were facing a new situation: land is
becoming an object of grabbing, illegal sales, or occupation by in-migrants. Despite
the existence of a Land Law that recognises indigenous rights to a communitarian
land title, land sales and land grabbing are escalating in the region. The areas
closest to the provincial towns and the ones along the main communication axes
are where the highest pressure has been exerted to force land sales, where land
grabbing and reselling mostly occurs, and where most of the new migrants from
lowland Cambodia have settled.
This is what women wanted to talk about, what was happening to them
recently, their main worry and concern.
“...My husband and my uncle were jailed. Somebody came and put a fence around our
land. When we protested the district authority says: ‘Don’t you understand? This land
belongs to other people now!’ My husband and other men pulled out the fence, but
these powerful people forced them to put it back in place. Can you understand how
hard it was for the men being forced to rebuild a fence around their own land? “
A Bunong woman in Sem Monorom District, Mondulkiri.

“...The newcomers come, cut the trees and clear the forests. In the future in this village
we will be only labourers. Some of our youth help them cutting the forest and making
construction wood. When we tried to protect the forest, a policeman and other two
persons warned us. They said: ‘What a strong village is this!’ They looked down on us,
laughing because our village is not strong enough to stop them.”
A Bunong woman in Snuol District, Kratie

In some villages, where people have suffered intimidation and humiliation by

powerful people, arrests and prison, women were angry, especially when the law
officers failed to protect them or became accomplices to the abusers. Being part of
a “development scheme” is no guarantee of protection. In the northern part of
Ratanakiri province, across the Sesan River, among Khavet people who have
been resettled near the river as part of a development program, the land was sold
by the village chief. Pressure over land is also a potential source of interethnic or
132 Maffii

intercommunitarian conflicts. Communities that are under pressure may trespass

on other communities’ land, or entire villages, landless, may move to regions where
there is no room for them.

Natural Resources
“...The water is not clean; sometimes it has a bad smell, sometimes it goes up very
quickly. When they open the dam the stream is very strong, we cannot fish or go out
with the boat, it is too dangerous. Before we use to dig holes near the banks to get
water but now the stream is too strong and we cannot. Our well is only for drinking
water, we use the river for washing, but now we don’t want to wash the children in the
river. It’s a very big problem.”
Jarai women in Sesan District, O’Yadao

Indigenous communities are bearing the environmental impact of intensive

natural resources exploitation. Deforestation is taking place at a very high rate and,
in many areas in the Northeast, forests have almost disappeared. All along the road
from Stung Treng to Ratanakiri, only a thin layer of trees has been left, which
cannot hide the immense clearings inside the territory. In O’Yadao District, in
Ratanakiri Province, entire forests have been cut. In part of the central districts of
Ratanakiri, cashew nut plantations have replaced the forests. In three Ratanakiri
districts the communities living along the Sesan River are affected by the impact of
the upstream dam built in Vietnam.

Village disintegration
“...We come here in the plantation after having lost our land. Now we stopped working
because we are tired, thin and sick, men and women. Here there is no forest, food is
not enough, water is very far, it is hard to find wood for cooking. There are no animals
to hunt and fishes have disappeared. Sometimes we go back to our village, but our land
has been sold and there is nothing we can do. Our spirits are in the old village, they do
not protect us anymore, so one of my children died and the other is very sick!. Without
spirits there is no health and the people become sick and die.“
A Tampuan woman in Ban Lung District, Ratanakiri

In many villages, especially the ones nearest to the provincial towns, land
speculation has exerted a harsh pressure on indigenous people. Lured by offers of
money, many people have, in part or completely, sold their land. Often the offer was
ludicrously low, but indigenous people were not aware of the real value of their
land. Moreover, such land selling within the communities has created deep
divisions and distrust. In some cases, under this pressure, indigenous communities
have literally disinteg rated.
Changes in gender roles and women’s status among Indigenous communities 133

“...We built the water reservoir, we asked Khmer people living nearby to participate in
the work and expenditure but they didn’t want to. Water is only enough for cocking and
washing ourselves, not to make the laundry. But Khmer people come and wash the
clothes and when we tell them that this is not possible they get angry and blame us.
We did give them the water, but they don’t follow the rules! With some Khmer, howev-
er, we have good relationships. “
A Tampuan woman in O’chum District, Ratanakiri

The internal migration of Khmer ethnic citizens into the indigenous areas
increases the pressure over land and natural resources. Competition for the
resources and a vision of the environment that is diametrically opposed to the one
of the indigenous communities, tend to make newcomers unwelcome.
Due to the circumstances of their arrival and their attitudes, it appears difficult
for indigenous people to build a vision of coexistence and shared values with the
newcomers. A cultural trench divides the communitarian values that lead
indigenous communities, from the hierarchies and the patronage that animates
Khmer society.

Changes in agricultural practices

“...Before the village was built differently, but then we were afraid that people would
come and take our land, so we divided the land, moved the houses and planted cashew
nuts trees around our houses. If people see empty land they will take it, if there are
cashew nuts trees it means that the land belongs to somebody.”
A Tampuan woman in Lumphat District, Ratanakiri

Under the pressure of the market economy and land grabbing, people
have tried to secure their land by establishing clear signs of ownership and
by cultivating all the available soil. Cashew nut trees have been planted in the old
plots, either to secure the property and to get cash from nuts sales. The indigenous
system of plot rotation, known as swidden agriculture, has been abandoned
partially or completely for more intensive field exploitation.

Changes in women’s work

“...We had more fun before! We had time to rest during the dry season, and time to spin
cotton and weave. Sometimes women went to the forest with the men for many days,
to choose the new fields. Now the work of the women is harder. What do we do during
rest time? How could you call it rest! Now we stop for 2-3 days only! When we finish
the rice harvest we have to continue with the other field. Before we had time, now it is
over. And our fields are further away than before; we walk for hours just to reach the
134 Maffii

place to work.”
A Jarai woman in O’Yadao District, Ratanakiri

This has resulted in an increase of workload, fatigue, and risks that women have
to take in order to guarantee their group survival. Their work has changed too,
becoming more repetitive and less qualified.

Socio-economical changes
“In this village the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. Rich have everything,
new houses, motorbikes, buffalos, and poor don’t have the pot to cook. Rich have
things to sell, poor sell their work! I do not see a good future for this village. We have
made some progress, from the house made by leaves we have now houses in wood,
we do not carry the babies with our basket anymore, but for poor families life is as hard
as before”.
A Tampuan woman in Andong Meas District, Ratanakiri

The introduction of cash crops has changed the life of many indigenous people
that, for the first time, have access to a significant income source. However, the
introduction of cashew nut plantation has subverted indigenous land tenure,
shifting towards individual land property and dismissing communitarian land
management. Such change is not without consequences. Within the communities,
inequality is increasing and labour, that before was carried out in a group during
the hardest agricultural works, is now monetized.
“...Even before there were rich families, but they had gongs, jars, buffalos and cows.
Now is changed, they have wood houses, motorbikes, cars... The rich do parties as the
Khmer, with cassette recorders, loudspeakers and Khmer music. Now only the poor do
everything like before: kill the pigs, drink from jars, and make music with gongs.”
A Kreung woman in O’chum District, Ratanakiri

Access to prosperity is inducing the adoption of new values, mainly the ones of
the lowland Khmer, who are seen as a richer and cleverer group. Some traditional
practices are now considered signs of poverty, while the adoption of new ones is
perceived as a sign of wealth.

Women, men . . . and money

“...Some men keep the money from cashew nuts sales. They buy motorbikes, drink or
smoke, and come back without anything. But in other cases they discuss with the wife
and we decide together. “
A Jarai woman in O’Yadao District, Ratanakiri
Changes in gender roles and women’s status among Indigenous communities 135

“...In some families men help the women, but in others life is harder than before.
Traditionally men have only one job, while women have many. We work more than in
the past because men are more in charge of other things; they take the motorbike and
go to sell, while women stick to the hard daily work. It is easy because the husband can
go to sell and buy useful things, but it is harder because women take care of the fields
Bunong woman in Puchiri District, Mondulkiri

Many women were concerned by their men’s spending habits. Apparently, it

often happened that men just waste the money.
Income and spending have different impacts on men and women. Men have
increased their mobility, travelling frequently and visiting villages and district
towns, therefore decreasing the time spent in their villages. This has widened their
contacts network and allowed them to participate, to some degree, in the Khmer
social life occurring in the district and provincial towns. Their knowledge of the
Khmer language increases faster than that of women, as well as their integration
among the Khmer community.

Rearrangement of gender’s role and status

“...Before husbands used to take care of children. During the evening they chatted in
the village carrying the children with them. But now they go out with the motorbike and
they prefer to be alone, because they feel ashamed to go out with the children. In the
past, husbands scolded and complained to us, but at least they stayed in the village,
drinking together, especially during ceremonies. But now they drink alone, or they drink
everyday for one or two months and when the women complain there are conflicts in
the family.”
A Jarai woman in O’Yadao District, Ratanakiri

Confined to the very demanding tasks of assuring everyday family life, many
women see modernity through the eyes of their husbands. The division of tasks
between men and women seems to be widening and changing. If before men’s work
brought them into the forest, hunting, fishing, or carrying out the heaviest and most
dangerous tasks, now it bring them in deep contact with the new social context,
with Khmer people, and with modernity. This is opening the door to new problems.
“...Men drink more than before, now they drink beer and white wine in the district town.
They drink because they are angry, but once they are drunk they are not happier and
they still want to create problems. Sometimes, they are afraid that women will blame
them so they start to blame first. Men now have more free time, so they don’t know
what to do, they play cards and drink. They don’t hunt anymore, so they have less work.
Men want to be higher than women, but now sometime they stay at home, drinking all
136 Maffii

the time and are afraid of women’s disapproval, so they create problems.”
A Tampuan woman in Andong Meas District, Ratanakiri

A trend toward an increase in alcohol consumption was mentioned by many

women, who linked these changes to the new social situation in the villages. The
outsiders’ way of life is also blamed. In fact, indigenous communities were used to
social and leisure activities involving the whole village, women, men, young,
elders, rich and poor. The mainstream Cambodian society is more gender and
socially segregated; male leisure is often linked to the commercialization of
women’s services, as karaoke singers, waitresses, or sex workers. The mushroom-
ing of brothels in Banlung, the provincial capital of Ratanikiri Province, and in most
of the district towns of the indigenous provinces, is a consequence, and proof, of the
prevalence of this culture.
“...Some men take the money and destroy the family’s properties. Some men feel that
their wife is old and want to find young prostitutes, and spend all the money. When they
finish the money, they come back, even more angry. Now we have a lot of divorces.
When women complain or blame them there is violence… The village chief, for exam-
ple, now has two wives. We still have the elders, but now they have less authority, peo-
ple don’t care; young men become gangster or robbers. We have also rapes; girls are
cheated by men from the village or by outsiders. Before we fined them but now no
more, our spirits have gone away, our community is not strong, nobody cares about eld-
ers and fines.”
A Tampuan woman in Ban Lung District, Ratanakiri

These aspects are directly related to the level of disruption felt by the commu-
nities. The above-mentioned examples refer to communities nearer to the provincial
towns, facing intense land alienation and in-migration of newcomers.

Vision of the future

“...Before was harder, there was no food, no pots to cook, we had to go and dig wild
potatoes when food was lacking. Today, young people don’t follow our tradition, don’t
celebrate ceremonies and beliefs, they drive very fast, they don’t respect animals or
children, they go alone in town and drink a lot of beer or wine. So I don’t know what to
A Jarai woman in O’Yadao District, Ratanakiri

“...Now we have development and in the future we will have houses made with cement.
However, if our children will study, they will forget their traditions and become like
Khmer, if they don’t study, they will remain ignorant and will be cut off from everything.
So I think it is not good anyway.”
Changes in gender roles and women’s status among Indigenous communities 137

A Tampuan woman in Andong Meas District, Ratanakiri

“...Work today is harder than the older generation, at that time no women were labour-
ers! Before we used to weave, but now we cannot, and we exchange products for
clothes. When I was young, there was more to eat, we had more farms and enough
An Elder Bunong woman in O’reang District, Mondulkiri

Women’s vision of the future reflects the contradictions and the controversial
value of modernity.

Women as active agents

“...We all are affected by the problem of land grabbing close to our village, we must take
action, otherwise we will not have land for the next generation. We will meet together
and we will try to do something.”
A Kachak woman in Andong Meas District, Ratanakiri

“...This is a village with many ancient traditions. During Pol Pot many things were
destroyed, we lost all our gongs and jars, but afterwards we have managed to buy them
again. We are very proud of it. We keep alive our traditions; we teach the young how
to sing and how to play. They should not lose their culture and we work to keep it alive.”
An Elder Kreung woman in Veunsay District, Ratanakiri

“...We are very worried in our heart; we think that in the future there will be no more
Indigenous people! We want to fight because we want to maintain the forest for our chil-
dren and we want some forest left for their future. Our lives rely on the forest, we are
indigenous and we live in the forest, wherever else should we live? We try to resist,
writing letters to the Commune, if it is not effective, we write to the District, and also to
the Province.”
A Stieng woman in Snuol District, Kratie

This overview on indigenous women’s perceptions could not be concluded

without mentioning their great willingness to act in favour of their villages and
groups, and protect the interests of the future generations that many indigenous
women express so clearly.

Indigenous women appeared vocal, assertive, and willing to discuss and interact;
essentially they do not correspond to the prevailing stereotype. Some authors have
already mentioned how the dominant patriarchal and ethnocentric vision of
138 Maffii

indigenous women can completely obscure the real dimension of gender status
within indigenous societies (Tuhiway Smith L. 1999, Smith Andrea, 2005). This has
often triggered a series of measures and interventions, managed by the dominant
society or driven by the “development” sector, that instead of re-establishing
indigenous women’s status, simply assume the prevailing bias as their main
conceptual frame. The current proliferation of gender education programs
managed by development agencies in the indigenous areas in the North East
provinces of Cambodia, tend to take for granted that indigenous women’s status
reflects the general perception concerning indigenous people: one of underdevelop-
ment, poverty and lack of skills and knowledge. Being unacknowledged,
indigenous women’s status is not protected, and measures to improve their
situation tend to assimilate them into the mainstream society. By not recognizing
ethnic and gender prejudice in the mainstream society, problems faced by
indigenous women who are under threat of being assimilated, get unrecognised
The destruction of the link between indigenous communities and their ancestral
land triggers devastating effects on social ties, beliefs, identities and cultures. By the
assault of this modern frontier, women are left with less power, status, tools and
protection. Violence against women appears in the discourse of women that face
severe land losses, community disintegration and massive in-migration into their
Indigenous women are facing a series of changes that are endangering their
livelihood, their identity, their culture and their status as women. Their time for
leisure and creativity has declined. Their workload has changed and in many cases
increased. Indigenous women, whose roles as expert agriculturalists in charge of
land management, plant amelioration and seed selection has assured community
survival and livelihood, are now relegated to the role of labourers, their knowledge
and experience unrecognised. The increase in responsibilities for ensuring family
survival has, in turn, isolated them and decreased their exposure to positive
The exposure of indigenous traditional society to the dominant Khmer culture
is having an impact on the vision of gender and the role of women within
indigenous communities. In lowland Cambodia, a patriarchal culture has shaped
women’s roles and status, imposing strict codes of conduct regulating women’s
behaviour and imposing sex segregation. Male dominance is unchallenged,
domestic violence and violence against women is a prevalent social phenomenon,
involving all generations (Violence against Women Baseline Survey, 2005). The
massive spread of commercial sex by the male population contributes to a
devaluation of women’s status and to an increase in their submission.
Changes in gender roles and women’s status among Indigenous communities 139

The outside dominant culture, based on market fundamentalism, which is

invading these communities, is male-biased too. The values that it rewards
accommodate men more than women, and contribute to making the role and work
of women less visible and appreciated (Sassen Saskia, 1999). In the long term, the
impact will affect men and women in the same way, but in the short term, it offers
men a way to release their frustration and discontent, based on the devaluation of
women. This will be very disruptive for the indigenous social fabric, where genders
play different and separate roles, but are not ranked in a hierarchical order due to
their intrinsic worth.
Nonetheless, the indigenous women contacted by the research were assertive
and willing to act in order to address their problems.
140 Maffii

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in Kok Lak Commune, Voeun Say District, Ratanakiri Province, Northeast Cambodia, Ban
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land and resources tenure in and adjacent to Virachey National Park, Northeastern
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Development as Tragedy: The Asian Development Bank and
Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia
Peter J. Hammer
History is rife with conflicts between indigenous peoples and outsider groups.
These confrontations have a timeless and often tragic quality. They are revealing
because they juxtapose sometimes radically different manifestations of the human
condition, and highlight tensions between divergent and often contradictory
worldviews. While past conflicts played out under the rubric of colonialism or
Manifest Destiny, today’s confrontations are undertaken in the name of economic
development. One such drama is underway in the Northeast Provinces of
Cambodia, with substantial funding from the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But
contemporary development stories are different from older stories of colonization.
Development agencies are exporting aid and technical assistance, with the dual
objectives of market building and state building. Increasingly, these initiatives have
social as well as economic components. Modern development comes complete with
roads, schools and health clinics, along with pledges to reduce poverty. This is not
all. Indigenous communities are now invited to participate in the process of their
own development. Where such participation is not possible, development agencies
will expend additional resources to build the indigenous capacity to do so.
This paper focuses on “development” as embodied in the policies and practices
of international agencies like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. It
examines economic development as its own distinct set of beliefs and attempts to
frame and justify a narrative of “development as tragedy.” Indigenous Peoples in
Cambodia face other obvious threats, such as land grabbing, deforestation and
environmental degradation. These threats reflect the more naked avarice of
economic markets and a predatory state. As such, these threats are more consistent
with a narrative of “development as exploitation.” The narratives of exploitation
and tragedy are complementary and not competitive. Each teaches different
lessons. A tragedy in the Aristotelian sense is a drama that invokes deep feelings of
fear and pity in the audience. The sense of tragedy is driven by the protagonist’s
adherence to a mistaken set of briefs that inevitably condemns his conduct to have
disastrous consequences, foreseeable to the audience but often not the actor.
To reveal the tragedy of modern development, it is necessary to make transpar-
ent the mistaken set of beliefs (the tragic flaw) underlying these initiatives. This is
not an easy task, because our views about development, as well as our perceptions
142 Hammer

of the “other,” are constructed within the context of our own society. To us, the need
for development appears self-evident and beyond question. We are developed.
Indigenous Peoples are undeveloped. The appropriate policy is to make them
more like us. There is a strong internal logic to this analysis. It is this internal
logic, however, that begins to elucidate the mistaken beliefs driving the
tragedy. The German concept of weltanschauung, or worldview, provides a
framework to understand the tragic nature of these programs. ADB policies toward
indigenous peoples in Cambodia trigger an unavoidable conflict between
disparate worldviews. That the indigenous tribes have different languages,
traditions and belief systems (worldviews) is taken as obvious. We see their
differences. But like fish unaware of water, members of the dominant society are
largely unaware of the significance of their own worldview and its impact on
their policies and perceptions.
This article critically evaluates certain ADB Reports on indigenous peoples to
learn not so much what the Reports teach about native tribes, but what they reveal
about the worldview and mistaken beliefs of the ADB and modern industrial
societies. The first report is Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty
Reduction: Cambodia (June 2002) (hereinafter Poverty Report). The second report is
Health and Education Needs of Ethnic Minorities in the Greater Mekong Subregion (2001)
(hereinafter Health & Education Report). These documents are used as artifacts.
Theories about economic development act like mirrors, revealing important
insights into the belief systems of modern societies. A careful analysis of the Reports
illustrates how the problems of indigenous peoples, are often mere projections of
the ADB’s own beliefs, beliefs that are themselves largely driven by the Bank’s
underlying economic models. Framing the problem as a conflict between disparate
worldviews further reveals the limitations of participation as a policy tool.
Meaningful participation in this setting is probably not possible. If participation is
possible, it would have to be approached in a very different manner than it is
currently being practiced.
Section II introduces the concept of worldviews and examines their social
functions. Worldviews provide a framework for comparing and contrasting
different belief systems. Section III deconstructs the ADB Reports to see what they
reveal about the beliefs of the authors. The article argues that the ADB’s own
worldview so constrains its perceptions that it is unable to meaningfully consider
and address the distinct needs of indigenous peoples. Instead of trying empatheti-
cally to engage these people on their terms, the ADB projects its own beliefs upon
these communities. While the unique cultures and traditions of these communities
are acknowledged, these attributes are modeled as “constraints” to development
that must be confronted and overcome. The ADB’s cultural sensitivity is for
Development as Tragedy 143

instrumental purposes only, affecting how policies might be implemented, but not
what policies should be pursued. Section IV looks at the implications of the
foregoing on the prospects of engaging indigenous peoples in the process of their
own development. Understanding development as a conflict between worldviews
reveals the fundamental limitations of participation as a policy tool.

Worldviews and Their Relationship to Development

To give life to the narrative of “development as tragedy,” one must make visible and
knowable that which is often invisible or ignored. At its most general level, this
paper argues that culture matters. But while the claims that developers and
indigenous peoples have different cultures and that planning that is “logical”
within the developer’s culture can be disastrous for indigenous peoples may be
obvious to anthropologists, these claims are radical and even possibly “unknow-
able” for many development economists. Indeed, the entire modern development
agenda is organized as if these claims are not true (or that the claims do not even
The concept of worldviews can serve as a vehicle to make these issues more
visible. It is doubtful that an anthropologist would resort to the concept of
worldviews as the appropriate frame to assess the belief systems of indigenous
peoples. The concept of worldviews, however, is a surprisingly useful unit of
analysis for our purposes, because it can be made to fit well within the rhetoric and
discourse of development economics. Worldviews deal with complicated belief
systems at a fairly abstract and conceptual level. They force holistic and integrative
thinking. Worldviews permit simplistic aggregate comparisons (a virtue from an
economic if not an anthropological perspective). Further, worldviews function as a
bridging framework between economics and anthropology. While simplistic at
some levels, it also permits the blanks to be filled in with more specialized expert
analysis. Nevertheless, in the discussion of worldviews, it is just as important to
become conscious of our own modern industrial worldview as it is to become aware
of the pre-modern worldviews of indigenous communities.

The Role and Function of Worldviews

Every society has a worldview. Worldviews are socially constructed symbolic
matrices that permit individuals to make sense of their world by providing a
framework to process their experiences. A worldview is a network of beliefs that
helps individuals to understand themselves, their society and their place within
their society. When functioning well, worldviews serve two objectives. Worldviews
are supposed to (1) establish order, and (2) provide meaning. Healthy worldviews
perform well along both dimensions. Worldviews that begin to crumble or fall into
144 Hammer

disrepair are no longer able to provide order or meaning for members of the
By their very nature, worldviews are complex and multilayered. Given the
range of individual needs and experience, worldviews operate on multiple,
overlapping domains. Balcomb (2005) contends that worldviews must create
functional understandings with regard to time, space, epistemology, ontology and
kinetology. Understandings of these concepts vary widely between societies. For
example, there are different ways to understand time. In western societies, time is
viewed in a linear manner. The past is behind. The present is now. The future is
ahead. In the west, this linear notion of time is combined with optimistic notions of
progress. Time and history have positive gradients. According to this view, things
are continuously getting better as society becomes more and more developed. This
is not the only possible view of time. Particularly in agrarian societies, time is often
perceived in a cyclical, not a linear manner. Seasons and individuals are in a
constant process of coming into being and going out of being. Among other things,
as will be argued later, cyclical views of time affect one’s concept of order and
progress. Views of space and causation are also contestable. Western views of space
are entirely physical and material. Other societies, particularly pre-modern
societies, view space as a domain where the physical and the spiritual interact
within the same sphere. Different notions of space anticipate different notions of
causation – what makes things happen and how one can influence events.
Correspondingly, worldviews also construct their own internal understandings of
epistemology (reflecting theories of how we know things), ontology (reflecting
theories of being) and kinetology (reflecting theories of power and agency). Every
society weaves together its own stories, traditions and practices conveying mutual
understandings of how and why things are. This combined network of beliefs
constitutes that society’s worldview.
Differences in the content of particular worldviews can be profound. Even so,
all worldviews serve similar functional roles within each given society. Joseph
Campbell (2002) stresses four main social functions of belief systems: 1) a mystical
or existential function; 2) a cosmological function; 3) a sociological function; and 4)
a psychological function. The objective of the existential function is to reconcile the
mystery of life with itself. The cosmological function seeks to explain the causal
working of the universe. The sociological function establishes sets of social norms
and rules governing human conduct and interaction in a society. Finally, the
psychological function guides individuals through significant common life
events – birth, adolescence, marriage, aging and death. While a simple listing of
these functions makes them appear separate and discrete, in practice, the
beliefs, institutions and traditions underlying these functions are intertwined in
Development as Tragedy 145

complicated ways.
Bourdier (2006) illustrates the multiple overlapping roles of beliefs among
certain indigenous peoples of Cambodia.
The function of the myth is multiple. Some, reserved for children, have an educational
and practical value; others offer a view that makes it possible to understand the world
and the place occupied by man in the cosmos. Some explain the behavioral norm
particular to a specific group (food prohibition, interdiction of hunting, or a cultural
practice for a clan among the Jorai and Tampaun); yet others evoke prominent events
that were decisive in the evolution of a group and justify a current situation through an
act committed by the ancestors. (Bourdier at 209).

In Campbell’s terms, it is easy to envision the overlapping existential, cosmolog-

ical, sociological and psychological functions of these beliefs.
So far, this has been a fairly abstract discussion. Anticipating our discussion of
economic development, it is helpful to distinguish aspects of a modern and a
pre-modern worldview. Much of this analysis borrows from Anthony Balcomb’s
thoughtful essay (Balcomb 2005). Any attempt to summarize a worldview will, by
its very nature, be overly simplistic. Nevertheless, the following descriptions
convey some essential truths that help ground our intuitions. Richard Tarnas (1991:
282) describes the Enlightenment worldview influencing the west as follows:
And so between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, the West saw the emergence
of a newly self-conscious and autonomous human being curious about the world,
confident in his own judgment, skeptical of orthodoxies, rebellious against authority,
responsible for his own beliefs and actions, enamored of the classical past but
even more committed to a greater future, proud of his humanity, conscious of his
distinctiveness from nature, aware of his artistic powers as individual creator, assured
of his intellectual capacity to comprehend and control nature, and altogether less
dependent on an omnipotent God.

This is a highly individualistic, man-centric view that highlights the material

over the spiritual and separates man not only from God, but from nature. The
modern worldview further tends to place God largely outside of nature.
The tenets of the modern worldview stand in sharp contrast with the worldview
of many pre-modern societies. Kwame Bediako (1995) distills Harold Turner’s six
characteristics of primal or pre-modern belief systems.
First a sense of kinship with nature, in which animals and plants, no less than human
beings, had their own spiritual existence and place in the universe as interdependent
parts of a whole. . .
[Second] the deep sense that man is finite, weak and impure or sinful and in need of a
power not his own. . .
146 Hammer

[Third] the conviction that man is not alone in the universe, for there is a spiritual world
of powers or beings more powerful and ultimate than himself. . . .
[Fourth] the belief that man can enter into a relationship with the benevolent spirt-world
and so share in its powers and blessings. . . .
[Fifth] the acute sense of the reality of the afterlife, a conviction which explains the
important place of ancestors or the living dead . . .
The sixth feature is that man lives in a sacramental universe where there is no sharp
dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. Accordingly, the physical acts as a
vehicle for spiritual power whilst the physical realm is held to be patterned on the model
of the spiritual world beyond . . . (Bediako1995; 93-95, quoting Turner 1977).

While brief, these descriptions begin to suggest many ways that modern and
pre-modern worldviews differ in their conceptions of self, time, causation, being
and knowledge, as well as the possible complex mixing of physical and spiritual
Beliefs in the pre-modern worldview tend to be more holistic and integrated,
acknowledging higher degrees of interdependence between constituent parts. In
contrast, compartmentalization, independence and separability are defining
characteristics of the modern worldview. These differences in beliefs correspond to
differences in social organization. In modern western society, there is substantially
greater specialization and differentiation in social organization. In traditional
societies, there is much less social and economic specialization. These differences
affect how one thinks and how one perceives the world. The greater the differenti-
ation and compartmentalization, the more independent parts become from each
other. One implication is that change in beliefs and practices in one domain can be
made in the modern realm without necessarily triggering cascading changes
throughout the rest of the system. Indeed, extreme differentiation itself encourages
a mind-set that becomes increasingly comfortable with interchangeable matrices of
beliefs made of discrete parts. For example, there can be substantial changes in
modern theories regarding elementary education, or corporal punishment, or the
causes of particular diseases or even the existence of dark matter in the universe
without substantial implications for other sets of beliefs and practices.
Extreme interchangeability of discrete beliefs is not likely to be a characteristic
of more traditional societies. Traditional societies have less social specialization and
more tightly integrated sets of belief systems. In this setting, one can imagine that
it is less possible to isolate and change one particular aspect of social practice or
belief, without triggering potentially far-reaching and unanticipated consequences
in other domains. This difference is worth noting because the contemporary
development expert is trained in the modern mind-set. The economist is trained in
Development as Tragedy 147

economics. The education expert is trained in education, and perhaps even a

sub-specialty in that field. The health expert is a sub-specialist in health. The
development tendency is to look at parts inside of parts. An appreciation of the
significance of worldviews is, in part, an admonishment to look at the whole and to
consider the importance of interdependence and interconnections. Changes in
isolated economic, health or educational practices will have more than localized
consequences. For example, there is considerable concern regarding indigenous
communities’ lack of knowledge about the role that mosquitoes play in transmitting
the parasite causing malaria (Brown et al. 2003). Without doubt, health in these
communities could be improved by a better understanding of how malaria is
transmitted and by taking appropriate prophylactic measures. At the same time,
one must also wonder about the potentially far reaching and profound implications
that these new ideas about health, illness and biological causation might have on
other aspects of traditional belief systems.

Worldviews and Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia

This section focuses on indigenous peoples in Cambodia to give the reader a
better appreciation of their lives and beliefs. A comment on methods is appropriate.
I am a lawyer and an economist, not an anthropologist. This section draws heavily
upon Frederic Bourdier’s work The Mountain of Precious Stones (2006). A striking
feature of these indigenous societies is their geographic compactness. These are
self-consciously small, self-contained communities. An empathetic engagement
with these peoples unavoidably raises fundamental questions about the propriety
of the contemporary development agenda. What is the fundamental logic of roads,
trade and integration into the national and international economy for a people who
have historically defined themselves in terms of their isolation, independence and
Bourdier’s work illustrates many similarities between Turner’s description of
pre-modern societies and the worldviews of indigenous communities in Cambodia.
The belief systems of these societies reflect a complex intermingling of the physical
and the spiritual relating to both time and space, all of which are intimately
connected to the natural environment. In the beginning and in the end, these are
people of the forests.
The forest is, in effect, the realm of the souls of the recently deceased persons,
ancestors and, above all, of spirits and god the creator. The supernatural entities,
which are most often identified and localized, dwell in differentiated spaces that give
rise to a genuine symbolic geography of places. An extremely rich and complex
mythology explains why the supreme god, unable to himself watch over human
society, created the spirits of the forest and lent them esoteric powers so they could
148 Hammer

control the machinations of men, in particular respective of nature. Accordingly, the land
traditionally belongs to no one; rather, it is temporarily “loaned” to those whom the
spirits, under certain conditions, give their consent. (Bourdier at 118).

In sharp contrast with the modern worldview, man is not separate from the
gods and spirits, and the spirits are not separate from nature. Furthermore, man is
a part of, not apart from nature. “Their way of life is founded on a recognition of
the interdependence between themselves, their environment and their relation to
the spirits and the supernatural forces they believe to inhabit the surroundings.”
(Bourdier at 233). These beliefs are not compartmentalized under the heading of
religion (differentiation according to belief) and exercised only on one day of the
week (differentiation according to time) in a special building called a church
(differentiation according to space). The indigenous beliefs are more holistic and
influence all important decisions. Take, for example, choosing a new site for
The choice of a site takes two factors into account: a terrain that is suitable in terms of
agronomy and a place where the spirits of the forest accept human intrusion. These two
considerations may appear to be independent of each other, but in reality they are one.
The logic of the Tampaun Weltanschauung does not discern nature as an autonomous
sphere in which the presence of man is only perceivable through his knowledge of it.
(Bourdier at 119).

Like all worldviews, these beliefs afford not only a sense of order, but they also
provide the essential source of meaning for the individual and the community.
Material and immaterial considerations are an integral part of the daily and cyclic life of
the Tampaun. But, rather than being evidence of the fear arising in a human society
unable to understand its world in a “rational” manner, their considerations, quite on the
contrary lend meaning to life. The rituals signify to man that the place he occupies in
his natural environment is not simply that of a predator or of someone whose mission
is to master and conquer at any price the savage condition. (Bourdier at 124).

This meaning is maintained by and reflected in complex sets of social practices

designed to mediate relations between the spiritual and material realms.
Villages function according to customary notions of obligations of the ancestors and to
the family, and of respect toward the spiritual forces inhabiting the environment. Such
a customary law, stewarded by elders, means that the spiritual forces have the power
to intervene in human affairs and can afflict the well-being of the family, the group or
the whole village if duties and ceremonies have not been properly conducted accord-
ing to tradition. (Bourdier at 234).

There are many obvious points of contrast between the worldviews of

Development as Tragedy 149

indigenous persons in Cambodia and those of modern industrialized countries.

Time provides just one example. Modern views of time are linear. The past runs in
one direction, the future in another. This is consistent with a belief system that is
open rather than closed. It also anticipates social and economic tendencies that are
outwardly directed and expansionistic, as well as gives birth to a notion of progress
that itself entails constant, contrasting comparisons between past, present and
future. Pre-modern concepts of time are cyclical not linear, reinforced by the
seasons and the agricultural calendar. Cyclical understandings of time produce
very different sets of intuitions and systems of logic. To begin with, the future will
be much like the past. Time is not a linear arrow pointing upward and outward.
Time and life are circles. If time is a circle, then looking back to the past for
guidance makes just as much sense, if not more, as looking forward. This has
normative implications as well. Things should be as they always have been.
These systems tend to be more closed, than open. The focus is directed toward
maintaining an equilibrium with the environment and the agricultural cycle. Social
reproduction in historic form, rather than an outwardly directed notion of progress
provides the underlying ethos.
Similar contrasting comments can be made about notions of space, knowledge
and causation. Space in the modern realm is exclusively physical space. Causation
is physical causation. Science dominates religion within the larger system of beliefs,
leaving the spiritual to fit awkwardly, if at all, in the gaps left unfilled by the
physical and social sciences. Knowledge is rational knowledge, subject to hypothesis
making, experimentation and falsification. In contrast, space and causation in
the pre-modern realm is an indistinguishable blend of the physical and spiritual.
Epistemology is not limited to empirical understandings. This produces a radically
different orientation to one’s sense of self, community and the environment.
There are less obvious ways in which the modern and pre-modern worldviews
differ. The pre-modern worldview is largely concerned with explaining and
controlling uncertainty in the physical environment. In contrast, the modern
worldview focuses on explaining and controlling uncertainty produced by the
human environment with its often hyper-complex constellations of social insti-
tutions (North 2005). Modern societies embody greater degrees of specialization,
differentiation and compartmentalization. Modern “means” are increasingly
dissociated from modern “ends”. This phenomenon necessitates increasingly
abstract forms of thinking, and therefore the need for constant planning. There is a
greater tendency to view components in isolation. Parts are separated from wholes.
Parts, whether it is physical items, values, beliefs or institutions, can be put
together and taken apart, assembled, disassembled and reassembled in different
form. In this building-block-world, interchangeability, equivalence and functional
150 Hammer

substitutability become the order of the day.

The contrasts in social structure between modern industrial societies and
indigenous communities in Cambodia are also striking. The scale of these vernacu-
lar communities is not just small; the internal dynamics are largely self-contained
and not outwardly directed. The social unit is the village. Even villages sharing the
same culture and tribal affiliation are not linked in any formal confederation
(although kinship ties, mutual support and defense links do exist).1 The sheer
number of distinct peoples with distinct backgrounds, cultures and languages
(coming from different linguistic families) in a relatively small area is further
testimony to the intensely local and non-expansive nature of their social structures.
These are geographically compact societies. This does not mean that there is no
interaction amongst groups or with the outside world. There have been trade and
occasional warfare going back for centuries. These societies are not closed in that
sense. But in contrast with outwardly-directed industrial societies of the modern
world, the contacts that these indigenous communities have with each other
and with the outside world are not the activities of the business speculator, the
conqueror or the missionary. Their entire world, physically and spiritually, is
grounded in the compact local environment.
Again, Bourdier provides greater content to this description. At the heart of life
in these communities is a relatively small village, the geographic locations of which
will itself change over time, with shifting forms of swidden agriculture. “The
Tampuan are scattered in villages with 50 to 500 inhabitants. Each village,
which is subject to regular resettlement, has a territory composed of the group of
houses, the surrounding forests and the cultivated fields.” (Bourdier at 117).
These are self-consciously isolated communities linked to themselves and to the
environment, but not formally linked to other villages or to the outside world. This
is a radically different way of structuring life and understanding the world than
what is embodied in the modern worldview. Among other things, within this
mind-set there is no logic to western roads.
Generally speaking, the villages, which are distant from each other, are almost never
located alongside roads; a settlement surrounded by high forest and protected from all
human activity is clearly preferred. The classical configuration of the village area
in Ratanakiri is thus a grouping of houses situated in a vast forest zone with regulated,
sacred spaced where the felling of trees is prohibited, and other spaces can be exploit-
ed for a limited period, provided that certain rituals are carried out. (Bourdier at 197).

Within this setting, the governing ethos is one of maintaining equilibrium with
the environment. It is not an ethos of growth and expansion. This has implications
for the selection of agricultural techniques and the choice of appropriate tools and
Development as Tragedy 151

Moreover, it appears to be clear that the use of a technology reduced to its minimum,
by way of choice and not a constraint of civilization, curbs excessive reliance on the
products of nature and also contributes to the maintenance of equilibrium between
social and natural ecosystems. (Bourdier at 7).

The notions of private and property are also appropriately circumscribed.

In this context, the notions of property, hoarding and speculation are nearly inexistent;
the only goods the families possess are the objects that can be taken with them (gongs,
tools, clothing), although most personal belongings are destroyed or buried at death.
(Bourdier at 124).

These same dynamics resist specialization and divisions of labor as dominant

forms of social organization. It goes almost without saying that money plays no role
within these traditional societies.
Rather than relying on an anthropological definition that is in the end abstract, it
is interesting to look into the manner in which, for example, a Taumpaun perceives
himself and acts so as to validate his “Tampuanness.” In this case the main facts
observed or mentioned by them are: ... an ability to do everything oneself (there are no
specialists apart from blacksmiths and shamans), a refusal by men and women to con-
sider wage labor with restricting hours, [and] a freedom to organize one’s work ...
(Bourdier at 198).

No matter how geographically compact, few societies can be completely

isolated from outside contact. Indeed, interaction between indigenous peoples in
Cambodia with larger neighboring societies has a long history. In the 1960s, Prince
Sihanouk made a sustained effort to extend the bureaucratic reach of the central
state to cover these remote Provinces and to integrate these peoples into
Cambodian society. The policies of the Sihanouk period bore a striking resemblance
to the development agenda of today. The goal of the post-independence Sihanouk
regime was to integrate these isolated communities into the larger Cambodian state
and society. Villages were relocated along roads and rivers. Practitioners of
highland swidden agriculture were introduced to lowland techniques of wet rice
cultivation. State schools were constructed and indigenous children were taught a
Khmer curriculum in the Khmer language. This period is not remembered fondly
by the elders of today. “[S]ome villagers remembered this period very negatively as
a time when they ‘had to do like Khmer,’ stating that they preferred the relative
freedom they have experienced in more recent years.” (Poverty Report at 7, quoting
Bourdier (1996)).
Sihanouk’s policies were disrupted by the broadening of the US-Vietnam War.
152 Hammer

US bombing of the areas occupied by these indigenous communities was intense.

Given its isolation, the Khmer Rouge (as well as the North Vietnamese) used these
same territories for strategic purposes. After gaining victory in 1975, the Khmer
Rouge banned distinct cultural practices and the use of native languages, and they
forced the relocation of most villages. As a testimony to the resilience of their
traditions and the relative freedom wrought by isolation, after the defeat of the
Khmer Rouge, most of these people returned to their traditional lands and resumed
their traditional practices. In the 1980s, the international isolation of the
Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh and the relatively low levels
of economic development in the rest of Cambodia permitted the space and oppor-
tunity for the revival of these geographically compact indigenous communities.
Ironically, this respite was brought to an end by the relative political and
economic success of the UN-sponsored peace process of the early 1990s that opened
Cambodia up to the international community and the dynamics of globalization.
Whether they want it or not, the forces of development are once again threatening
to impose major changes on the lifestyles and worldviews of these communities.

