A new report from the Indigenous Minority Rights Project of the NGO Forum on Cambodia again highlights the dire situation of indigenous minority groups in Cambodia. Faced with a dire, and increasingly oppressive alienation from their land, these indigenous groups are losing access not only to their traditional means of subsistence, but to their very culture itself. Culture is not, as is commonly assumed in places dominated by folks of European descent, a moveable feast independent of place. Instead, for the vast majority of people through both space and time, it has always been deeply rooted in the practices of subsistence and the sharing and distribution of the products of those practices. For indigenous minority groups in Cambodia, these practices are being destroyed, from tradition shifting cultivation to the preservation of their cemetary forests. The report, which paints a grim picture of increasing land alienation and inequality, can be downloaded from their site, or from this link.
What is rarely acknowledged is the deep interpenetration of these problems, which affect not only Cambodia’s traditional highlanders, but Khmer and other ethnic groups as well. Khmer are usually acknowledged as the indigenous inhabitants of this area as well, but they differ from their highlander relatives (the so-called ‘upper Khmer’) primarily through their relationship to the land, which for Khmer is based on household-managed subsistence wet-rice agriculture, and in their adherence to Buddhism. The highlanders, in contrast, practice shifting cultivation (including some dry-rice strains) and are largely non-Buddhist. Furthermore, they tend to cultivate in commons, employing the practice Peter Linebaugh has referred to as ‘commoning.’
These highlander groups have long memories. As their lands are now being enclosed and alienated from them more than ever before, they know the result, and while it is more devastating in scope than previously, the end result is not new: it is slavery. In an article reposted by KI Media, a spokesman for an indigenous rights group put it starkly, and in terms I’ve been discussing for a long time now, including some recent posts to this page:
“If there is no intervention from the government, indigenous people will lose all their land and we will become slaves and workers for the companies,” he said.
Slaves. or Proletarians. For this person, they are the same thing. I remember traveling through Kratie province in 2006, and seeing huge new swaths of cleared land that had only a year before been forest. There were neat rows of shoddy little mass-produced khmer-style houses, which were entirely populated by ethnic minority groups from the highlanders. The houses, a sign said, had been generously donated to these families by a powerful Okhna (a political honorific which can be purchased from the government) who now owned the land. These highlanders were given Khmer houses and some Khmer food in return for the continued clearing of the land so that it could be planted in a few years as a rubber plantation.
Of course, it is widely understood that the ‘Khmer’ are a people who are defined less by their common ancestry than their common characteristics of work and culture. That’s not to say they are somehow ‘genetically distinct,’ but rather that they are distinct from their highland cousins in terms of culture rather than genetics. This is made clear when you realize that the ruling class of the Khmer kingdoms expanded their population, labor-power, and slave-base throughout their history (and into the twentieth century, at least) through repeated slaving raids of these same groups.
What they did not do, for the most part, was destroy the forests. These rulers murdered the men and kidnapped the women and children to be hereditary slaves in the rice fields, and these people eventually became the Khmer we know (and love) today. It’s not a pretty past, and no one should take offense at that point: most nations, great and small, have some pretty ugly histories, and certainly Cambodia’s own recent struggles have not been any prettier. But now, in a process that remains hugely underprioritized, the forests and highlands themselves, along with the waters (such as the Sesan and Srepok rivers) are being enclosed and sometimes even destroyed, and hence destroying the culture of these groups themselves.
Khmers have always had a back-and-forth relationship with the highlands. Throughout their histories, the forests were places of fear and spirits, but also of sanctuary from injustice, overwork, and political violence. They were places where slaves fled, where refugees made their ways to borders, and yes, where revolutionaries gathered. They were places where the Khmer became highlanders once again, on occasion, or at least where they find new places to be Khmer without being oppressed. These options are dwindling as capitalism and foreign management ‘close the map.’
It’s a shared problem, and its about time that all of us, and not just the Khmers, started paying a lot more attention to the more sustainable practices of the indigenous of the world.