The Market, the Mind and the Construction of Worldviews

Before examining particular ADB policies and reports, it is useful to explore the
role that economic markets play in defining the gulf between pre-modern and
modern industrial worldviews. Focusing on money is surprisingly illuminating.
Relations in modern societies are based upon money and are mediated through
markets. This is not true of pre-modern societies. Yet people in modern industrial
economies take money for granted. It is difficult for us to imagine a world without
money or markets, but these worlds define most of the human experience and
continue in many parts of the world today. Similarly, we seldom pause to think
about how the existence of money changes the way that we comprehend and
understand the world. An historical appreciation of the effects of money and
markets on the formation of the modern worldview will better enable us to
understand the profound implications of extending money and markets into
indigenous communities.
How do markets and money affect the way we think? Even today, money plays
at most only a marginal role in tribal and agrarian peasant societies. How do
people think when there is no money? What are things worth in the absence of
markets to trade? “Use value” suggests that the intrinsic value of things is
determined by their actual individual uses. In a simple barter economy, items
obtain an “exchange value” in addition to their use value. But in barter, the
comparisons are still concrete: one pig is worth five chickens. The introduction of
money made of gold or silver adds another layer of abstraction. Many otherwise
Development as Tragedy 153

incomparable items might now be viewed as equivalents, at least to the extent that
they are all worth two gold coins. But indulging the assumption that precious
metals have some intrinsic value, the exchange is still relatively concrete. The
notion of paper money, backed by the promise of the state, or credit cards, or new
forms of securitized debt are modern ideas that move further and further away
from concrete forms and into realms of increasingly abstract notions of value,
implicating multiple levels of exchange.
While money, trade and markets have been around for thousands of years, the
more complex markets of modern capitalism are relatively recent phenomena.
Living with and participating in these markets has a profound effect on how we
think and how we perceive the world. This premise serves as the organizing theme
of Jerry Muller’s book, The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European
Thought (2002). This phenomenon also serves as the focus of Georg Simmel’s 1900
book, The Philosophy of Money. Industrialization came late to Germany and Simmel
witnessed its dizzying transformation. The Philosophy of Money is a meditation on
the many ways that markets and money change both the individual and the
society. “Simmel drew attention to the psychological effects of living in an
economy in which more and more areas of life could be measured in money. Such
an economy created a mind-set that was more abstract,” because the means of
exchange were themselves becoming ever more abstract. (Muller at 244). Labor
becomes both commodified and more specialized. Unlike the indigenous
Taumpaun villager, modern industrialized man cannot do everything for himself.
We specialize in a trade, earn money from that trade and then proceed to buy the
necessities and luxuries of life with that money. This is not an intuitive or natural
framework for constructing the world and operating within it. Simmel’s claim is
that “[t]hrough constant exposure to an abstract means of exchange, individuals
under capitalism are habituated to thinking about the world in an abstract manner.”
(Muller at 244). By necessity, we become more calculating and we become skilled at
thinking in terms of tradeoffs between otherwise unrelated goals and products.
There is an increasing separation between means and ends. “Planning” necessarily
involves complicated and increasingly indirect strategies to fulfill our desires.
In a modern capitalist economy we fulfill our desires more indirectly. To eat, we must
buy food. But to buy it we need money, and that money is earned by working in an
occupation. Becoming established in an occupation requires many steps, beginning
with an education that itself requires years of planning and calculation to acquire.
(Muller at 245).

Simmel further argues that these changes are not limited to markets, but
increasingly spill over and influence how we think about a wide range of
154 Hammer

non-economic concerns.
The clash between markets and the mind is even more disruptive for the
indigenous peoples in Cambodia than for the Germans of nineteenth century
Europe. One can glean snippets of this phenomenon from the ADB Reports that we
will examine in more detail shortly. Take, for example, the commodification of
wildlife. “Before, we did not know about the value of wildlife. Since outsiders have
captured wildlife and taken them in vehicles for sale, many people including
provincial official staff, companies and some villagers see wildlife as equaling
money.” (Poverty Report at 28). The introduction of money, trade and markets
entails a cascading reordering of one’s understanding of the world. In the
indigenous worldview wildlife is wildlife, sharing a relationship with nature, the
spirit-world and man as defined by their religious and cultural traditions. A
completely different understanding is derived from seeing “wildlife as equaling
The disparity between value as traditionally understood and the values of the
marketplace can be illustrated elsewhere.
Traditionally, highlander wealth has been stored in the form of prestige goods such as
elephants, livestock, antique gongs, and rice wine jars. These are still highly prized by
most highlanders and play a vital role in religious life (jars of rice wine and gongs are
used during religious ceremonies, and livestock are still the most important sacrificial
offerings). (Poverty Report at 22, quoting White (1996)).2

“Yet market forces place a very different value on some of these surplus
possessions; livestock, for example, are often seen as valuable in monetary terms.
Still, even today this placing of a monetary value of livestock has not yet penetrat-
ed the village to a great extent.” (Poverty Report at 22 quoting White (1996)). To
some observers these differences are viewed as curiosities: “The difference in
outlook is often striking. Many Khmer are baffled that highlanders do not exploit
evident economic opportunities such as selling their cattle or cultivating cash crops
on a large scale to ensure a greater income.” (Poverty Report at 22, quoting White
(1996)). For some this might be a curious example of cultural relativism: “Such
differences reveal how culturally subjective perceptions of wealth, poverty, and
what constitutes the ‘good life’ are.” (Poverty Report at 22, quoting White (1996)). It
is clear, however, that much more is at stake. The transition from a non-market to a
market-based economy is not just about economics. The introduction of markets
inevitably triggers a complete and radical transformation of how people think,
what they value and how they understand themselves and their world.
Development as Tragedy 155

ADB Reports on Indigenous Peoples: Artifacts of the Modern Worldview

There are a number of burdens one assumes if one is going to portray development
policies as a modern day tragedy. It is not only necessary to identify the “mistaken
beliefs” driving the tragedy. It is also necessary to explain why developers are
unaware of their mistaken beliefs and how such mistaken beliefs can be perpetuat-
ed over time. This paper suggests a two-part answer to these questions. First, the
mistaken beliefs are consistent with and supportive of the political/economic
self-interest of the dominant society. As such, there is little internal pressure to
question, challenge or revise the misguided beliefs. Just as most citizens of
nineteenth century England had little incentive to question the predicates of
Empire, there are few incentives in twenty-first century America to question the
predicates of economic markets and development. Second, the mistaken beliefs
are not necessarily untrue or even knowable within the domain of economic
disciplines. The tools of economics and the training of economists are ill-suited to
assess, understand and incorporate the significance of cultures and worldviews in
the process of development. Development economists working sincerely and in
good faith may be fundamentally unaware of the errors implicit in their approach.
This is problematic because economists are principally charged with the task of
spearheading development. The ADB Reports on indigenous peoples in Cambodia
are useful in illustrating these problems.
The ADB’s premise in the Poverty and Health & Education Reports is that
indigenous communities have distinct characteristics and concerns that need to be
understood and accommodated in the Bank’s development practices. Ostensibly,
economic development should mean something different in these communities
than in non-indigenous communities. What is striking, however, is how little
difference these differences make in the ADB’s final policy prescription. The
fundamental objectives of economic development (the first order concerns) are the
same in indigenous communities as for the rest of Cambodia and, indeed, the rest
of the Third World. Distinct aspects of indigenous culture are acknowledged, but
rather than being used to redefine what type of development is appropriate,
the distinctive practices are modeled as constraints that must be overcome for
development to proceed. In short, indigenous culture and traditions are permitted
to influence how development will be implemented, but not what is to be done.
The contradictions contained in these Reports are striking. At its core, the ADB’s
problem is a failure of empathy. The Bank is incapable of meaningfully perceiving
these vernacular communities on their own terms. Why is the ADB incapable of
engaging these issues in a more empathetic manner? To answer this question begins
to reveal the seeds of the development tragedy. These Reports are best approached
as artifacts of the contemporary development mindset. To fully understand these
156 Hammer

artifacts they must be placed in the paradigmatic context of development

economics. The Bank’s failure of empathy stems from its tendency to view
indigenous communities exclusively through the lens of its own economic models.
As such, the needs of the indigenous peoples that the Bank identifies are often mere
projections of its own policy prescriptions. The Bank is unable to perceive, let alone
transcend the biases of its own worldview.

Development Economics as Worldview

Economics in modern industrial societies is not merely an academic discipline.
Just as scientists are the modern day interpreters of the physical world, economists
are the primary interpreters of the social and political world. Tracking
Joseph Campbell’s functional roles of belief systems, economics plays a critical
cosmological function in explaining the order and operation of the social universe,
as well as a sociological function in helping to define the norms and rules which
govern human interaction. There is growing appreciation and recognition amongst
economists that economics, as a discipline, also functions as a worldview (Maki
2001; Wilber 2003; and Williams & McNeill 2005). Significantly, when economics
functions as a worldview, it is not functioning as a positive science. This has
important implications for inhabitants of the Third World. Our society treats
development as an economic problem, rather than an anthropological or
sociological problem, and, therefore, hands control of the undertaking over to
economists. Development economics, in turn, reflects the norms, biases and values
of mainstream neoclassical economics, which itself embodies, in exaggerated form,
many of the attributes of the modern worldview discussed earlier – a hyper sense
of individualism, autonomy, rationality and instrumental analysis. Economics then
becomes the lens through which policy makers perceive and understand the needs
of the Third World and its discrete communities of indigenous peoples. The
dynamics of these relationships are nicely captured in Ozay Mehmet’s book,
Westernizing the Third World: The Eurocentricity of Economic Development Theories
However, it is not just economic theory that matters. The training and
professionalization of economists is also important. The development community
is best approached as an epistemic community of economists. Ph.D. economists
have little training to deal with problems of culture, and there is little room in
economic theory for values that cannot be priced, commodified and traded on the
open market. These professional biases unavoidably influence both perception
and policy, often at an unconscious level. This gives partial motivation to the
development as tragedy narrative and helps explain the origins of the mistaken
beliefs. The economist’s worldview is driven by acontextual assumptions about
Development as Tragedy 157

individually rational decision making. This worldview dictates its own under-
standings of “how we know things” (epistemology), and “the nature of being”
(ontology). The standards and norms of the community dictate which questions are
acceptable to ask and investigate, and which are not. The relevance of culture and
worldviews to development is not an acceptable question.
So how do economists define development for their own purposes? The
primary objective of contemporary economic development consists of market
building, with a subsidiary objective of state building. The hallmark of develop-
ment is a well-functioning economic market and, in theory, a well-functioning state.
If judged from an empirical perspective in light of six decades of experience, neither
the market building nor the state building initiatives have been radically successful.
Not surprisingly, the failure of modern development has invoked criticism and calls
for reform. Particularly in the past fifteen years, the rhetoric of development
economics has changed to embrace a range of concerns that are difficult to
reconcile within a strict economic perspective. For example, development rhetoric
increasingly reflects concerns for social institutions and gender equality. Health and
education ostensibly are being given higher priority in the new regime.
Development is no longer supposed to be just about roads, dams and factories.
Softer values such as “governance” and “participation” are also playing a new role.
Similarly, the unique needs of indigenous peoples are being incorporated into
the new development framework. The increasingly “human face” afforded
development initiatives is welcome, but it raises important questions. It is unclear
how, or how well, these new variables will fit into the old model. Examining how
the ADB Reports treat indigenous persons in Cambodia is, in part, an opportunity
to shed light on these questions.
What do these artifacts reveal? To begin with, they demonstrate that the new
values have not displaced old development objectives. They are simply layered
over them. The development of indigenous persons in Cambodia does not stand on
its own legs. The ADB’s development agenda for indigenous people in Cambodia is
remarkably similar to the development policies it pursues throughout the Third
World. This core formula consists primarily of an effort to build roads, extend
markets and income-generating opportunities, provide credit and integrate
indigenous persons into the national economy, while simultaneously integrating
Cambodia into the regional and international economy. The Poverty Report
describes the goals of Cambodia’s Second Socioeconomic Development Plan (2001-
2005), developed under the tutelage of international aid agencies:
Specific strategies related to indigenous peoples include building or rehabilitation of the
main road infrastructure; promoting agricultural development and off-farm employment
in both urban and rural areas; and empowering the poor to participate in and benefit
158 Hammer

from the growth process by improving their access to natural assets such as land,
health and education services, appropriate technology, and credit. (Poverty Report at

In addition to these aspects of development, there is also particular concern for

education and health. A focus on health and education, however, fits comfortably
within human capital models of economic development. As will be seen, unique
aspects of the language and culture of indigenous peoples are acknowledged, but
they are conceptualized as constraints to development that must be rationally
addressed and ultimately overcome.
Economists are fond of distinguishing between first order and second order
concerns. Lawyers like to talk about substance versus process. The first order goals
of development (the substantive component) remain the same in the new as with
the old regime – the progressive extension of the market and the state. Cultural
concerns are afforded a second order status. Cultural concerns will influence the
process of how policies are implemented, but they will not fundamentally change
what is to be done. Culture is acknowledged, but it is constructed as just one more
variable to be incorporated into the traditional economic model. While recent years
have witnessed an effort to broaden the scope of the development agenda, this
effort has done little to challenge the economic worldview that dominates the field.
The ADB’s treatment of indigenous peoples stands as testimony to how little things
will change until and unless greater attention is paid to the economic worldview
controlling First World perceptions and the epistemic community of economists
formulating and implementing development policy.

First Order ADB Concerns: Traditional Economic Development

First order concerns define the primary objectives that are pursued. The Bank
has an unquestioning belief that development is good. Indeed, from the vantage
point of the ADB, the “problem” facing indigenous peoples is the risk of being
excluded from development, due to their physical isolation and their political
disenfranchisement. “Ethnic minority groups are nevertheless facing severe
problems in practice, and are at risk of being marginalized from the benefits of
economic and social development.” (Poverty Report at 41). The ADB’s very
definition of indigenous peoples characterizes them in terms of this perceived
Indigenous peoples is used in the sense of the ADB working definition to include “those
with specific social or cultural identity distinct from the dominant or mainstream
society, which makes them vulnerable to being disadvantaged in the process of
development.” (Poverty Report at 3, quoting ADB (1999) (emphasis added)).
Development as Tragedy 159

The same theme can be found in the Health & Education Report. “Indigenous
peoples often are not able to participate equally in the development process or share
in the benefits of development.” (Health & Education Report at 3 (emphasis added)).
If the problem is being excluded from development, then the solution is to “target”
indigenous people for development.4
The potential exclusion of vernacular communities from development is tied to
their relative isolation. “The indigenous ethnic minorities concentrated in the
northeastern Provinces of Kratie, Mondolkiri, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng
represent perhaps the most disadvantaged population group in the country. Due
primarily to the region’s geographic isolation, these marginalized populations have
not been integrated into mainstream society and face numerous problems.” (Health
& Education Report at A-1). Targeting indigenous peoples for development
therefore requires eliminating this isolation. This will require the building of the
necessary physical and institutional infrastructure – extending the scope of the
market and the state to include remote Provinces like Ratanakiri. Roads are critical
to modern development and the functioning of the market economy. In economic
parlance, roads facilitate transportation and lower the transaction costs of trade. But
there is a danger. Roads travel in two directions. Roads bring increased contact with
outsiders. Roads have brought a substantial in-migration of Khmers into the remote
provinces. Roads bring commercial goods and new cultural influences. Roads also
facilitate the extraction of resources and timber from the ancient forests which serve
as the homes of indigenous persons. Roads are the primary instruments facilitating
the clash of the modern and pre-modern worldviews.
While there is an eminent logic to roads in the modern industrial worldview,
what is the logic of roads from the perspective of these vernacular communities? In
a world of non-confederated, geographically compact, isolated villages seeking to
live in equilibrium with the local environment, there is no logic to roads. What is
the road for?
[T]he principal points of reference of spatio-temporal orientation are neither the
cardinal points nor the territorial organization imposed by the Khmers, but rather the
sites of the old village, the abandoned swiddens, the hunting trails, the paths
maintained to link the village to cultivated lands, a rock, a thicket where the spirit is
known to live, etc... However, as soon as one is far from familiar space, taking one’s
bearings becomes unclear. Everything that is outside the universe of daily custom, the
distance/limit of which varies from five to ten kilometers depending on the size of the
village, is vaguely described as being “far,” “over here,” “over there,” without greater
precision. (Bourdier at 93).

Roads are not only lacking in logic; they are profoundly dangerous. These
160 Hammer

cultures have been able to survive only because of the absence of roads, a point
ironically acknowledged by the ADB. “Although these areas are poorer, they afford
a certain amount of cultural protection. In the past, isolation limited the contact
between the majority culture and the ethnic minorities, which played an important
role in their cultural survival.” (Health & Education Report at 20).
What have these new roads brought? Roads have brought immigrants,
commercial goods and beliefs that challenge traditional worldviews. “The research
findings show effects of immigration on cultural practices and traditions such as
style of clothing, types of food and housing, taboos and other beliefs, and respect
for elders.” (Poverty Report at 25). Roads and immigrants bring new notions of
land as being a commodity that is the proper object for delineation, ownership,
exclusion and speculation. These are profoundly new ideas, with detrimental and
unintended consequences. Again, when the Poverty Report wants to expressly
incorporate anthropological perspectives, it cites the secondary literature and
segregates the information in highlighted “Boxes” set apart from the rest of the
Report, see, e.g., “Box 3, Land Sales in Kamang Village along the National Road,
Since the initial land sales along the road four or five years ago, the number of Khmer
in the district center have increased steadily, along with the expansion of Bokeo
market. With many Khmer migrants seeking to acquire land for cultivation of crops, the
pressure on Kamang villagers to relinquish their land rights became severe. The land
parcels most desired by the Khmer buyers are those located along the road. These can
be reached by motorcycle and are directly accessible by transport to either Banlung
market or the Vietnam Border. (Poverty Report at 27, quoting McAndrew (2001)).

Roads and development threaten the survival of the very environment and
sacred forests that define the center of these peoples’ universe.
Environmental factors loom large in the lifestyles and status of ethnic minorities.
Changes in the quality of the natural environment – e.g., deforestation, erosion, decline
in water quality, lost biodiversity, and changing agricultural practices have changed and
are changing the cultures and economic opportunity of many minority villages. (Health
& Education Report at 7).

The roads, markets and development of the modern worldview cannot coexist
with traditional lifestyles and belief systems.
In recent times, the indigenous peoples who live in the wide and scattered areas of the
northeastern provinces have faced unprecedented change. The ever-evolving political
environment, new administrative practices, the rapidly changing economy, and the
migration of groups from the lowland areas have had a major impact on the ethnic
minority groups that reside in this region. With greater integration of the national
Development as Tragedy 161

economy, the northeastern highland areas are increasingly exploited for commercial
Government policies that implicitly support these changes are also inadvertently
encouraging the “khmerization” of the highland populations by moving them close to
roads, encouraging settled agriculture, and trying to integrate them into the national
economy. (Poverty Report at 36).

The very next line of the Report cautions that “[t]his offers both opportunities
and risks for the indigenous population.” (Poverty Report at 36). The risks are
fairly obvious from the perspective of the traditional worldview. What, then, are
the opportunities?
For the ADB, the opportunities for indigenous peoples lie in the ability to
partake in the benefits of the development from which they have been excluded.
Roads can be built. Markets can be extended and indigenous peoples can be
integrated into the market economy. To become full economic citizens, however,
there also needs to be a transition from a cashless to a cash-based society. Hence, the
ADB has identified an “urgent need” of these communities:
There is an “urgent need” to enhance the income security of vulnerable ethnic
minorities through targeted programs of assistance. Incomes can be enhanced in
many ways, through access to use of forest products, through marketing of produce,
through agricultural and other wage employment, or through self-employment and
home-based employment for artisanal and other activities. (Poverty Report at 41).

In the traditional society, there was no need for money or income. Security was
based on completely different cultural and material sources. In professing this
urgent need to generate income and therefore to start commodifying every aspect
of their surroundings, there is no awareness on the part of the development
economists of the radically disruptive effects that money can have on one’s
perception of self and one’s surroundings. Indeed, as Simmel teaches, money and
markets can affect profound changes on one’s very process of thinking. The reader
should recall the visceral reaction of the Taumpon villager against specialization
and to wage labor. If income security is an urgent need, it is certainly not an
indigenous one. This is illustrative, however, of a tendency throughout the Report
to interpret the problems of vernacular communities through the lens of the
modern worldview and then to project these concerns back upon the indigenous
peoples. This is dangerous because needs, particularly urgent needs, are then used
to define policies and priorities.
The reasoning is often circular. Income is necessary because it is essential to
overcoming poverty. Poverty reduction is the central mission of the Asian
Development Bank. But, what is poverty? In development circles, poverty is
162 Hammer

frequently defined in terms of income – the percentage of the population living on

less than a dollar a day. Yet, this just begs the question – what does it mean to be
rich or to be poor in a society that does not use cash as its metric? Were the
indigenous peoples poor before they were the targets for economic development?
If the ADB’s economic worldview constructed the problem of poverty, its
economic models help the authors to diagnose its root causes. What is the cause of
poverty? The primary cause of poverty is the low level of human capital.
“Extremely poor human capital levels in the remote northeastern provinces of
Cambodia confirm a close association between poverty status, broadly defined, and
hill-tribe peoples.” (Health & Education Report at 8). Indigenous persons have low
levels of human capital because they have been excluded from development.
“In addition, many are socially marginalized, leading to poorer health, lower
educational attainment, fragile means of livelihood, and, therefore, a compromised
ability to attain a decent standard of living or to contribute to the economic
development of the region.” (Health & Education Report at 1). The policy prescrip-
tion then is to invest in human capital, to increase income and, therefore, eliminate
poverty amongst indigenous peoples.
The human capital model logically prioritizes health and education as principle
means of furthering development. “Governments, donors, NGOs, and communities
are challenged to work together to develop strategies aimed at reducing poverty
and raising the level of human capital for ethnic minority populations.” (Health &
Education Report at 33). Health and education, in turn, are important to income
security. “Education and health were found to be the basic needs of indigenous
people in order for them to develop their knowledge and skills to attain secure
livelihoods.” (Poverty Report at 21). Similarly, poor health is a concern because it
reduces human capital. “Cambodia suffers from a range of health problems that
shorten the lives of its population and reduce the quality of its human capital.”
(Health & Education Report at A-4-5). Just as the ADB is oblivious to the pernicious
effects of money, the human capital model treats health and education simply as
economic concerns. There is no appreciation for how notions of health and
well-being also implicate central spiritual and cosmological aspects of the pre-
modern worldview. Formal education in modern societies is not just a means of
producing human capital; it is a mechanism of social reproduction. It transfers and
inculcates in the students the fundamental values and beliefs of the larger society,
but this begs the question of whose values and whose beliefs. These are profoundly
intrusive interventions. In the economic worldview, however, they are simply
instrumental means of facilitating the building of human capital, to enable income
security, reduce poverty and further the ends of development.
Development as Tragedy 163

Second Order ADB Concerns: Indigenous Culture as Constraint and

Obviously, the development of indigenous peoples also raises concerns about
traditional religion, culture and lifestyles. The ADB acknowledges this. Indeed, this
premise lays the foundation for the two Reports. These concerns, however, are
afforded only second order status. Culture and religion may influence how
development is to proceed, but they do not influence the fundamental prescription
of what is to be done. Moreover, there is a tendency in the Reports to view these
communities exclusively through an economic lens and to address the “problems”
raised by cultural concerns completely within the framework of the economic
The perceived needs of indigenous peoples have become an established part of
development discourse. There are now workshops, policy statements, Inter-
Ministerial Committees and elaborate reports (like the ones being examined here)
addressing the issue. In Cambodia, the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland
Peoples Development (IMC) is based in the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD).
The IMC is the main body tasked with coordinating governmental activities. The
IMC actively collaborates with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and
International Organizations in their work. Moreover, there is a Department of
Ethnic Minorities Development under the MRD to follow up on IMC recommenda-
tions. The Department of Ethnic Minorities is additionally charged with planning
and conducting research on issues of identity and culture. This brief outline of the
organizational chart established to address the needs of indigenous people nicely
illustrates the tendency of the modern worldview toward specialization, differenti-
ation and compartmentalization. The “problem” of indigenous peoples now
becomes a part of the system.
The problem is not a lack of attention or a lack of programs. In fact, there may
be too much attention. In addition to the ADB, the World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF, the
World Health Organization and dozens of international and local NGOs are also
actively assisting in the “development” of the indigenous peoples. As Bourdier
Ratanakiri, land – or even laboratory – of experimentation and a stake for international
aid that covers the largest to the smallest organizations, is in the process of becoming
a microcosm reflecting the efforts of globalization through an international order, which
is apparently quite unmindful of the relation to otherness. (Bourdier at 126).

The real question is not whether, but how groups like the ADB address the
needs of vernacular communities. ADB has sponsored workshops and cataloged
the problems that need to be addressed:
164 Hammer

Challenges to the traditional way of life were highlighted at this workshop, particularly
the growing immigration of lowland Khmer to Ratanakiri Province which is increasing
the population density and preventing traditional swidden agriculture, as well as caus-
ing access problems to nontimber forest products. (Poverty Report at 21-23).

The ADB has assisted in the development of Draft Guidelines intended to

ensure that the concerns of indigenous peoples are incorporated into the national
planning process. The 1997 Draft National Policy Guidelines identify important
rights and concerns. “The draft policy states that all highlanders have the right to
practice their own cultures, adhere to their own belief systems and traditions,
and use their own languages.” (Poverty Report at 10). As in other domains of
contemporary development practice, the Guidelines embrace “participation” as the
principle means of protecting the interests of vulnerable peoples. The Draft
Guidelines “include a recommendation, among others, that highland peoples have
a right to participate in and be consulted on all decision making, plans and projects
that effect their lives and communities.” (Poverty Report at 10). It is telling that
these Draft Guidelines have never been adopted.
The effectiveness of participation as a policy tool will be addressed in the last
section of the paper. This section will examine how the cultural and religious needs
of indigenous persons are dealt with in the context of the ADB Reports. My starting
premise is that the authors of these Reports and others working at the ADB are
sincere. They think that economic development is beneficial. They understand that
indigenous peoples raise important and distinct concerns. They want to address
those concerns. What is revealing is how these sincere individuals are trapped in
their own worldview, and therefore seem unable to act insightfully on their good
intentions. The subsequent projection of a modern policy prescription upon
pre-modern societies is the mistaken belief (tragic flaw) that lies at the heart of the
Aristotelian development tragedy.
The ADB clearly believes that the interests of development and those of
indigenous peoples can be reconciled. Reconciliation, however, consists of
successfully extending the benefits of development to these excluded groups.
A dichotomy that is often raised between cultural survival on the one hand and
globalization and development on the other hand is a false one. Ethnic minorities do
not live in a bubble separated from the rest of the world and they deserve to benefit
from development. (Health & Education Report at 33).

The Report adds: “Central to this ABD project is the belief that development is
both possible and desirable in a multiethnic society.” (Health & Education Report
at 33). The focus then becomes how, not whether, development should proceed in
light of these distinct cultural concerns.
Development as Tragedy 165

The language of the Reports is telling. In economic parlance, the distinct

cultural needs of indigenous peoples are modeled as “constraints” to what is
otherwise a standard optimization problem. The objective is to maximize
development subject to the constraints imposed by these different values and
beliefs. While the ADB seeks to “[i]dentify strategies, approaches, tools and
interventions that respect minorities’ chosen ways of living,” (Health & Education
Report at 2), its very frame models the traditional “ways of living” as a choice
variable. Choice variables are subject to manipulation and, in theory, should
rationally respond to changes in the exogenous parameters of the relevant decision
matrix. Implicitly, these groups could rationally choose other ways of living.
Health and education constitute the self-defining focus of the ADB Report, The
Health and Educational Needs of Ethnic Minorities in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The
Report unquestioningly accepts the first order objectives of development.
Education and health are essential components of human capital and, therefore,
instrumentally necessary to generate income and reduce poverty. Cultural
differences are important, but only to the extent that they might influence how
these programs should be implemented. Just as the problems of indigenous peoples
more generally were defined in terms of their exclusion from the benefits of
development, the problem here is defined in terms of lack of access (exclusion)
from these social services.
The policy analysis and qualitative field work have focused on the access that ethnic
minorities have to social services and the “constraints” that impede their effective
access... Better access improves the opportunities that ethnic minorities have to
raise their health and education status. (Health & Education Report at 3 (emphasis in

The objective then is to improve access to modern forms of health and

education. The problem of access is itself subsequently modeled completely in
economic terms – the interaction of supply and demand. This becomes the
exclusive lens through which the authors view these communities.
By using supply and demand of social services in health and education sectors
as lenses to focus on minority groups, the study results identify related issues raised
with respect to social exclusion, poverty, environment, and infrastructure, among
others. (Health & Education Report at 3 (emphasis added)).

Unique aspects of culture and lifestyle emerge explicitly as “constraints” that

must be overcome to improve access to these social services. Table 3.1 of the Report
identifies numerous “Constraints to Access and Use of Social Services by Ethnic
Minorities.” These constraints include, among others: (1) lack of understanding and
knowledge about the population to be served; (2) competing knowledge systems, practices
166 Hammer

and values; and (3) language. With respect to the constraint of lack of understanding
and knowledge about the population, the Report states that “differences in
language, educational level, class, and ethnicity can create barriers to real
communication and effective service.” (Health & Education Report at 18). In terms
of the competing knowledge systems, practices and values constraint, the Table
contends that “standardized interventions... often fail to acknowledge and validate
the use of traditional indigenous knowledge systems. In turn, minority peoples can
be skeptical of services that challenge traditional knowledge and practices, and
resistant to participating in such services.” (Health & Education Report at 19).
Lack of Understanding and knowledge about the population is identified as a
variable that can impede both the physical access to services as well as the use of
existing services. According to the Report, the “locus of possible solution” lies with
the service provider on the supply side of the equation. Competing knowledge
systems, practices and values is another factor that can impede the use of existing
services. Interestingly, the “locus of possible solution” rests both on the supply
side with the provider, but also on the demand side of the equation with the
“community to be served.” Changing traditional beliefs and values, which the ADB
treats as a choice variable, will naturally lead to an increased demand for modern
The notion that improper sets of beliefs can simply be changed is found
elsewhere in the Report. “All societies have beliefs about the best way to maintain
health and the proper way to educate children and adults. In the case of health, this
includes beliefs about how people become sick and what steps should be taken to
maintain and improve health. Societies also have beliefs about what should be
taught to their members.” (Health & Education Report at 25-26). The Report
quickly adds, however, that “[i]t is important to point out that traditional beliefs are
not necessarily fixed and unchangeable.” (Health & Education Report at 26).
The first order goal is to provide health and education. The challenge then
becomes how best to design and market these programs. This is where cultural
sensitivity and community participation come in, but these concerns only
influence how things are to be done, not what is to be done. The Report states that
“[e]xpanding consultations with local communities in order to understand the local
sensitivities and opinions will enhance project and program success.” (Health &
Education Report at 37). Programs also need buy-in on the part of the local
population. “To be most effective, outreach and program interventions need to be
designed by highland minorities themselves, adapted to the unique culture of each
ethnic group served, available in the language of each ethnic minority group
served, and led by ethnic minority people.” (Health & Education Report at 37).
It is telling how, in constructing the mind-set of indigenous persons for
Development as Tragedy 167

purposes of evaluation, the authors of the Report project a very rational cost-
benefit formula on the indigenous decision makers. In assessing education the
Report asserts: “For many ethnic minorities, the costs of education may well
outweigh the benefits, especially if the quality of teaching is low, students don’t
speak the language used in the school system, textbooks are in short supply, and the
education is seen as irrelevant to the community.” (Health & Education Report at
12). The projections of the Poverty Report are similar.
[I]ndigenous children are less likely to go to school than the average Cambodian
children. Some reasons include (i) the low standard of living of indigenous people, so
that in many cases the opportunity costs are too great (children are required to help in
the field and look after siblings and animals, while the planting and harvest season
needs intensive work in which all household members must assist, such that during
these times many children drop out of school); (ii) the schools are often too far from
their homes; (iii) there is a lack of learning materials; and (iv) many people cannot
afford school uniforms for their children. The high cost has to be compared with the
benefits of education which appear to be low in the highland area. (Poverty Report at 19).

This is exactly how I, as an economist, would break down and evaluate the
relevant factors. The point is not that these factors are irrelevant, nor that
indigenous people do not think in a rational manner, rather, the point is that it is
questionable whether this strict cost-benefit analysis accurately reflects the actual
thinking of the “targeted” communities. A similar projection can be found in the
assessment of health care services. The Poverty Report acknowledges the linkages
between health and worldview: “The health status of indigenous villagers cannot
be separated from spiritual beliefs or social life.” (Poverty Report at 32). The Health
and Education Report, however, reverts to standard cost-benefit analysis. “In
addition to considering the costs” of services, households must also consider the
value of the services they are using. If services are of poor quality, they will not
be used regardless of the cost.” (Health & Education Report at 17). Medical
anthropologists would note that there are many other ways to think about how
health fits within the constellation of traditional beliefs and how decisions are made
at the individual and community level.
The ADB is incapable of escaping the limiting parameters of its own economic
worldview. To be sure, an analysis that recognizes the different linguistic and
cultural differences as factors to be considered in program implementation
produces more defensible policy recommendations than one that does not. The
Reports make persuasive recommendations that the educational system should
better conform to local needs. “Education projects should take into account the
labor needs of households and adjust the school schedule to reflect the agricultural
168 Hammer

calendar.” (Health & Education Report at 22). The Reports also advocate for
curricular materials better suited to the discrete needs of the indigenous
communities (rather urban Khmer dwellers in Phnom Penh) and for greater
openness to the use of local languages. These are appropriate second-order
refinements for policy implementation, assuming that modern educational
institutions are in fact called for. A mind-set that treats culture and belief only as
second order concerns, however, can never be self-critical as to whether its first
order development prescription is appropriate in the first place. The failure to
understand the culture, belief systems and lifestyles of indigenous peoples as
part of a larger integrated worldview makes real understanding, dialogue and
participation impossible. Trapped in the confines of its own worldview, the ADB is
incapable of empathetically engaging the other.

The Clash of Worldviews and the (Im)Possibility of Participation

Participation is now an important buzz word in development discourse, particularly
as it concerns indigenous peoples. What participation actually means and whether
it is possible present harder questions. Participation requires a sufficiently common
sense of community to permit meaningful dialogue. There needs to be shared
values and shared understandings. The dramatic differences between the modern
and pre-modern worldview begin to suggest some of the difficulties. Moreover, if
participation is not simply going to be a charade – a policy instrument to implement
predetermined development objectives – then those who are participating must
have some degree of meaningful control over the outcomes. Put starkly, if the ADB
is really committed to participation, it must also be prepared to respect the choice
of indigenous peoples not to be developed.
The ABD’s formal commitment to participation is clear in these Reports. In fact,
participation has become the primary framework through which the development
dilemmas of indigenous peoples are to be addressed.
In 1999 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a Policy on Indigenous People
in order to provide a framework for its commitment to recognize the vulnerability of
certain socially and culturally distinct groups to being disadvantaged in comparison with
mainstream society, and to identify measures to satisfy the needs and development
aspirations of such people. The policy focuses on their participation in development
and the mitigation of undesirable effects of the development process, especially the
incidence of poverty. (Poverty Report at 1 (emphasis added)).

These concerns were incorporated into the 1997 Draft Guidelines intended to
govern development decisions affecting Cambodia’s indigenous peoples. Given
that there is no history of such participation, the ADB further identified the need for
Development as Tragedy 169

capacity building. “It is necessary to provide capacity building for government,

nongovernment organizations (NGOs), and indigenous peoples so that they can
actively participate in formulating action plans as well as in ADB-sponsored
programs and projects.” (Poverty Report at 1).
In practice, it is difficult to tell whether participation is intended to facilitate the
implementation of preordained objectives, or to authentically engage vernacular
communities in planning their own futures. It is also unclear what real choices
are being left on the table by the planners. But even if indigenous peoples are
genuinely being asked to participate in planning their future development, it must
be acknowledged what a “modern” notion this is. The entire planning exercise
assumes that the future is some distant and different place. It assumes that time and
history are linear progressions and that individuals can and should take charge of
their futures and mold it to their own liking. Planning of this nature is not an
indigenous practice.
Nowhere do these Reports discuss what participation really means, whether it
is feasible and how it might actually be accomplished. These are important
questions. Can indigenous people really decide for themselves whether they want
western style development? Can any real decisions be made, if they must be made
according to western notions of participation? At one level, entire communities are
being asked to decide between two disparate worldviews, one their own (pre-
modern) and one that is still quite foreign and alien (modern). What would be
necessary to make this type of choice an authentic one for indigenous peoples? It is
doubtful that anyone can make conscious choices between different worldviews.
Our worldviews shape us far more than we are consciously able to shape or alter
them. They are not simply choice variables. Furthermore, participation in this realm
is neither innocuous nor value-neutral. The very act of requiring participation
and having indigenous peoples make these types of choices can have significant
cultural implications, regardless of what choices are made. If one goes too far down
the path of building sufficient capacity within indigenous communities to
“participate” and educating them enough about modern concepts of development
so they can make meaningful choices, it may no longer be possible for them to
return to their initial practices and beliefs, regardless of their actual preferences.
From this perspective, it is easy to see how hollow the ADB’s notion of partici-
pation really is. What are indigenous views toward development, poverty,
education and health care? Is there any authentic means to obtain this information
and have it determine the content of proposed ADB projects? What real power do
these people have to decide that they would prefer to have no part in the process?
Even if such choices were possible, there are other pragmatic concerns. In what
language should this discussion take place (in practice, participation never takes
170 Hammer

place in indigenous languages)? According to whose customs? Who defines what

items will be on the agenda?
Some indication as to how westernized the ADB’s views of participation are can
be found in the projection of outside notions of gender equality on these indigenous
communities. Consider the following passage in the Poverty Report.
Participation by indigenous women has not been equal to that of men; despite much
training on gender issues provided by NGOs/IOs, men do not respect women in meet-
ings. (Poverty Report at 15) (emphasis added).

The implications are clear. Indigenous people will participate. They will
participate in accordance with western notions of gender equality. Capacity will be
built and they will be trained in the correct manners of gender-sensitive participa-
tion. Finally, they will be criticized to the extent that they permit their own culture
and worldview to influence how they actually participate.
The authors of the ADB Reports are so captured by their own worldview that
they are not aware of the serious “problems” raised by this passage. Can one obtain
gender-sensitive participation in these communities and not already substantially
change the local culture in the process? Should indigenous people be able to choose
for themselves how gender sensitive and in what manners they want to be? The
dominant tone in the Reports is that indigenous peoples must take development
on western terms. Furthermore, whatever participation is envisioned, it is not
permitted to redefine the first order components of development. Ironically, the
envisioned participation is not even flexible enough to permit indigenous partici-
pants to redefine the ground rules of the participation itself. Participation must
proceed in accordance with western norms and conventions. The thought of
participating in the native languages or building the capacity of the ADB to participate
is never raised or discussed.
Again, projects addressing issues of gender help highlight these underlying
tensions. UNDP has initiated a program for “reducing the workload of hill tribe
women in Ratanakiri.” The objectives of the project are defined as follows:
This project sought to improve the status of women in Ratanakiri by reducing their daily
work load and increasing their opportunities for decision making, education, and
income generation through formation of a women’s group, exchange visits, monitoring
and interaction with VDCs [Village Development Councils]. (Poverty Report at 17).

The project to reduce the workload of hill tribe women further illustrates the
modern tendency toward hyper-compartmentalization. The first slice is to look at
gender in isolation from other aspects of the social context. The next slice is to focus
on sex-based divisions of labor, then to look at labor in terms of workload, with
workloads being predominately a category that is best understood and measured
Development as Tragedy 171

in time. Reducing workloads saves time. The saved time is then a substitutable
commodity that can be redeployed and used for other objectives in furtherance of
the modern worldview – opportunities for decisionmaking, education, and
From a western standpoint, this may be an excellent project. It frames and
analyzes the problem in a sophisticated manner. It respects important western
values and it resonates with a progressive modern worldview founded on
principles of gender equality. The problem, however, is that these values are being
projected upon others who operate in accordance with a different set of values and
beliefs. Again, the problem, such that it is, is a projected problem. The frames for
understanding the problem and the proposed policy prescriptions are also modern
projections. Even if one believed that the problem were real, and that the women in
these traditional communities are the ones who should be afforded the ultimate
choice as to whether and how their workloads should be reduced, there is no
obvious way to know what that choice would be, and probably no means of
soliciting such a decision that did not itself do serious damage to traditional norms
and beliefs.
Unfortunately, participation is being institutionalized on a scale that far exceeds
individual development projects. Contemporary development consists of
state-building as well as market building. In a move potentially as disastrous as
building roads to the doorsteps of indigenous villages, the SELIA experiment of
decentralized and deconcentrated governance is seeking to reshape local processes
of decisionmaking in Ratanakiri, and to better connect these apparatuses to the
central state. (Poverty Report at 16, McAndrew (2001). Distance from the modern
state and the ineffectiveness of bureaucratic institutions to project state authority
to these distant Provinces is what helped ensure the cultural survival of these
communities. The systemic institutionalization of western-style, ground-up
forms of participation will substantially undermine traditional forms of social
organization and decisionmaking in indigenous communities.

Conclusion: Development as Tragedy

Framing development as tragedy teaches different lessons than thinking about
development strictly in terms of exploitation. Organizations like the ADB are
pursuing policies premised on “mistaken beliefs” that will lead to unfortunate,
unintended consequences. There are implications for indigenous peoples, as well as
for the Bank and the broader development community. What is the likely fate
of indigenous worldviews once development policies are fully implemented?
For some, the capstone of the development process might be to effectuate a
complete transition from pre-modern to modern ways of thinking. In this view, the
172 Hammer

communities will not only have markets, roads, schools and clinics, but they will
also think about, understand and utilize these social institutions in a western
manner. Development here seeks to change minds as well as markets.
This approach to worldviews is both naive and dangerous. It is true that no
worldview is static. By their very nature, worldviews are dynamic and adaptive.
They must be if belief systems are to continue to produce order and meaning in a
changing world. At the same time, however, worldviews are self-constrained in
their abilities to change and adapt. They can stretch, but they can also break. The
best conceptual analogy is to an ecosystem. Worldviews need to be approached as
integrated wholes, recognizing the high degrees of interdependence between
constituent parts. Entire ecosystems can collapse if subjected to improper strains.
Ecosystems also embody illustrations of cascading effects and unintended
consequences. The same is true of worldviews. Like an ecosystem, worldviews can
also crumble and fall into disrepair. The pragmatic test is whether the existing belief
system continues to provide order (adequately explain events) and to provide
meaning (the existential function). When worldviews fall into disrepair, the results
can manifest in forms of social psychoses for members of the community. Dalton
(1967) talks about the social malaise often associated with development in tribal
societies. Campbell discusses the fate of the American Plains Indians, with the
killing of the buffalo and the resettlement on reservations. (Campbell 2002). Within
a single generation, the Plains Indians’ symbolic ordering of the universe was
completely destroyed. The psychosis took the form of the sweeping in of the
peyote cult and the apocalyptic Ghost Dance movement. The disrepair of a
worldview also makes individuals and entire communities vulnerable to religious
conversions, which, from this perspective, is an attempt to trade in one belief
system for another in a desperate search for order and meaning.
Why should this matter to development theory? Building from development
paradigms of food security, income security and physical security, Adam Ashforth
advocates the need to pay attention to the spiritual security of communities
(Ashforth 2005). The concern for spiritual security naturally follows from an
appreciation of the significance of worldviews. This is not an abstract or esoteric
diversion. Spiritual insecurity is directly triggered by the failure of the prevailing
worldview to serve its primary functions. External development policies can be
appraised in terms of their likelihood to disrupt existing belief systems and trigger
the forms of social stress and psychosis that historically have been observed.
Pragmatically, Dalton argues for the need to help facilitate cultural and technological
innovations to accommodate the changes wrought by economic development.
(Dalton 1967). The failure of the ADB Reports on indigenous peoples to even
consider such possibilities is testimony to the ADB’s blindness to the relevance of
Development as Tragedy 173

worldviews, their own and those of others, to the development process. It is

difficult to imagine meaningful discussions of the real needs of indigenous peoples
that do not expressly incorporate these concerns.
The development-as-tragedy narrative has implications for the ADB and for
development economics more generally. Juxtaposing the worldviews of the ADB
and indigenous peoples is useful because the stark contrast helps highlight the
“mistaken belief” or “tragic flaw” underlying contemporary development theory.
One lesson is that worldviews do matter. A failure to understand the role of world-
views, both of self and others, makes it difficult if not impossible to perceive the real
needs of others, anticipate difficulties and design appropriate policies. These
problems go far beyond indigenous communities. The worldview that most rural
Cambodians operate under has more in common with the pre-modern views
outlined here than the modern worldview of the distant West. I would hazard to
guess that the same holds true for most rural agricultural communities in the Third
World. The biases and limitations of the dominant economic worldview raise
serious questions about the current development agenda of simply exporting
western models of markets and states around the world. To the extent that the types
of market and state systems being transplanted are themselves derivative artifacts
of the modern worldview, they are unlikely to take root in countries with sub-
stantially different belief systems and manners of thinking. An appreciation for
the significance of worldviews has additional implications for recent reform
initiatives of the ADB and the World Bank. Efforts to embrace softer values such as
participation, gender-equality and governance will have little effect if the underly-
ing economic worldview remains unchallenged. A greater self-awareness of the role
that the economic worldview governing development plays would be the first step
in a process of real reform.
Unfortunately, the contemporary story of encounters between indigenous
peoples and outsider groups is unfolding today largely as it has in the past – as a
tragedy. The protagonist remains unaware of the flaw of his “mistaken beliefs,”
while the audience is left with a deep sense of pity and fear.
174 Hammer

1. “We are, in fact, in the presence of populations that are scattered in outlying
zones of the country, societies without a script and that have a matrilineal line of
descent, the federated organization of which does not exceed that of the village and
whose dispersed settlement is nearly sedentary.” (Bourdier at 202). “Above the
village unit whose average is about 200 people there is no collective forms of
socio-political organization, notwithstanding the mutual recognition between
villages belonging to the same group or to different ones.” (Bourdier at 233). “It is
of course permissible, and entirely pertinent, to characterize the indigenous
societies in Ratanakiri as stateless societies . . .” (Bourdier at 201).
2. Tellingly, when the real lives of indigenous peoples find their way into the ADB
Report, it often comes in the form of excerpted materials from the anthropology
literature. These excerpts are cabined in Boxes of highlighted text and physically
separated from the ADB’s own textual narrative. This information comes from “Box
1-A Definition of Highland Poverty.” (Poverty Report at 22).
3. Not surprisingly, people in other academic disciplines with different professional
training will approach the same issues with radically different methods and come
to radically different conclusions. Contrasting the contents of Don McCaskill and
Ken Kampe (1997) collection in Development or Domestication? Indigenous
Peoples of Southeast Asia with the ADB Reports on indigenous peoples nicely
illustrates this point.
4. Others have commented on the prominent role that military terminology like
“targeting” and “interventions” play in contemporary development rhetoric.
(Bourdier 2007). Viewing indigenous communities as objects to be targeted is not
conducive to empathetic engagement. Ironically, the ADB’s Health Report also
provides some vivid examples of the darker side of being targeted. “The Khmer
Rouge targeted the Cham, forcing them to adapt Khmer names and requiring them
to give up Islamic Practices.” (Health Report at A-2). “The Pol Pot Regime targeted
the Vietnamese community and forced virtually all of its members to leave the
country, killing many in the process.” (Health Report at A-2). “The Chinese often
were targeted by the Pol Pot Regime due to their wealth, although not with the
same fervor as the Cham and the Vietnamese.” (Health Report at A-3).
Development as Tragedy 175

Ashforth, Adam. 2005. Witchcraft, Violence and Democracy in South Africa. University
of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Asian Development Bank. 1999. The Bank’s Policy on Indigenous Peoples. ADB,
Asian Development Bank. 2001. Health and Education Needs of Ethnic Minorities in the
Greater Mekong Subregion. ADB, Manilla.
Asian Development Bank. 2002. Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty
Reduction: Cambodia. ADB, Manilla.
Balcomb, Anthony O. 2005. “Worldviews: What are They? How are they Formed?
How do they Interface, Collide and Mix in Africa?,” paper presented at Seminar on
Indigenous Knowledge (April 6-7, 2005). World Bank, Paris.
Bediako, Kwame. 1995. Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of Non Western Religion.
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.
Bourdier, Frederic. 1996. Provincial Statistics and Statistics of Ministry of Interior 1995.
Ministry of Interior, Phnom Penh.
Bourdier, Frederic. 2006. The Mountain of Precious Stones, Ratanakiri, Cambodia:
Essays in Social Anthropology. Center for Khmer Studies, Phnom Penh.
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HIV/AIDS in Cambodia: A Political Anthropology of Human Agents and Agencies.
Brown, Ellie, et al. 2003. Health Benefits and Practices about Malaria in Ratanakiri:
Findings from Social/Anthropological Research.
Campbell, Joseph. 2002. “The Thresholds of Mythology.” In Inward Journey: East and
West, Joseph Campbell Audio Collection.
Dalton, George. 1967. “The Development of Subsistence and Peasant Economies in
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Dalton, George. University of Texas Press, Austin.
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Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York.
McAndrew, John P. 2001. Indigenous Adaptation to a Rapidly Changing Economy:
The Experience of Two Tampaun Villages in Northeast Cambodia. CIDSE Cambodia,
Phnom Penh.
McCaskill, Don and Kampe, Ken, eds. 1997. Development or Domestication?
Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia. Silkworm Books, Chaing Mai.
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Development Theories. Routledge, London and New York.

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Thought. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
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University Press, Princeton and Oxford.
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Routledge, London and New York.
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Have Shaped Our World View. Ballantine Books, New York.
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Australian Essays in World Religions, edited by Hayes, Victor C. Australian
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When the Margins Turn One’s Step toward an Object of Desire:
Segregation and Inclusion of Indigenous
Peoples in Northeast Cambodia
Frédéric Bourdier
It has been said and re-said that indigenous populations residing in the border areas
are, more than others, facing a growing exclusion, not only due to the location of their
territory, but to their legal condition of being socio-culturally marginalised, and generally
their perceived status as vulnerable ethnic groups.
Although such statements deserve careful attention, they cannot be taken for
granted as a whole, either. Rough categorisations remain full of reductionism and can
be misleading. Changes occurring in Ratanakiri illustrate the way some so-called
minority groups – who in fact do represent the majority of the provincial population –
can no longer be considered as “closed” collective entities, sharing similar priorities,
strategies and interests. Recent interfaces with the outside world, mostly with Khmer
civil servants, migrants, investors and developers, have led some of the peoples of the
forest to take advantage of these socio-economic and cultural confrontations, while on
the other side some are left far behind. Such heterogeneous interactions and selective
connections have various implications for village life conditions and for improvement in
the quality of life.
In some hamlets taken as “case studies,” it has been observed, beyond drastic
changes, an increasing social disparity in access to land and other commodities,
compared to the relative homogeneity which previously characterized socio-economic
life at the village level. This paper proposes to provide an overview of this diffracted
situation. The analysis may provide some tools to suggest more adequate concepts
liable to reflect the given complexity of social changes occurring at the provincial level.

In the two northeastern provinces of Cambodia (Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri),

native populations, socio-culturally distinctive from the Khmers of the western
plains, have for long settled in small villages in a forest milieu. With approximately
100,000 persons, they still represent the majority of the whole provincial
populations. The territory where they are now living remains a huge geographical
space compared to other provinces in the country. But recent historical accounts of
French colonization, national state administration and immigration processes
reveal that the place allocated to the highlanders (or indigenous populations) has
been drastically reduced, and will be even more condensed in the future. Such
reduction, which interconnects people and space, is metaphorically projected
through the notion of “ethnic minorities,” which claims that indigenous
178 Bourdier

populations are numerically less than the Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese, Cham and
Chinese migrants, even though, paradoxically, they still represent the majority of all
inhabitants living in both provinces.
The legacy of the past, reoriented by ongoing changes taking place in a
globalizing micro-environment, has led outsiders (deciders, developers, external
observers, and some social scientists), to use conventional terminologies, which are
supposed to reflect the status and life conditions of the indigenous populations
in a given area. Apart from the ambivalent notion of “minority,” one of them,
generally accepted as a matter of fact, is the concept of “margin” and its associated
component of “marginalization.” The second is the notion of “exclusion” which is
referring either to a relative physical isolation or a social vulnerability. The latter
denotation maintains the idea of inadequate access in terms of geographical and/or
socio-economic characteristics. I will come back later in the paper to the meaning
and ambiguity of these concepts, but let me first clarify the rationale for my
analysis, which is the purpose of this presentation.

On words, power and re-creative interpretation

All terms mentioned above, and I could add other subjective, qualifying words
(Phnongs, tribe, aboriginal, deprived, poor, innocent...), are explicitly compiled
to explain a particular, narrow destiny, in which local people are caught. This
terminology is also part of the development architecture, justifying interventions
(for improvement) at the local level. I mention this because the choice of particular
words and the way they are ordered and assimilated in a structured discourse is not
innocent. The French philosopher Michel Foucault demonstrated the logic of this
narrative incursion when he explained the formation of the concepts.1 To put it very
simply, recurrent uses of some selected words give a legitimating tone, frequently
considered objective and authoritative, but actually tending to obscure and narrow
the debate. Even the complex concept of ethnicity should be subject to a more
cautious approach, being aware that ethnic categories can be recent constructs
of the state, sometimes legitimized by some anthropologists, rather than
primordial enduring categories of identity, as it has been shown by recent studies
in neighboring countries (Vietnam, Laos, and China).2
The purpose of the social sciences is not only to be aware of this discursive
elaboration, but eventually to deconstruct prevailing interpretations that are
becoming fashionable ways of understanding given situations, whenever the
scientist has the conviction that these words and discourses are based more on
common notions than a true reality, which is probably more hidden and difficult to
Again, I insist on the power of the language for two reasons: first, it has a
When the margins turn one’s step toward an object of desire 179

tremendous effect on the way external bodies (institutions, development agencies,

government services...) construct their social representation related to the vernacular
societies with whom they are in touch. Second, there is a trickle-down effect of this
external arbitrary discourse on indigenous peoples. Repeated words and ideas are
not lost in a vacuum. They can be contagious. With increasing interactions, villagers
listen to what is said periodically about them, and re-appropriate these discourses.
They can have various reactions: from incorporation, to rejection to specific
adjustments. But all responses are not without profound consequences.
I will give two very simple examples taken from my ethnographic notes in 2007.
Episodically, I started to observe Tampuan villagers speaking about their religious
“superstitions,” as if they were ashamed to be culturally associated with “old
fashioned” or pre-logic3 ceremonies and rituals. Some of the villagers – young and
old – used new words to designate their religious practices. Fourteen years
ago, when I was sharing the life with some local communities, this kind of
self-representation did not exist at all, notwithstanding Khmer Rouge interference
and traumatic passage in the seventies. This alteration, emblematic of the way
the local people perceive themselves, has significantly been translated into the
vernacular vocabulary in Ratanakiri. It is not at all an exception and the adopted
language reflects something more than the words taken into consideration. The
anthropologist Pierre Clastres working with the Tupi-Guarani in Paraguay4
mentioned in the seventies that one of the worst effects of the contact between
nomad Aché peoples and the so-called civilized world has been the emergence
of doubt. People started not to be sure any more of what they were doing and
thinking, and they started to distrust their life consistency, once outsiders came to
designate their practices as primitive or as having no future. At the same time, their
mythology, which was one of the most fascinating ones in the world, went into
decline with the newcomers’ interference.
An equivalent phenomenon, and this is the second example, is taking place in
Ratanakiri, where young Tampuan adults tend to rid themselves of their rich
mythology (or to hide it) under the pretext that it has no more meaning, or at least
little value, in comparison with educational and historical “modern conceptions” of
the world, nowadays transmitted by foreign NGOs importing their own models of
signification and categorization. Under the name of formal education and access to
modern life, either brought by NGOs or the government, and most of the time
sustained by well-minded peoples, most of the cultural components, including
oral literature and legends, constituting the cement of the indigenous society,
are viewed with more and more caution by civil servants, developers and,
subsequently, by native peoples. The justification provided, mostly by the new
generation (20 to 30 year olds), is that they have difficulty imagining how they can
180 Bourdier

have a place in the future, if they keep thinking and behaving in the same manner
as their forefathers. Retroactively, rejecting the preconceived idea of being
backward just because they live in the forest (the place where according to the
Khmer popular culture both dangerous spirits and wild human beings are living)
encourages, to some extent, young men to be flexible with facts and figures coming
from the Khmer world. As one young Tampuan told me once, “we need to inject
modern urban life into our village; otherwise we will get lost and get bored very

Reassembling the Social

One of the misleading ideas is that indigenous societies (in fact, collectivity should
be a more accurate designation if we follow Bruno Latour and Philippe Descola)6
constitute inclusive groups with their proper coherence, potentiality and limitation.
It was probably understandable to adopt this consideration a long time ago, but not
in a globalizing course of action. As Bruno Latour tried to show with an original
approach, called the sociology of association,7 it is necessary to scrutinize thoroughly
the exact content of what is assembled under the umbrella of society: human beings
of course, but something more; not only natural ecosystems, but human creations
like material infrastructures, communications technologies and exchange systems
outside the geographical boundaries. The most remote village in Ratanakiri is not
lost in the wild forest, but has already developed networks and interactions in a
broader environment. If not everybody, at least messengers turn into middle-men
and provide translation. Once in a hamlet, I could observe the irruption of three
Tampuan adolescents in a religious ceremony. They arrived with a CD player, put
on contemporary Khmer music and started dancing in the same way as Cambodian
people who could be watched on TV. Apparently iconoclasts, their intention was
nothing more than an attempt to add new components to an old ritual. They
wanted to gain visibility with modern technology and behaviors borrowed from
outside. This was not a syncretism: they were just re-assembling the social, linking
a so-called tradition with elements of modernity, supposedly to be part of a new
global environment.
Examples could be multiplied. The one depicted here may appear futile and that
is why it has been chosen. It demonstrates that even at this insignificant level,
isolation cannot be mentioned any more as a life specificity of the peoples in the
province. Consequently, arguing for the deliberate maintenance of self-exclusion,
because of ignorance, savagery or even backwardness – as it is frequently
entertained by civil servants and development workers – is in itself a violent act of
exclusion, promoted by outsiders, justifying others in an assumed duty to interfere
to save them from an imaginary desert.
When the margins turn one’s step toward an object of desire 181

This reflection inevitably leads to the need to scrutinize the use and abuse of the
concept of margin, implicitly associated with marginalization. I will just introduce
some of its properties deserving attention or rectification. Most of the time, margin
has a negative connotation, worse again for marginalization. The concept of mar-
gins has a different meaning for a geographer, a historian and an anthropologist.
The former privileges the spatial dimension without sufficiently articulating it with
its related cultural factors, while the latter undervalues the territorial compo-
nent. In between, historians have the advantage of apprehending it as a process.
Some anthropologists join them by insisting on the existing social dynamics,
giving therefore importance to the interaction between a context, its history
and the prevailing interference orienting actual and potential changes.
None of these approaches is entirely wrong, but none is totally true. No
discipline has an exclusive means for finding the real way. But each discipline has
a “sensitivity” to inaugurate a particular angle of perception through its own
scientific tools. Under these circumstances, it becomes more relevant to join efforts
to provide deciders and developers with an exact contextual understanding of a
specific social and cultural configuration. For instance, the notion of margin is
traditionally used in reference to the notion of center. But one cannot validate the
idea that a center (sometimes opposed to the notion of periphery) as per se the
crucible for marginalization. Karl Marx himself suggested the ambiguity of this
correlation by showing that the evolution of the socio-economic inequalities in
primitive societies, and later on the emergence of social classes and the state, was
an essential condition for a collectivity to respond effectively to a continuous
challenge which has been most of the time imposed by a small number of people,
most of the time labeled as marginal.8 In that respect, marginalization cannot
unilaterally be perceived as an unconstructive procedure (even as a fate), but as a
potential synergetic force allowing response and stimulation. Historians, more
sensitive to the evolution of the collectivities and the circumstances enabling them
to go in a particular direction, probably have more awareness of such constructive

The coming out of the State

An attentive critic of concepts, apparently beyond suspicion and associated
with highlanders in Ratanakiri, is necessary for the (pragmatic) reason that a
development problematic partly relies on such erroneous conceptualizations. Even
if partially misleading, one of the contributions of a scholar – whatever their
discipline – is to recommend new orientations by taking into account facts and
figures, served with methodological and theoretical frameworks,9 which have been
neglected or insufficiently revealed. All this material, collected from the grass-roots
182 Bourdier

level is essential. The government needs instructions or at least a guideline, coming

from a bottom-up approach, associated with coherent tools for adjusting its
interventions in a more adequate way, which does not go against the interest of the
local populations.
Once admitted, such analyses would remain incomplete, even anecdotal,
without contextualizing them within Cambodia’s forthcoming sociopolitical
progression. Coming back to the Foucauldian perspective,10 a radical change in the
country’s political philosophy11 is noticeable. If we observe the actual national
internal policy, it remains impossible for the state to govern, and Cambodia is not
an exception, without knowing its populations and exerting control over them
through localized institutions (administration, police, army, school, etc.) and
micro-practices that are designed to act upon the individual. It can be conceded
that politics thus become a ‘bio-politics,” in the sense that it percolates in the
bodies. Simultaneously, one of the mainstreams underlying the Khmer governance
system is that a real and effective incorporation of power is going on, approved,
expected and reinforced by the international environment. Interestingly, the
present internal dynamic is not very different than the historical transformation
explained by the French philosopher with regards to western civilization:
“... a power that had to be able to gain access to the bodies of individuals, to their acts,
attitudes and modes of everyday behavior.”
(Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de la Prison, Paris, 1975, Gallimard)

The purpose of briefly reminding us of these proclamations is not to re-open a

theoretical debate dealing about the construction of the state and its implications
for populations, but to be firm that every collectivity (again, this word is more
adapted than the ambiguous notion of community which tends to lose its consisten-
cy), either a micro-society living at the geographical margins of the province, or any
social group facing socio-economical or territorial challenges, is becoming a part of
a broader collectivity associating indigenous populations, themselves already not
any more a homogenous entity, with recent comers bringing with them new
techniques, institutions and modes of intervention. Public services and private
investments, mostly with the importance they gain day-by-day in the whole
province of Ratanakiri, deserve a particular attention, in order to have a good grasp
of the evolution of the local collectivities and the nature of their interaction with the
newcomers and those who represent the state.
These economic and administrative components are part of the future of the
indigenous life. Now the question is to provide reflections regarding the nature of
an integration process already going on. What I have mentioned before means that
we scientists have to be careful and very attentive to the way social reality is
When the margins turn one’s step toward an object of desire 183

perceived by deciders and implementers, but also how local populations react to
their insertion (or possibly to their exclusion) in a global world.
Generally speaking, the main tendency is to witness an increasing number of
inconsistencies in the social relations. This is at first reflected within the village,
taking the form of competition (a notion with very limited cultural foundations
fifteen years ago) for access to property, financial assets, material goods and
natural resources. In the villages where I stayed fourteen years ago and later on
came back from time to time, I could observed a tendency for the men to be more
prone to elaborate alternative socio-economical networks for personal interests,
rather than to a collective one as before. Such social distance, turning into rivalry,
occurred also within the family, when a couple decides to move apart to avoid
traditional sharing activities, when the husband alone gets material advantages,
which retroactively generates splits within the household unit.
The second kind of confrontation takes place during the encounter (or absence
of encounter) between actors of change and villagers. Normally, even if some
developers tend to forget it, development has to be considered as a negotiation.
This negotiation, which is the key essential dimension for a potential enhancement
liable to avoid further conflicts, implies information, awareness and a mutual
understanding. But so far, all these co-comprehensive components do not prevail.
In most of the villages in Ratanakiri, they are totally absent. With the exception of a
few individuals, who rarely represent the collective aspirations of the other
villagers, indigenous populations have limited access to government plans.
Sometimes they do not have any knowledge at all about what is going to happen,
such as when it comes to the “Triangle Development Program,” a huge political and
economical agreement between Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia that will drastically
alter Ratanakiri’s upcoming socio-economic configuration.
In this impressive economic development program, which has already started
with infrastructure construction (from road improvement to one Casino supposed
to be built soon at the Cambodian/Vietnamese border!) and new attractions for
private economic investors (land concession, woodland management obscured by
rampant corruption and illegal logging controlled by top people), local people have
never been consulted. And for those (NGOs members, developers…) who managed
to read the official documents written a few years ago – which were not supposed
to be disseminated – highlanders hardly exist as beneficiaries, just sometimes as
potential workers, liable to participate for the improvement of a farming system,
which is not theirs and which will remain out of their economic control.
As a result, inhabitants of the province are aware that something is in the
pipeline, probably to their detriment, but they do not know what, and therefore are
not in a position to respond to any hidden questions related to their future. Every
184 Bourdier

day forms of social resistance are difficult to emerge in the absence of politically
visible developments. If someone intends to raise his voice or if he is ready to
struggle, he needs to have a minimum awareness of what is going on. At this stage,
the silence of the government is one of its most powerful and terrible arms.
Consequently, most of the local peoples, who have been living there for
centuries with a long term vision strengthened by a real sense of solidarity – at a
time when the notion of community at the village level had a real meaning – are
developing a short term vision, linked with the sentiment of surviving in a new
insecure social environment, in which individualization procedures overshadow
social cohesion. In that way, marginalization is coming up. A marginalization
rooted in a political hegemony of a State not yet ready to listen to the people’s
voices, and more attentive in manipulating them under the name of national
When the margins turn one’s step toward an object of desire 185

1. Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Paris, Gallimard, 1969, pp. 75-84.
2. Susan D. Blum, Margins and Centers: A Decade of Publishing on China’s Ethnic
Minorities, The Journal of Asian Studies, Nov. 2002, 61(4), pp. 1287-1310.
3. This passage uses the nowadays forgotten concept of Lucien Lévi-Bruhl. Lévi-
Bruhl (1857-1939) was a pioneering French anthropologist whose studies of so-
called primitive cultures had an impact on depth psychology. Lévi-Bruhl believed
that so-called primitive cultures existed in a “pre-logical,” mystical state of mind
marked by non-contradiction and, more importantly, participation in a collective,
totemic idea. He contrasted the pre-logical to apparently individualized, “rational”
peoples bearing contemporary scientific cognition. Later in his career, Lévi-Bruhl
conceded that modern people also experience mystical dimensions, but not as visi-
bly as so-called primitives. C. G. Jung used Lévi-Bruhl’s term “participation mys-
tique” to assert that the collective unconscious is a buried storehouse of psycholog-
ical energy inherited from mankind’s ancestral past.
4. Pierre Clastres, Chronique des Indiens Guayaki, Ce que pensent les Aché, chas-
seurs nomades du Paraguay, Paris, 1972, Plon.
5. Hélène Clastres, La terre sans mal, Paris, 1980.
6. Philippe Descola, Par delà nature et culture, Paris, 2006, Seuil.
7. It has become known as Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), cf. Bruno Latour,
Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford, 2005,
University Press.
8. Quoted in Maurice Godelier, Horizon, trajets marxistes en anthropologie, Paris,
1977, Maspéro: 30-31
9. Henri Lefèvre, Critique de la vie quotidienne, Paris, 1977, L’Arche.
10. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and other Writings
1972-1977, Brighton, The Harvest Press.
11. Nowadays this is done by the state and not undertaken by the pursuit of
Buddhist religious achievements, with symbolic heralds as the King (in spite of
being symbolically present and popularly recognized).
Part Three: Constructing Self and Others: Understandings
Beyond Borders

Notions of ethnicity and majority and minority status are quintessentially about
defining self and others. In the past, these efforts were deeply influenced by
colonization. Today, they are heavily influenced by the forces of modern
nation-building. Some groups are largely victims in these external dynamics, being
stamped with labels and put into categories largely outside of their control. Other
groups are able more effectively to engage in the processes that construct their own
identities. The papers in this section explore different aspects of how concepts of
self and other are constructed and redefined.

Stefan Ehrentraut examines minority status in Cambodia through the lens of

nation-building, liberalism and multiculturalism. The paper illustrates how the
interests and aspirations of the ethnic groups in Cambodia differ radically from
each other, and how each group engages and is engaged by the process of
nation-building in very different ways. Stephen Keck details the treatment of
Muslims in colonial Burma. Keck reveals how the politics of colonization worked
to render the Muslim minority invisible, lacking any meaningful social identity.
The Cham in Cambodia illustrate the multifaceted nature of self and group
definition. Allen Stoddard explores how the Cham are seeking to define
themselves as a stateless national minority in Cambodia, while simultaneously
seeking to define and redefine their understandings of Islam in reference to the
international Islamic community.

Ethnicity and religion are not the only markers of difference and group definition.
Darren Zook looks at disabled persons in Cambodia. Continuing the discourse
of nation-building, Zook investigates how disabled persons have been able
effectively to engage the political process in a manner that starts to redefine the
boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. In the final paper, Ed Green explores the
lives of those he terms “the important forgotten” – men living in rural Indonesia
who have sex with men (MSM). The paper embodies many of the themes of the
volume. Self-definition is a critical step in establishing awareness of a group
identity. Sexual orientation runs headlong into many of the boundaries defining
life in rural Indonesia: understandings of gender, family and religion. Green’s work
ensures that these lives and these stories will not be forgotten and illustrates how
appreciating differences is often the first step in cultivating understandings that can
go beyond borders.
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in
Cambodia: Towards Liberal Multiculturalism?
Stefan Ehrentraut

The Internationalization of Liberal Multiculturalism

The idea of a distinctly “liberal” form of multiculturalism has emerged in the West,
both in theory and practice, which defends minority rights as consistent with, and
indeed advancing, basic liberal values of individual freedom, democracy and social
justice.1 This idea is increasingly manifest in international law and policy and
disseminated globally by international organizations. The global dissemination of
liberal multiculturalism marks a profound change in the norms and ideals of
modern state and citizenship promoted by the international community, away from
linguistically and institutionally homogenous citizenship in centralized states to
group-differentiated citizenship in decentralized, multi-level, multi-lingual,
multi-national states that use local and regional autonomy for the accommodation
of cultural diversity.
This article discusses the relevance of liberal multiculturalism in Cambodia.
This is not to say that Cambodia is a liberal state. “Liberalism” is usefully under-
stood as a model of justice and political organization that gives priority to the value
of individual freedom and principles derived from it, such as universal human
rights, democracy, social justice, rule of law and separation of powers.
Liberalism at least in its origin is a distinctively Western affair and there is no
universal consensus on its values. It is thus less than surprising that state practice
in Cambodia is for the most part indifferent to liberal principles. Indeed, the state
in Cambodia is less a tool to enhance justice and well-being than it is a tool for
the rich and powerful to exploit the poor and vulnerable. Much of the time it is a
lawless and predatory organization that disregards not only the full range of
liberal principles but routinely abuses even the most basic, fundamental and
indeed universal values of dignity, fairness and reciprocity.
This is well known and is by far the greatest obstacle to the well-being of
minority members. However, it is not an obstacle unique to minorities. While
liberalism and indeed, justice, are not the primary concern of the Cambodian
state and its institutions, there are good reasons to think that justice, and indeed,
liberalism, resonate well with the aspirations of the Cambodian people. Liberal
values are at the heart of Cambodia’s Constitution, prominent in public discourse
and regularly invoked by Cambodia’s citizens and civil society and, if less frequently
and enthusiastically, the Kingdom’s government. Liberalism is indispensable to the
190 Ehrentraut

rationale of the international community’s involvement in Cambodia. Liberal

principles are essential to the normative framework in which public policy is, and
is not, made and applied in Cambodia.
The following is thus an account as much of the claims of culture in the state
Cambodia as it is an account of those claims in the state that Cambodians aspire to
being citizens of and that the Cambodian government claims to be representing.
Using Will Kymlicka’s2 work, this article highlights some of the problems and
contradictions in the way the international community promotes the application of
international minority rights, and elaborates on the implications for state-minority
relations in Cambodia.
Specifically, Kymlicka suggests that Western multiculturalism
(i) is not just a response to the value of cultural membership, but a response to the
state practice of nation-building;
(ii) depends on a distinction between historic “national minorities,” who are
entitled to language and self-government rights, and “immigrant groups,” who
have weaker cultural rights, but have claims to full membership in mainstream
The first section introduces key ideas of Western multiculturalism and
elaborates on the internationalization of minority rights and their applicability
outside Western states. The following section attempts to classify Cambodia’s
cultural diversity in light of liberal multiculturalist distinctions and illustrates some
of the difficulties of using international treaties and conventions concerning
indigenous peoples in the Cambodian context. The last section discusses
Cambodia’s experience and moment of nation-building and its treatment of
indigenous peoples in light of theories of multiculturalism.

State Nation-Building
In a nutshell, Kymlicka demonstrates that nation-building is a standard
operation of all modern states. States engage in deliberate projects of citizen-
making aimed at creating a national identity among a diverse population by means
of participation in national institutions operating in one national language. The
practice of state nation-building and the public institutions it shapes systematically
privileges speakers of the dominant language and marginalizes speakers of
minority languages, not least by perpetuating the former’s societal culture into the
indefinite future at the expense of all others. Because virtually all states have been
or are engaged in this kind of majority nation-building, minorities in all states face
common threats from states. These threats are unique to minorities and justify
certain standard protections from states, in the form of distinct sets of positive
minority rights. Minorities need protection from states not (primarily) as a matter
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 191

of liberal values, but as a matter of universal, basic norms of equality and fairness
between groups and their members in modern states (Kymlicka 2001: 242-253).

Minority Categories: National Minorities and Ethnic Groups

When minorities claim rights, they often do so in response to states engaged in
nation-building. However, different kinds of minorities relate differently to the
institutions of aspiring nation-states and respond to nation-building with different
strategies and claims. Kymlicka suggests that Western multiculturalism depends on
a distinction between national minorities and immigrant groups (Kymlicka 1995:
11). This distinction has a descriptive and a normative dimension. Descriptively, the
distinction asserts that there are relevant and stable differences between the two
categories of groups in terms of their histories, current characteristics and future
aspirations. Normatively, it suggests that differentiation among minorities along
the lines of this distinction is justified when assigning group-specific rights.

The following illustration provides an overview of Kymlicka’s typology.

Pattern of Cultural Diversity, from Kymlicka 2002: 348 - 365

192 Ehrentraut

In this view, it is the mode of minorities’ historical incorporation into the state
that most profoundly shapes the identities of its members, their responses to state
nation-building and the relationships to the larger society to which they aspire.3 In
the case of national minorities, cultural diversity comes about by the involuntary
incorporation into a state of a territorially concentrated, self-governing society.
National minorities typically resist state nation-building, aspire to the perpetuation
of their cultures as separate societies alongside the majority culture, and claim the
self-government rights necessary to do so.

In contrast, in the case of ethnic groups, diversity is the result of decisions by

individuals and families to leave their culture and migrate to another country.
Typically, the members of ethnic groups aspire to full membership in the larger
society and participation in its institutions on a par with members of the majority
culture. Ethnic groups do not wish to establish and maintain distinct societies
within the state, but seek to adapt the institutions of the larger society so to
recognize and accommodate their ethnic identities (Kymlicka 1995: 10-26).
National minorities can be subdivided into sub-state nations and indigenous
peoples. Sub-state nations were contenders but losers in the process of state
formation, while indigenous peoples were isolated from this process until rather
recently. But this distinction between sub-state nations and indigenous peoples is
secondary to the operation of Western multiculturalism. Groups in either category
in liberal states today enjoy recognition of their language and their claims to
self-government. Primary is the distinction between national minorities and
immigrant groups. In liberal states today, there is no sizeable national minority that
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 193

does not enjoy substantial language and self-government rights and there is no
group of recent immigrants that does.
In contrast, national minorities – including indigenous peoples – did not choose
to migrate. These groups formed self-governing, territorially concentrated,
culturally distinct societies prior to their involuntary incorporation into aspiring
nation-states. What justifies specific rights for such groups is not that they were the
initial appropriators of their homelands but that they were self-governing and
might have maintained their independence in a different constellation of power.
The loss of this independence came about by a violation of their inherent right to
self-government through coercion and colonization. In this regard, the situation of
national minorities is not generally different from overseas colonized peoples, such
as the Khmer during French rule. Because their involuntarily incorporation was
unjust, and because of the profound interest people have in access to their own
culture, members of national minorities should not be required to integrate into the
mainstream society but enabled to maintain distinct societies alongside the
majority culture (Kymlicka 2001: 149). Protecting national minorities from unjust
state nation-building involves providing to them the same powers and tools of
nation-building which the cultural majority takes for granted (Kymlicka 1995: 26-

Kymlicka 1995, 2001

194 Ehrentraut

National Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in Asia

There are a number of conceptual challenges in applying the concept of
“indigenous peoples” in the post-colonial world. “Indigenous peoples” and
“national minorities” are concepts that originate in different and distinctively
Western historical processes and their applicability in Asian states is not obvious.
The concept of “indigenous peoples” emerged in European settler states such as in
the Americas, Australia or New Zealand and here refers to the population whose
ancestors had lived on the land before the arrival of European colonizers. In all
European settler states that are liberal democracies today, indigenous peoples enjoy
constitutionally or otherwise protected and recognized rights to self-government,
land and legal pluralism.
There are plausible ways of extending the distinction between national
minorities and indigenous peoples to the larger world. There are groups in Asia
that have much in common with indigenous peoples in the New World, such as
Montagnards in Vietnam, Aboriginals in Taiwan, Papuans in Indonesia, Chittagong
Hill Tribes in Bangladesh, numerous “scheduled tribes” in India, Ainu in Japan and
a large number of “hill tribes,” “tribal peoples” or “forest peoples” in virtually all
Southeast Asian states (Barnes et al. 1995; Kingsbury; Gover 2004). In East and
West, those groups have not had, or aspired to establish, modern states. They also
tend to share important characteristics such as cultural vulnerability, political
marginalization, close relationships to the land, small numbers of members and
geographical remoteness. In contrast, there are other groups in Asia who share
important similarities with European national minorities, groups that have
struggled to maintain or establish a state of their own but did not succeed, or
populations on territories that were removed from their kin states. After
independence, those groups found themselves in a subordinate position to a
dominant group in control of the state, such as Acehnese in Indonesia, Tamils in Sri
Lanka, Tibetans and Uighurs in China, Karens and Shans in Burma, Baluchis in
Afghanistan and Pakistan, Moros in Philippines, and Khmer Kampuchea Krom in
Vietnam. The distinction is a plausible way of thinking about cultural diversity in
Asian states. However, there are no such things as discreet categories of groups
readily identifiable as “indigenous peoples” or “sub-state nation” and there is great
continuity in characteristics and claims of groups in both categories. With the
political claims involved, any attempt to draw lines between them is bound to be

Internationalizing Minority Rights: “Indigenous Peoples”

Liberal multiculturalism came to be seen as quite successful in liberal states, as
it contributed to transforming sometimes violent minority-state relations into
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 195

conflicts managed peacefully within the normal democratic process. It was this at
least perceived success that contributed to the process of internationalization of
Western multiculturalism via international organizations, of which many have
adopted minority rights policies, declarations and conventions. These minority
rights provisions emerging in international law mark a profound change in the
ideal of a “modern state” promoted by the international community. Previously,
this ideal was a central, unitary nation-state with one set of national institutions
operating in one language only. In contrast, what international organizations today
are promoting is a radically different ideal of group-differentiated citizenship in
decentralized states that use federalism and local and regional autonomy to
accommodate the claims of historical, territorial minorities to self-government and
language. This is consistent with contemporary state practice in virtually all liberal
democracies (Kymlicka 2007: 31-39).4
However, liberal multiculturalism came to be legally codified at the level of the
UN in a way significantly different from established practices and distinctions in
the West. The UN system during recent decades has singled out the category of
indigenous peoples for strong targeted minority rights norms. Various international
organizations have adopted conventions, declarations and a wide range of policies
and mechanisms to articulate, promote and protect the rights of indigenous
peoples, such as ILO Convention 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples and Worldbank Operation Directive 4.10. Few UN agencies
today do not have specific projects, programs, policies, funds, fellowship programs
and the like to promote indigenous peoples specifically. Various governments, such
as Denmark’s, Norway’s, Spain’s and Sweden’s as well as the European Commission
have adopted policies to ensure respect for indigenous rights in the implementation
of technical cooperation programs. The international community has facilitated the
emergence of a forceful international movement of indigenous peoples demanding
from states recognition of their rights to self-government, lands and resources,
cultures and languages. Large and increasing numbers of minority groups from
Asia continue to join this movement.
Among the latest step in this internationalization of minority rights was the
adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September
2007. International law at the UN level today attributes an extraordinarily wide
range of the strongest possible minority rights, including the right to self-
determination, to “indigenous peoples,” and to them only. Consider just a few of the
articles that the UN Declaration describes as “minimum standards:”
Article 3: Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right,
they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and
cultural development.
196 Ehrentraut

Article 4: Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the

right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local
affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.
Article 26: Indigenous peoples have the right to own, develop, control and use the lands
and territories... which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used.

Groups that conventionally identify or are identified as indigenous peoples are

not the only minorities with aspirations to indigenous rights of the kind contained
in emerging international law and policy. There are numerous sub-state or stateless
nations that do not identify as indigenous peoples (yet) but share aspirations to be
given control over themselves, their institutions and territories; in short, to obtain
greater measures of autonomy and self-government. Those groups tend to be not
only larger but also more institutionalized, and to have not only strong aspirations
to self-determination but also higher capacity for self-government and possibly,

Self-Identification and the Right to Self-Determination

It is because of the potential geo-political implications of their aspirations that
the UN system has consistently failed to develop targeted rights norms for sub-state
nations. The remarkable progress on targeted norms for indigenous peoples at the
UN was possible because of the much lower scale of geo-political concerns
perceived to be present in accommodating marginalized and isolated indigenous
groups. Many national minorities credibly challenge the authority of states, and
these states, predictably, are not willing to support the development of international
instruments at the UN that encourage and legitimize resistance to their rule.
However, there is no internationally agreed upon definition of “indigenous
peoples” and emerging international norms are notoriously vague on which
groups they aim to protect. ILO Convention 169, for example, operates mainly on
self-identification and a vague set of fairly inclusive “objective criteria.”5 The UN
declaration makes no attempt to define or identify the groups it protects.
Many Asian states do have various kinds of minority policies and group-
differentiated practices. But they routinely consider international indigenous rights
norms to be applicable only to pre-colonization groups in European settler states
and not to any part of their population. An indication of this is that no Asian
country has ratified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The fact
that no Asian state voted against the UN Declaration is consistent with an
understanding of indigenous peoples as a group category that does not exist in
Asia. The only countries who voted against the declaration are liberal democracies
built on European settler states in which the category of “indigenous peoples” orig-
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 197

inates and is most readily recognized, namely the US, Canada, Australia and New
Any national minority now has very strong incentives to identify as indigenous
people, because recognition as such is the only legal way to gain international
protection for the kind of territorial and historical interests and aspirations that
indigenous peoples share with sub-state nations. Among the minorities now
debating adoption of the indigenous peoples label are the Crimean Tatars, the
Roma, the Palestinians, the Abkhaz in Georgia, the Chechens in Russia and the
Tibetans in China (Kymlicka 2007: 207). Kymlicka suggests that this re-identifica-
tion resulting from incomplete international protection is not going to benefit either
indigenous peoples or sub-state nations in the longer-run:
The net effect of such shifts in self-identification would be the total collapse of the
international system of indigenous rights … Yet there is very little within the current UN
indigenous rights machinery that prevents such a shift from taking place (Kymlicka
2007: 208).

For the following discussion of multicultural citizenship in Cambodia, it is

important to point out the implications of liberal multiculturalism in general and
international indigenous rights instruments in particular for the decentralization of
the state and the role of language in its public institutions. As Kymlicka puts it:
in the past many of these examples of substate autonomy were seen as “exceptions”
or “deviations” from what a “normal” state looks like, the norm being a highly central-
ized state like France, with an undifferentiated conception of republican citizenship and
a single official language. But this model of a centralized, unitary and homogenous
state is increasingly described by IOs as an anachronism, whereas pluralistic, multilin-
gual and multilevel states are presented as the more truly “modern” approach
(Kymlicka 2007: 31).

The realization of minority rights to self-government as prescribed in recent

international instruments requires the devolution of powers to political subunits
in which members of a given national or indigenous group form a majority. These
rights cannot be realized through a general decentralization, but require a
specifically “multination” conception of decentralization that creates self-govern-
ing enclaves for indigenous and national minorities and devolves to them those
state powers essential to maintaining a distinct society.

Cambodia: Polyethnic and Multinational

Polyethnic Cambodia: Ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese
Applying Kymlicka’s typology to Cambodia’s cultural diversity identifies
Cambodia as a polyethnic and multinational state: there are both ethnic groups and
198 Ehrentraut

national minorities. Cambodia’s ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese are rather close to
the paradigm case of immigrant groups, while Cambodia’s highland peoples are
fairly close to paradigm cases of indigenous peoples. The incorporation of ethnic
Vietnamese and Chinese generally came about by individual and familiar migra-
tion to Cambodia and it was voluntary insofar as no coercion on the part of the
Cambodian state was involved. Both groups maintain and cherish aspects of their
cultural heritage in Cambodia, but neither group aspires to self-government or
autonomy. Nor would such autonomy claims be accepted by the majority society.
While ethnic Chinese are generally integrated to a higher degree than ethnic
Vietnamese and participate more fully and successfully in mainstream institutions,
this reflects two significantly different histories of migration. Part of the difference
is timing, as most ethnic Vietnamese have arrived more recently in Cambodia. It
also reflects different degrees of acceptance among the majority population. Due
not least to a history of Vietnamese colonization resulting in the removal of the
Mekong Delta from Cambodian jurisdiction, as well as the Vietnamese occupation
during the 80s, Khmer find it hard to recognize Vietnamese as a legitimate ethnic
group in Cambodia. In contrast, ethnic Chinese are accepted as full and equal
citizens and having Chinese ancestors is often associated with higher status and
prestige (Edwards 1996).
But more important than those differences is what ethnic Chinese and
Vietnamese in Cambodia have in common: a history of migration from a culture
that controls and is perpetuated by a state or sub-state elsewhere and the absence
of aspirations to self-government and language rights in public institutions.
Historically, members of both groups came to Cambodia and there is no evidence
of either group having aspired to establishing a parallel set of nation institutions.

Multinational Cambodia: Highland Peoples

The incorporation of highland peoples into the Cambodian state came about in
a profoundly different manner. Unlike ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, highlanders
and their ancestors did not come to Cambodia and did not ask to become Khmer
citizens. Rather, Cambodia came to them, though at first in the form of a French
protectorate. Those groups have for centuries not only settled in their traditional
homelands but formed landed, self-governing societies, albeit small and decentral-
ized ones, with institutions operating in their distinct languages that governed the
full range of social life. In an ongoing process of involuntary incorporation, or
“internal” colonization, the historical sovereignty highland peoples exercised over
their traditional territories was taken from them against their will and without them
having ceded their rights over their homelands to a state. There is no indication of
highland peoples having struggled to establish separate states.
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 199

It is thus clear that Cambodia’s highland peoples are not immigrant groups, but
fall on the national minority side of the Western multiculturalist distinction. If there
are such things as “indigenous peoples” in the region, highland peoples can be
fairly counted in that category. This is what the international community has
consistently done since the establishment of the current Cambodian state in 1993.
Today, most highland peoples continue to form not just sub-groups of
Cambodia’s mainstream Khmer society, but largely autonomous societies, with sets
of societal institutions that may not be complete any more but are still intact and
operate in distinct minority languages most of the time. These institutions cover a
wide range of human activity and are of great significance to individual group
members and their well-being (White 1996).
There is a strong case to be made that highland peoples are entitled to have
control both over themselves as peoples, and over their institutions and to have
their lands restored by the state. Despite living in what is now Cambodia for many
generations, members of highland societies continue to speak their own languages
and to participate in their own institutions operating in those languages. Against
the odds of a history of majority nation-building, highland peoples have managed
to maintain and perpetuate not only elements of their ethnic heritage, but more or
less institutionally complete cultures. In most cases, members of highland peoples
remain determined to maintain the existence of their societies as distinct cultures
alongside the Khmer majority.

Cambodia’s Cham: A Non-Territorial National Minority

Liberal multiculturalist distinctions as well as international law categories are
insufficient to account for the distinct situation and aspirations of Cambodia’s
Cham. At about 5% of Cambodia’s population, Cham constitute a minority group
whose members easily number two or three times the combined total of all
highland peoples. It is tempting to categorize Cham as an immigrant group,
because Champa, the historical Cham homeland and jurisdiction of historical Cham
self-government, now lies outside the national borders of Cambodia and always
did. Cham came to Cambodia and they did so not due to coercion by the
Cambodians but by the Vietnamese state, to which Cham lost their ancestral
homeland. A significant aspect of being Cham in Cambodia has been, from the
earliest days, to be a cultural minority, in contrast to self-governing highland
societies which have been minoritized through the involuntary incorporation of
their homelands. Champa was incorporated forcefully into what is the Vietnamese
state today, suggesting that those Cham that remain there are usefully understood
to be a national minority. Cham in Cambodia do not appear to have historically
aspired to re-establish a self-governing entity. Cham are not marginalized like
200 Ehrentraut

highland peoples and they successfully participate in public institutions, are well
represented in government and various political parties and are active in many
sectors of the economy.
However, Cham have been in Cambodia for many centuries and have main-
tained a degree of cultural difference and separation that in many ways resembles
those present in highland communities. Being Cham in Cambodia is a much
thicker identity than being Chinese, for example, as it covers not only secondary
associations but distinct societal institutions and practices that are closely linked to
historical self-governance and statehood in Champa, in addition to a distinct
religion and language. It is common for ethnic Chinese to take pride in a high
degree of integration into Khmer society, individually and collectively. In contrast,
Cham take as much pride in having maintained a distinct culture after the involun-
tary loss of historical statehood and their ancestral homeland. Ethnic Chinese in
Cambodia learn Mandarin as a second language in addition to Khmer. In most
cases, Mandarin was not the native language of their ancestors when they arrived
in Cambodia.
Like highland peoples and unlike ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese, Cham do not
have a state maintaining their distinct culture elsewhere. The best chance for Cham
to live among Cham and speak the Cham language is in Cambodia. People in a
Cham village are often found to be as determined as highlanders to maintain their
distinct language, institutions and ways of life. They are up against similar odds in
the context of a nationalizing state.
To sum up, Cambodia is usefully understood as a polyethnic and multination
state, containing ethnic groups as well as national minorities. The difference
between national minorities and ethnic groups characterizes two markedly
different pattern of cultural diversity here and accurately reflects the aspirations of
most minorities but not those of Cambodia’s Cham. Cham may historically have
come to Cambodia as immigrants, but have since transformed themselves into a
national minority plausibly entitled to protection of their distinct culture not
fundamentally different from the rights that are due to highland peoples.
Significantly though, the kind of autonomy Cham are seeking in Cambodia is not
territorial in the sense of highland peoples’ aspirations.

Liberal Multiculturalism and the Equality of Khmer Citizens

Exploring the compatibility of Cambodian citizenship with liberal multicultur-
alism, it is useful to consider the Constitution’s article 31:
-.The Kingdom of Cambodia shall recognize and respect human rights as stipulated in
the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the covenants
and conventions related to human rights, women’s and children’s rights.
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 201

- Every Khmer citizen shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights, freedom
and fulfilling the same obligations regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religious
belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth or other status.
- The exercise of personal rights and freedom by any individual shall not adversely
affect the rights and freedom of others. The exercise of such rights and freedom shall
be in accordance with law.

These constitutional provisions, like many others, may not have much
immediate significance for state practice in Cambodia. But they plausibly reflect
the aspirations of a great number of Cambodians and are an important part of the
normative framework in which public policy is publicly justified. The first
paragraph commits the Cambodian state to the recognition of the full range of
individual human rights. The second paragraph is a conception of Cambodian
citizenship based on a general principle of non-discrimination. “Khmer-citizen” is
understood to be the constitutional equivalent of a “Cambodian citizen” and state
officials are often at pains to explain how this includes national and ethnic
minorities. There are more tensions between the Constitution’s account of Khmer
citizenship and liberal multiculturalism. Liberal multiculturalism implies a
group-differentiated conception in which citizens are not equal before the law.
Rather, national minorities have rights to autonomy and language in addition to
common citizenship rights, in order to ensure their members’ equal benefit
from individual citizenship rights, most importantly the human rights that are
guaranteed in the first paragraph and implied in the non-discrimination principle
of the second and third. Recognition of the principles of liberal multiculturalism
would mean adoption of a conception of Cambodian citizenship that is capable of
including national minorities as Cham citizen, Jorai citizens, and Bunong citizens
and so on. Liberal multiculturalism is also in potential tension with the third
paragraph, because the maintenance of distinct minority cultures may require
limitations on the rights and freedoms of majority citizens, with the aim of
protecting equal enjoyment of common citizenship rights for minority citizens.

Absence of Minority Challenges to State Authority

The earlier discussion of Cambodia’s minorities suggests that what distinguishes
Cambodia from most Asian countries is that liberal multiculturalism is a relatively
low-risk policy choice for the state, geopolitically. Cambodia is among the culturally
most homogenous countries in Asia, in that a great majority of the population has
for many generations identified as ethnically Khmer and spoken the Khmer
language as a first language. But there also is not among the many minority
cultures any one historical, territorially compact minority capable of credibly
challenging the authority or integrity of the Cambodian state, such as by making
202 Ehrentraut

autonomy claims the state is incapable of meeting. There is, in striking contrast to
most Asian states, no history of minority nationalism in Cambodia and there never
has been a threat of minority secession. There are no autonomy claims actually or
conceivably made that cannot be accommodated by and large within the general
framework of the Cambodian state and its reform. Conceivable autonomy claims
occur well below any threshold that concerns the security or integrity of the state or
could plausibly justify deviation from the normal political process. This is
significant because it is standard practice among most states in the region to invoke
state security to justify suspending what human rights and democratic process
guarantees may exist, in response to minority claims for autonomy.
Highland peoples, the groups that are most widely and most plausibly
considered indigenous peoples in Cambodia, make up a small fraction of the
population that is further divided into a large number of indigenous groups
(estimated in the range of 20), with virtually no political organization above the
village level. There are probably very few minorities in Asia that are a lesser threat
to the security and integrity of the state than highland peoples are to Cambodia.
Much less is at stake geopolitically in recognizing those groups as indigenous
peoples under international law in Cambodia than there is with national minorities
in virtually any other Asian state.
Cham lost a state in Vietnam and were transformed from a state-people into a
stateless people, from the state-culture of Champa into a transnational minority
culture. What may be most remarkable here is the enormous transformation in
relationship to the Khmer, from refugees into “Khmer Islam,” from outsiders into
insiders, from newcomers into a national minority, from the others into citizens.
The accommodation of Cham in Cambodia is a success story of minority accommo-
dation that neither Western nor international multiculturalism can fully appreciate.
Cham have since their arrival had a home in Cambodia but never a homeland.
There has not been one territorially concentrated Cham culture forming a self-
governing society in Cambodia and nothing suggests today that Cham aspire
to forming one in the future. Cham do not consider themselves indigenous in
the lexicon sense of having been in Cambodia before the Cambodian state nor have
they been isolated in the process of state-formation.6 They were defeated in this
process by the Vietnamese state. This is the main reason for Cham being in
Cambodia today and it is significant to contemporary Cham identity as not only a
stateless but also a homeland-less people.7 Cham do have the kind of claims rooted
in history and homeland that the international concept of indigenous peoples
highlights, maybe unduly so, but what is distinct about Cham is that they have
these claims only in Vietnam.
In its traditional interpretations, international law has nothing to offer to Cham
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 203

in Cambodia, the country in which the majority of them today struggle for the
maintenance of a diverse, distinct, and distinctly non-state, societal culture. Cham
self-identification is not limited to traditional interpretations, however, and this
may point to the larger shortcoming of the international framework, which has
made self-identification as “indigenous” not only the most rational but, ironically,
also the most truly modern choice for any national minority.
There are Cham communities in virtually all of Cambodia’s provinces but not in
one of the 24 provinces do Cham people form anywhere close to a majority. Many
Cham people are highly mobile across and beyond Cambodia and do not seek most
of the rights indigenous peoples have in international law, suggesting that
contemporary Cham aspirations in Cambodia have little territorial implications.
Yet the only option to seek international protection for group-related interests
Cham people plausibly have in Cambodia is by identifying as an indigenous
people. This may seem unlikely and none among the considerable number of
international organizations in Cambodia has suggested identifying Cham in this
way. But it is not inconceivable. When asked by the government of Switzerland
whether the Roma (a transnational and fairly mobile minority group whose
members live mainly in Europe) are covered under Convention 169, the ILO
responded that it considers the convention applicable if the group identifies as
“tribal.”8 If self-identification is all that separates Roma from a tribal people, this
would conceivable be the case for Cham, too, and not only in Cambodia.
The strength of international indigenous rights instruments may thus be the
biggest obstacle to their adoption in Cambodia, as elsewhere in Asia. A right to
self-determination is much stronger than what Cambodia’s national minorities
are seeking and it also is more than is politically realistic to expect. The kind of
accommodation Cham enjoy in Cambodia appears to be a better match for their
contemporary aspirations than seeking self-governance. Claiming indigenous
rights could well risk the terms of current Cham accommodation with the
Cambodian state.
There is no instrument in international law short of self-determination that
provides protection for the kind of group-related interests that highland peoples
and Cham appear to have in common, namely to maintain distinct cultures, if a less
territorial one in the case of Cham. International law offers highlanders, as well as
Cham, an unhelpful choice between too much and nothing. The concern that
recognition of highland cultures as indigenous peoples could encourage autonomy
claims by other groups is thus conceivable in Cambodia. But it remains an unlikely
prospect and it would be manageable, presenting little risk to the state even if it
The idea that public recognition of some minorities would get a state on a
204 Ehrentraut

“slippery slope” of escalating minority rights claims and divisive “ethnic” politics
that could threaten the unity of its population is sometimes invoked by opponents
of liberal multiculturalism. But modern states are inevitably and thoroughly
“ethnic” and it is more plausible to think that the alienation of minority members
in nationalizing state institutions creates a “slippery slope” that undermines the
unity of its citizenry. But even if this first account is accepted, what is distinct about
Cambodia’s cultural diversity is not that the possibility of a slippery slope does not
exist, but that the slope is very short and not very slippery.9 What sets Cambodia
apart is that geopolitical concerns are present on a scale that is so low that they can
be managed securely within the general framework of the kind of state Cambodian
is and within the international framework despite how deficient and incomplete it
is. This configuration is rare indeed.

Khmer Kampuchea Krom and the Fatal Success of Internationalizing

Indigenous Rights Claims
One does not need to look far to find the difference. Khmer Kampuchea Krom
in Vietnam consists of a multi-million-strong group of ethnic Khmer, numbering
twice the total of all cultural minorities in Cambodia combined. Khmer Kampuchea
Krom is close to a textbook-case of a sub-state nation in Asia. The main reason for
this is closely linked to Cambodia. Most attempts to define “indigenous people”
exclude groups that have an ethnic kin-state, which is what Cambodia is for Khmer
Kampuchea Krom. The geo-political implications that come with kin-states are
among the main reasons for the UN’s failure to establish norms that respond to the
autonomy aspirations of sub-state nations. Tradition does not, however, limit
Khmer Kampuchea Krom in its possible self-identification, in the absence of an
agreed upon definition for “indigenous people.” Relevant international instruments
make such self-identification the most rational choice to claim rights under these
instruments. This is indeed happening. Morally, distinctions between Khmer
Kampuchea Krom and indigenous peoples may be as arbitrary as the border line is
between Cambodia and the Mekong Delta. Politically, the latter is a fact of modern
life but not the former.
The internationalization of minority rights plays out differently in Vietnam and
Cambodia. Indigenous rights claims are based on a history of prior occupation of a
kind that ethnic Khmers have in the Mekong Delta but that ethnic Vietnamese do
not have in Cambodia. Liberal multiculturalism, too, would suggest that both
groups, Khmer Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam and ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia,
belong to different categories, the former having the right to maintain their culture
in Vietnam, while the latter not having the same right in Cambodia, at least not in
the form of territorial autonomy and language rights. In fact, the great majority of
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 205

Cambodian citizens belong to cultures that have these kind of claims in Vietnam,
namely Khmer, Cham and some highland people, while very few if any Vietnamese
citizens have such claims in Cambodia.
In contrast to many Asian states, there are also no national minorities in
Cambodia that have a kin-state across the border. This means that one of the biggest
geo-political obstacles to the adoption of liberal multiculturalism does not exist
here. Not only is the potential and perceived threat to the majority culture from
adopting liberal multiculturalism smaller in Cambodia than in virtually any other
state in Asia, the potential gains for the Khmer majority culture from liberal
multiculturalism being adopted regionally are greater than they would be for most
of the other states. The Cambodian Constitution’s conception of citizenship is at
least as inclusive of Khmer Kampuchea Krom as it is of highland peoples and
Cham. The Khmer of Khmer Kampuchea Krom are considered Khmer citizens
when in Cambodia. In a world of nationalizing modern states, the interest of the
Khmer in Khmer Kampuchea Krom have in access to Khmer culture can only be
protected by moving either the border or the people. In a liberal multicultural
framework, the Khmer of Khmer Kampuchea Krom are Khmer citizens to the
fullest sense possible in a modern Vietnamese state.
Liberal multiculturalism highlights important similarities between Khmer
Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam and highland peoples in Cambodia. Whatever
reasons the Khmer in Khmer Kampuchea Krom have for seeking protection for
their culture in Vietnam, and whatever reasons Cambodians have in being
supportive of it, are as much the same reasons for protecting highland cultures in
Cambodia. The fact that the Khmer of Khmer Kampuchea Krom can identify as
indigenous people in Vietnam highlights the liberal multiculturalist point that
minority rights are not primarily about the minority group’s culture or its level of
economic development, but rather the relationships it has with the state and what
kind of state it is in.

Cambodian and Liberal Multiculturalism: Some Differences

The international community has, since the start of its involvement in
Cambodia in the early 90s, been engaged in a substantial effort to promote liberal
multiculturalism. Most of this effort has been aimed at enhancing indigenous rights
for highland peoples. If the application of those norms really is a feasible policy
choice, one of the interesting questions is why there is so little evidence of that
choice being made in Cambodia. The remaining sections highlight some differences
between liberal multiculturalism and the multiculturalism that is emerging in
Cambodian law.
206 Ehrentraut

Concession to Pre-modern Demands vs. Progressive Response to

As Kymlicka demonstrates, liberal multiculturalism is presented by the
international community
not as a concession to demands rooted in pre-modern forms of tribalism and ethnic
nationalism, but rather as a progressive response to the challenges raised by distinct-
ly modern forms of ethnic identity and ethnic politics (Kymlicka 2007: 178).

This does not resonate well with Cambodian conceptions of cultural diversity,
which emphasize linguistic and institutional integration of highland peoples as the
most liberal, progressive and adequate response to these groups’ distinct, pre-
modern condition. As such, the multiculturalism emerging in Cambodian law,
hesitantly, is widely seen by government officials as a concession to the internation-
al community’s demands for greater compliance with foreign conceptions of
citizenship and diversity. At the time the Cambodian government committed itself
to some sort of domestic recognition of indigenous peoples it was likely not aware
of the full implications this concept is meant to have in international law and was
almost certainly not intending to commit the state to the substance of these norms.
Consider the land law (2001), preparation and implementation of which was
and is greatly supported by various international organizations. The law includes a
(donor-driven) provision for indigenous peoples to own their land communally.
Because indigenous peoples are not legally recognized in Cambodia, a process for
their establishment and incorporation as legal persons is now being piloted in three
indigenous villages, based on the land law. Consider the definition of “indigenous
community” in article 23:
a group of people who reside in the territory of the Kingdom of Cambodia whose
members manifest ethnic, social, cultural and economic unity and who practice a
traditional lifestyle, and who cultivate the lands in their possession according to
customary rules of collective use.

In one plausible and indeed apparent interpretation, this definition does not
acknowledge that there are minority groups with distinct cultural identities, lan-
guages and institutions in Cambodia. Arguably, the majority of ethnic Khmer citi-
zens live in communities in which considerable measures of unity and traditional
lifestyles are evident. Cultivating the lands in one’s possession according to rules
could be much like having a Ministry of Agriculture, a Ministry of Land
Management and a National Forest Administration. “Collective use” is not unlike
management of public goods for individual benefits.10
Comparing this definition in the land law to the preamble of Cambodia’s
Constitution helps identify important differences in the two documents’ underlying
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 207

concepts of culture. The preamble presents a description of the larger community

that is the people and citizenry of Cambodia:
We, the people of Cambodia; Accustomed to having been an outstanding civilization, a
prosperous, large, flourishing and glorious nation, with high prestige radiating like a
diamond; Having declined grievously during the past two decades, having gone
through suffering and destruction, and having been weakened terribly, Having
awakened and resolutely rallied and determined to unite for the consolidation of
national unity, the preservation and defense of Cambodia’s territory and precious
sovereignty and the fine Angkor civilization, and the restoration of Cambodia into an
“Island of Peace” based on multi-party liberal democratic responsibility for the
nation’s future destiny of moving toward perpetual progress, development,
prosperity, and glory …

This conception of the people of Cambodia is rather mono-national, as it does

not acknowledge any cultural diversity. However, while the conception is not very
“multi,” it is very “cultural” and surprisingly liberal-democratic, the latter in strong
contrast to constitutional practice in Cambodia. Nevertheless, one of the main
points the preamble is making, more strongly than most liberal multiculturalists do,
is that the protection of culture is the best and among the most liberal reason for
having a state in the first place. The preamble does not say that being Khmer is a
pre-condition for accessing the past greatness, current modernization and future
glory of Cambodia. This should not however distract from the vast differences that
exist between liberal principles and political practice in Cambodia, not least as they
relate to the accommodation of cultural diversity.

We, the Khmer Cultures of Cambodia

Historical incorporation and contemporary relations between most states and
most national minorities are characterized by high degrees of mistrust and violence.
This is a profound obstacle for the implementation of liberal multiculturalism.
These tensions are present in Cambodia but on a much lower scale than in
virtually any other state in the region. There are of course high degrees of mistrust
and violence in recent Cambodian history, particularly during the Khmer Rouge
period. What is distinct about the violence and mistrust during this period,
however, is not only how extreme it was but, how universal it was. State-nation-
building destroyed societal institutions of all cultures, including the majority.
Importantly though, this period did not destroy the language of the majority, but
promoted it by oppressing all others. The Khmer Rouge was more Khmer than it
was Rouge and Cambodia would be less Khmer today had those less than four
years not happened.
208 Ehrentraut

In many cases, only after the Khmer Rouge did state-minority-relations not
require interpretation. Victimization from Khmer Rouge nation-destroying did not
depend primarily on cultural membership and made cultural differences look
secondary. The universality of this shared experience of violent atomization made
trust between members of different Cambodian cultures more conceivable, because
it made the Cambodian nation more imaginable. The narrative of “We, the
destroyed people of Cambodia” that is prominent in the Constitution’s preamble
refers to an experience so universally shared among members of all of Cambodia’s
cultures that it made “We” more possible than it ever was before. It made “We” fit
into a “Khmer” conception of citizenship. But the linguistic equivalent of this
“Khmer” conception of citizenship is that the Khmer language is the sole official
language in which all public institutions are supposed to operate.

Misrecognizing Indigenous Peoples: Backwardness, not Culture

The Constitution’s preamble describes all Cambodians as “resolutely rallied and
determined to unite for the consolidation of national unity.” Article 52 charges the
government with adopting “the policy of national reconciliation to insure national
unity, and preserve the good national traditions of the country.” According to article 47,
children have the right to take care of their parents “according to Khmer traditions.”
What all of this clearly demonstrates is that “ethnic, social, cultural and economic
unity” as well as an interest in preserving traditions is publicly assumed to be
manifest in all citizens, provided for and promoted by the state and expected from
members of all of Cambodia’s communities. It is not a feature unique to indigenous
peoples. If a public interest in maintaining distinct cultures indicates collectivism,
then the Constitution offers no apparent reason to think that the cultural majority
in Cambodia is any less collectivist than are highland peoples.11
Rather than cultural differences, what the definition of indigenous community
in the land law as well as public discourse on highland cultures tend to make out
as the main contrast to the mainstream society is a civilizational difference: a
difference between modern, developed, individualist Khmer citizens, on the one
hand, and on the other, actual or potential Khmer citizens who follow tradition and
a way of life that is regarded by some as an authentic manifestation of pre-modern
Cambodian society. Highland peoples are widely imagined as genuinely and
pitifully pre-civilization Cambodian relatives, with members living isolated and
unchanged lives at the pre-modern margins of historical Khmer civilization.
Highland peoples remain in what once was a forested mountainous wilderness at
the geographical margins of the Cambodian state, but are at the margins of
nation-building no more. Neither in the land law nor in Cambodian public
imagination does much space exist for such a thing as a modern indigenous
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 209

community or an individualist highlander. It is not uncommon for state officials to

point at indigenous persons using cell phones or having a university degree as
irrefutable proof that indigenous peoples desire integration into Khmer society.
The Constitution links Cambodian citizenship to modernization, democratiza-
tion and liberalization, suggesting that all Cambodians share a “multi-party liberal
democratic responsibility” for “moving toward perpetual progress, development,
prosperity, and glory.” Little indicates that this is less accurate a description of
indigenous peoples’ aspirations in Cambodia than it is of those of the Khmer
majority. Yet in strong contrast to the Constitution, the land law links membership
in indigenous communities to an unchanging, seemingly pre-modern and
potentially illiberal, collectivist and undemocratic past. The idea of liberal multicul-
turalism, in contrast, is not to protect groups from modernity, democracy or liberty,
but to enhance the enjoyment of the benefits of those by members of all Cambodian
cultures, as the Constitution suggests, and within their own cultures if they so
choose. Recognizing highland peoples on the land law’s terms potentially deprives
those societies not only of a modern or liberal but of any viable future.
As was discussed earlier, it is a distinctly modern feature of states, namely,
nation-building, that creates conditions that require autonomy and language rights
for highland peoples, as a matter of basic justice and reciprocity between groups. It
is a fact of modern, not pre-modern, political life, that no group of people lives on
lands not claimed by nationalizing states. Had pre-modern circumstances persisted
to this day, there would not have been a need for protection of the distinct
languages and institutions of minorities. The “fine Angkor civilization” referred to in
the Constitution was inevitable a highly diverse entity containing multitudes of
peoples and ethnic groups, whereas the imagination of a singular “nation” or
national community that independence or the 1993 Constitution could restore in
public imagination as a sovereign nation-state did not exist before the twentieth
century. Highland peoples were accommodated as sovereign homeland groups in
the outstanding civilization to which Cambodians are historically accustomed.
This civilization could not have existed without a great ability to accommodate
extraordinary levels of multinational and polyethnic diversity.
A related tension with liberal multiculturalism involves the level of the state at
which minorities are incorporated. The land law recognizes indigenous peoples at
the level of the community, which pilot projects suggest is meant to refer to the
village level, even where the entire commune, district or even province is the
homeland of one or more indigenous groups.
In contrast, liberal multiculturalism suggests incorporation at the level of
culture, where language is shared, rather than particular values and conceptions of
the good, in order to ensure members’ ability to question and revise particular
210 Ehrentraut

values or beliefs (Kymlicka 1995: 93). Aside from the potential to undermine
members’ liberties, village-level incorporation divides indigenous cultures into
numerous political subunits and is likely to lead to their further fragmentation,
severely inhibiting those groups’ ability to consolidate and institutionalize their
societies and to maintain them under conditions of modernity.

Pseudo-liberal Multicollectivism
What is liberal about liberal multiculturalism is that minority rights operate
within the constraints of universal human rights of individuals and are designed to
enhance their enjoyment by all citizens. In Kymlicka’s interpretation, liberal
multiculturalism is the twin idea of “equality between groups” and “freedom within
groups” (Kymlicka 1995). In this view, only minority rights that don’t impede on
individual freedoms are justifiable. In contrast, notions of collectivism put the
interest of groups above the liberty of their members and tend to directly
contradict liberal principles that prioritize individual freedoms over the claims of
groups on their members.
The land law gives considerable power to traditional authorities, by making
“exercise of all ownership rights related to immovable properties of a community and the
specific conditions of the land use … subject to the responsibility of the traditional
authorities and mechanisms for decision-making of the community, according to their
customs.” While there is no obvious indication that empowering traditional
authorities of Cambodia’s highland peoples would threaten human rights of group
members, there also is no evidence that individual human rights are among the
state’s concerns when considering minority rights. An absence of concern for
human rights is also suggested by the definition of who is a member of an
indigenous community, a person who
meets the ethnic, cultural and social criteria of an indigenous community, is recognized
as a group member by the majority of such group, and who accepts the unity and
subordination leading to acceptance into the community.

There is a possibility that acceptance of “unity and subordination” as a condition

of membership in indigenous societies makes the human rights of its members
vulnerable to abuse. Empowering group leadership in this way to impose their
interpretation of tradition and customary decision-making on group members
leaves individual liberties of those members vulnerable to being subordinated by
unchecked and unchallenged exercise of authority in the name of group unity.
A right to exit minority communities is routinely considered to be among
the criteria that distinguish liberal from other forms of multiculturalism. A right to
such exit is provided under article 27 of the land law:
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 211

For the purposes of facilitating the cultural, economic and social evolution of members
of indigenous communities and in order to allow such members to freely leave the
group or to be relieved from its constraints, the right of individual ownership of an
adequate share of land used by the community may be transferred to them.

The law does not appear to be very concerned about the “cultural, economic and
social evolution” of highland peoples’ as members of a community. Rather, it is
consistent with a conception of indigenous communities as groups in which such
evolution does not take place. It suggests that leaving indigenous communities and
individualizing land ownership facilitates the evolution of its members, while
implying that remaining in indigenous communities does not.
In contrast, the main premise of liberal multiculturalism is that minority and
majority members alike need secure access to their own culture to facilitate
individual “cultural, economic and social evolution.” This is also what the preamble
suggests when it links all the people of Cambodia to historically self-governing
society in the past and glorious liberal democracy in the future by means of
preserving, promoting and modernizing distinct cultures in the present.
Nationalizing states provide secure access to citizens’ own culture, and the
security of effortlessly belonging to it, for members of the majority only. Liberal
multiculturalism suggests that access to one’s own culture is so profoundly
important for individual well-being and autonomy that it should be secured by
states for members of minority cultures as well. Self-government and language
rights are needed to protect and promote not only equality between groups but also
freedom within groups, that is, the “evolution” of its members.
The benefits of cultures, institutions and languages are indeed enjoyed
communally but they are also enjoyed by individual members who speak those
languages and participate in those institutions and cultures. Linking the aspirations
of highland peoples to notions of collectivism is particularly unhelpful in
Cambodia, where those notions are considered obsolete from the top to the bottom,
after being universally discredited by the tragic failure of Pol Pot policies. Cultures
need protection because of the profound interest members have in secure access to
them. If not for the benefit of individual citizens, liberal states have little reason to
maintain any culture. There is nothing inherently collectivist about the interest
people have in access to their own culture and much of the need for protecting it is
distinctively modern. There is not, in contrast, much that is liberal or multicultural
about the land law’s provisions for communal title.
Cultures, customs and traditions are not static but fluid and they change for as
long as they exist, in response to changing environments and exchanges with other
cultures as well as to internal contestations and dynamics resulting from individual
212 Ehrentraut

members challenging, re-interpreting and rejecting particular traditions and

customs. The conception of culture underlying the Constitution recognizes this and
provides citizens with the freedoms needed to develop and modernize their
cultures. However, the definition of indigenous communities in the land law
potentially deprives Cambodia’s highland peoples and their members of the same,
because of the absence of protection to prevent members’ freedoms from
diminishing, as a result of either increased state capacity for nation-building or
unduly empowered traditional authorities. There is no apparent indication that
highlanders are less freedom-seeking than other Cambodian citizens. Little suggest
that many highland people do not want to enjoy liberty and modernity within their
own cultures. They should not have to choose between their culture and their
freedom. They also should not have to choose between their culture and
modernity. They should not because no other Cambodian has to. Indigenous
peoples’ liberties should not be subject to more limitations than those that apply to
everyone else’s, as the non-discrimination principle in the Constitution highlights.
The definition of indigenous community in the land law suggests that highland
peoples are not just given the freedom to remain authentically “traditional” and
continue to cultivate their lands collectively according to custom, but are required
to do so if they want to maintain recognition as indigenous community. Conversely,
it implies that community members, by exercising their freedoms under the
Constitution, prove that they do not want to maintain their culture.12 The benefits of
recognition are made dependent on highland peoples and their members
abstaining from exercising their constitutional freedoms and modernizing their
cultures. Making recognition and protection of indigenous peoples dependent on
members preserving a past state of development is inconsistent with liberal
multiculturalism and international law. It is also inconsistent with the
Constitution’s notions of culture and freedom. It is a conception that pretends to
uphold liberal values and to accommodate cultural diversity, while prioritizing the
unity of collectives over the liberty of group members without protecting the
interests of minority citizens in having access to their culture. What the state and
the international community appear to have ended up supporting is not liberal
multiculturalism but some kind of pseudo-liberal, pseudo-cultural, mono-national
There is no easy way of knowing how this profound mismatch with actual
minority aspirations as well as with liberal multiculturalism could have occurred.13
In part, it demonstrates how much more limited the autonomy of the international
community is at the country level, compared to the global level, even in a state as
dependent on the international community as Cambodia, and a state that looks like
it has more to gain than to lose from the adoption of liberal multiculturalism. In no
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 213

small part, misconceptions about indigenous peoples may be due to the

absence of consultations and participation in highlander-state relations, as well as
multicultural misunderstandings between the Cambodian state and the interna-
tional community about the nature and aims of an adequate minority policy. It
is plausible to think that partly it is the result of a struggle to accommodate
linguistically and institutionally distinct cultures within narrowly defined Khmer

Aggressive Modernization
Liberal multiculturalism promotes minority rights that are meant to allow
minorities to maintain their distinct cultures, principally into the indefinite future if
they so wish. In contrast, distinguishing indigenous communities by their state of
civilization or economic development suggests that accommodation is inherently
transitional and temporary. To see how profoundly divergent the policy choices
suggested by this difference are, consider a recent article in a local newspaper.14
Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday that by 2015 the northeast of the country will
become the nation’s fourth focal point for industry and commerce after traditional
economic powerhouses Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. “The areas of
Stung Treng, Ratanakiri, and Mondulkiri provinces and other parts of Kratie and Preah
Vihear provinces will become the fourth economic ‘pole’,” he said yesterday during the
inauguration of National Highway 7 and Sekong Bridge in Stung Treng province.
The vast potential of natural resources in the Kingdom will transform the
livelihoods of the ethnic minorities currently living there, said the premier. “For
example, hydroelectricity is not only able to supply power to local markets, but also
neighboring countries,” he said. “The northeast region is rich in mine deposits which
can be exploited …. This is also a big tourist destination for Cambodia.

The geographical areas the Prime Minister refers to are the part of Cambodia
that is home to most of the country’s indigenous peoples. National Highway 7 has
just been turned from a dirt road into a modern highway by Chinese companies
and funds. It now connects Cambodia’s economic powerhouses with China’s
industrial south, opening up easy access to the traditional homelands of
Cambodia’s indigenous peoples along the way. The livelihoods and homelands of
ethnic minorities “currently” living there will be transformed by the exploitation of
the “Kingdom’s” natural resources. At the end of the statement, ethnic minorities
have disappeared from the landscape in which they currently live. This is not
because they have been removed from it but because the transformation and
modernization of their livelihood means they are ethnic minorities no more.
The plan the Prime Minister describes is part of precisely what liberal multicul-
214 Ehrentraut

turalism and international law suggest indigenous peoples need protection from. It
also has important similarities to what many ethnic Khmer blame the Vietnamese
state of doing to the Khmer in Khmer Kampuchea Krom. Yet this plan is considered
so noble and modern a project that it merits highlighting just a few months prior to
national elections. The article goes on to quote a prominent Cambodian economist
with approval, and reports the concern of a prominent opposition politician that
such developments may re-enforce inequalities between the rich and the poor. The
article quotes no member of any of the ethnic minorities currently living there and
no one with disagreement other than on how to best put the plan into practice.

Normative Frame: Historical Injustice and Radical Cultural Difference?

One line of argument frequently pursued in defense of greater rights for
indigenous peoples highlights the greater scale of historical injustice those groups
are said to have endured (Anaya 1996). The value of this argument is limited in
Cambodia, because the scale of violence and coercion involved in the territorial
incorporation of indigenous peoples’ lands was significantly lower than it was in
the New World. In addition, the universality of historical injustice experienced by
all Cambodians more recently distracts from the particular, added dimension of
decline, suffering and destruction historically and contemporarily experienced by
highland peoples from incorporation and nation-building policies. Indigenous
peoples as well as national and immigrant groups, minorities and majority culture
almost alike have endured so much historical injustice that the scale of it is not the
most plausible or useful way of distinguishing between them.
The historical injustice argument also does not fit well into the normative frame
in which multiculturalism is discussed in Cambodia. The incorporation and
integration of highland peoples is generally not seen as unjust. To the contrary, it is
seen as a noble project that facilitates indigenous persons’ access not only to
majority societal institutions but to modernity and individual “cultural, economic
and social evolution.” In addition, the historical injustice argument presents the
liberal multiculturalist with a slippery slope of its own. In the West, this historical
injustice argument generally works in favor of minority rights. In Cambodia,
historical injustice is routinely invoked to highlight the rights of the majority
vis-à-vis minorities, specifically to justify depriving ethnic Vietnamese of
citizenship rights.
Another argument widely invoked to justify stronger rights for indigenous
peoples is to assert a radical cultural difference between such peoples and the
majority society. In Cambodia, however, the differences between Khmer and
highland peoples are often not in apparent ways radical and the argument would
at least as plausibly single out the Cham. Moreover, the radical difference argument
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 215

resonates well with Cambodian ideas of a civilizational difference that should be

narrowed. Similarly, indigenous peoples’ greater vulnerability to development is
routinely invoked to justify specific measures. But this argument is easily turned
around to suggest their integration into Khmer society as the most adequate way to
reduce vulnerabilities. In most of their variations, those arguments support
only temporary measures aimed at integration. They are of little help in fairly
differentiating between minority cultures and aspirations and in making public
policy more responsive to them.

Decentralization, not Diversification of Khmer State and Citizenship

As was pointed out earlier, realizing the aspirations and rights of national
minorities requires a differentiated conception of citizenship and a decentralized
state in which powers relevant to the maintenance of minority cultures are
devolved to political sub-units substantially controlled by them. As Kymlicka
observes, the international community is now presenting autonomy arrangements
of this kind as a more “modern” approach of governance “in which a more fragment-
ed, diffuse and multi-level conception of statehood and sovereignty has become the norm”
(Kymlicka 2007: 31).
A more multi-level conception of statehood has indeed become a norm that is
manifest in the reform of the Cambodian state. The government’s Decentralization
and Deconcentration (D&D) Reform represents an ambitious, if in practice
incremental, effort to decentralize a unitary state, to empower and democratize
local commune councils, and in the near future, indirectly elected councils at
district and provincial levels. However, despite lip services, D&D has not so far
meant the adoption of more multilingual or multicultural or otherwise more
diversity-friendly conceptions of statehood and citizenship. As an indication, no
D&D-related law provides for any language other than Khmer to be used in local
or sub-central governance and there is no mentioning of minority languages,
institutions, customary laws and practices or representative organizations. Instead,
candidates for local representative offices are required “to read and write Khmer
script.” Rather than accommodating diversity, D&D is at the cutting edge of a
process aimed at consolidating the institutions and permanent local presence in all
the Kingdom’s localities of a modern nation-state, built on the societal institutions
of the majority culture, operating in its language only. These systems are backed by
the coercive power of the state (along with substantial international support). They
directly overrule and undermine the authority of minority institutions and destroy
the institutional resources necessary to their maintenance. Notions of “fragmented”
or “diffuse” conceptions of statehood and sovereignty have little appeal, as they
describe deviation from precisely the kind of state the government is building.
216 Ehrentraut

D&D reform is at the forefront of a nation-building project that guarantees the

perpetuation of Khmer culture and the destruction of minority cultures at the same
time, a system that privileges members of the Khmer majority and profoundly
disadvantages members of minority cultures.
Yet the larger problem with Cambodia’s kind of state is that justice or law are
not its primary concerns. In this kind of state, the main problems are not the
constitutional provisions, the distributions of powers between state levels or
the choice of official language. The above analysis suggests that in the kind of
state Cambodians aspire to, and the government claims Cambodia is, liberal
multiculturalism is a feasible and plausible policy choice, more so than in most
Asian states. In Cambodia’s kind of state, it is not. But even if Cambodia were to
become a liberal democracy overnight, major tension between Cambodian, Western
and international conceptions of ethnocultural justice and minority rights would

Existing provisions do not suffice to protect Cambodia’s minority cultures from
unjust nation-building. A greater degree of self-government should be provided to
enable those groups to maintain their existence as distinct societies if they so wish.
Liberal multiculturalism suggests incorporating national minorities based on the
Constitution’s conception of culture and based on a notion of non-discrimination
that tries to remove disadvantages, including through the recognition and
incorporation of separate institutions and cultures. Liberal multiculturalism
suggests that justice for Cambodia’s minority cultures requires a multinational and
asymmetrical conception of decentralization, aimed at accommodating minority
cultures by diversifying Khmer state and citizenship. Such a conception would
incorporate indigenous groups and their societal institutions at the level of their
culture. It would protect territorial concentrations of highland peoples by
devolving essential powers to subunits substantially controlled by them.
Reforming the framework for D&D reform appears to be among the more practical
and realistic opportunities to create some measure of self-government for
indigenous peoples and enhance their control over themselves and their cultures’
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 217

1. I would like to thank Katrin Seidel and Chen Sochoeun for commenting on
earlier versions of this paper and Peter J. Hammer for doing so multiple times.
Remaining mistakes are mine. This research was made possible by a doctoral
scholarship from the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation and support for field
research from the Cambodia-Office of the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation.
2. Kymlicka’s conception was chosen because the author discusses the relevance of
liberal multiculturalism in Asia specifically and his work is closely studied among
many scholars of multiculturalism in Asia.
3. It is worth mentioning that other theorists of multiculturalism base their theories
on a similar distinction between immigrant ethnic groups and incorporated
national minorities, such as Spinner 1994 and implicitly, Taylor 1994.
4. “Kymlicka 2007” refers to a manuscript entitled ‘The Global Diffusion of Liberal
Multiculturalism.” It has since been published as “Multicultural Odysseys:
Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity” (Oxford, 2007).
5. Indeed, ILO Convention 169 has inclusiveness built into it, by adding “tribal
peoples” as a distinct category to “indigenous peoples” and assigning to groups in
both categories the same comprehensive set of positive minority rights. The
declared reason for doing so was to be able to extend protection to groups such as
pastoralists and other nomadic and semi-nomadic groups in Asia and Africa that
may not have claims to prior settlement or whose claims to prior settlement may be
hard to validate.
6. Ample evidence of this historical fact is carved into temples around Angkor Wat
that depict epic battles between pre-modern Cham and Khmer states.
7. Cham share with Khmer a national narrative of lost greatness to which Vietnam
is essential as the Other. This has plausibly facilitated Cham accommodation in
Cambodia. Cham are a people made stateless by Vietnam. Khmer are a people
jealously guarding their precious state sovereignty to protect against the perceived
risk of sharing the same fate. The existence of Cham in Cambodia (and Khmer
Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam) attests to the possibility and likely reinforces the
8. Report of the 280th session of the Governing Body (GB280-18-2001-02-1095-3-
EN.Doc). The government in Colombia has accepted that Roma in that country
qualify for coverage under ILO Convention 169.
9. For how long such a slope could be, consider that anywhere between 2% to 60%
of the population in Indonesia can be considered indigenous peoples, depending on
which definition is used for counting. For how slippery it may get, consider
Tibetans, Palestinians, South Ossetians and Kurds, among many other examples of
sub-state nations.
218 Ehrentraut

10. One more thing that is distinct about Cambodia is the extent to which not only
indigenous peoples but also the majority culture manages land and natural
resources according to custom, the former because they do not write down their
laws and the latter because it does not enforce them. What is distinct is that
effective public rules (and public goods) are features of minority systems of
management more than they are features of state institutions.
11. Conversely, if unity, tradition and collectivism justify rights to communal title
for hill tribe communities, there is no reason to deny the same to other Cambodian
communities in which those features are evident, too. Nothing in the text of the
land law justifies excluding those communities from the definition of indigenous
community and the benefits of communal title. But neither tradition nor collec-
tivism are particularly good reasons to justify minority rights.
12. Indeed at one point in the piloting process, the Interior Ministry suggested that
recognition would be given only for a period of five years, by which time a review
would be undertaken to determine whether the pre-conditions for recognition still
13. The land law has been the main focus of international efforts to provide
protection for indigenous peoples in Cambodia. Given the rapid pace of land
alienation among indigenous communities and the extent to which the mainte-
nance of their distinct culture depends on preventing it, it was sensible to prioritize
secure land tenure and it probably was sensible to emphasize the communal
character of land and resource use. However, the conception of indigenous
communities in the land law has since become the legal basis for indigenous
peoples’ incorporation into the state.
14. Mekong Times, PM: Northeast region will become Cambodia’s fourth econom-
ic “pole,” 30 April 2008.
Minorities, the State, and the International Community in Cambodia 219

Anaya, James S. (1996), Indigenous Peoples in International Law (Oxford University
Press, New York).
Barnes, R.H., Gray, Andrew, Kingsbury, Benedict (eds.) (1995), Indigenous Peoples of
Asia (Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor).
Edwards, Penny (1996), Ethnic Chinese in Cambodia, in Center for Advanced
Study, Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic Groups in Cambodia. (Center for Advanced
Study, Phnom Penh): 108-176.
Gover, Kirsty; Kingsbury, Benedict (eds.) (2004), Indigenous Groups and the Politics of
Recognition in Asia. Cases from Japan, Taiwan, West Papua, Bali, China and Gilgit,
International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, Volume 11, Issue 1-2.
Kymlicka, Will (1995), Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights
(Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Kymlicka, Will (2001), Politics in the Vernacular. Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and
Citizenship (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Kymlicka, Will (2002), Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction (Oxford
University Press, Oxford).
Kymlicka, Will (2007), Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International
Politics of Diversity (Oxford University Press, Oxford).
Spinner, Jeff (1994), The Boundaries of Citizenship. Race, Ethnicity and Nationality in
the Liberal State (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore).
Taylor, Charles (1994), Multiculturalism (Princeton University Press, Princeton).

UNDP (2004), Human Development Report. Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World
(Oxford University Press, Oxford).
White, Joanna (1996), The Indigenous Highlanders of the Northeast. An Uncertain
Future, in Center for Advanced Study, Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic Groups
in Cambodia. (Center for Advanced Study, Phnom Penh): 333-374.
The Making of an Invisible Minority:
Muslims in Colonial Burma
Stephen L.Keck
In 1905, alert people in Rangoon might have witnessed a small – if determined –
protest waged by the city’s Muslim community. These Muslims sought the location
of the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last ruler of the Mogul empire, who had
been exiled to Rangoon after the British crushed the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Rangoon had been chosen because it was assumed that it was a politically safe place
to allow Bahadur Shah—whose very existence had served as a rallying point (for
those calling for the renewal of the Mogul empire) against British rule—to live out
his last years. The protestors were angry because by 1903 they did not even know
the location of Bahadur Shah’s grave: “[T]he Mahommedan Community of
Rangoon is agitated over the resting place of the last king of the proud line of
Mughals… As a man or as a King, Bahadur Shah was not to be admired, but he
should be remembered.”1 The protestors wanted to purchase some land to construct
a monument for the last of the Mogul line. The British government, not surprising-
ly, was cool to the idea. The initial response from Calcutta was negative: “it would
be very inappropriate for the Government to do anything to perpetuate or pay
respect to the memory of Bahadur Shah, or to erect over his remains a tomb which
might become a place of pilgrimage.”2 The issue remained unresolved until 1907,
when the British agreed to erect a rather simple stone slab near the place where
Bahadur Shar was buried. The Rangoon Times commented that there was now a
“sense of satisfaction among the Mahommedan community.”3
This episode, which was minor compared to the 1893 riots, provides a good first
look at the status of Muslims in British Burma. To begin with, Rangoon was an
acceptable destination for Bahadur Shah because the British could be confident that
he could not attract a large number of Muslims to his cause. In addition, as a
Muslim immigrant into Burma, Bahadur Shah would come to represent what
would become an unwritten assumption: namely, that Muslims did not really
belong to Burma. At the same time, the British response was to try to do as little as
possible to allow local Muslims to make his tomb into any kind of sacred place or
heritage site. As we will see, this attitude towards the last Mogul ruler would aptly
epitomize a tendency to view Islam in Burma as a transitory phenomenon.
This discussion has been created for “Cambodia and Mainland Southeast Asia
at its Margins: Minority Groups and Borders” in the hope of providing a broader
frame of reference for the problem of Muslims in Myanmar and more generally the
222 Keck

issue of minorities in Mainland Southeast Asia by examining a minority group

defined not by borders or ethnicity, but rather by religious belief. J. Berlie’s recent
book the Burmanization of Muslims in Myanmar provides many good nuggets of
information about the subject.4 It also illustrates the inherently difficult nature of
such a task: like many topics involving contemporary Myanmar, sources are
uneven or nonexistent. This research seeks to begin to provide some historical
perspective on this understudied topic.
The relationship between British colonialism and Islam in Burma is as complex
as it is complicated. Islam in Burma long preceded the arrival and development of
British rule. However, it is also the case that under British administration the
numbers of Muslims in Burma increased. More than anything else, the conquest of
Burmese land by the British virtually ensured that the country would become
a destination for Indian immigrants. Basically, Muslim (and Hindu) immigration
into Myanmar (particularly in Arakan—now called the Rakhine state) followed
British conquest. Many of these Muslims came to Burma seeking employment and
other forms of economic advantage. This immigration was steady and substantial:
by the end of the nineteenth century Muslims made up a significant percentage of
Rangoon’s population. Muslims flourished in other parts of Burma as well; there
were sizeable communities in Mandalay and Akyab. These newly arrived
Muslims hardly supplanted the Burmese Muslims, but their existence had a rather
paradoxical effect: namely, despite the fact that there were now more Muslims in
Burma, they seemingly came to be regarded as non-Burmese. That is, as more
Indian Muslims came to Burma, their presence would help to ensure that Islam
would inevitably be seen as something external to the traditions and cultures of
Burma. Last, the success of Indian immigration produced another concern: namely,
that the Burmese themselves might become a “doomed race” in their own country.
It is almost certainly more than a coincidence that the efforts to recover and
preserve Burma’s heritage—which were made without reference to Islam—date
from the same period in which a number of colonial administrators worried about
the future of the Burmese.
This chapter focuses on the manner in which the British regarded Islam in
Burma between 1885-1914. Such an analysis requires, at the very least, the tracing
of a series of complicated cultural arrangements in order to depict the ways in
which the colonizer fit their Muslim minority into a colonial view of Burma. Late
nineteenth century colonial thought was shaped by many variables: the rise of
social Darwinism, the development of heritage practices, gendered discourses
(which often focused on the status of indigenous women), ethnography and
secularization. Moreover, British writers in South Asia and Burma had had their
vistas already shaped by events on the borders of Burma. The Panthay Rebellion
The Making of an Invisible Minority 223

(1856-1873), in which the Yunnanese Muslims revolted against the Qing dynasty,
produced instability north of Burma for nearly 17 years. The Panthay Rebellion has
not attracted as much attention as it deserves, but it was an event in which more
than one million people died; it also had the effect of increasing the number of
immigrants from Yunnan into Burma. Second, and, more important, the Indian
Rebellion of 1857 not only directly threatened British power, but led to a decided
reaction against Islam within the Raj. Furthermore, as the twentieth century
approached, the British were also cognizant of a general rise in communitarian
tensions on the subcontinent. In fact, the riot between Hindus and Muslims in 1893,
in which at least 20 people were killed, was understood largely in these terms. After
all, this event had found echoes the same year in a number of Indian cities,
prompting some observers to regard this as an Indian affair.
Significantly, it is the case that the British were fascinated by Burma’s ethnic
diversity. During this period – which began with the end of the Third Anglo-
Burman War and ends with the beginnings of the First World War – a small army
of British ethnographic writers undertook often exhausting labours to depict the
diversity of ethnic groups in Burma. Their studies might serve as an example of
“orientalist” discourses as they presented a collective picture of the land and its
peoples: Burma was a foreign place made up of the Burmese and their many
exotic minorities. The peoples of Burma were characterized as “other,” exotic and
usually represented as being inferior—facing the hurdles associated with the
advent of modernity.
With the prospect of fundamental social transformation on the horizon, it
should be recalled that this discussion began with the recognition that the
emphasis placed on ethnographic considerations meant that comparative treat-
ment of Islam was essentially non-existent. Even this point is a curious one.
Colonial administrators in many parts of the Empire regarded Islam as a potential
threat: the fear that Muslims might call for a Jihad against the British was a fear
articulated in many imperial venues. For example, W.W. Hunter’s tract The Indian
Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? (1871) took the
position that Islam was a threat to British rule because the “whole Muhammadan
community has been openly deliberating on their obligation to rebel.”5 While
Hunter’s view was regarded as an extreme or unconventional one, it was still
credible to a few segments of British opinion. More generally, while British authors
might reject Hunter’s ideas, many did assess Islam in terms of a distinctive
community.6 Therefore, the relative silence regarding Islam in Burma is at once
noticeable and curious.
It seems clear that the British never regarded Islam as essential in any way to
Burma. My argument, which is based upon a preliminary stage of research, will
224 Keck

suggest that the British (with some notable exceptions) were largely indifferent to
Muslims in Burma and therefore ignored them. Since many British administrators
had served first in India, the investigation of Islam and its practices almost
certainly seemed as unnecessary as it was uninteresting. At the same time, the
British were fascinated by Burma’s diversity and so travel writers and ethnogra-
phers explored and described (and photographed) many of these peoples. Ethnic
diversity was part of the frame used to exhibit exotic Burma. The Chins,
Kachins, Shan, Karen, Paloung and many others joined the Burmans as the peoples
associated with the colony called Burma. Minority status became based upon
ethnicity (and at times location) and not religion. This would be the case with the
creation of colonial heritage as well. Burma’s Muslims simply did not fit into this
picture. They were, in fact, on their way to becoming an “invisible minority.” While
it is beyond the bounds of this paper, I might suggest that this cultural definition of
Burma was repeated after independence. Myanmar’s minorities belonged (which
hardly guaranteed favorable treatment), but Islam remained alien. Therefore, it
seems at least plausible that the way people were defined (or not defined) affected
the manner in which they were treated. The status of Muslims in Myanmar, who
since 1962 have experienced “Burmanization,” is an eventual end point to a much
larger story than this paper has explored.

Muslims in Burma
The development and arrival of Islam in Burma remains under-studied, but
remains a controversial topic.7 The Census of 1901 provides some basis for claming
that Muslims represented about four percent of the population of Burma.8 Berlie has
postulated four main groups of Muslims. The first group probably followed some
of the trading patterns in the Indian Ocean. This development may have begun in
the eigth or ninth centuries, leaving Arakan with a permanent Muslim community.
A second group, known as the Panthays, came from the north. These Chinese
Muslims migrated from Yunnan with many settling in the northern parts of Burma.
Another group came with British colonization: the bulk of these Muslims came
from Chittagong and other places in Bengal. They settled in Arakan and Rangoon.
Many of the descendants of these Muslims remain in Burma, but significant
numbers left the country at various points in the twentieth century. The fourth and
oldest group are the Burmese Muslims, whose origins are remote.9 Since the British
census of 1881 they are referred to as “Zerbadees.”10

Representations of Islam in Colonial Burma

Recovering British representations of Islam or Muslims in colonial Burma remains
to be accomplished. With respect to British policy it is clear that the administrators
The Making of an Invisible Minority 225

regarded Muslims as separate from other groups. This can be readily gleaned from
the censuses, patterns of elective government and even the naming of certain parts
of Rangoon, i.e., Mogul street. In fact, there appears to be considerable warrant for
comparing British municipal policy in places like Rangoon and Mandalay with
Indian cities. As students of Southeast Asian history are doubtlessly aware, colonial
Burma produced a sizeable body of literature written by various Britons about
the country. Collectively, these volumes provide contemporary scholars with an
important body of sources for recovering the mentalite of the colonizer. For our
purposes, this discussion will draw from several British authors who lived and
worked in colonial Burma. Sir George Scott was arguably the most influential
British mind in colonial Burma, author of The Burman and compiler of the Gazetteer
of Upper Burma and the Shan States (1900-1901). V.C. Scott O’Connor was a talented
civil servant whose The Silken East (1904) and Mandalay and Other Cities of the Past
in Burma (1907) reflect a deep emotional engagement with Burma. These two works
remain unsurpassed for British travel writing about the country. Finally, there is
Mrs. Powell-Brown, the wife of Captain Frank Powell-Brown, who had served the
Irrawaddy Flotilla Company for over ten years. In addition, some attention will also
be devoted to the agenda (and writings) of Taw Sein Ko, whose exploration of the
peoples and history of Burma is also reflective of colonial worldviews. Given the
inherent limitations in recovering British understandings of Islam, this discussion
will attempt to delineate a number of themes or choices made by writers who were
addressing metropolitan audiences in the hope of making sense of the country.
While it is not exhaustive, it is clear that these figures tended to invoke different
themes in representing Islam in Burma. In practice this meant that Muslims helped
to signify larger lessons about Burma itself. These authors’ descriptions help to
portray the “cosmopolitan,” “picturesque” or idiosyncratic view of Burma and its

Muslims in Cosmopolitan Burma

One way to represent Muslims in colonial Burma was “cosmopolitanism.” That
is, in places such as Yangon, Mandalay and others, social life was depicted and
defined in terms of its diversity. The appeal of a cosmopolitan theme could be
understood in progressive or at least positive terms. Positive representations, as
such, typically viewed Muslims (and Muslim communities) as evidence that Burma
was a country undergoing modernization, where many different ethnic groups
lived in relative harmony. Yet, the theme of cosmopolitan Burma could lead to
negative representations of Muslims as well. Instead of celebrating diversity, some
writers believed that cosmopolitan Burma meant that traditional Burman ways of
life were under siege. Accordingly, Muslims were frequently understood as a
226 Keck

unwelcome alien presence within Burma. Negative cosmopolitanism, in other

words, had the effect of making Muslims “alien” and “other.”
It is instructive to see the ways in which British writers situated Muslims
within their larger representations of Burma. To cite a few examples, Mrs.
Powell-Brown’s A Year on the Irrawaddy (Rangoon, 1911) provides a good glimpse
of Chittagonian sailors.11 Unlike many other British writers, Mrs. Powell-Brown was
not concerned with the realities of imperial governance. As a result, she did not
appear to worry about the social position or situation of these men who worked
with such efficiency on Burma’s vast system of waterways. More to the point, Mrs.
Powell-Brown does not appear to have worried either about ethnic tensions in
Rangoon or the future of the Burmans. Instead, she wrote what she saw:
There is a tradition that Chittagonians are descended from the Arabian pirates who, in
ancient times, founded a colony in the country. Their language, I believe, is a corrupt
form of Arabic, but, on board, they speak a variation of Hindustani, which is known as
Lascari Bat.
They are very unlike the Burmans in looks and character, but are equally unlike
the natives of India from the other side of the Bay of Bengal.12

Mrs Powell-Brown emphasized that the Chittagonians were working for their
families in East Bengal: “they are scraping together every available pice in order to
get back to their own country, where their mothers, wives and children are
awaiting them.”13 The Chittagonian sailors were simply part of her description of
river travel in Burma. This positive theme also found treatment in O’Connor’s The
Silken East in which the author went to considerable lengths to portray boat travel
on the Salwin. O’Connor’s elegiac prose aimed to describe the rather wondrous (if
difficult) mode of locomotion on the Salwin.
However, O’Connor proved to be ambivalent about Muslims in Burma: the
most arresting appeal to “cosmopolitanism” could be found in his description of
“modern” Rangoon. Having traced the city’s much earlier pristine origins, he
offered a profoundly different picture of modern Rangoon. The modern city
represented a complete change from its existence before the advent of British rule.
Rangoon’s most cosmopolitan thoroughfare is Mogul Street, which begins with the
funnel of an ocean steamer, climbs up to the white minarets of a Musulman mosque,
and ends under the wooden eaves of a Native Christian chapel. A Chettis’ hall, with
wooden columns, of a design that was probably invented in Southern India twenty
centuries ago, faces the white temple of Islam, and the voice of the green-turbaned
muezzin, as he calls the Faithful to prayer, is overborne by the clatter and chink of
money, and the guttural brawlings of that loudest of vulgarians, the Chetti. Over the
way, in an adjoining street, the Hindu clangs his bell and blows his conch before the
The Making of an Invisible Minority 227

altars of Shiv, in defiance of his Musulman neighbour. His Musulman neighbour retorts
by sacrificing the sacred cow, and spilling her blood before the very eyes of those who
worship her as a god. Gentle amenities of this kind, fomented by turbulent Afghans and
by Hindu millionaires, whose care it is to establish an alibi, by retreating at the crisis to
a safe distance of fifteen hundred miles, are apt occasionally to end in conflicts of
a serious character. In 1893 they ended in a riot which was only quelled after thirty
persons had been shot down, some two hundred, most mounted policemen, had been
wounded, and a regiment of English soldiers had been summoned to over-awe the
populace. Often, as I drive down this crowded thoroughfare, past the archways of the
mosque, I am reminded of the appearance it presented on that occasion, when its steps
were slippery with the blood of mullahs and muezzins and chulias, pouring out of
ragged wounds made by the sniders of the military police. I am reminded of the latent
forces of an ancient hate, under the new cosmopolitan unity of Rangoon.14

O’ Connor’s more important point was that these problems were not intrinsic to
Burma: “For Mogul Street is a living bit of India. Except as a wayfarer no Burman
occupies it.”15 For O’Connor, Rangoon had become an Indian city which had
displaced the native Burmans. O’Connor wrote in an era shaped at once by
industrialism and social Darwinism. This meant that he was cognizant not only of
the dynamics of the 1893 riots, but also of a debate in colonial society about the
“survival” of the Burmans as a “doomed race.”16 While this is the subject of
another discussion, it is useful to note that it was a common fear that Indian
immigration into Burma would have the effect of displacing the indigenous
population. Therefore, in Rangoon O’Connor saw the embodiment of a threat to the
country which he had come to love. Indians—both Hindus and Muslims—were
mostly unwelcome; in essence, O’Connor’s desire to identify with the Burmans
meant that he regarded Indians as the “other.” More important for the argument
here, cosmopolitanism in this instance meant that he portrayed Muslims as people
who did not really belong to the land of Burma. To put this differently, he could not
anticipate (or probably accept) the desirable or successful Burmanization of Indian
Muslims. Instead, O’Connor almost certainly worried about the opposite: the fate
of the Burmans amidst an onslaught of Indian immigration.

Muslims as Imperial Subjects

However, O’Connor’s ambivalence about Islam in Burma stemmed from his
deep knowledge of the country. The further he was removed from Rangoon the less
negatively he regarded Islam. With his attempt to provide a nearly encyclopedic
coverage of the country, he examined the lives of Muslims in the north. O’Connor’s
knowledge of Burma was almost as wide-ranging as Sir George Scott’s and so his
228 Keck

treatment of the Panthays in the north reflected a more nuanced understanding of

Islam in Burma. O’Connor described the Mosque in Mogok:
Beyond the polo-ground, its triple roof rising high above the heads of the players, is the
Panthay mosque. Texts from the Koran in sheets of Arabic letters are wrapped about
its inner pillars, and from its tower the muezzin daily calls the faithful to prayer. Of the
worshippers many are Chinaman of the obvious type; but there are some with the
Muslim strain in them, the strain of the Arab and the Turk. One man, in a long white
robe and red fez, might have come from toll-collecting at the Golden Horn; another in
a blue gelabieh, would pass unnoticed in the bazaars of Cairo. But the most striking
figure of all is that of the chief Mullah, a man of great height, with the beard of a prophet
and the mien of a Hebrew patriarch….He was accompanied by a nephew of Ibrahim,
the last Sultan of Yunnan, and the Haji Nur-ud-Din (Ko-Shwe-Tin). They were well
aware, through the medium of Chinese newspapers published at Hongkong, of the
progress of events in the world, and took much interest in the Sultan of Turkey’s
mission to the Chinese Emperor on behalf of the Musulmans of China…. Ko-Shwe-Tin,
otherwise the Haji Nur-ud-Din, is a ruby-merchant who has lived at Mogok for twenty
years. He is effusive in his loyalty to the British throne, and was, it appears, of some
help to our columns when they first advanced to Mogok after the fall of Mandalay.17

In this context, the issues inherent in cosmopolitanism were seemingly no

longer relevant and consequently, the picture of Muslims in Burma was far more
positive. Not only were they friendly, but these Muslims supported British rule.
That said, O’Connor’s tendency is to see them as Yunnanese immigrants, making
them by implication alien and other. However, since the Panthays did not appear to
be a threat to the Burmans, O’Connor was comfortable presenting a positive picture
of Islam in northern Burma.

Enigmatic Muslims
Another way to represent Burma’s Muslims was to present them in enigmatic
terms. Muslims were not Burmese. They were living in the country, but were not
essential in any way to it. British writers rarely connected them to the broader
subject of colonial rule. Instead, they were observed to be working in Burma, but
not belonging to it. Possibly the best indication of this trend can be glimpsed from
Scott’s vast writings. In the Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, Scott
describes a Muslim community situated in Sin-Gaing township:
The township has an approximate population of 44,801 persons of whom the great bulk
are Burmese. Only eight villages, Kanlu, Letpan, Kalanbo, Thitkauk, Hin-ngu, Shwega,
Myanung-son-nge and Tabetswe are Mahommedan; here live the descendants of the
original settlers and the majority of them still retain their ancestral religion, though they
The Making of an Invisible Minority 229

have entirely adopted Burmese language and dress. It is said that the first immigrants
numbered 3,000, and that the Burmese King, fearing the combined strength of so many
foreigners, separated them, allotting a village to each body.18

Scott’s last comment looked ahead to some of the realities that Muslims have
faced in Myanmar after the nation became independent, in which they remain
regarded as aliens with their loyalty to extant political authorities in question. In
any case, these Muslims were largely assimilated to Burma language and customs,
but they did not receive the special analytical treatment which would be reserved
for other minorities in the country. Instead, it was important to Scott that they could
not be regarded as truly Burmese; they were still immigrants even if they “adopted
Burmese language and dress.”
Last, there were British writers who regarded Islam in local terms. Just as they
wrote to explicate the Wa, Palaungs or other tribes, so too did they see the Muslims
of Arakan as a local phenomenon. However, it should be pointed out that many
British writers could explore Arakan and be virtually oblivious to their presence.
For example, readers of Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (1910), which was a
volume that presented a nearly official version of the country through the eyes of
the British establishment, might be forgiven for thinking that Islam did not exist in
the country. The treatment of Akyab is particularly striking because while readers
might learn that the population was mixed, the only mention of Islam came in the
mini-biography of Mr. E. Kadir Maracan, who was a municipal commissioner and
since 1906 an honorary magistrate. The entry identifies him by adding that he is
also “vice-president of the Arakan Anjumau-i-Islamia.” His father, who had
emigrated from Pondicherry to Akyab, had also “built a handsome mosque,
and an Anglo-Vernacular School for the education of Mahomedan boys, and
was generally recognized as a leader among the Mahomedan community.”19 An
illustration accompanies the text of the son outside his impressive European-style
home. This is the only reference to anything Islamic in the four-page section on
The most sensitive British observers, then, understood that Muslims could be
found in many parts of Burma. They were not worried, as was W.W. Hunter, about
the possibility that Islam might become a disruptive or oppositional force. Beyond
communal issues associated with Rangoon, they appear to be largely indifferent
to their existence. Nonetheless, the one thing which unified these different
representations of Islam was the fact that it was seen as foreign, external and
ultimately alien to Burma. Implicit in these descriptions was the idea that Muslims
in Burma could never be more than an immigrant group, which, even though they
might dress as Burmans and speak Burmese, could never be fully assimilated into
230 Keck

a Burman nation.

Fashioning Burma’s Heritage: the Dispossession of the Muslim Past

British scholarship aimed to chart, understand and ultimately depict the peoples of
Burma. Consequently, the British men and women who wrote about Burma
usually did so by discussing its landscapes, chief religion and its peoples. As we
will see, their accounts of Burma emphasized the fact that it was populated by
Burmans and a host of ethnic minorities, all of whom belonged to the land. In
contrast, these representations had the effect of underscoring the unstated idea that
Muslims in Burma were inherently foreign and alien to the land.
Again, it is useful to consider O’Connor’s treatment of the “peoples of Burma.”
In The Silken East O’Connor defines the place by its peoples and topography. For
O’Connor, the peoples of Burma were the end product of several waves of
migration into the land. Over the last two centuries some have become Burmanized
while others—such as the Karen—have remained independent but part of the
Burman landscape. To state the obvious, despite the massive immigration into
Rangoon and Akyab, O’ Connor could not bring himself to include Indian Muslims
into the story of Burma and its peoples.
A more interesting omission could be found in the work of Taw Sein Ko, who
laboured to recover the cultural history of Burma’s peoples. Taw, who served as
Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, explored Burma’s religious and
ethnic practices as they were manifest in ruins, customs and existing practices. It is
instructive to see how he regarded the peoples of Burma. In Burma: A Melting Pot
of Races (1919), he did acknowledge the existence of Muslims (as an Indian
immigrant group), whom he regarded as Indians, in Burma. Taw Sein Ko claimed
that Burma was a “perfect ethnological museum,”20 and he unwittingly anticipated
the goal of Burmanization when he addressed the future of the Burmese.
Responding to the idea that the Burmese were a “doomed race,” he foresaw a future
in which all “foreigners—maybe in the third or fourth generation—and all
tribesmen will eventually be proud to be classed as Burmans, Talaings and
Karens, the three main races of Burma.”21 Taw Sein Ko’s impressive and nearly
comprehensive agenda was largely free of considerations about Islam. In contrast,
he connected the Chinese, Karen, Shans and Burmans to Burma by recovering their
past and then promoting the study of it. To put this differently, these peoples now
belonged in Burma (despite the fact that they had in many cases also immigrated
into it), but the Muslims and Hindus remained aliens.
A couple of additional examples are worthy of note: in order to portray the
ethnic diversity of the country, Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma exhibited the
nation’s different peoples. This unofficial, but orthodox presentation of the British
The Making of an Invisible Minority 231

view of their colony revealed a striking indifference to Muslims in Burma. To begin

with, J. H. Hannay in “Ethnology in Burma” explored the ethnic diversity of the
land, exploring the identity (and possible history) of the Chins, Kachins, Shans,
Karen, Padaungs, Palaungs, Wa and other peoples.22 All of this is presented without
reference to Islam. More important, the work contained two other sections: one
devoted to religion and the other to “Manners and Customs.” Neither made
mention of Islam or its practices.23
Yet, the section on “Manners and Customs” which was written by Maung May
Oung (a Cambridge trained lawyer and someone who would prove to be an early
nationalist), provides a glimpse of the motivation for the detailed accounts of the
ethnology of Burma. Maung May Oung asserted:
Another matter which it is necessary to draw attention to (for the benefit of those who
have not visited Burma) is that the people of the country are totally different from those
of India, different in race, religion, language, dress, manners, customs, ideas,
sentiments; in short, the two countries are as dissimilar as any two countries could
possibly be, and that in spite of their contiguity. It is a political accident that Burma
happens to be placed under the rule of the Viceroy of India, and is hence one of the
many provinces of the Indian Empire; there the connection ends.24

He might have added that the large number of Indian immigrants were
understood to be a threat to the indigenous peoples and cultures of Burma. For our
purposes here, Maung May Oung’s admission suggests that the very aim of
recovering, delineating and ultimately celebrating the customs and manners of
Burma reflected a deep worry about the country’s status within British India.
It is instructive to examine Sir George Scott’s attempt to define the status of the
Panthays in Upper Burma. Scott’s work in the Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan
States produce a comprehensive ethnology of Burma examining the ethnic origins
of the Panthays by focusing on the community at Pang Long. He understood these
Muslims to be a mixture of Chinese and Mongol groups and while many had lived
in Burma for centuries they were still regarded as outsiders. They are a “mixed
race” which was descended from the colonists sent into Yunnan by the Mongols.
Significantly, Scott added that it should not be forgotten that the “invasions of
Burma were led by Musalman Generals.”25 In addition, these people were mostly
Chinese, but they are “distinct in their physiognomy.”26 The important point here is
that Scott’s effort to provide a historical basis for the existence of Islam in northern
Burma directly underscored the point that Muslims of Pang Long were, in essence,
alien to the country.
The work of V.C. Scott O’Connor, Taw Sein Ko, J.H. Hannay, Maung May Oung
and Sir George Scott also highlights the much larger creation of knowledge about
232 Keck

Burma. In these instances, “colonial knowledge” connected the customs, traditions,

languages, landscapes to ethnic groups. That is, the Shan, Karen, Paloung, Kachin
and Chins all had discernible practices which could be fit under the rubric of
“minorities in Burma.” Since these traditions were apparently grounded in many
parts of the Burmese past, they signified that these peoples “belonged” to Burma’s
history. This also meant that to represent Burma—in travel literature, colonial
handbooks, reports on the census and through photography –required connecting
the Burmans with these peoples. To situate this in another way, Burma was a place
with one dominant population and many minor ethnic groups.
One of the unintended consequences of producing this type of “colonial
knowledge” was to make Burma’s Muslims almost invisible. We have already seen
that the British tended to conceive of Islam as a religion which was external to
Burma. The production of knowledge in the name of ethnography (and related
disciplines) meant that minorities acquired legitimacy through unique (and
picturesque) customs and practices. Many of the practices which defined the lives
of Muslims originated outside of Burma and Southeast Asia. Therefore, while it was
clear that these men and women constituted a religious minority, the advent of
ethnographic knowledge ensured that they would become nearly invisible to those
who would look at Burma and be entranced by its many ethnic groups.

Outside of Myanmar the status and treatment of its Muslim minority has received
little attention. Given that the politicalization of Islam has become a major subject
in many parts of the world, the relative silence about Muslims in Myanmar is
actually much more striking than the earlier patterns of British indifference. This
discussion, which has tried to be suggestive rather than in any way exhaustive, has
attempted to show that Muslims in Burma became further marginalized under
British rule for a variety of reasons. British observers understood Muslims in Burma
to be mostly Indian and therefore possibly transitory. We have also seen that British
ethnographic research assumed that minority status was a reflection of ethnic, not
religious, divisions. The stress placed upon ethnographic representations virtually
ensured that a disparate Muslim minority would be overlooked or underestimated.
In addition, the connection between the idea that the Burmans might be a “doomed
race” and the growth of interest in saving the country’s cultural heritage should
probably be explored further. The importance placed upon the recovery of customs
and heritage made it easy for the British and those who followed to see that some
groups were more legitimate than others. There are two other considerations which
I would suggest were of great importance. First, despite the communitarian
tensions which were already on the rise in India, the secular mindset of the British
The Making of an Invisible Minority 233

meant that they were unable or unwilling to understand that a minority group
could be based as much upon religion as it might upon ethnicity. Second, the
underrepresentation of Islam might have stemmed from a reverse “Orientalist”
argument: namely, Muslims were simply not exotic enough. The British (and other
Europeans) were far more interested in describing Southeast Asia’s many peoples
than they were in cataloging Muslim practices in Burma.
It is difficult to gauge the impact of British representations of Islam on the
country’s Muslim population. Bahadur Shah did receive a plaque in 1907 and many
Muslims flourished under British rule. Nonetheless, the years which followed the
First World War brought renewed tensions, culminating in an anti-Muslim riot in
1938. Many Indians (Muslims and Hindus alike) would leave the country during
and immediately after World War II. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims
would be particularly acute in Arakan in the late 1940s. At its worst, the conflict in
Arakan replicated the ethnic cleansing which defined the most sinister events of the
Partition. Another wave would leave Myanmar after 1962 and subsequent decades
would strangely see that Taw Sein Ko’s view of the future might approach fulfill-
ment. Burmanization—an impossible concept during the colonial period—would
begin as and remain a challenge for Myanmar Muslims.
234 Keck

1. William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal (London, 2006), p. 482.
2. Ibid, p. 482.
3. Ibid, pp. 481-482.
4. J.A. Berlie, The Burmanization of Myanmar’s Muslims (Bangkok, 2008).
5. W.W. Hunter cited in Daivd Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generaton: Muslim Solidarity
in British India (Oxford, 1978), p. 10.
6. Ibid, p. 10.
7. For example, the discussion about the origins and development of Islam in
Arakan remains lively. See Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in
Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar), SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research,
Vol.3, No. 2, Autumn 2005.
8. The 1901 Census is cited in Alleyne Ireland, The Province of Burma (Boston and
New York, 1907) p. 71.
9. See also: Judith L. Richell, Disease and Demography in Colonial Burma (Singapore,
2006) p.32.
10. Berlie, pp. 1-13.
11. Elizabeth Powell-Brown, A Year on the Irrawaddy (Rangoon, 1911).
12. Ibid, p. 71.
13. Ibid, p. 77.
14. V.C. Scott O’Connor, The Silken East (London, 1904), pp. 69-71.
15. Ibid, p. 71.
16. Taw Sein Ko, “Burma: A Melting Pot of Races” in Burmese Sketches, vol 2
(Rangoon, 1920), p. 323.
17. V.C.Scott O’ Connor, The Silken East, p. 823-27.
18. J.G. Scott and J. P. Hardiman, Gazetter of Upper Burma and Shan States, Part 2
Volume 3 (Rangoon, 1900-1901), p. 175.
19. Arnold Wright (editor), Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (London, 1910), p. 398.
20. Taw Sein Ko, “Burma: A Melting Pot of Races,” in Burmese Sketches, vol. 2
(Rangoon, 1920), p. 322.
21. Ibid, p. 323.
22. J.H. Hannay, “Ethnology in Burma,” in Arnold Wright (editor), Twentieth
Century Impressions of Burma (London, 1910), pp. 65-75.
23. Maung May Oung “Manners and Customs” in Arnold Wright (editor), Twentieth
Century Impressions of Burma (London, 1910), pp. 76-89.
24. Ibid, p. 77.
25. Sir George Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States (Part I-Vol. 1)
(London, 1900), p. 609.
26. Ibid, p. 612.
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia: Defining Islam Today and
the Validity of the Discourse of Syncretism
Allen Stoddard
On a recent visit to Cambodia, I had an insightful interaction with the current mufti
of Cambodia, Sos Kamry. As I explained to him my research interests, we spoke for
some time about the history of the Cham Muslims and Islam in Cambodia. He
spoke briefly about the history and culture of the Cham people, focusing primarily
on the great struggle their community has undergone during the last three decades,
trying to recover from the great suffering endured during the time of the Khmer
As we moved into a more specific discussion of Cambodia’s contemporary
Cham communities, I asked if he could tell me more about the different groups of
Muslims that exist in his country. His immediate answer caught me off guard:
“There is only one group. There are no divisions. We are all just Muslims.” In
response, I asked him about certain communities I had recently visited that seemed
to have varying patterns of worship and tradition, or other groups who are
supported by foreign Muslim organizations and thus implement that particular
form of Islam. He calmly explained that those Muslim groups which combine
elements of other religions into their practice or accept foreign forms of Islam are
not “really Muslims.” He further clarified, “There are no ‘sects’—that is a Buddhist
thing. There are no divisions. There is only Islam.”1
This brief and simple interaction highlights an interesting contemporary
question that is replete with cultural, religious, political, and socio-economic
implications: what is Islam and who is a Muslim? Who is allowed or authorized to
address and answer such questions? And is such an essentialized definition of
Islam or a Muslim even possible? Ongoing conflict in Iraq, the terrorist attacks of
9/11 along with continuing al-Qaeda activity, and other global events have
contributed to a growing public interest in the world of Islam and Muslim
communities. There is a growing increase in special television programs, books,
news reports, and articles that are dedicated to the cause of defining Islam and
Muslim peoples. Harvard University, for example, recently held a special guest
lecture where this very theme was addressed, entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?
What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”2
In relation to these serious global matters, a somewhat obscure and relatively
small group such as the Cham Muslims of Cambodia seems at first glance to sit on
the periphery of the issue. And indeed, the majority of interest and research that
236 Stoddard

concerns Islam and Muslims is generally centered on Middle Eastern Muslim

communities. But while the Muslims of Cambodia may at first appear to be
situated outside the realm of these questions, their particular history and the
unique characteristics of their current position actually place them closer to the
heart of this debate. Their volatile status as an ethnic and religious minority in a
fragile and impoverished country raises important questions about religious
identification and definition.
In order to explore how this small community of Muslims contribute to the
much larger debate about defining Islam today, I will begin by briefly describing
the history of the Cham people in Cambodia, focusing both on the factors which
contributed to their conversion to Islam and the origins of the three principle
Islamic groups that exist among the Cham today. I will then explore unique
practices and traditions that exist among the Cham, specifically addressing the
notion of “syncretism”—its origins and current usage, and whether such a term is
useful or accurate in characterizing this community. In relation to the issue of
syncretism and religious practice, I will also analyze the efforts and implications of
Islamic reformist and humanitarian movements within Cambodia. Finally, I will
conclude by addressing the larger debate regarding current efforts to establish
orthodoxy and to define Islam, and how contemporary Cham Muslim communities
fit within the scope of this argument.
As a foundational point at the outset of this analysis, it is important to note that
in regards to the study of Islam and specifically in relation the Cham Muslims of
Cambodia, I wish to contest the discourse of syncretism that is so often employed
in descriptions of non-Middle Eastern Muslims. This discourse is problematic in
that it routinely treats religion as a static entity and thereby ignores the agency of
religious participants.3 Most scholarship on the Cham is marked by such language,
especially regarding the minority communities of the Cham Sot (Cham Jahed).
Studies of these communities which employ terms such as “syncretic” and
“unorthodox” are often casually and unfairly applied when different patterns of
ritual, tradition, history, social customs, and even dress are observed. As Shaw and
Stewart note, these terms and this discourse are also problematic due to the fact that
“what appear to be important religious phenomena at a given point in time may
later be reinterpreted as merely ‘cultural’ phenomena, and vice versa.”4 Finally, this
discourse of syncretism is also flawed in that it implicitly assumes an essentialist
and monolithic interpretation of Islam—an interpretation that fails to acknowledge
the diversity and complexity of both the earliest and the most contemporary
Muslim communities.
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 237

The majority of Cham descend from the kingdom of Champa, a largely maritime
nation that extended over the central and southern coastal regions of Vietnam. This
kingdom flourished from the second to the seventeenth century A.D.5 Whereas the
Viet people who bordered the Cham territory were a colony of China for a thousand
years, the Cham and their neighbors, the Khmer, were more heavily influenced by
Indian culture that had spread in the region via maritime trade routes through
Southeast Asia. Their geographic location, being flanked by the Vietnamese to the
north and the Khmer to the south, made warfare and diplomacy a constant scene
among the Cham. From 980 A.D. on, the Vietnamese began forcing the Cham to
retreat steadily southward; and shortly following this period, the Khmer also began
to push on Cham borders and invade their kingdom.6
In 1471 the Vietnamese invaded Cham lands and permanently seized the Cham
capital of Vijaya. While this defeat did not mark the end of the Champa civilization,
the fall of Vijaya is significant for several reasons. First, the defeat at the hand of the
Vietnamese greatly reduced the Champa Kingdom to its southernmost territories.
Secondly, the displacement which followed led to the first major migration of the
Cham into Cambodia. The largest group7 of Cham Muslims within Cambodia
today, namely the Cham proper, began their movement into Cambodia in 1471 as a
result of this defeat. And lastly, it was likely at this time of intense conflict between
the Vietnamese and Champa Kingdom that the majority of Cham began to convert
to Islam.
Before their widespread conversion to Islam, Cham religious beliefs were
primarily influenced by Hindu ideas, along with a certain influence of Buddhism.
Remaining Cham sculpture from their early history shows the central role of Siva
in religious devotion.8 These Hindu traditions dominated the Champa Kingdom
from its earliest period until the thirteenth century. Yet by the thirteenth century,
Persian and Arab trade in the region, as well as contact with Sufi missionaries from
Gujerat and Bengal and from the Middle East, introduced the Cham to Islamic
teachings for the first time.9 Although this initial introduction of Islam to the Cham
community did lead a small segment of the kingdom to convert to Islam, most
historical evidence verifies that the majority of conversions occurred after the fall of
Regarding the appeal of the Islamic faith at this time of crisis, scholar Raymond
Scupin notes that as the Cham capital fell and many of the Cham fled to Cambodia,
Melaka, and Java, the Cham “were exposed to the intensive wave of Islamization
that affected other Malayo-Polynesian-speaking peoples in the Malay and
Indonesian coastal states. More than likely, Malayan and Indonesian Muslims were
successful in demonstrating the spiritual efficacy and the possibilities of social
238 Stoddard

unity of the Islamic tradition to these Cham refugees.”10

As their community, and subsequently their identity, was under attack by
invading forces, converting to Islam became a symbol of resistance against the
Vietnamese and a means of asserting a distinctive Cham identity.11 The strong
concept of social unity inherent in Islam provided a way for the Cham people to
retain their distinctive Cham heritage even as they lived in a tributary state to the
Vietnamese or migrated to Khmer or Malaysian states. This notion of Islam serving
as both a means of ensuring social unity and a symbol of resistance to infringing
powers is a theme that becomes significant in the contemporary Cambodian
context—a point to be addressed later on. But it is also important to note here that
in addition to these factors, the new faith also appealed to a wider audience
because, as Collins notes, it “emphasized the simplicity of personal contact with
God by prayer anywhere, without the elaborate ceremonial, paraphernalia and
priestly hierarchy of intercessors.”12 This latter point is especially true in terms of
the early appeal of Sufi ideas among the Cham. Sufi cults of saints, veneration
of the dead, and their emphasis on spiritual charisma were a primary vehicle for
further Cham conversions to Islam that continued to occur into the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries.13
As Cham resistance against the Vietnamese from the north continued, conver-
sion to Islam likewise continued to steadily increase. Small-scale migration to
Cambodia likely continued into the centuries that followed the fall of Vijaya, and
would continue to some extent until the Vietnamese took full control of all
lands of the Champa Kingdom in 1835. But the second major migration—which is
highlighted here due to its significance in the contemporary Cham cultural
context—took place in 1692. Cham attempts to regain lost provinces were thwarted
by the Vietnamese, who moved to annex the province of Panduranga—the new
center of the Champa Kingdom. At this time, the Cham’s royal family, consisting of
nearly 5000 people, migrated to Cambodia and requested lands from the Khmer
King. They were granted lands to settle surrounding the then-capital city of
Oudong. This movement of Cham peoples is significant in that the Cham Sot, a
group which today numbers close to 23,000, claim these royal migrants as their
ancestors. They still inhabit those same lands they were granted by Khmer
royal permission and continue to strongly indentify themselves in terms of their
historical origins in the Champa Kingdom.14
Although they do not claim any origins within the ancient kingdom of Champa,
the Cham Chvea constitute the third major group that exist among the Cham today.
The Chvea were originally merchants who came from the Malay Peninsula in the
areas of Java and Sumatra. Their movement into Cambodia precedes even that of
the Cham proper in 1471.15 The term Chvea is likely a reference to their origins in
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 239

Java. They identify themselves as “Cham” only when that label is loosely applied
to mean “Cambodian Muslims.”16 Perhaps more than any other group among the
Cham, the Chvea have most fully assimilated into Khmer customs. They all speak
Khmer and often refer to themselves as “Khmer Islam” to avoid the stigma of being
foreigners. But while the Chvea may be marked by a predisposition to assimilate
into Khmer culture, they also maintain close ties with the Muslim Patani Malays of
Southern Thailand— a relationship which has had and continues to have an impact
on their religious and cultural orientation, as Malaysian Muslims continue to be
engaged in an effort to move the Cambodian Muslim community towards a greater

Current Practice
The three main divisions within the Cham Muslims of Cambodia—the Cham,
Cham Sot, and Chvea—each share a number of similarities regarding culture,
history, and religious practice. But their differences warrant discussion as they
contribute to the question of who can speak for Islam, and what precisely the Islam
is that is being spoken for. While the Cham proper and Cham Chvea do not claim
a similar ancestral heritage, both groups are eager to identify themselves in terms
of their religion rather than any foreign origin. The willingness of both of these
groups to make adjustments in ritual, tradition, and overall orientation toward a
more “orthodox” Islam has enabled them to receive greater support from foreign
Muslim sources. This support from several Middle Eastern countries—as well as
from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei—has provided funding for building schools
and mosques, purchasing text books and religious literature, and providing travel
funds for the hajj. These groups welcome this support, feeling that “it signals an
inter-national recognition of their importance as Cambodian Muslims.”18
Despite their contrasting origins, there are great similarities between the Cham
proper and Cham Chvea. But in comparing the Cham proper with the Cham Sot,
though they share a common cultural heritage, it is their differences that are most
striking. The most obvious difference between these groups is that while the Cham
proper and Cham Chvea hold to the common Muslim practice of praying five times
a day, the Cham Sot instead hold to the ancient Cham tradition of praying only once
a week. This one aspect of their religious practice underscores the dominant
concern and focus of the Cham Sot—namely to preserve the religion, history, and
cultural traditions of their ancient Champa roots. Along with differences in prayer,
the Cham Sot also continue to use the Cham script in their writing, while the other
Cham rely on the Jawi script (following their Malay counterparts) in their religious
240 Stoddard

The Discourse of Syncretism

Owing primarily to the fact that the Cham Sot pray only once a week and chant
their prayers in Cham, it is common to see those who study the Cham to categorize
Cham religious practices as “unorthodox” or “syncretic.” In addition to differences
in prayers, rituals such as the ong chowe initiation ritual for those who would pray
inside the mosque, circumcision for boys at the age of fifteen, veneration of
ancestors, and the neak chai possession ceremonies are all cited as evidence of the
syncretic blend of Islam practiced by the Cham Sot.20
Before contesting the relevancy of the terms “syncretic” and “orthodox” as
normative terms used to characterize a segment of the Cham Muslims, it is
necessary to make a general note concerning the history of Islamic studies outside
of a Middle Eastern context. Scupin comments on the historically problematic body
of Orientalist scholarship which has been produced by those who have engaged in
Islamic studies in the region of Southeast Asia:
Generally, these scholars and colonial officials were predisposed to describe Islamic
culture as a pure, unadulterated, orthodox tradition derived from Middle Eastern, Arabic
standards. Areas such as Southeast Asia, however, were represented as backwater
regions where Islam was depicted as a syncretic tradition or simply a veneer that
overlaid the previous indigenous beliefs and practices of animistic, Hindu, and
Buddhist spiritual traditions.21

What is essential to understand about this trend is that, historically speaking,

the common approach to analyzing Islam as practiced in Cambodia has been based
on the presupposition that differences in culture, history, language, etc., of the
region are naturally indicative of at least some level of diversion from “pure” or
“orthodox” Islam as practiced in other Middle Eastern countries.
Keeping that inherent bias in mind is necessary in order to accurately analyze
the relevancy of the term “syncretism” as is used to describe the form of Islam
practiced among the Cham in Cambodia, specifically among the Cham Sot. In the
context of comparative religion, syncretism “is a term which…refers to a process of
religious amalgamation, of blending heterogeneous beliefs and practices.”22 Since
the mid-nineteenth century, religious syncretism is a term that has come to
represent both a normative as well as a religious category. But while “syncretism”
is a term commonly used to describe various religious traditions, in most cases the
term has become incomplete or inaccurate, if not ultimately useless.
Perhaps the most fundamental deficiency of this term is that it is rooted in an
outdated notion of religious essentialism where religions are treated as monolithic
phenomena “whose coherence is disrupted by syncretistic disorder.”23 In other
words, when a specific religious tradition is described as being syncretic, it must be
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 241

so in opposition to what is normally portrayed as a static monolithic system of

beliefs from which there can be no variation. In this way, when a theory of a
religious tradition is characterized as being either syncretic or anti-syncretic, it is
assumed that there is an identifiable essentialized definition of the faith.
Moreover, as Shaw and Stewart note, the term is also contentious in that it is
“often taken to imply ‘inauthenticity’ or ‘contamination,’ the infiltration of a
supposedly ‘pure’ tradition by symbols and meanings seen as belonging to other,
incompatible traditions.”24 This idea that syncretism marks how a “pure system”
has been contaminated raises an interesting question. If the system has been
contaminated, who then is authorized to say how it must subsequently be purified?
And who or what determines what the form of “purity” is to which a religion or
religious devotee must return? Fundamentalist movements often arise from this
desire to return to a “pure tradition” where all is fully explicable. But oftentimes
in making such an attempt, these movements actually create and espouse new
traditions or methods of practice based on more rigid and exclusive notions of
religious devotion. We will shortly return to this point, as it is especially relevant in
relation to the current movements within Cham communities.
Another problem regarding the term “religious syncretism” is that it refers to a
process of blending religious beliefs and practices. Van der Veer argues that this
process which occurs over time is, in one sense, so broad that one could say that
“indeed every religion is syncretistic, since it constantly draws upon heterogeneous
elements to the extent that it is often impossible for historians to unravel what
comes from where. One could therefore argue that it is a useless term.”25 Hence, one
of the possibly false critiques against the Cham Sot is that because they do draw so
strongly upon their historical/cultural elements, they are of necessity deviating
from “orthodox Islam.” In making such a suggestion, one ignores the very history
of Islam itself, which from its inception was marked by its adaptation of pre-Islamic
traditions and rituals into a system of belief. Indeed, the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca,
the black stone at the Kaba, and the casting of pebbles at the demons at Mina were
all pre-Islamic traditions that were subsequently incorporated into an Islamic
In addition to these elements pertaining to the foundations of Islam, the spread
of Islam was also marked by its ability to adapt to surrounding cultures and
traditions. As Maroney notes,
Ironically, Islam spread (in part) due to its adaptation to the cultures it found in the
burned shell of the old Roman Empire. Islam became heir to the West’s great
flowering of classical culture not because the faith refused to incorporate outside
influences, but because it accepted them greedily….Various Islamic fundamentalist
movements, like the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia…have tried to turn the clock back on
242 Stoddard

this broad heritage, to lay bare the essential message of the Prophet in it primal
simplicity and purity.27

As noted earlier, this element of adaptability was a key factor that contributed
to the successful spread of Islam into Cambodia. The message of Islam was well
received, as least in part, due to its simplicity and lack of rigid ceremonies that were
dominant within Indic traditions. Sufi ideas were especially embraced due to their
allowance for ancestral veneration and their emphasis on spiritual charisma and
versatility. But while the flexibility inherent in the message of Islam was an
attractive aspect of the message to the earliest Cham, the very diversity which
stems from such flexibility has contributed to growing divisions and contentions
among contemporary Cham communities.

Islamic Reformist and Humanitarian Efforts

Due in large measure to the economically deprived conditions and perceived
unorthodoxy of the Cham, shortly following the fall of the Khmer Rouge there has
been an increased presence of both humanitarian and reformist groups in the
country. As noted previously, this aid and these movements come from several
different sources. The scope of this paper does not call for a detailed explanation of
the ideology or current activities of each individual group. (However, it should be
noted that while each group may have varied interests, no group is free from at
least some type of political or religious agenda.) I offer here only a brief portrayal
of a two of these groups—the Wahhabi and the Tablighi Jamaat—in order to
facilitate a clearer understanding of the impact and influence these movements
have on contemporary Cham communities.
While they have enjoyed a certain presence in Cambodia since the 1950s,
Kuwaiti/Saudi Wahhabi groups have had an increased amount of influence within
Cham communities in the past decade. This branch of Islam constitutes roughly six
percent of the total Muslim population of Cambodia,28 but these Kuwaiti/Saudi
associations have a far-reaching influence. These associations advocate a more
purified faith, or “real Islam,” that is stripped of any local traditional accretions.
They have established various schools of learning and orphanages and provide
funding for religious teachers throughout the country. 29 In addition to the
institutions established in Cambodia, it is reported that close to eighty Cambodian
students travel each year to study abroad in Wahhabi schools.30 Unsurprisingly,
these groups have been especially active in their efforts to “convert” members of the
Cham Sot community and have refused to offer them any support until they
conform to an Islamic “orthodoxy.”
In contrast to the Wahhabi movement, the Tablighi Jamaat (or Dakwah)
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 243

movement criticizes the type of financial support offered by Wahhabi groups and
instead stresses the internationalization of Islam primarily through proselyting.31
The Tablighi Jamaat is a global Islamic reformist movement which began in India in
the 1920s. It spread into Cambodia in the early 1990s under the leadership of Imam
Suleiman Ibrahim and established its spiritual center in Phum Trea, just north of the
provincial capital of Kampong Cham.
This movement, with its emphasis on individual piety and religious activism,
has spread rapidly among Cambodian Chams.32 Their presence is more easily
recognizable due to their differences in dress. A growing number of women are
opting to wear the black tent-like purdah, which reveals only a small opening for
the eyes. Several men, as well, opt for a style of dress that sets them apart not only
from Khmer Buddhist neighbors, but also from other Cambodian Muslims—
instead of the traditional sarong and skull cap, many men now dress in long white
robes and turbans and are encouraged to grow a beard.33
While the Tablighi movement may not necessarily insist on the implementation
of an Arabic or Middle Eastern form of Islam, they are similar to the Wahhabi
movement in that they view their movement as being a representation of an Islamic
orthodoxy. As Collins notes, “they consider that they are doing what the Prophet
Mohammed himself did in his life, and that they are following the true, original way
of Islam.”34 That these two groups can both claim to represent a pure, orthodox form
of Islam and be radically opposed highlights the essence of the problem of the syn-
cretic/orthodox debate. One could very well argue that groups such as the Cham
Sot do deviate from the religious practices of many Muslims worldwide—by
neglecting the basic Islamic practice of praying five times a day they are clearly not
adhering to one of the most fundamental elements of Quranic- and Hadith-based
Islamic devotion. However, the essential question to consider here is that if the reli-
gious practice of the Cham Sot truly is “deviant,” which fundamentalist ideology,
whose Islam, is fit to correct these aberrations and enforce the model of religious

Conclusion: The Dangers of Speaking for Islam

There are potentially dangerous and tragic implications of these efforts of different
fundamentalist groups who claim to speak authoritatively for Islam and thus assert
their orthodoxy by laboring to purify Islam in Cambodia. Groups such as the Cham
Sot who are unwilling to conform to foreign concepts of Islamic orthodoxy are left
without the much needed financial support that these groups offer. And in addition
to the lack of financial and other support, perhaps the more irreversible effect of
these fundamentalist movements is the potential eradication of a distinctive Cham
tradition and culture. As fundamentalist groups espouse a brand of Islam that is
244 Stoddard

free from any cultural accretions, Cham identity is progressively forsaken in order
to follow a purely Muslim identity.35
As noted previously, this tendency to treat any practice that is pre-Islamic as
being of necessity impure or syncretic is ironic in that it disregards the very
foundations and initial expansions of Islam. And specific to the Cham Muslims of
Cambodia, it betrays the historical beginnings of an acceptance of Islam due to its
potential for securing social unity and its ability to adapt to existing traditions. And
by so doing, the actors who attempt to speak for Islam in Cambodia today often do
so in opposition to Cham traditions—thereby threatening to destroy a Cham
cultural consciousness which has already been fractured by years of serious
oppression and destitution.
Perhaps then, instead of viewing Islam in Cambodia through the more subjec-
tive lens of orthodox versus unorthodox or pure versus syncretic Islam, there is a
more useful paradigm. As one scholar has noted, it may be more helpful to inter-
pret specific manifestations of Islam through the lens of there being only one Islam
but many different kinds of Muslims.36 Such an approach to Islam is more nuanced
and complex, but it might help avoid the many problems that arise from more
essentialized and dogmatic presentations. As Geertz argues, “A descent into the
swirl of particular incident, particular politics, particular voices, particular tradi-
tions, and particular arguments, a movement across the grain of difference and
along the lines of dispute, is indeed disorienting and spoils the prospect of abiding
order. But it may prove the surer path toward understanding “Islam”—that reso-
nant name of so many things at once.”37
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 245

1. Sos Kamry, interview by Allen Stoddard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 25 July 2007.
2. Mogahid, Dalia, “Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.”
Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies. 4 March 2008.
3. Kraft, Siv Ellen, “‘To Mix or Not to Mix’: Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism in the
History in the History of Theosophy.” Numen, 49, no.2 (April 2002), 145.
4. Stewart, Charles and Rosalind Shaw, “Introduction: Problematizing Syncretism,”
in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, Charles Steward
and Rosalind Shaw, eds. New York: Routledge, (1994), 10.
5. Scupin, Raymond, “Historical, Ethnographic, and Contemporary Political
Analyses of the Muslims of Kampuchea and Vietnam,” Sojourn, Vol. 10, No. 2,
(1995): 302.
6. William Collins, “The Chams of Cambodia” in Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic
Groups in Cambodia. (Phnom Penh: Center for Advanced Study, 1996), 18–19.
7. The three distinctive groups that may be distinguished within the Cham catego-
ry are the Cham proper, Chvea, and Cham Sot (Cham Jahed).
8. Collins 1996, at 18.
9. Ibid., 24.
10. Scupin 1995, at 305.
11. Setudeh-Nejad, S., “The Cham Muslims of Southeast Asia: A Historical Note.”
Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 22, no.2, (2002), 453.
12. Collins 1996, at 24
13. Taylor, Phillip, Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta. Singapore: National
University of Singapore Press, (2007), 109–110.
14. Ovensen, Jan and Ing-Britt Trankell, “Muslim Minorities in Cambodia,” in
Southeast Asian Islam: Plurality, Tolerance and Change. NIASyntt: Asia Insights, no.4
(December 2004), 22–23.
15. De Féo, Agnès, “Muslims in Cambodia: Religious Revival through
Transnational Islamic Groups Since 1991,” in Dynamics of Contemporary Islam and
Economic Development in Asia, From the Caucasus to China, Centre de Sciences
Humaines (CSH), New Delhi, (April 16-17, 2007), 1.
16. Collins 1996, at 78.
17. Ibid.
18. Ovensen 2004, at 22.
19. Collins 1996, at 77.
20. De Féo, Agnès, “The Syncretic World of the ‘Pure Cham.’” Phnom Penh Post, 14
no.19, (September 23—October 6, 2005), 2, 4.
21. Scupin 1995, at 305 (italics added).
22. Van der Veer, Peter, “Syncretism, Multiculturalism and the Discourse of
246 Stoddard

Tolerance,” in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis,

Rosalind Chaw and Charles Stewart, ed. New York: Routledge, (1994), 208.
23. Kraft 2002, at 145.
24. Stewart 1994, at 1.
25. Van der Veer 1994, at 208.
26. Eric Maroney, Religious Syncretism. Great Britain: SCM Core Press, (2006), 8.
27. Ibid.
28. U.S. Department of State, “Cambodia,” International Religious Freedom Report
2007,, (accessed March 12, 2008).
29. Collins 1996, at 84.
30. Mydans, Seth, “U.S. Fears Islamic Militancy Could Emerge in Cambodia,” New
York Times, December 22, 2002.
31. De Féo 2007, at 5.
32. Bruckmayr, Phillip, “Cambodia’s Phum Trea as Mirror Image of Religious
Change.” ISIM Review 20 (Autumn 2007), 49.
33. De Féo 2007, at 6.
34. Collins 1996, at 88 (italics added).
35. De Féo 2007, at 4.
36. Scupin 1995, at 307.
37. Geertz, Clifford, “Which Way to Mecca?”, New York Review of Books, June 12,
The Cham Muslims of Cambodia 247

Bruckmayr, Phillip. “Cambodia’s Phum Trea as Mirror Image of Religious Change.”
ISIM Review 20 (Autumn 2007), 48-49.
Collins, William. “The Chams of Cambodia” in Interdisciplinary Research on Ethnic
Groups in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: Center for Advanced Study, 1996.
De Féo, Agnès. “Muslims in Cambodia: Religious Revival through Transnational
Islamic Groups Since 1991,” in Dynamics of Contemporary Islam and Economic
Development in Asia, From the Caucasus to China, Centre de Sciences Humaines
(CSH), New Delhi (April 16-17, 2007), 1–7.
De Féo, Agnès. “The Syncretic World of the ‘Pure Cham.’” Phnom Penh Post, 14
no.19, (September 23—October 6, 2005), 8-9.
Geertz, Clifford, “Which Way to Mecca?,” New York Review of Books, June 12, 2003.
Kraft, Siv Ellen. “‘To Mix or Not to Mix’: Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism in the History
in the History of Theosophy.” Numen, 49, no.2 (April 2002), 142-177.
Maroney, Eric. Religious Syncretism. Great Britain: SCM Core Press, 2006.
Mydans, Seth. “U.S. Fears Islamic Militancy Could Emerge in Cambodia.” New
York Times, December 22, 2002, accessed at
h t t p : / / q u e r y. n y t i m e s . c o m / g s t / f u l l p a g e . h t m l ? r e s ’
Ovensen, Jan and Ing-Britt Trankell. “Muslim Minorities in Cambodia,” in Southeast
Asian Islam: Plurality, Tolerance and Change. NIASyntt: Asia Insights, no.4 (December
2004), 22-24.
Scupin, Raymond. “Historical, Ethnographic, and Contemporary Political Analyses
of the Muslims of Kampuchea and Vietnam,” Sojourn, Vol. 10, No.2, (1995).
Setudeh-Nejad, S. “The Cham Muslims of Southeast Asia: A Historical Note.”
Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 22, no.2, (2002), 451-455.
Stewart, Charles and Rosalind Shaw “Introduction: Problematizing Syncretism,” in
Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, Charles Steward and
Rosalind Shaw, eds. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Taylor, Phillip. Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta. Singapore: National University of
Singapore Press, 2007.
U.S. Department of State. “Cambodia”. International Religious Freedom Report
Van der Veer, Peter, “Syncretism, Multiculturalism and the Discourse of Tolerance,”
in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, Rosalind Shaw and
Charles Stewart, ed. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of
Civic Engagement in Cambodia
Darren C. Zook
The extent to which the nation-state is a sensory experience is often overlooked
and underestimated. The political textures of the nation-state, and the physical
expressions of political culture that mark its landscape, are arguably just as
important as the functional elements of politics that are often taken for granted by
analysts and observers: elections are as much an audio-visual spectacle as they are
a practical process of democracy. As a spectacle, and as a sensory experience,
however, the nation-state is experienced differentially by its constitutive elements.
Citizens with physical and cognitive disabilities, for instance, do not have access to
the same political sensations as other citizens: monuments remain unseen, anthems
remain unheard, rallies remain unattended, and so forth. In spite of the best efforts
of even the most sensitive of government institutions and agencies, the blunt fact
persists that for citizens with physical and cognitive disabilities, the state is an
indifferent manufactory of a disturbingly diverse array of inequalities.
Yet states, whether democratic or not, cultivate indifference at their own peril;
where citizens seek access and recognition, states seek legitimacy and loyalty. In
many ways, these two simultaneous needs produce a condition of mutual
dependency, but this does not lead ineluctably to a pessimistic end. In fact, there is
a great deal of room here for potential negotiation, and not just of the opportunistic
variety, that can be of considerable benefit for both sides. This potential is enhanced
in moments of democratic transition and expansion. It is in the interest of the state
in such moments to reach out to and incorporate marginalized populations, and it
is in the interest of marginalized populations, and here I will focus on the disabled
communities, to create new channels of access to the institutions of the state. The
state needs its citizens to claim a universal legitimacy, and citizens need the state,
and its array of institutions, to claim and access their rights. It is therefore in the
interest of both sides to redraw the political, social, and cultural landscape of the
It is in this context that the example of Cambodia becomes particularly relevant.
After decades of political instability and turmoil, including one of the worst
genocides of the twentieth century, Cambodia went through a two-year period of
institutional reform and democratic transition that ended with the elections of 1993.
Like many other countries making similar transitions, Cambodia is still going
through the long and arduous process of democratic consolidation. One of the
250 Zook

crucial elements in this process has been the mobilization of citizens, as individuals
and as members of various communities, into a coherent and articulate civil
society capable of meaningful civic engagement. Among the many communities
that have responded to the call of democracy in Cambodia is the vast and complex
section of society composed of persons with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Though the community of persons with intellectual and physical disabilities is
extraordinarily diverse, in terms of age, gender, geographic location, and the
severity of the disability as well as its nature and origin, finding common cause
among these groups in the struggle to create and claim rights in Cambodia has led
to a local and regional campaign of civil society mobilization that has significant
potential impact on the struggles of both disabled persons and other marginalized
groups. These citizen-initiated forms of mobilization are creative, constructive, and
innovative, and while their specific goal has been to address the direct needs of
the various disabled communities in Cambodia, the larger effect has been to
strengthen the democratic social contract between state and society and to develop
a new political rhetoric that draws upon a lexicon of rights, dignity, and
respect. The various campaigns of political mobilization within the disabled
communities have laid the foundation for political integration with Cambodia’s
many other communities, whether disabled or non-disabled, marginalized or
non-marginalized. The process is by no means complete or without formidable
challenges, and in many ways there is still more bad news than good, but the
benefits are already apparent, and the possibility of reconstructing an entirely new
and inclusive political landscape in Cambodia is very real indeed.

Measuring Disability in Cambodia

There are many different ways to gauge and portray the demographic composition
of the disabled communities in Cambodia. It is estimated, for instance, that
roughly three percent of the population has some type of disability, and so with a
total population of around 14 million persons, that equates to approximately
420,000 people. Persons under the age of eighteen, a category that equates with the
term “youth,” account for 21% of this population; by far the majority of youth who
are part of the disabled communities can be counted as such due to illness and
disease. The largest group in the category of disabled persons consists of amputees,
injured either directly in combat or as an indirect result of other military operations
(such as stepping on a landmine in a non-combat area or period). Amputees
compose nearly 18% of the disabled population in Cambodia. One study from the
Food and Agriculture Organization, surveying eight provinces in Cambodia,
estimates the general demographic breakdown of persons with physical and
intellectual disabilities in Cambodia as follows (Bonnet 1997):
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 251

Amputees 18%
Blind 17%
Polio 14%
Deaf 14%
Intellectual dis. 10%
Para/quadraplegic 7%
Leprosy 2%
Other 18%

Statistics on disabled communities in Cambodia are notoriously unreliable or

frustratingly incomplete, and should be treated with caution and utilized only for
general conclusions and trends. Different surveys, for instance, even from the same
group or ministry, can produce widely different and even contradictory results.
Official government figures are drawn from the National Institute of Statistics,
housed in the Ministry of Planning, but categories of identity are neither uniform
nor standardized at present. It is entirely possible, for instance, for one person to be
counted in two of the categories. The category of deaf persons is still referred to as
deaf-mute, thereby linking two disabilities that may not always be related. Some
categories are ambivalent: “disease” as an indicator of disability can refer to
something contracted as a child or adult, or it can be a disease of the mother
during pregnancy that afflicts the child at birth. Others categories show genera-
tional transitions: while amputees are one of the largest disabled communities in
Cambodia, success in demining efforts and mine education programs have led to a
steady decrease in land mine accidents, particularly among the youth (Mines
Action Group 2008). On the other hand, there has been a rise in the percentage of
paralysis victims from the youth category, largely as a result of bullet wounds (there
is an ongoing campaign to disarm the population of weapons left over from years
of civil war) or domestic (usually road) accidents (Wille 2006; Handicap
International 2006).
What all of this means in a nutshell is that it is difficult to get a detailed
understanding of the complexities of the composition and life experiences of the
various disabled communities in Cambodia. Disabled persons are, among other
things, counted precisely because of their disability, and other demographic
information, such as religious or ethnic background, is often not included or
considered irrelevant. Context and environment are therefore often absent from the
statistics. When a person becomes an amputee or a paraplegic, it seems, other
elements of their identity become irrelevant, at least in the eyes of the state.
Cambodia will conduct another national level census in 2008, but unfortunately it
looks as though detailed demographic information on disability in the population
252 Zook

will not be a part of this effort, and as a result a valuable opportunity to chart the
transformation of the disabled communities over time, in demographic terms, will
be lost (Government of Cambodia 2008).
The geographic landscape of disability is in fact one of the most important
elements in understanding how both state and society perceive and engage with
the disabled communities in Cambodia. Cambodia is still a country where the
population is located largely in rural areas, and it is estimated that 85-90% of
persons with physical and intellectual disabilities live in the rural areas. This fact
alone creates a staggering number of logistical challenges in facilitating interaction
between disabled communities and the state, between disabled communities and
nondisabled communities, and among the various disabled communities
For instance, given the widespread dispersal of persons from the disabled
communities in Cambodia, reaching deep into what is often remote, inaccessible
wilderness, and given the uniformly meager resources of the Cambodian state, it
makes financial and political sense to consolidate centers and facilities for the
various disabled communities in urban areas, either in Phnom Penh or in other
provincial urban centers such as Battambang or Siem Reap (Molyvann 2003).
Government offices and ministries that deal with disabled communities are located
in Phnom Penh or a few provincial towns, as are many of the medical facilities
designed for treatment or training. The National School of Prosthetics and
Orthotics, for instance, established by the government with the help of nongovern-
mental assistance from groups such as Cambodia Trust, Veterans International, and
the American Red Cross, is located in Phnom Penh. Most centers serving the blind
and deaf communities are also located in Phnom Penh. Alternatively, the
Quadriplegic and Paraplegic Center, which was opened in 1993, is located in
Battambang, as is the Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Spinal Injuries. It is not
illogical or imprudent to put these facilities in Battambang, considering the fact that
the four northwest provinces located around Battambang see some of the highest
rates of paraplegic and quadriplegic injuries due to their location in heavily mined
areas, but the journey to Battambang is still an arduous one, and the facilities
themselves, while effective, can only serve a limited number of patients at one time.
Currently it would be cost prohibitive to require that all rural schools offer
enhanced facilities and courses to accommodate students from the various disabled
communities. Quite often, these schools have inadequate resources to serve the
students they have even in the best of circumstances (Ayres 2000; Bray and Bunly
2005; Forsberg and Ratcliffe 2003). And even where the school might have resources
to provide enhanced services, there are other logistical obstacles throughout the
rural landscape that would make it difficult for students from the disabled
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 253

communities to take advantage of these enhanced programs. Most wheelchairs, for

instance, are built for urban environments, and presuppose a flat, continuous, and
somewhat level surface for unimpeded mobility. Such surfaces are rare in rural
environments: pathways through rice paddies are often narrow and muddy, and
frequently are narrower than the average wheel span of a wheelchair; rural
pathways are often uneven and wheelchair users are prone to overturn on these
pathways; roads and trails are often impassable to any wheeled traffic, especially
wheelchairs, in the rainy season, meaning frequent absences from school; and the
rough and rugged environment of rural areas rapidly destroys the wheels of most
wheelchairs, where there is rarely access to local repair facilities (Cooperation
Committee for Cambodia 2006).
Perhaps the most poorly served community in Cambodia with regard to
the available institutions, facilities, and resources to address disability is the
community of persons with intellectual disabilities. In almost every facet of
addressing this complex array of disabilities, ranging from diagnosis and treatment
to education and integration, Cambodia has only a very basic, almost one-size-
fits-all approach. Part of this can be explained by a pervasive pattern of social
discrimination against persons with intellectual disabilities, but much of it has to
do with a distinct lack of resources within the Cambodian state and a much
smaller presence on the ground of non-governmental organizations working in the
field of intellectual as opposed to physical disabilities. There is a noticeable lack of
adequately trained personnel, medical or otherwise, who can diagnose and
understand individual disabilities or degrees of severity of disability, and there is
little distinction made between psychological and psychiatric approaches. It would
not be too much of an exaggeration to state that diagnoses fall within two large and
almost undifferentiated categories: in essence, the person with the intellectual
disability is regarded as either “retarded” or “insane.” Specific conditions, such as
schizophrenia or Tourette syndrome, or even post-traumatic stress disorder, are
overlooked or dissolved into one of the other categories. In the field of education,
the recognition of conditions such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder
(ADHD) is simply a luxury that the Cambodian system cannot afford. The nexus
between “problem” and “solution” that often seems intuitive with relation to
physical disability—a person who cannot walk requires a wheelchair, or a person
missing an arm requires a prosthesis—is simply not self-evident in the realm of
intellectual disabilities, and the added challenges of this field demand what seems
to be an inordinate share of funds, at least from the perspective of government
officials and NGO workers who already work within a sphere of considerably
strained resources.
Here, too, there is the problem of logistics: while it may be quite possible to
254 Zook

bring wheelchairs to villages, for instance, it is simply not possible or feasible to

establish facilities, schools, or medical centers, or to permanently establish
well-trained personnel, in all parts of Cambodia that address the specific needs of
persons with intellectual disabilities. The person would have to either relocate to an
urban area to gain access to such resources, scant as they are, which is quite often
financially prohibitive (especially since this person would have to be accompanied
in most cases by the family or at least another family member), or simply live out
the best life possible in their home village without access to any appropriate
assistance or remedy. Sadly, the community of persons with intellectual disabilities
suffers from an invisibility that is not as present among communities of persons
with physical disabilities, and the result is a life-experience of comparably higher
levels of neglect, discrimination, and marginalization.
In short, though facilities do exist to serve the needs of the various disabled
communities in Cambodia, they often require an unattainable level of mobility to
access effectively the services that they offer. And even in the case where members
of the disabled communities decide to transmigrate to urban centers to be closer to
these facilities so that they can access their services on a regular basis, there are
plenty of logistical obstacles in this case as well. First, relocation is expensive, and
would be beyond the means of many if not most rural inhabitants from the disabled
communities. Second, though specific facilities may exist that provide enhanced
services for the disabled communities in urban centers such as Phnom Penh, that
does not mean that the cities themselves in general are any easier to negotiate than
rural areas; disabled persons would fare no better, generally speaking, in urban
environments than rural. Lastly, urban services for disabled communities are often
overutilized and inadequate as they are, and the government ministries that
concern themselves with issues relating to disabled communities are caught
between the dual mandates of discouraging urban migration of disabled persons to
prevent already strained services from being overwhelmed and relocating
enhanced services for disabled persons in rural areas with little or no services or
resources to draw on. It is easy to see how the life experiences of the various
disabled communities and the political experiences of interacting with state
institutions have become so deeply intertwined in the period of Cambodia’s
democratic transition.

Disability in Cambodia: The Political Landscape

Currently there are two institutional approaches that provide links between the
institutions of government in Cambodia and the various communities of persons
with disabilities. The first consists of the constellation of ministries and organiza-
tions, some governmental and some nongovernmental, that deal specifically with
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 255

the different aspects of disability and with different communities of disabled

persons. The second can be seen in some sense as a subset of the first: it consists of
the array of organizations that deal specifically with the issue of landmines and the
injuries and disabilities that result from contact with mines, explosive remnants of
war (ERW) and unexploded ordinance (UXO). It is important to emphasize that the
vast majority of these organizations were created during the period of Cambodia’s
democratic transition in the early 1990s, placing issues that relate to disability right
at the heart and foundation of the democratic process. As these organizations have
matured over time, in terms of their mobilization strategies and tactical rhetoric,
they have developed ways of interacting with the political system and with civil
society that have important lessons for and potentially significant impact on
the process of democratization in Cambodia. It is therefore worth the effort to
understand how these organizations are put together and how they work together.
At the ministerial level, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Vocational
Training, and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) coordinates government programs
relating to communities of disabled persons. As the name suggests, this is a
ministry with a very diverse mandate, which creates the very real possibility that
disability issues could be sidelined or forced to compete for resources with
seemingly unrelated programs. MOSALVY recognized this and in 1995 established
the Disability Task Force; as a result of the recommendations of the Disability Task
Force, the Disability Action Council (DAC) was created in 1997 to coordinate all
programs and organizations—at the governmental and nongovernmental, as well
as national and international levels—operating in Cambodia and dealing with
issues relating to disabled communities. The DAC has a Governing Board and a
permanent Secretariat, and oversees a number of different committees that deal
with different areas of specialization: some committees work on legislation and law,
others work on issues such as children with disabilities, women with disabilities,
medical rehabilitation, job training for disabled communities, and so on.
As a result of the First Seminar of Disabled People, convened in 1994, two
organizations were created with broad, citizen-based mandates: the Cambodian
Disabled People’s Organization (CDPO) and the National Center of Disabled
Persons (NCDP). Both of these organizations were established in 1994, and both
function as conduits of issue-based communication between nongovernmental
actors and the DAC. The CDPO is a self-help and self-representational organization
that works with all of the disabled communities in Cambodia; it coordinates
mobilization efforts among the communities of disabled persons and represents
their voice in influencing policy decisions of the DAC. The NCDP focuses on
practical programs that relate to community building and sustainable develop-
ment: thus the NCDP houses programs such as Community Based Rehabilitation,
256 Zook

Training and Information for Business Development, Information and Referral

Services, and so on. The goal of these programs is to provide training on practical
activities such as how to run a business (and there are other micro-credit agencies
who can provide loans to start these businesses), and how to develop the skills
necessary to obtain employment in other sectors.
Surrounding this structure are myriad nongovernmental organizations, some
domestic, some international, that coordinate their actions with the DAC, the
CDPO, and the NCDP, depending on their focus. Some of the more active groups in
this regard are Cambodia Trust (UK), Rotary International, the American Red
Cross, Handicap International (with an extensive program on Economic and Social
Rehabilitation), and Veterans International.
The cluster of organizations that deal with landmines and issues of disability
relating to them operates parallel to the DAC-based constellation of organizations;
there is overlap on issues relating to disability, but the work of demining affects and
involves other nondisabled communities as well, and so disability issues form only
a part of the mandate of these organizations. The Cambodia Mine Action and
Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), created in 2000 through the consolidation of
previously existing organizations and as a result of the entering into effect of the
Mine Ban Treaty in Cambodia in 2000, currently oversees and coordinates issues
relating to landmines and demining. The CMAA is headed by Hun Sen (Prime
Minister) and Sok An (Deputy Prime Minister), who serve as President and Deputy
President of CMAA respectively. Under the larger umbrella of the CMAA are
organizations such as the Cambodia Mine Action Centre (CMAC) and the
Cambodian Demining Coordination Committee (CDCC), which coordinate
with a significant number of other international organizations to undertake the
formidable task of demining parts of Cambodia. Alongside the domestic-based
CMAC is the international nongovernmental organization of the Mines Advisory
Group (MAG), which also coordinates its efforts, especially in reclaiming demined
land, with a number of international nongovernmental organizations such as Halo
Trust, World Vision, and CARE. Unfortunately, the CMAC has had to deal with
ongoing acts of institutional corruption in its ranks, which has undermined its
effectiveness at times. Similarly, CMAA has a five-year strategy for demining
and development, but has no dedicated or allocated budget to ensure that its
components are carried out. As a result, many of its mandated responsibilities have
been turned over to MOSALVY or the DAC.
Aside from making available some of the reclaimed and demined land to
disabled persons and organizations, the areas where there is the most overlap
between the various landmine organizations and disability issues are the areas of
victim assistance and mine risk education. One of the main organizations here
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 257

would be the Cambodian Mine Victim Information System (CMVIS), which has
compiled the Mine Incident Database Project since 1994. CMVIS, along with MAG,
have also engaged in mine risk education programs, especially in the northwestern
provinces of Cambodia, where the majority of landmines, and the majority of
landmine victims, are found. CMVIS also carries out education programs
regarding the risks of explosive remnants of war (ERW) and unexploded ordinance
(UXO), particularly in the southern provinces of Kandal, Kampong Speu, Prey
Veng, and Svay Rieng, where the prevalence or ERW and UXO is highest.
Alongside these activities, the Cambodia Campaign to Ban Landmines has worked
assiduously in the field of landmine victim assistance, while the Cambodia Red
Cross and Handicapped International have been active participants in compiling
information about landmine (and ERW and UXO) victims and in engaging in
programs of mine risk education. In 2006, the UK-based nongovernmental group
Spirit of Soccer began a mine risk education program in Battambang that uses sport
to reach their targeted audience of school-aged at-risk youth.
As imperfect as they might be, these clusters of organizations and their many
activities engaging with the disabled communities of Cambodia represent a radical
potential not only for the members of the disabled communities themselves but also
for new forms of political mobilization within Cambodia. These new methods of
political mobilization will serve to strengthen civil society by creating social and
political networks that facilitate discourse and action among the different disabled
communities and between disabled and nondisabled communities as well. This
represents a radical potential insofar as it differs considerably from any other
moment of opportunity within living memory in Cambodian politics. During the
genocidal years of the Khmer Rouge period (1975-1979), for instance, with the
insistence on purity and productivity, disabled persons were routinely singled out
for extermination, either on the grounds that they were impure (in the case of
congenital physical and intellectual disabilities) or else non-productive (in the case
of acquired physical and intellectual disabilities) (Kiernan 2002). With its own
perverse logic, the Khmer Rouge often created these physical and intellectual
disabilities through their own actions, and then exterminated those who
manifested these disabilities in any way that hindered the efforts of the regime. In
the period from the Vietnamese intervention up until the first peace talks (1979-
1989), the civil war between Vietnamese-backed forces and former Khmer Rouge
elements effectively precluded any concerted government action or policy package
that could deal in any meaningful way with persons from disabled communities in
Cambodia (Gottesman 2004; Slocomb 2004). The situation was too volatile or
unstable for nongovernmental organizations to create a supplementary presence,
so in essence the disabled communities were left to fend for themselves during the
258 Zook

period, including even victims of war and amputees. During the period of
Vietnamese withdrawal, peace talks, and United Nations-sponsored nation-
building under UNTAC (1989-1993), efforts were concentrated on building the
foundational institutions and instruments of the democratic state, which meant that
issues relating to disability communities were considered at best of secondary
importance (Doyle 1997; Roberts 2000; Widyono 2007). It was therefore only with
the post-UNTAC period of independent democratization that the possibility of
effective policy and vibrant activism became a part of Cambodia’s political
landscape, and it is not by pure accident that most of the organizations currently
active in engaging with issues of disability in Cambodia were established in the
1993-1994 period. This helps to explain why issues of disability and members of the
disabled communities have been a part of Cambodia’s democratic transition right
from the beginning.

Toward a New Political Landscape

The many actions by members of the disabled communities of Cambodia and the
organizations of which they are a part have produced benefits that extend beyond
the specific issues of disability rights and benefits. One area in which this can be
seen clearly is in the crucial elements of law and policy. Article 74 of the Cambodia
constitution requires that “the State shall assist the disabled and the families of
combatants who sacrificed their lives for the nation.” The constitution is the legal
centerpiece of the state, and yet, what precisely does Article 74 mean? What
exactly is the state obligated to do? Civil society activism on the part of disabled
communities has put sustained pressure on the state to clarify these issues and to
hold the state responsible for its constitutional obligations. By insisting that these
obligations translate into specific policy outcomes, the civil society activism of the
disabled communities in Cambodia, in concert with that of other elements of
civil society, directly contributes to strengthening the respect for the rule of law
in Cambodia (Delegation of the European Commission 2006). This is also
strengthened by efforts of the disabled communities and organizations to
encourage the Cambodian government to sign international legislation with regard
to disability rights, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Person with
Disabilities, or else to enact a domestic act of legislation that does the equivalent of
guaranteeing those rights. Although this would address the specific issue of rights
of persons with disabilities in Cambodia, by exerting pressure on the government
to participate in international law and to respect rights at the domestic level, this
again serves to strengthen the respect for the rule of law for all citizens in
Cambodia. This in turn results in a greater visibility of the contributions of the
disabled communities in the process of democratization in Cambodia.
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 259

The emphasis on rights and the rule of law also provides a necessary supple-
ment to the preferred state approach to disability issues, which is one of
“rehabilitation,” particularly through economic development programs (Asian
Development Bank 1999; Disability Action Council 1999). The state often views civil
society activism based on the claiming of rights from and against the state to
be excessively contentious, even to the extent of undermining state efforts at
development. But rights-based efforts and development-based efforts are not part
of an either/or trade-off, and should be seen instead as two parts to a more effective
policy whole. Development-based rehabilitation models in Cambodia are
designed to integrate disabled persons and communities into their local (or
national) communities by providing the means for them to participate in the
process of development in Cambodia (either at the local or national levels) (Thomas
2005). Rights-based approaches can have the same effect and result, but they
are citizen-initiated and articulated, which provides an element of dignity that is
often absent when one is seen as merely the passive recipient of government
rehabilitation efforts.
There are certainly benefits to be drawn from the rehabilitation approach,
so it cannot be entirely discounted, but there are substantial problems with the
rehabilitation and development approach that make it essential to create alter-
native, citizen-based methods of social integration and inclusion. To begin with, the
very framing of the issue as one of rehabilitation, a word that is also used with
reference to reintegrating criminals back into society, is yet another example of
putting the focus on the disabled person or community as the problem that needs
to be rehabilitated. Moreover, by singling out disabled persons and disabled
communities for an entirely different and often separate relationship with
development programs, the state effectively undermines the very idea of integra-
tion through rehabilitation right from the start. Even then, if the state focuses only
on development-based models to somehow engineer the integration of disabled
persons and communities in Cambodia, this runs the risk of minimizing the
rights-based approaches which are equally essential and also it runs the risk of
marginalizing the role of disabled persons and communities by relegating them to
one small element of a much larger program of national economic development.
The economic integration through development approach is therefore not
rejected by persons and communities with disabilities in Cambodia, but rather seen
as a parallel course alongside rights-based campaigns and activities. Even within
the realm of economic integration, however, there has been a considerable degree
of mobilization to construct programs that ensure that disabled persons and
communities do not become passive recipients of a state-based-development-
as-charity approach. The result has been citizen-initiated environmentally
260 Zook

progressive and creative approaches to economic integration. Thus in Kampong

Som there has been a pilot program initiated by disabled communities to revive the
traditional crop of sugarcane growing in Cambodia. Not only would this allow for
the “re-traditionalization” of a part of the agricultural output of Cambodia, but it
would also initiate linkage effects through new agricultural industries such as sugar
cane processing and domestic sugar manufacturing in Cambodia. Elsewhere in
Cambodia, there have also been a number of organic “no dig” gardens in various
provinces that are both environmentally sustainable and efficient and at the same
time allow for disabled persons with limited mobility to cultivate various garden
crops, some for personal use and others for the market. Many of these agricultural
products will potentially be marketed with a “Made by Disabled Persons” label that
will allow for more visibility of the productive contributions of the disabled
communities in Cambodia and will also allow for a creative marketing strategy
along the same lines as the “fair trade” labels that are currently making their way
into domestic and global markets. By emphasizing more than just labor and
expanding these economic integration programs to include marketing and
management, these civil society-based alternatives to state-run programs move
beyond the vocational training centers that aim to teach disabled persons a set of
rudimentary skills to prepare them to work, usually at low-skill, menial tasks, for
others, and into the realm of innovative, self-sustaining, and productive forms of
labor that help to create a sense of dignity, meaning, and self-respect in the lives of
those with disabilities in Cambodia.
Not all of the projects and campaigns that work to bring together various
disabled and non-disabled communities in Cambodia deal with adults, and some
are directed specifically at children (Van Leit, Channa and Rithy 2007). At the
Krousar Thmey (“New Family”) school in Siem Reap, a new political landscape is
being created through both the form and content of education for deaf and blind
children. The school is situated on land donated by the Cambodian government,
but the curriculum and materials are supported completely by nongovernmental
financial sources. The curriculum mirrors the standard curriculum of all other
schools in Cambodia, with a few specific exceptions (currently, geometry is not
taught to blind children due to lack of an effective pedagogy), but there are also
programs of integration that endeavor to ensure that disabled and non-disabled
children do not grow into separate and parallel (non-integrated) adulthoods. Every
Wednesday, students from Krousar Thmey leave the school with their teacher to
attend morning sessions in other “standard” schools, and non-disabled children
from those schools are also brought in to attend class sessions at Krousar Thmey.
Teachers from surrounding schools are also invited to come to Krousar Thmey to
participate in and learn new methods of teaching the deaf and blind students. The
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 261

success of Krousar Thmey has been both “horizontal” and “vertical”: it is now quite
common at Krousar Thmey to see children from both disabled and nondisabled
communities interacting for educational and extracurricular activities (thus break-
ing down horizontal barriers in same-age groups), and several Krousar Thmey
graduates are now attending university in Cambodia, with Krousar Thmey
translating college textbooks on-site into braille for these students to use (thus
breaking down vertical barriers of educational advancement). On a more cautious
note, there is also a pilot program at the school to train blind children in advanced
grades in the skill of massage therapy, a thriving industry in tourist-laden Siem
Reap. While there is certainly a degree of practicality in this effort, it is also evident
that there is all sorts of potential for abuse in this field, not necessarily at Krousar
Thmey itself, where the project is closely monitored, but away from the school once
these students graduate and enter the general labor market.
Perhaps the most important contribution that all of these actions collectively
make is that as issue-based efforts at mobilization they constructively form an
active part of a vibrant and ever-expanding civil society in Cambodia. Citizen-
based, civil society initiatives have the dual effect of increasing the visibility of
disabled persons and communities in Cambodia and simultaneously producing
outcomes from which all Cambodia citizens can benefit. In showing that disabled
persons and communities contribute in equal measure and in equal part to the
politics of Cambodia, they also enhance the visibility in Cambodian politics of
issues relating to social justice and human dignity for all Cambodians. Whatever
the case may be for the future, for the present, the many contributions of the
disabled communities can and should be recognized for their contributions to the
strengthening of Cambodia’s democratic institutions and the democratic process of

In November 2007, Cambodia hosted, for the first time since its democratic
transition, an international athletic competition. The significance of the choice
cannot be overestimated: Cambodia chose to host as its first international sports
event the World Disabled Volleyball Tournament. The choice to host this event was
due, in part at least, to the efforts and the mobilizational campaign—to the civic
engagement, in short—of the Cambodia National Volleyball League (Disabled).
Everything about this event was significant, from the fact that the team itself was
composed of members who had fought on both sides of the civil war, now finding
a common identity as Cambodians, to the fact that the winning team of the
tournament was in fact the Cambodian team, making them in essence world
champions. The volleyball team became national heroes and celebrities, and did so
262 Zook

simultaneously as Cambodian citizens, as Cambodian athletes, and as members of

the disabled communities in Cambodia. Even ten years ago, such an event and such
an outcome would have been nearly unthinkable in Cambodia.
There are still many challenges to face in the years to come, as Cambodia’s
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community are progressing, but only at the slowest of paces, and even then they
still threaten to take a disproportionate share of already scarce resources from
government-run programs to address the needs of the various disabled com-
munities. But the efforts so far have created a sense of hope and a sense that a life
of dignity and equal respect, though it may seem slow in coming, is no longer just
a dream and a wish but rather a work-in-progress in which an ever-larger num-
ber of Cambodians can and will participate.
Disability, Democracy, and the Politics of Civic Engagement in Cambodia 263

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Education in Cambodia. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Center.
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Prey Veng District, Prey Veng Province.
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The Important Forgotten - Men Living in Rural Indonesia Who
Have Sex With Men: The Implications for HIV Education
Ed Green

Little is known of the lives of gay men living in rural areas across the world and
especially so in Southeast Asia. As was shown in a small study published in Jurnal
Kajian Budaya (Indonesian Journal of Cultural Studies),1 men who have sex with men
(MSM)2 do live in villages and small towns in Indonesia, partly because they do not
want to live in the cities and partly because they see no need to leave their rural
surroundings. More culturally sensitive research is required to explore the lived
experience of men who have sex with men in rural Indonesia and to understand
this overlooked and marginalized population within Indonesian society.
This paper arises from a research project conducted to explore the stories of men
living in rural communities in Java who acknowledge that they have sex with other
men. It is a project about discovering the meaning that these men give to their
experience of seeking and having sex with other men, mindful of where they live
and the social conventions that exist there.
Men who have sex with men are one of the more vulnerable groups “on the
margins” of society who have been systematically denied access to important
social resources. They have been denied visibility, recognition, social status and
honorability. But more importantly they have also been excluded from AIDS
education and prevention programs, sometimes even by organisations and NGOs
whose specific task it is to take HIV education to MSM. For too long, it has been
assumed that MSM live only in the cities, with the result that those men living in
rural areas who have sex with men have been largely absent from depictions of
both rural life and representations of “non-heterosexual” life. The extent of the
omission of these men from HIV education programs is underlined by a recent
United Nations paper in which MSM were described as “the missing piece” in the
HIV education and prevention jigsaw – a group that the paper describes as “…invis-
ible … on our social or public health radar.”3 For rural MSM, it seems that they are not
only “invisible,” but that they don’t even exist. Yet they do.

The aim of this research project was to explore, understand and theorize about the
experience of being a man who has sex with other men in rural Indonesia. It
describes what life is like for the MSM who informed it and it explores the
266 Green

meanings they give to their lives. This was largely hidden and unknown territory.
A qualitative methodology was chosen as the most appropriate research approach
to use and therefore, this study is both descriptive and theoretically exploratory.
The methodology is situated within a qualitative framework and makes use of
two related research techniques – phenomenology and ethnography. The aim of a
phenomenological approach in qualitative research is to describe accurately the
lived experiences of people. The primary source of data is the life-world of the
individual being studied. However, in phenomenological research, “… each step of
the research process is essentially a personal struggle to maintain a connectedness with the
lived world of the other.”4 Phenomenology is about discovering the meaning given to
a phenomenon by those people who experience that phenomenon. The philosopher
Jacques Derrida makes the point that such discovery can only occur when the
researcher is open to the otherness of the other.5 This study is concerned not only
with the life experiences of these individual MSM but with behaviours that derive
from those experiences and the significance they give to them.
A feature of qualitative research in general, and of phenomenology in particu-
lar, is the value and the prominence given to the informants’ point of view and the
meanings they give to their own lives and to the place where they live.
Phenomenology is a way to account for how individuals define and reflect
upon situations and actions and to establish or find essential elements or “… com-
monalities of meaning between individuals who experience a similar phenomenon.”6 It is
through these descriptions by the men of their subjective experiences of rural life
that the researcher can come to an understanding of what it is like being an MSM
living in rural Indonesia.
On the other hand, ethnography is an exploration of a culture from the
perspective of the people who actually live in that culture. Ethnography aims to
describe the values, beliefs, and practices of cultural groups.7 A culture is not only
perceived as an ethnic population but can also be seen as a community or a social
world. Ethnography involves the study of a small group of individuals in their own
cultural environment. In this case, it is through these men’s perception of their
own homosexuality and its interface with gay culture and with traditional rural
values that the researcher is made aware of these men’s conceptualisation and
interpretation of what, for them, being a MSM in a rural community is about.
In qualitative research, it is not generally assumed that the specific findings
of one inquiry may apply to other situations and some caution is taken in any
extrapolation of the results. Thus, there is a concern for, and attention given to, the
uniqueness of a particular context and a particular group of informants.
The in-depth interview was chosen as the primary means of data collection for
a number of reasons. This type of interview allows participants to tell their story in
The Important Forgotten 267

their own way and in so doing be able to emphasise what has been, and what is,
important to them.8 There are advantages in this. First, it ensures accuracy –
people are more likely to tell “the truth,” and a richer and fuller version of it, when
they can tell it their way. Second, such an interview can be less traumatic and less
confrontational for the informant, especially when the topic is so personal and
potentially traumatic in its telling. Lastly, this interview method allows for some
interventions (when needed) to prompt a recollection or to gently steer the
interview back on track if the informant wanders too far. The in-depth interview
also allows for a face-to-face meeting. It ensures a privacy and an immediacy that
helps the informant provide data that he might otherwise not disclose.
Additionally, to assist the establishment of some sense of rapport and trust between
the informant and the researcher, the interview can be much more of a conversation
than an oral interrogation. The language used can be everyday words without
the stiltedness, the caution and tentativeness, that comes from more structured
processes.9 Given the nature of this study, sexuality and sex are aspects of these
men’s lives that are likely to be raised and in-depth interviews may allow a more
open and frank canvassing of these issues than other forms of data collection.
The interview was conducted in English and Bahasa, the questions being
initially asked in English, translated into Bahasa, answered in Bahasa and then
translated back into English. The accuracy of the translation was double-
checked in the transcription process whereby the research assistant helping
with the transcription was not the same person who assisted in the interviews.
Each of the interviews lasted for approximately one and a half hours. However, in
the case of six out of the nine men, the interview team met with the man before the
interview and then at that meeting an interview was scheduled for a few days later.
Because of privacy concerns of these men, none of the interviews were conducted
in the village in which the men lived, although in the case of two men, the pre-
interview meetings were. In the case of two of the waria, the interviews were
conducted in their home village and, in fact, conducted in the family home of one
of them.

This paper is based on interview data gathered from a small sample of self-
identified MSM who grew up and live in villages outside metropolitan Yogyakarta
in Java. Nine men and three waria, who self-admitted that they desired and had sex
with other men, agreed to participate in the research. The men interviewed came
from six different villages. The men who came from the same village knew each
other but had never engaged in sex with each other. The men’s ages ranged from 25
to 65. Four of the men had married and each of these men had children. Eight of the
268 Green

nine men were Muslim and one was Christian.

This paper acknowledges that in Indonesia there exists a group that many
Indonesians refer to as a third gender – the warias. While there has been some
research on this group, and what has been accomplished to date is impressive,
much of it is within an urban context. This project is aware that warias live in many
towns and villages across Indonesia and warias were included in the research
schedule. Waria is a term used by Indonesia’s large transgendered community,
a term derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man). There is consider-
able discussion in Indonesia about what determines a waria and the dominant
stereotype of warias is one of a flamboyant cross-dressing sex-worker living on the
fringes of society. Alternatively, warias are seen typically as the show business drag
queens who perform on stage and on television.10
This research would take issue with these stereotypes and it would also
question the notion that warias are men who imitate women in their clothing or
mannerisms. It is clear from the observations of the author of this paper that the
waria community is large and diverse. The warias who informed this research
reported that there were other warias who wore makeup and women’s clothing,
usually at night, and who imitated certain feminine mannerisms when they dressed
as women. But when they did not dress as women they acted as male. The warias in
this research spoke of others who identify so closely as female that they are able to
pass as female in their daily interactions in society. It was waria from this latter
category who were interviewed for this research.
This research chose to include warias in the project because while they identified
as women, they also acknowledged that they were physiologically male with no
desire or need to change their male genitalia. The other interesting point to note that
each of the waria, when it was explained that it was a research project about MSM,
did not refrain taking part in the project. They saw their male body as sufficient
reason for inclusion while at the same time making it very clear that emotionally
and psychologically, they saw themselves as women. It was important that the
research be open to warias and at the same time allow them to define themselves.
The warias who participated in this research were all currently living in villages
and they had all grown up in the village environment. They were rural warias and
had chosen to live and work away from city life and its environs. They were very
clear about who they were. Each waria described themselves as a woman and not a
man imitating a woman. They also acknowledged that they had a man’s body and
that they had no desire to change the genitals from male to female. This research
included interviews with three warias. Two worked in their own businesses and one
was unemployed. Their ages ranged from 21 to 41. All three were Muslim.
The Important Forgotten 269

Though it is not possible in this paper to detail all of the findings of this research,
the final report of the research project will have a greater analysis of the data. What
is presented here is these men’s experience in relation to four themes that emerged
from the data:
- early sexual experience,
- self-disclosure,
- identity, and
- religion.
These themes were chosen because they have significant implications for HIV
education and prevention programs that may be designed to target Indonesian
MSM living in rural areas.

Early Sexual Experience

All of the men in this sample were sexually active with other men. For some men,
that sexual activity began early in their lives and for others it was a more recent
development. For some men, they realized very early in their lives that they were
different from other boys but at that stage they did not know what that difference
was. For example, “B” stated that
I started to realize that I was different when I was in the fifth grade of elementary school.
I noticed that I was different because when I played wrestling with other boys and my
body was entwined with the other boy, and especially when he was handsome, I
noticed that I had merinding [the hairs on one’s body stand up]. … I was about 12 then.

Another man, “H”, had this to say,

… [In fourth grade, a particular] boy gave me more attention than other boys gave me
and the boy that I liked also gave me the feeling that he was protecting me. And so that
is why I liked him. … I was not sure about the exact feelings at that time, but
sometimes when the boy came … [he] kissed me. … just here [pointed to the cheeks].
I did not think about more than that. [Laughs] [8/2]

For other men, this realization of difference came later. “P” stated that,
In junior high school I found that I was different and when my friends spoke about the
sexy bodies of girls I don’t have the same feeling. …I realized that I liked boys when I
was a student [in high school]… 15 or 16.[1/1]

Nevertheless, while the timing of their understanding of difference varied, all of

these men came to comprehend that this difference was primarily about their
growing sexual interest in boys and men. And they acted on this difference.
270 Green

Similarly, the warias also had their initial sexual experiences at an early age. For
example, “A” said that her11 first sexual experience was with a boy in sixth grade of
elementary school when she was about 11 or 12 years if age. She had already begun
to see herself as female and this sexual activity was where she masturbated the boy
rather than an act of mutual masturbation. It was an act that “A” remembers
initiating. “K” also told of sexual experience in junior high school. As she recalls it,
It was the boys who touched me first … four boys. Yes … it was kissing and touching.
But I did not say no to their touching me. We were just kissing and touching and the
boys held my hand and directed it to his cock. [10/5-6]

As with the men in the Bali study,12 these men saw no reason to leave the village
because of this difference. With the exception of two men, the remaining seven men
and the three waria had their first sexual experience in the village. The ages of this
first sexual experience varied but what is important to note is that for some men
and waria this was very young.13 For example, “Ha” recalled that
…when I was in 1st grade of elementary school we had sex and the boy was very
active…we sucked each others’ cocks. But, when I was in 4th grade and he was in 1st
grade of junior high school I was the active one. I was the one doing things. [9/4]

Another man said that he was having sex in the first grade of high school … at
about 13 years of age. He said that,
In junior high school … I began to engage in sex … by seducing [merayu] him myself.
I liked someone who was stronger than me and was more manly [kebapakan]. I was
looking for the boarding house where the other boy lived and I found it and spent the
night there with him and I seduced him and it happened. At first I started by touching
him and then the boy did not object and wanted it.
E: So who initiated it?
H: Me
E: So … the young boy seduced the older boy.
H: Yes. [8/5-6]

What is important to understand from this exchange is the determination with

which these men and waria sought out other men and while not all of them were so
adventurous at such a young age as “H,” they were all, without too much difficul-
ty, able to find boys and men willing to engage in sex with them. As “W” said,
I was only in the kampung. Yeah, [there was plenty of sex to be had with men in
the village] … there were three or four people who were gay in the village … having
sex [with men]. [6/8]

There is no indication that any of these men and waria were in any way forced
The Important Forgotten 271

to have sex and in every instance of their first sexual experience, the men and waria
who were interviewed said that they initiated it.
The other point to note about these youthful sexual experiences is the amount
of sex some of these young men had. For example, one young man, “W” was
having sex with other boys and men three times per day at 16 years of age. One of
the men he was involved with was a teacher at his high school as indicated by the
exchange below,
E: And how much sex were you having?
W: Three times per day. … Not certain … sometimes with a different boy … sometimes
with my friend.
E: Was this sex playing with each other cocks, sucking cock or was it anal sex. Were
you fucking?
W: Yes.
E: The other boys?
W: Yes.
E: And the teacher?
W: Yes.
E: And was anyone fucking you?
W: No … I don’t want [that]. [6/7-8]

Two things to note from this exchange: one is the inventory of sexual experience
that some of these young men had and the second, and more important point, is
to understand the amount of control these young men and warias had over the
situations in which they put themselves. In the case of “W,” it is clear that he sought
out, initiated and controlled the sexual encounters, even when that encounter
involved an older man who was in a position of power. It was “W” who controlled
what he would and would not do. This is not to say that his sexual partners were
unwilling participants, but the initiative as to what would and would not happen
seemed to lie with “W.” Warias “A” and “K” made exactly the same point.
However, not all early sexual encounters were so full on. In the case of “P,” he
went from his village to the swimming pool in Yogyakarta after he had found out
that on a certain day of the week, it was possible to find other MSM there. He
recalled that there was
… only touching in the swimming pool but no sex. My hand is above the water but the
other man’s hands are on my body below the water. … The water was at my chest and
so most of my body is below the water. [1/4]

At this time, “P” was 32 years of age and for him it had been a long and
difficult personal journey to get to the stage of accepting his sexual self and then
272 Green

doing something about it.

As can be seem from this brief discussion of the early sexual experiences of these
MSM who lived the villages, the timing of their initial homosexual explorations
varied from being quite young to being relatively older. So, too, was the nature of
those sexual activities – from timid and tentative touchings at the swimming pool
to full-on anal sex. Clearly, this factor has implications for how HIV education
programs for MSM living in the villages should be designed and delivered and will
be discussed again in the final section of this paper.

One of the criteria for interviewing these men and waria was they that accepted and
acknowledged, at least to themselves, that they desired sex with men and that they
had had, and were continuing to have, sex with men. This self-acknowledgement is
the first and most important form of self-disclosure and is one of the milestones in
“the ‘coming out process’ among the Indonesian MSM,” at least the way it appears
to happen in western societies. As will be seen from the discussion below, this
concept of “coming out” appears not to follow Western patterns. Self-disclosure to
others, especially to family and to the community in general is not considered
important. Furthermore, all of these men said that they had told the other boys or
men they were sexually active with that they preferred to have sex with men, even
though some of them were also having sex with women. Additionally, most of the
men said that they had told someone and this someone was usually a friend,
though that friend was not necessarily MSM or gay.
For these men, to tell someone else, even a friend, was difficult. For example, for
“P,” one of the older men in the group and the one person for whom self-acceptance
was an especially slow and tortuous process, telling someone that he liked men
sexually was “awkward” [1/7].
But other men said that they had not told anyone and furthermore had no
intention of telling anyone. “S” said that he would not tell anyone because he was
“ashamed” [3/7]. “N” said that he was “afraid,” but part of this fairly strong reaction
may be because both of these men are married. Other men simply said that they
were “shy” and that they did not want others to know [7/20], which is perhaps a
polite way of saying that others did not need to know. One man told me that I was
the first person he had ever told that he had a boyfriend. As for family, no one had
told their family and, as of the time of the interview, no one had any intention of
telling anyone within the family. Of course, this is not to say that family did not
sometimes have an idea as to what was going on. For example, “H” remembered
… one day my brother came to my room and found a gay magazine and so he could
The Important Forgotten 273

suspect that I am gay [but nothing was ever said]. [9/13] 14

There were two exceptions to this. “P,” the one man who had quite late in life
come to an acceptance of himself, decided to make something of a declaration to his
family at an opportune family gathering. He recalled it this way:
Up to now I am the one who hold the family’s assets together. And we had a family
gathering some time ago and at that gathering I asked my mother to talk to the family
and divide the inheritance among the children … in this case it was land. And I think in
that kind of situation when all of the family are gathered together that is the right time
for me to declare that I will not get married. I told them that I will not get married and I
asked my family not to bother trying to find a prospective wife for me because I will not
get married. And there was no objections to my declaration … just so so. … Maybe they
did not know about my gayness … but I needed to say these things to them to make
them stop hoping that I would get married. [1/9]

But he also made it very clear that he could never tell his mother saying that she
“would never understand these things” [1/10]. He felt he did not have to “disappoint”
[1/10] [perhaps “upset’” may be a better word to describe his intentions] his
elderly mother. But he left open the possibility of actually telling someone in the
family, saying,
… if I have to do it, I will tell that to only one person … my brother … because I
consider that he is the one who can be asked to talk [to other members of the family]
about this thing. Maybe he will be disappointed but I am sure that my brother will not
get angry. [1/9]

The other exception was “B.” This man was younger than “P” and prided
himself on his macho look, his manly physique and he openly said that he used his
masculinity to divert attention away from any suspicion that he was gay. But he also
made it very clear that he accepted that he was gay, and it is perhaps this that
allowed him to speak with select others. He said that,
I have been telling this story of mine to about five people. Two of them were imam, but
the other three were friends. The imams told me to stay away from the gay life and gay
people and to do more praying. But speaking is easy and for me who had to do this …
well it was not that easy. But the more I struggled with myself, the more depressed I
got and the more hurt I felt. And I also wanted to know more about what gay life was
like. I felt that the imam were small people and this also pushed me to want to know
more about gay life. ... my friends understood what I was going through and they
respected my feelings. They wanted to know more about what brought me to being gay
and they could listen to me. I [especially] liked one of them … that is why I decided to
tell my story to him. My friends understood what I am because they had a very good
274 Green

education background and a wide knowledge [of the world]. That is why he knows and
understands that this kind of life [homosexual life] is real and exists. … I was thankful
that I could find friends [in the village] who could understand me and help me overcome
the emotional struggle I was having inside myself. Before, I felt as if there was nobody
who wanted to know about me or who would accept me. [2/4-5]

So despite a considerable amount of sexual experience and despite a relative

acceptance with that activity and their own sexual self-realizations, disclosure of
those matters was no easy task, and in general was something better avoided. But
this reluctance to disclose must also be understood as a way of staying in the
village. None of the men indicated a desire to leave the village in which they live
and all of them made it clear that they were living where they wanted to live.
Therefore, although these men did not deny their homosexuality, at least to
themselves, they did not see the need to leave their home and village on that
account. They explored same-sex desire and experienced same-sex sex locally with
other local men. This is not to say that their behaviour was common knowledge in
the village. This not only made their life in the village easier and more pleasant, it
also allowed them to stay there hassle-free. And paradoxically, it also allowed them
to find other men to have sex with. It allowed them to satisfy their desire for
same-sex sex and it allowed those other men to engage with them because neither
party was labeled. Those who needed to know did and that was all that mattered.
For the waria in this research, self-disclosure was a matter that they had little
choice over. They began to dress in girls’ clothing from a young age. They began to
use make-up. “K” began to wear girls’ clothing to bed in elementary school. “I”
began to wear female clothes in public by the time she was in junior high school.
They began to act in a more female way and respond to situations emotionally in
the way of a woman. And they were also treated as girls. For example, “K” says
In kindergarten, the characteristics of a woman already existed [in me]. I liked to play
with girls. I liked to make up my face, and if I played with anything it was always
something that a girl would play with. Besides … I was educated [treated] like a girl.

“I” was also able to say that she had

… already accepted my self as a woman because during the first to third grade of
junior high school people have already recognized my attitude and my character
as different and typically a woman’s. [12/4]

The warias’ development was not something that could be hidden from family,
friends or the public. It was not something that they could choose or not choose to
The Important Forgotten 275

disclose. Their increasing feminization was something that they had to deal with
and it was also something that their families had to deal with. Sometimes that was
not easy, but what was gratifying was that all three warias said that their families
continued to love and accept them as they took on the characteristics of women. It
is highly likely that not all warias, or indeed not all MSM more generally, had the
support of family that the ones in this research did. Nevertheless, these rural warias
were able to grow up and continue to live in the village and be loved and accepted
by their families and friends as well as being free of physical violence coming from
the people in the village itself.
This factor, too, has implications in how HIV education programs for MSM
living in the villages should be designed and delivered and it will be discussed
again in the final section of this paper.

Across the world there is an enormous range of same-sex behaviours and lived
identities that cannot be reduced to some simplistic Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-
Transgendered (LGBT) paradigm. Under that paradigm, each person is expected to
fit themselves (or be fitted) into a box of this or that category. Those who cannot box
themselves into some pre-determined sexual category are then un-identified such
that the unlabelled are denied space in the discourses of sexuality and denied place
in the polemics of HIV education and prevention.
Sexual identity should be based on the lived experience of the individual and
what has meaning and significance for that individual from their lived experience.
In this study, an attempt was made to not pre-determine categories and then group
people into those categories. This study tried to avoid that boxing exercise and any
attempt at grouping the men as to who they should be and what they should call
themselves and how they should identify. And while this paper uses the term MSM,
it does not do so as an identity category, but as a term of sexual desire and sexual
practice. But even here, that term is fraught with difficulty. In this small study, there
were “men who have sex with men” because they desired other men. There were
men who had sex with other males because they did not consider these males to be
men. There were males who did not think of themselves as men, who had sex with
those they considered real men. There were men who considered themselves men
in one situation but not in another. Had the sample been larger, it is likely that the
possibilities of sexual practice may well have also been larger. And in this sample,
there were also men who had sex with women as well as men. Some of these men
were married, some were not.
The men in this study who were living in the village were very reluctant to
categorize themselves other than admitting that they liked to have sex with men.
276 Green

Take “N” for example. Not only did he not understand the term “gay,” but he was
even confused as to whether the Indonesian term “banci” applied to him. The
following exchange captures this confusion over terms and a refusal to be easily
N: In my residence, there are many many men who like men, but in my own village, I
think I am the only one.
E: Would you use the word “gay” to describe these men?
N: What does “gay” mean. I do not understand this word.
E: You do not understand what “gay” means? So when men have sex with one
another, how do you see that? What do you call that?
N: I would call him “mas.” [Either the question or the term is misunderstood, … or both].
E: What if you and I had sex together … what do you call us?
N: Maybe “banci” … but I really do not know a name for this.
E: So do you call yourself “banci”
N: [Laughs] I do not know. When I was in junior high school, many of my friends called
me “banci,” but I just kept silent.
E: But now, you say you say you are not “gay,” you are not “banci,” so does this mean
that you just like to have sex with men?
N: Now I do not think that I am “banci,” but sometimes my voice is a little bit like a
woman’s. I act sometimes a little bit girly. I just like having sex with a man some-

And “N” went on a little later in the interview to make this comment,

E: Do you use the word “gay” in relationship to yourself?

N: I don’t like that word.
E: How do you describe yourself now?
N: I am a little bit confused about how I can describe myself and also a little bit shy
E: Maybe it is not necessary to be able to describe yourself … maybe you are just the
way you are … is that what the story is?
N: I do not like to describe myself. Rather, I like to say …. Me … this is me … this is
me … the way I am. [4/11]

Other men understood the term “gay” and only reluctantly applied it to
themselves. But the term had meanings that they did not like and that they refused
to apply to themselves. Essentially the term “gay” was seen in an effeminate
context and did not apply to laki-laki asli [real men]. “Gay” did not apply to what
“A” calls “normal” men, which for him refers to “straight acting” men, “Gay” was
The Important Forgotten 277

not how some of the men in this study saw themselves. Therefore, “gay” applied
only to the extent that it referred to male-to male sexual practice. The following
exchange illustrated the point,
E: Are you a gay man?
A: I cannot say I am gay. When someone asks me whether I am gay and cannot answer
that. I do not like it [the term “gay”]. But I am gay … I know I am gay.
E: Why do you not like to say [admit] you are gay?
A: I do not know ... but I do not enjoy when somebody says I am gay. It looks [feels] so
ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What I like about gay is the relationship between a real man and
a real man. I do not like a sissy.
E: So … you think gay is banci?
A: Yeah.
E: You think gay is sissy
A: Yeah. I think gay is like that. … Yes .. I really don’t like that. I only want a real man.
E: So … you want a masculine man … who doesn’t look sissy?
A: Yes.
E: So … it is about style
A: Yes … I want to look like a normal style guy … I think gay is [associated with] a
woman’s style. And I don’t like that … I want to look normal.
E: So … what do you call yourself … if you are not “gay?” You say you don’t like “gay”
or the gay way.
A: No … I just don’t for somebody to call me gay because it makes me not enjoy myself.
E: What would you like to be called … if you are not gay … what are you … are you a
normal man?
A: No … I just only like men and men, but I do not like someone to tell me I am gay. I
do not want someone to tell me I am gay. I only tell myself that I like men.
E: You reject the label, but you know that you like men?
A: Yes. [7/15-17]

Nevertheless, there were men in this study who were quite willing to label
themselves. “W” was a case in point.
E: So physically you like a man, emotionally you like a man. But you are married with
a wife and a child.
W: Yes.
E: So are you gay … or straight ... or bisexual … or what?
W: Bisexual. [6/14]

Similarly, “Ha” was happy to identify as “gay” even though he fully intended
to get married to conform to societal, religious and family expectations. “Ha” said
that “one of the demands of the society that when a man is of age he should get married”
278 Green

[9/12], and that this applied to all men … gay, straight or otherwise. “Ha” makes it
clear that despite the marriage requirement, he still saw himself as “gay”:
E: How did you see yourself at this time … did you ever use the word “homosexual”
about yourself … or “gay” or any other word about yourself at this stage?
H: Yes. I can feel as a gay.
E: So you understood the terms. You understood “homosexual” and “gay” .. were these
terms the same … was there any linkage of these terms?
H: They were the same … “Homo” in English is “gay.” [9/9]

But he went on to define himself a little more “clearly” [sic], but perhaps that
definition only delightfully muddies the water. He said,
E: How do you see yourself now … you are not married at the moment … are you
homosexual … are you gay .. .what are you… have you an identity … or do you just
like men and just like to have sex with men. Or perhaps you have no identity …
perhaps you just happen to like men.
H: On the chatting line there are many people ask me about that but my answer is I am
a gay man who still needs a woman. [9/12]

But of course, when we talk about sexual identity, nothing is straightforward

and just as we should not attempt to define people, they too sometimes refuse
to be identified. Sexual identity is not always fixed and stable, but for some men,
including men in this study, it is flexible and moves depending on the context and
situation. Therefore, some men will see themselves as a man in a given context, but
will see themselves as a woman in another, and act accordingly. “H” was just such
a man. He was asked,
E: So you have always taken the woman’s role … are you still a man … a real man, or
are you part woman?
H: When I want to have sex with someone, I will behave like a woman, but when I am
in an ordinary situation with people, I will behave like this [normally].
E: So what is the difference between when you talk as a woman and when you talk as
a man?
H: There is a difference between when I feel as a woman and I am with a man that I
like and have sex with him. But I will be just like a man when I talk to people in
general. I will be so girly when I talk with my man, but will talk just like this [normally]
when I am with others. ....I will behave like a woman in the sexual situation but will
behave normally at other times. If I behave like a woman in front of people, I will feel
E: So when you behave in a girly way, are you a woman or a man?
H: When I behave in a girly way which is only when I am with a man for sex, I feel [as
if I am] a woman.
The Important Forgotten 279

E: So the only time you are a man is when you are actually talking to people that you
know are not gay. When you talk to gay men, you behave like a woman.
H: No … I only talk and feel like a woman when I am with a [male] sexual partner.
E: So sometimes when you are with your sexual partner you feel like a woman, but at
other times you feel like a man.
H: Yes … I feel I am a woman only when I am with a [male] lover. [Note the difference
that “H” makes here … I ask whether he feels like a woman and he replies that in the
sexual act he is a woman.] [8/14-15]

This flexibility in terms of gender behaviour is reflected in the way “H” refuses
to be defined and confined by a term.
E: And how do you see yourself now … are you gay, homosexual, bisexual. What is
your identity now? … Do you have a word for that feeling … liking a man?
H: Until now, I do not have a word for this, but let’s say because I am a quite
successful man, all of my children have completed university, automatically people feel
a little bit ashamed to say [“banci”] to me. But my feeling has just remained the same
in that I still like [to be with] men. I am “laki laki asli” [a real man] but my feeling is that
of a woman. … in [a sexual] situation. I am the bottom and so I consider myself as the
E: Ahhhhhhhhhhh. So it is the position you take in sex that dictates the feeling or iden-
tity you have. Is that how it is?
H: Yes. It seems that if I want to have sex with a man, my feeling at that time is that of
a woman. [8/13-14]

But identity can also be derived from factors outside of ourselves and can come
from factors as diverse culture, language, religion, and geography. This was made
clear in a recent study into rural gay men in Australia15 where place was an
important determinant of identity. Those men identified as rural men and as gay
men. In this study of MSM living in villages in Indonesia, the propensity to
identify on the basis of where one lived was not as strong. However, there was one
man who did so, and he deserves a place in this narrative. “P” had suggested that
after much searching he had finally made contact with another man who liked men,
but that this man was in the city. He made it clear that while there were similarities
between himself and this other man from the city “… especially about the taste and
the type and also about the lifestyle” [1/8], there were also significant differences. And
these differences were based on where they grew up and lived. He put it this way,
P: Because these men were from the city and I was from the village and we therefore
had two different lifestyles. …What I feel is that people from the city have different
patterns of life and that affects me. I know that I am gay, but I do not need to go to a
280 Green

café on Sunday night or gather with the gay community.

E: So … what was your feeling as a man from the village about being gay?
P: No difference … what makes me different is not being gay but the lifestyle. [1/8]

However, the waria who were part of this study were not nearly so reluctant to
categorize themselves and nor were they as confused about who they were. The
waria repeatedly said that while they had the body of a man, they had the soul
[“jiwa”] of a woman. What was not clear from their testimony was whether this jiwa
was a collective meaning in the way Boellstorff suggests16 or whether it is used to
compare themselves to other women rather than to other waria. It is with some
confidence that “K” can declare,
My soul is definitely a woman’s ... [10/2]

But it is important to understand that for waria, while they have the soul of a
woman, they also acknowledge that they have the body of a man. And as was
mentioned earlier in this paper, none of the waria in this research wished to change
the male genitals that they were born with. It is simply that the soul is in the wrong
body. Or as “K” put it,
My soul is a woman, but it has the wrong casing [body]. [10/6]

Therefore, just as their soul is an important component of their identity, so too

is their male body. She goes on to emphasize that it is this combination of body and
soul that makes her a complete person. As she says with simple clarity, her penis
… was part of me. Because my vagina is at the back. I do not want to have plastic
surgery to cut my cock. [10/7]

Later in the interview she refers to this notion of completeness again by which
she means not only does she means that she has good and bad in her, but she also
obliquely refers to the fact that she is both man and woman and that she has not had
surgery to remove her penis … so she is “complete” in that sense as well. [10/11]
This complete “package” “K” refers to as “boobs with a cock” [10/12] and she goes
on to say that,
… if I cut off my cock, I will not be a lady-boy any more. [10/13]

It is with a wonderful indelicacy that “K” describes herself as a

Woman with a cock. [Laughs] [10/4]

While the other waria did not use terms nearly so colourful as “K,” their
sentiments were the same. Sexually and socially, these waria saw themselves as
women. “I” put it this way,
When I have sex, I feel like it is between and man and a woman and I am the woman
The Important Forgotten 281

in that situation. [12/1-2]

And in the social situation she said that she feels

… as though I am a woman because the people surrounding me place me in a female
place and context. They meet me as a woman and not as a man. So … for example …
at a wedding ceremony or any traditional ceremony, they include me to help them to do
the jobs that a woman would usually do. Most of them consider me as a woman. I feel
as if I am a woman because I am respected (dihargai) [here in the village] as a woman.

Therefore this self-identification as a woman is reinforced by the village’s

identification of the waria also as a woman. The identity that they have is part self
and part social, with each aspect reinforcing the other. Therefore, it appears that just
as the waria have been able to find and identity outside the traditional LGBT,
the people in the villages in which they have also been able to see them outside
the male/female binary and outside the gay/lesbian, homosexual/heterosexual
In our studies of non-heterosexual identifying men, we must attempt to ensure
that those who do not fit into the LGBT box do not get sidelined or forgotten. We
must ensure that “gay” is not the only identity and at the same time we must ensure
that MSM does not become a label of identity but remains at it most useful as a
descriptor of behaviour or sexual practice. As Khan, Bondyopadhyay and Jenkins17
remind us, those inside and outside the box are
human beings with sexual rights to be themselves, to define themselves, and to live
their lives in meaningful and significant way appropriate to who they are and who they
wish to become in a never ending process of becoming...

This factor has significant implications in how HIV education programs for
MSM living in the villages should be designed and delivered and will be discussed
again in the final section of this paper.

In this study eight of the nine men were Muslims, and one was Christian and all
three waria were Muslim. All of the men and waria expressed some pride in
their religious faith and no one said that they had no faith or that religion was
unimportant in their lives.18 These men and waria saw it as important socially and
individually to fulfill their religious obligations and they saw their faith as having
something to say about how they should behave as citizens in a civil society. For
example, “A” said that,
I am a good Muslim. I believe that by praying in the mosque … helping other people …
282 Green

caring .. just like this … and helping somebody .. this is [what being a] good [Muslim is]
for me. [7/17-19]

What is important to note is that to be a good Muslim, according to these men

and waria, one should pray and do good works. Both were the marks of a good
Muslim. And interestingly, both were also, according to these men and waria, the
marks of a good person. It was imperative that to be a good person, then one cared
and one did not harm others. These men and waria saw themselves as good people
and good Muslims. In this respect, there was no discernable difference between the
opinions of the MSM and the waria. For example, “K” said that.
The point is that I am happy and I do not bother other people. I want to enjoy my life.
God’s issues are for God and it is only for He and I to know what goes on between us.

But several people in this research saw themselves not quite as good Muslims
largely because they did not pray. One man said he had “tried” [2/10] to be a good
Muslim … another said when asked whether he considered himself to be a good
Muslim answered that despite praying and going to the mosque, he was unable to
say whether he was a good Muslim … the implication being that this was for God
to decide [7/17].
Another man, when asked whether he considered himself to be a good Muslim,
responded with the phrase “… paling…sadar kalau eling” [I realize when I
remember] [2/10]. He then went on to say “well … let’s say I am not quite close to
Him” [2/10]. Again, being a good Muslim was something for God to decide rather
than man. It was in this vein of thinking that these men reconciled their sexual
desire and practice with their religious faith.19 Looking across their testimonies, it
is remarkable how comfortable they are with their sexuality and their religion. This
finding is as welcome as it is largely unexpected. For example, one man said that,
It is possible for me to be a good Muslim and it is not a big deal [that I like other men].

Another said that while he considered sex with a man to be a sin,

I also felt that I was predestined from this time to live this way and therefore, maybe it
was not really sin. … though I considered that this was a sin, I thought it was not such
a big sin. [8/12]

This man went on to say that, for him, his problem was not about whether his
sexual desire and practice was sinful but
My battle [pertarungan] is that I am afraid if someone that I loved would leave me.
The Important Forgotten 283

Therefore, the battle was to find someone to love, to forge a lasting relationship
and as to whether that was sinful was something secondary and something that he
did not have to decide because sin was something essentially in the hands of God.
Other men said similar things. When the proposition was put to “A” that Islam says
that sex between men is wrong, he responded by saying that,
I know that … I feel bad when I hear this in the mosque, especially when the imam
preaches that it is haram [forbidden]. And I have a feeling [reaction] … but what can I
do. It is life and sometimes when I think about it it makes me hurt also. But I do not
know whether it is real or not. But I know the story. It is hard because I also believe the
religion. But sometimes when I read the book [the Koran], sometimes I do not believe
also. Yeah … the problem is the religion … Yes … it is the religion. I have no answer
… but life must go on. [7/17-19]

When the warias described themselves as not quite a good Muslim, it was in
terms similar to the MSM. They made it clear that their religious faults were ones
of omission. For example, “K” remarks that
I do not pray enough yet…. It is only in the fasting month that I go to the Mosque.

“I” said that while she sees herself as a Moslem and that she “…learnt some
Islamic lessons from a ustad” [12/5] she only prays “sometimes” and that rather than
going to the mosque, when she prays, she prays “…at home sometimes with other
warias.” [12/5]

I am quoting these testimonies at some length to show that there is considerable

evidence that these men have a level of comfort with their religion. The Koran, for
them, is not the forbidding text that others see. Islam is not a text designed to shut
them off from God nor is it a text that could be used to shut them off from being a
good man and a good Muslim. Perhaps the man who best brought this into sharp
relief was “W.” While he accepted that the religion saw sex between men as haram
[forbidden] and was therefore sinful, this was something from a religious text and
an interpretation of that text. When asked a simple question about being a good
Muslim, his answer was definitive:
E: Are you a good Muslim?
W: Not really.
E: Is that because you have sex with men or because you do not go to the mosque?
W: Because I rarely pray [sholat]. [6/15]

For “W,” sex with a man did not preclude him from being a good Muslim, but
the lack of prayer in his life could. It was not so much his love of men that could
284 Green

cause him to be not so good a Muslim, but his lack of contact with God. Another
man said that life was like a house and composed of many rooms under the one
roof. Sexuality and religion are both part of life, but as he said,
… religion is a private matter and being gay is also a private matter. For me, gay and
religion each have their own room in the house. … As I said before, gay is a private
matter and religion is a private matter. [5/13]

One of the reasons for this accommodation between the sexual self and religion
is that several of the men reasoned that God made them the way they were. And
while they may have questioned why he did that to them in particular, they felt that
if this was how he created them, then how they felt in a sexual sense was also God’s
doing.20 For example “H” made the comment that,
I felt that God made me this way … so I just did it [got on with it]. [8/2]

Several studies and articles have suggested that religion poses significant
problems for those who see religion as important in their lives. For example, Khan
stated in relation to MSM in South Asia that
… having same-sex desires, was seen in opposition to Muslim identity. This led to
expressions of guilt and deep shame and feelings of depression. Islamic concepts of
heaven and hell were a felt reality in their lives and at times created considerable ten-
sion and fear. The feelings of pain and loneliness that so many stated they experienced
were felt to be deserved and could not be avoided.21

This level of comfort with religion was even more explicit in the testimony of the
warias. They explained this accommodation between their sexual selves and their
religious faith in a number of ways. As has been mentioned, each of the warias not
only saw themselves as women, but said that they were women. Therefore they
explained their sex with men as the natural and normal sexual desire of a woman.
For example, “I” said that
I have feeling as a woman, and therefore I should have sex with a man and not to a
woman. Because I am a woman. [12/5]

The warias were very mindful of what they saw as sin. For them, sin was very
much a matter for God alone to decide and was not a matter to be decided by
humans. Therefore “K” was able to say that,
God’s issues are for God and it is only for He and I to know what goes on between us.
What I do is between me and God. [10/10-11]

And she went on to say that,

But people cannot judge me. … I do not know [whether God accepts me], but that is
between me and God. It is for God to decide the goodness of our prayers. [10/12]
The Important Forgotten 285

Similar sentiments were echoed by “A” in suggesting that the matter of sin was
something not of concern to other people. She suggested that,
The Koran is about God’s business and [it is not] about human business. .. God is the
only one who knows everything. People cannot decide if something is sinful or not
sinful because He is the only one who can decide these things. [11/7]

But the warias, like the MSM, also suggested that God created them the way
they were and therefore how they felt and the desires that emanated from their
God-given sexuality. This is the rationale behind “A’s” statement that
… I am like this because of God and not because of me. [11/7]

But the overwhelming sentiment to emerge from the warias’ testimony is one of
a quiet comfort with their religion, a refusal to be seen by others (and to see
themselves) as sinful and to let matters of moral judgment be decided by God. As
“I” put it,
I surrender everything to God. I believe He will find me a way out. [12/2]

However, while none of the men or warias expressed a gladness that they were
MSM or waria, none of them spoke of the deep shame, the guilt and the depression
that Khan refers to. Instead they find an accommodation with religion that allows
them to continue to pray …and so remain good Muslims and do good works that
allow them to be good people. Additionally, they are more inclined to see their
sexuality and their sexual desires as God-given, a view that then also allows
notions of sin to be a matter decided by God rather than some cleric.
Again, this factor has implications for how HIV education programs for MSM
living in the villages should be designed and delivered and it will be discussed
again in the final section of this paper.

The Implications for HIV Education and Prevention Programs

There is ample evidence that the current approach of taking programs and
curricula that were devised for an urban clientele and simply re-delivering them in
rural places, as well-meaning as it might be, will be fraught with problems. For
example, the work of Professor Tim Heckman in the US indicates that if AIDS
programs are to be effective in rural areas, they must be presented in such a way
that they reach out to rural MSM.22 AIDS prevention strategies in rural areas have
to be culturally contextualized and not just transplanted urban-focused programs
because of the different issues that face rural MSM and the different social and
geographical milieu in which rural MSM live. For example, distances and poor
transport in rural areas can hinder access to education and treatment programs. In
rural areas, traditional values, a relative intolerance of difference and a strong
286 Green

conformity to community norms can hinder dealing with issues of safe sex,
especially among MSM.23 MSM themselves will be extremely discreet, and are
unlikely to access programs that do not recognize the circumstances in which they
live.24 This applies as much in Indonesia as it does in other countries of the world.
In the background research for this project, a doctor who has regular inter-
actions with people who live in the villages was consulted. The reason for choosing
this particular doctor was because he self-acknowledges that he is gay. In discussing
how the problems of gay men living in villages might be addressed, he made the
important point that,
I think solving this problem will not happen by the men leaving the village. Maybe if they
moved to the city, they would still feel under pressure. But what I have been doing is to
help them alleviate the mental pressures that they feel. They have no skills that would
equip them for employment in the city. If they moved to the city under those conditions,
not only would their depression continue (and get worse) but it is also likely that they
could not eat. But living in the village, they have something to hold [on to] and they also
have a job. This is not whether they like to stay or not like … whether they want to or
do not want to … for them this is a must.25

Therefore to reach out to this important, but forgotten, sector of the communi-
ty, it appears that HIV education programs must be taken to the village. We cannot
expect MSM to leave where they want to live. In addressing the issue of how one
might take HIV education and prevention programs to the villages, the doctor
warned that it would be difficult and there would be obstacles to overcome
including opposition from sections of the village community. Additionally, issues
of stigma, lack of privacy and the cultural notion that disease is a curse and
diseased people will be shunned all have to be dealt with at a local level.
From the data detailed in this paper there is now some information on the lived
experience of MSM living in rural communities in Java. Some of this information
may be useful in underpinning new programs that reach out to these important
forgotten men. Clearly, boys are having sexual contact with each other at an early
age, and from the evidence of this research, boys not yet out of elementary school
are exploring each others bodies, searching for meaning in such contact and simply
enjoying the pleasure of such contact. Given this, consideration should be given to
the provision of age-appropriate HIV education programs to those in elementary
school and such programs should be cognizant that some boys will be engaging in
same-sex activities. Obviously, such programs should be continued throughout
all levels of school, with increasingly sophisticated information provided in an
increasingly realistic and frank manner.
Given that all the men in this research were unwilling to disclose their
The Important Forgotten 287

sexuality at the community level, except with those they were sexually engaged
with, then any HIV education program must be broad enough to not target only
MSM. Rather MSM should be seen in the context of one of the groups in the
community that will benefit from such a program, as will any sexually active
individual, as well as those at risk from injected drug use. So a way forward may
be to focus on HIV as a disease and every sector in the society gets a mention
including MSM. So there is a focus on the disease but not on people. But such an
approach would make it very clear that even in a village there are people who inject
drugs, there are men who have sex with other women (and not just their wives)
and there are men who have sex with men.
However, given the plethora of ways in which these men identified, as gay
men, as MSM, as women sometimes and as men at others even within a village
environment, HIV education programs must somehow encompass multiple gender
identities. Of course, this is without even mentioning warias, whose specific needs
must also be addressed.
However, one issue might not be the obstacle that it sometimes is made out to
be. As has been shown in this paper, these rural MSM were able to self-negotiate a
position of relative comfort with their sexual desires and practices and with the
requirements of their religion. Therefore, while any HIV education program that
mentions MSM may have to incur the scrutiny of the religious authorities at the
village level, such a program can be designed that incorporates a more pragmatic
approach to the question of MSM and religion. Such an approach is not without
precedent and the Workshop Manual published by Positive Muslims in South
Africa26 is instructive reading. What is required is a program that provides support,
and not judgment, to MSM and develops a progressive Islamic perspective on HIV
and AIDS that acknowledges the relationship between health and socio-economic

This research is a work in progress. There is much more to be done. This paper is
an attempt to “visibilize” and validate those men who have sex with men who live
outside cities and metropolitan areas. This paper has attempted to consider and
contemplate their experience of life in the village, and thereby come to a fuller
understanding of what it is to live there and be a man who has sex with men. It is
only in the light of an understanding of these men’s lived experience that we can
make some comment on ways in which HIV education programs are designed to
most effectively reach out to them. A failure to do this will result in a continuation
of them being marginalized, “invisibilized” and forgotten. They are too important
for that.
288 Green

1. Green, E.J. (2006a), “Living in Rural Areas of Indonesia - The Experience of Gay
Men,” Jurnal Kajian Budaya (Indonesian Journal of Cultural Studies), Vol. 3, No. 5, p.
111 – 136.
2. MSM - Men who have Sex with Men: Men who engage in same-sex behavior, but
who may not necessarily self-identify as gay.
3. Bruce, N. C. and Pandey, I. (2007), Men who have Sex with Men: The Missing Piece
in National Responses to AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, UN AIDS, Bangkok, p. 4.
4. Barnacle, B. (ed.) (2001), Phenomenology, RMIT University Press, Melbourne, p.
5. Reynolds, J. (2001), “The Other of Deridean Deconstruction: Levinas,
Phenomenology and the Question of Responsibility,” in Minerva – An Internet
Journal of Philosophy, No. 5, p. 31 - 62, at ,
p. 59.
6. Herschell, R. M. (1999), “Some Principles for ‘Quality Control’ in Qualitative
Research - A Phenomenographic Treatise,” Paper presented at the Annual Conference
of the Association for Qualitative Research, 6 – 10 July, Melbourne, unpublished, p. 4.

7. Massey, A. (1998), “‘The Way We Do Things Around Here:’ The Culture of

Ethnography,” Paper presented at the Ethnography and Education Conference, Oxford
University Department of Educational Studies (OUDES), 7 - 8 September, Oxford.
8. Patton, M. Q. (1990), Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, Sage
Publications, Newbury Park, p. 287.
9. Minichiello, V. et al. (1990), In-Depth Interviewing: Researching People, Longman
Cheshire P/L, Melbourne, p. 93.
10. Kortschak, I. (2007), Defining Waria - Indonesia’s transgendered community is
raising its profile, Inside Indonesia, Vol. 90, Oct-Dec, p. 2.
11. In the preparation of this paper, there was some discussion as to the pronoun
that should be used. It was suggested that “she” should refer only to women and
that because waria are not biological women then some other pronoun referring to
them was more appropriate. When pressed as to what should be used, it was
suggested that “dia”, the Bahasa Indonesian pronoun, might be a useful word as it
is gender non-specific. I have a problem with this as it is does not represent how
these waria referred to themselves. They saw themselves as women (albeit with a
male body). Therefore I will also refer to these waria as women and use the female
pronoun not only to emphasise that and so more closely adhere to their testimony
but also to empower and give authority to the voice of the waria.
12. Green, E.J. (2006a), op.cit., p. 111 – 136.
The Important Forgotten 289

13. See the following report concerning the ages of sexual debut for Muslim MSM
men: Khan, S. (2006), Faith, Cultures and Sexualities - A pilot study on the impact of
Islamic beliefs, traditions and customs on Muslims who have sex with other males, Naz
Foundation International - International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Brighton, March 2006.
Regarding sexual debut, thirty four participants (56% - 34/61) reported their sexual
initiation by the age of fourteen years, of which three stated that they began having sex
before the age of ten years. Twenty participants began having sex between the ages
of fifteen years to eighteen years, while seven began having sex after the age of
nineteen years. [p. 16]
14. See also Green (2006a), where men indicated that they thought that members of
the family had some idea that they were not overly interested in women. But unlike
the men in Bali, none of these men indicated that they had any intention of
actually telling members of the family.
15. Green, E.J., ( 2006b), “Staying Bush” – A Study of Gay Men Living in Rural Areas,
PhD Thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
16. Boellstorff, T. (2005b), The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia,
Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 10.
17. Khan, S., Bondyopadhyay, A., and Jenkins, C., Eyes Wide Shut: Violence, Stigma
and Social Exclusion - MSM, HIV and Social Justice in South Asia, at
18. Boellstorff, T. (2005a), “Between Religion and Desire: Being Muslim and Gay in
Indonesia,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 107, No. 4, p. 577.
19. This is at some variance with the findings of Boellstorff who suggests that
“Many of these gay Muslims located sinfulness in practices … particularly penile–anal
sex” (Boellstorff, 2005a, p. 579).
20. Boellstorff (2005a, p. 580).
21. Khan (2006) p. 19. See also: Kesarwani, R. (2007), “Gay Muslims: ‘A Jihad for
Love’,” International Herald Tribune, November 20; Ayu, M. “Was I Born This Way?
The Thoughts of a Muslim Gay in an Oppressed Society,” at; Branigan, T. (2001) “Gay Muslim
Working to Dispel Stereotypes,” The Jakarta Post, November, 25, p. 6; Diani, H.
(2002) “Opening Up: This is Who I Am – I Have Nothing to Hide: Oscar Lawalata,”
The Jakarta Post, 13 January, p. 3; Graham, D. (2003) “Writing at Sexuality’s
Margins,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 76, October- December, at http://www.insideindone-; Hickson, J. (1999) “The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian
Rights in Indonesia,” Green Left Weekly Online Edition, Vol. 348, at,htm; Howard, R.S. (1996)
“Falling into the Gay World: Manhood, Marriage and Family in Indonesia,” PhD
Thesis, University of Illinois, Urbana, unpublished; Junaidi, A. (2004) “Raising the
290 Green

Awareness of Gays and Transvestites,” The Jakarta Post, 18 September, p. 18; Junaidi,
A. (2004) “Younger Gays, Transvestites Have Courage to Come Out,” The Jakarta
Post, 18 September, p. 18; Juniartha, I. W. (2001) “Major Challenges Lie Ahead at the
End of the HIV/STD Project,” The Jakarta Post, 28 June, p. 9; Khan, B. (1997) Sex
Longing and Not Belonging: A Gay Muslim’s Quest for Love and Meaning, Floating
Lotus Books, Bangkok; Oetomo, D. and Emond, B. (1993) “Homosexuality in
Indonesia,” Paper Presented at an International Conference on AIDS, Berlin, unpub-
lished; Oetomo, D. (1996) “Gay Identities,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 46, March, at; Oetomo, D. (2001) “Gay Men in the
Reformasi Era,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 66, April – June, at; Oetomo, D. (2001) “Cultural and
Religious Barriers Around Sexuality and Health,” paper delivered at The Sixth
International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, Melbourne, October, at; Oetomo, D. (2002)
“Now You Se It, Now You Don’t: Homosexual Culture in Indonesia,” IIAS
Newsletter, Vol. 29, November, p. 9; Oetomo, D. (2004) “Younger Gays, Transvestites
Have Courage To Come Out,” The Jakarta Post, 18 September, p. 18; Offord, B. and
Cantrell, L. (2001) “Homosexual Rights as Human Rights in Indonesia and
Australia,” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 40, Nos. 3 - 4, p. 233 – 252; Petkovic, J.
(1999) “Dede Oetomo Talks on Reyog Ponorogo,” Intersections, Issue 2, May, at; The Editor,
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22. Heckman, T. (2005) “The Need for Culturally-Contextualised Interventions for
Rural Persons Living with HIV/AIDS,” Paper delivered at the HIV/AIDS Prevention in
Rural Communities: Sharing Successful Strategies IV Conference, 7 – 9 April, Indiana
University, Bloomington.
23. DeCarlo, P. (1998) “What are Rural HIV Prevention Needs?,” Center for AIDS
Prevention Studies, San Fransisco, p. 2.
24. Zuniga, M.A., Buchanan, R.J. and Chakravorty, B.J. (2005), HIV Education,
Prevention and Outreach Programs in Rural Areas of the Southeastern United
States, Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 37.
25. Interview with Dr C, Research Transcript, p. 1 - 2.
26. Esack, F. (ed.), (2007), HIV, AIDS and Islam: A Workshop Manual Based on
Compassion, Responsibility and Justice, Positive Muslims, Cape Town.
27. Ibid, p. vii.
The Important Forgotten 291

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Boellstorff, T. (2003b), “Dubbing Culture: Indonesian Gay and Lesbi Subjectivities
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292 Green

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Boellstorff, T. (2005b), The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and the Nation in Indonesia,
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Boellstorff, T. (2006b), “Gay and Lesbian Indonesians, and the Idea of the Nation,”
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Boellstorff, T. (2007), A Coincidence of Desires: Anthropology, Queer Studies, Indonesia,
Duke University Press, Durham.
Branigan, T. (2001) “Gay Muslim Working to Dispel Stereotypes,” The Jakarta Post,
November, 25, p. 6.
Bruce, N. C. and Pandey, I. (2007), Men who have Sex with Men: The Missing Piece in
National Responses to AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, UN AIDS, Bangkok.
Cubby, B. (2006), “Climbing out of the Darkness,” Sydney Morning Herald,
December, 22 - 24, p. 25.
DeCarlo, P. (1998), “What are Rural HIV Prevention Needs?,” Center for AIDS
Prevention Studies, San Fransisco.
Davies, C.A. (1999), Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others,
Routledge, London.
Diani, H. (2002) “Opening Up: This is Who I Am – I Have Nothing to Hide: Oscar
Lawalata,” The Jakarta Post, 13 January, p. 3.
Esack, F. (ed.), (2007), HIV, AIDS and Islam: A Workshop Manual Based on Compassion,
Responsibility and Justice, Positive Muslims, Cape Town.
Fairclough, G. (2004), Special Report: Gay Asia, Far Eastern Economic Review, 28
October, p. 52 – 65.
Graham, D. (2003) “Writing at Sexuality’s Margins,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 76,
October- December, at
Green, E.J. (2006a), “Living in Rural Areas of Indonesia - The Experience of Gay
Men,” Jurnal Kajian Budaya (Indonesian Journal of Cultural Studies), Vol. 3, No. 5, p.
111 – 136.
Green, E.J. ( 2006b), “Staying Bush” – A Study of Gay Men Living in Rural Areas, PhD
Thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
Heckman, T. (2005), “The Need for Culturally-Contextualised Interventions for
Rural Persons Living with HIV/AIDS,” Paper delivered at the HIV/AIDS Prevention
in Rural Communities: Sharing Successful Strategies IV Conference, 7 – 9 April, Indiana
The Important Forgotten 293

University, Bloomington.
Herschell, R. M. (1999), “Some Principles for ‘Quality Control’ in Qualitative
Research - A Phenomenographic Treatise,” Paper presented at the Annual Conference
of the Association for Qualitative Research, 6 – 10, July, Melbourne, unpublished.
Hickson, J. (1999) “The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Indonesia,” Green
Left Weekly Online Edition, Vol. 348, at,htm.
Howard, R. S. (1996) Falling into the Gay World: Manhood, Marriage and Family in
Indonesia, PhD Thesis, University of Illinois, Urbana, unpublished.
Junaidi, A. (2004) “Raising the Awareness of Gays and Transvestites,” The Jakarta
Post, 18 September, p. 18.
Junaidi, A. (2004) “Younger Gays, Transvestites Have Courage to Come Out”, The Jakarta
Post, 18 September, p. 18.
Juniartha, I. W. (2001) “Major Challenges Lie Ahead at the End of the HIV/STD Project,”
The Jakarta Post, 28 June, p. 9.
Kesarwani, R. (2007), “Gay Muslims: ‘A Jihad for Love’,” International Herald
Tribune, November 20.
Khan, B. (1997) Sex Longing and Not Belonging: A Gay Muslim’s Quest for Love and
Meaning, Floating Lotus Books, Bangkok.
Khan, S. (2006), Faith, Cultures and Sexualities - A pilot study on the impact of Islamic
beliefs, traditions and customs on Muslims who have sex with other males, Naz
Foundation International International HIV/AIDS Alliance, Brighton, March.
Khan, S., Bondyopadhyay, A., and Jenkins, C., Eyes Wide Shut: Violence, Stigma and
Social Exclusion - MSM, HIV and Social Justice in South Asia.
Kompas, (2008), “Penyimpangan Seksual Terjadi di Pedesaan,” Kompas-Yogyakarta,
24 April, p.I.
Kortschak, I. (2007), Defining Waria - Indonesia’s transgendered community is rais-
ing its profile, Inside Indonesia, Vol. 90, Oct-Dec, p 1 - 5.
Manji, I. (2007), The Trouble with Islam Today, Random House, North Sydney.
Massey, A. (1998), “‘The Way We Do Things Around Here:’ The Culture of
Ethnography,” Paper presented at the Ethnography and Education Conference, Oxford
University Department of Educational Studies (OUDES), 7 - 8 September, Oxford.
Minichiello, V. et al. (1990), In-Depth Interviewing: Researching People, Longman
Cheshire P/L, Melbourne.
Oetomo, D. and Emond, B. (1993), “Homosexuality in Indonesia,” Paper Presented at
an International Conference on AIDS, Berlin, unpublished.
294 Green

Oetomo, D. (1996), “Gay Identities,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 46, March, at www.insid-
Oetomo, D. (2001), “Gay Men in the Reformasi Era,” Inside Indonesia, Vol. 66, April
– June, at
Oetomo, D. (2001), “Cultural and Religious Barriers Around Sexuality and Health,”
paper delivered at The Sixth International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific,
Melbourne, October, at
Oetomo, D. (2002), “Now You Se It, Now You Don’t: Homosexual Culture in
Indonesia,” IIAS Newsletter, Vol. 29, November, p. 9.
Oetomo, D. (2004), “Younger Gays, Transvestites Have Courage To Come Out,” The
Jakarta Post, 18 September, p. 18.
Offord, B. and Cantrell, L. (2001), “Homosexual Rights as Human Rights in
Indonesia and Australia,” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 40, Nos. 3 - 4, p. 233 – 252.
Patton, M. Q. (1990), Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, Sage Publications,
Newbury Park.
Petkovic, J. (1999), “Dede Oetomo Talks on Reyog Ponorogo,” Intersections, Issue 2,
May, at
Pollard, R. (2006), “HIV and Indonesia: Nations sits on a volcano,” Sydney Morning
Herald, August 19 - 20, p.15.
Rao, P., (2006), “Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) and Transgenders: The
Missing Link in the National Response,” Opening Speech at the Male Sexual Health
and HIV in Asia and the Pacific International Consultation: “Risks and responsibilities”
23 September, New Delhi.
Reynolds, J. (2001), “The Other of Deridean Deconstruction: Levinas,
Phenomenology and the Question of Responsibility,” Minerva – An Internet Journal
of Philosophy, No. 5, 31 - 62, at , p. 59.
Sanders, D. (2005), Flying the Rainbow Flag in Asia, Permanent Archive of
Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia, 1st International Conference of Asian
Queer Studies, Bangkok, Thailand, 7-9 July, at
Shanghai Star, (2004), “’Arisan!’ Tackles Taboos,” 1 August, at
The Jakarta Post, (2008), “Transvestites Fight an Uphill Battle,” The Jakarta Post, 11
January, p. 5.
Wilson, I.D. (1999), “Reog Ponogoro: Spirituality, Sexuality and Power in a Javanese
Performance Tradition,” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific,
The Important Forgotten 295

Issue 2, May, at

Zuniga, M.A., Buchanan, R.J. and Chakravorty, B.J. (2005), “HIV Education,
Prevention and Outreach Programs in Rural Areas of the Southeastern United
States,” Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services, Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 37.
Conference Agenda
Mainland Southeast Asia at its Margins:
Minority Groups and Borders

March 14-15, 2008

Center for Khmer Studies (CKS) International Conference Wat Damnak,
Siem Reap

With special thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for supporting the CKS
Building Educational Capacity in Cambodian Higher Education Program and
this conference.

Friday March 14, 2008

7:00-8:00 Registration

8:00-8:15 Opening Remarks

Dr. Philippe Peycam (CKS Director) and Mr. Chean R. Men (CKS)

8:15-8:45 Keynote Address

A Collision of Worldviews: The ADB’s Construction of
Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia
Dr. Peter Hammer (Wayne State University, USA)

Theme One: Social Exclusion (Chair: Prof. Robert Winzeler)

9:00-9:30 The Social Exclusion of Children with Disabilities in Cambodia

Dr. Maya Kalyanpur (Dept of Special Education, Towson
University, USA) and Mr. Hun Touch, Mr. Un Siren and Mr. Jan
Berkvens (Rabbit School, Phnom Penh, Cambodia).

9:30-10:00 The Important Forgotten - Men Living in Rural Indonesia Who

Have Sex With Men: The Implications for HIV Education
Mr. Waryono and Dr. Ed Green (Universitas Gadjah Mada,
Yogyakarta, Indonesia)
298 Conference Agenda

10:00-10:30 Campaign of Ignorance – Marginalization of Myanmar’s Non-

Elite Population (cancelled)
Dr. Steven B. Shirley (Troy University – South Korea) and Kathy
Thaw (Webster University – Thailand)

10:30-11:00 Women, Pregnancy and Health: Case Studies among the Bunong
in Mondulkiri, Cambodia
Brigitte Nikles (Social Anthropologist, Nomad RSI Cambodia)

11:00-11:30 A Landscape of Endless Boundaries: Marginality, Dignity, and

the Rights of Persons with Intellectual and Physical Disabilities in
Cambodia and Mainland Southeast Asia
Dr. Darren C. Zook (Department of Political Science, University
of California, Berkeley, USA)

11:30-12:00 Living in the Margins. From Inclusion to Exclusion: Prevailing

Social Dynamics in Ratanakiri among Ethnic Minorities
Dr. Frédéric Bourdier (Institut de Recherche pour le
Développement, IRD)

Theme Two: Indigenous Persons (Chair: Prof. Stephen L. Keck)

1:30-2:00 Ethnic Transformation of Indigenous People in Non-IP Territory:

The Case of Bajaus in Batangas City, Philippines
Marlon de Luna Era (Behavioral Sciences Department, De La
Salle University, Manila, Philippines)

2:00-2:30 Religious Conversion on the Ethnic Margins of Mainland

Southeast Asia
Prof. Robert L. Winzeler (University of Nevada, Reno, USA)

2:30-3:00 Changes in Gender Roles and Women’s Status among Indigenous

Communities in Cambodia’s North East Facing Land Alienation
and Massive Immigration and Six-Part Documentary Series:
Voice of Women from Ethnic Minority Group.
Dr. Margherita Maffii (University of Milan, Milan, Italy) and Tive
Sarayeth (WMC Executive Director of Women Media Center,
Phnom Penh, Cambodia)
Conference Agenda 299

3:00-3:30 Illegal Border Crossing issue of Montagnards from Vietnam’s

Central Highlands to Cambodia through Newspaper Articles
Dr. SHINE Toshihiko (Research Institute for Languages and
Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign
Studies, Tokyo, Japan)

Theme Three: Migrant Labor and Workers (Chair: Dr. Darren Zook)

4:00-4:30 The Poverty Trap on the Border Land (A Case Study of

the Poor Migrant across the West Kalimantan – Sarawak Border
Dr. Tulus Warsito and Dr. Wahyuni Kartikasari (Dept of
International Relations Univ. Muhammadiyah, Yogyakarta,

4:30-5:00 Bangladeshi in Arakan and Arakanese in Bangladesh: Two

Minority Ethnic Groups and their Migrations in both Directions
Marion Sabrie (University Paris IV-La Sorbonne, Paris, France)

5:00-5:30 Improving Conditions for Sectoral Migration Of Cambodians to

Thailand: Legislation, Monitoring and Awareness
Sary Seng (Lecturer at Mean Chey University, Cambodia)

6:30 Evening Cocktail at FCC

Theme Four: Development, Change and Ethnicity (Chair: Dr. Ian Baird)

8:00-8:30 Deforestations and their Impacts on Community Lives of the

Ethnic Minorities in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri: Challenge and
Heng Sreang (Department of Philosophy, Royal University of
Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

8:30-9:00 Economic Growth and Human Security of Indigenous Peoples

along GMS Economic Corridors
Dr. Kosum Saichan (Faculty of Political Science and Public
Administration, Chiang Mai University, Chaimg Mai, Thailand)

9:00-9:30 Tourism Development and Livelihood of Ethnic Minority in Sapa

Dr. Vu, Kieu-Dung, (Population Council, Hanoi, Vietnam)
300 Conference Agenda

9:30-10:00 Development– in Whose Name? Cambodia’s Economic

Development and the Chances of Achieving the Cambodian
MDGs in 2 Indigenous Communities in a Remote Province
Jeremy Ironside (Freelance Researcher, Cambodia)

Theme Five: Constructing Identities: Selves, Groups and Nations (Chair: Dr.
Frédéric Bourdier)

10:15-10:45 Re-Configuration of Ethnic Representation in Post-War Society:

Who are the Chen in Post-Socialist Rural Cambodia?
Dr. Satoru Kobayashi (Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto
University, Kyoto, Japan)

10:45-11:15 The Cham Muslims of Cambodia: Defining Islam Today and the
Validity of the Discourse of Syncretism
Allen Stoddard
(Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA)

11:15-11:45 Towards Liberal Multiculturalism? Minorities, the State and the

International Community in Cambodia
Stefan Ehrentraut
(Center for Advanced Study and Potsdam University, Germany)

11:45-12:15 Ethnic Groups in Contemporary Cambodia

Dr. Hean Sokhom (Center for Advanced Study, Cambodia)

12:15-12:45 Spaces of Resistance: The Ethnic Brao People and the

International Border Between Laos and Cambodia
Dr. Ian G. Baird (Geography Department, University of British
Columbia, Canada)

2:30-3:00 The Invisible Minority: Muslims in Colonial Burma

Stephen L. Keck (Department of International Studies, American
University of Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE)

3:00-3:30 Negotiation and Reproduction of Identity Among Displaced

Omsin Boonlert (Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
University, Chiang Mai, Thailand)
Conference Agenda 301

3:30-4:00 The Ethnic Process of Chinese People from Hai Ninh in Dong Nai
Dr. Tran Hong Lien (Southern Institute of Social Sciences,
HCMC, Vietnam)

Theme Six: Cultural Mapping (Chair: Marlon de Luna Era)

4:15-4:45 Cultural Mapping: Intangible values and Engaging with

Prof. Ken Taylor (Research School of Humanities, The Australian
National University, ACT, Cambria, Australia)

4:45-5:15 Taking the Lid off the Cooker

Ian Cook (3CS AsiaPacific, Sydney, NSW, Australia)
Conference Participant
Dr. Ken Taylor Research School of Humanities (emeritus)
The Australian National University, Cambria, ACT
Mr. Ian Cook 3CS AsiaPacific, Sydney, NSW

Mr. Jan Berkvens Rabbit School, Phnom Penh
Dr. Frédéric Bourdier Institut de Recherche pour le Développement
Dr. Sokhom Hean Centre for Advanced Study
Mr. Sreang Heng Royal University of Phnom Penh
Mr. Touch Hun Rabbit School, Phnom Penh
Mr. Jeremy Ironside Freelance researcher
Mr. Chean R. Men Center for Khmer Studies
Ms. Brigitte Nikles Nomad RSI Cambodia
Dr. Philippe Peycam Center for Khmer Studies
Mr. Seng Sary Mean Chey University
Ms. Sarayeth Tive Women’s Media Center, Phnom Penh,
Mr. Siren Un Rabbit School, Phnom Penh

Dr. Ian G. Baird, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Ms. Marion Sabrie University Paris IV-La Sorbonne, Paris

Mr. Stefan Ehrentraut Centre for Advanced Study and Potsdam University

Dr. Ed Green Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta
304 Conference Participant

Dr. Tulus Warsito Univ. Muhammadiyah, Yogyakarta

Dr. Wahyuni Kartikasari Univ. Muhammadiyah, Yogyakarta
Mr. Waryono Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta

Dr. Margherita Maffii University of Milan, Milan

Dr. Satoru Kobayashi Kyoto University, Kyoto
Dr. Toshihiko Shine Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo

Dr. Marlon de Luna Era De La Salle University, Manila

Ms. Omsin Boonlert Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai
Dr. Kosum Saichan Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai

Dr. Stephen L. Keck American University of Sharjah, Sharjah

Mr. Allen Stoddard Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Dr. Darren C. Zook University of California, Berkeley, California
Dr. Maya Kalyanpur Towson University, Towson, Maryland
Dr. Peter Hammer, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
Dr. Robert L. Winzeler University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada

Dr. Vu, Kieu-Dung Population Council, Hanoi
Dr. Tran Hong Lien Southern Institute of Social Sciences, HCMC
Yorth Bunny
Roger Leonard Burritt CANADA
Rethy Chhem
CAMBODIA Kelly Crowley
Ang Sokreoun Kathy Hibbert
Born Tola Tara Lawrence
Chap Prem Allan Pitman
Chea Bunary Sharon Rich
Chea Vanny Teresa Van Deven
Chhay Thun Piset
Chheat Sreang FRANCE
Chhort Bunthang Guy Faure
Chhun Phaveng Dennis Paillard
Chiv Sarith
Choeun Huy GERMANY
Chor Chan Thida Wolfgang Klenner
Dy Changkolney
Eang Sokkea NORWAY
Ek Sovann Espen Bjertness
Ham Samnom
Hang Chansophea MALAYSIA
Ith Sothea Mashhor Mansor
Ke Sam Oeurn Morshidi Sirat
Lim Dina
Mech Samphors INDONESIA
Mel SoPhanna Widharto
Nov Sokmady
Phy Sopheada THAILAND
Ratha Chhim Scott Hipsher
Saut Moeun Peter Masefield
Say Puthy
Sok Leang USA
Sok Ra Phillipp Alperson
Suon Sokoeun Dennis McCornac
Tha Leang Ang Ros Soveacha
Than Bunly
Uy Sareth Suzanne Majhanovich
Vong Meng V.H. Lien Warder