• Indigenous peoples in Cambodia

    Indigenous peoples in Cambodia

    Cambodia is home to 24 different indigenous peoples and constitute 2-3% of the national population

Indigenous World 2019: Cambodia

Cambodia is home to 24 different indigenous peoples, who speak mostly Mon-Khmer or Austronesian languages, and constitute 2-3% of the national population, around 400,000 individuals.1

Indigenous territories here include the forested plateaus and highlands of Northeastern Cambodia, approximately 25% of the national territory. While not disaggregated in the national census, other data confirms that Cambodian indigenous peoples continue to face discrimination and coerced displacement from their lands that are extinguishing them as distinct groups.2 These patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction/conversion (mainly timber, minerals, hydro and agribusiness), coupled with growing in-migration from other parts of the country.

Cambodia voted in 2007 to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without reservation, and has ratified the CERD, CEDAW, and CRC. It has not assented to ILO Convention 169. During its last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) (2013), Cambodia accepted a recommendation that it “increase measures to tackle illegal land evictions [of] indigenous people, and consider fortifying the legislative framework consistently with international standards.”3 This has not led to any actual remedy to the discrimination and land insecurity indigenous peoples faced in 2017. An indigenous rights movement that began in the late 1990s continued to develop in 2017; however, with recent government crackdowns on political parties, NGOs, media and others perceived to be in “opposition” to the reigning Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP),4 the ground on which the Indigenous rights movement exists has become more precarious.

The hope that the 2001 Land Law and the 2002 Forest Law would lead to a substantive remedy that protected indigenous peoples’ lands through collective/communal land titling (CLT) continued to fade in 2018. By the end of 2018 only a few indigenous communities had gained a CLT.5 In the meantime, the occupation of indigenous territories by developers advanced, aided by state management of affected communities that included use of force and sometimes law to displace peoples and log what remains of Cambodia’s forests.6 This brief chapter highlights the cost for five indigenous peoples fighting for their rights to these resources and the consequences of their battle – there are many more such cases.7

Areng Valley environmental activist attacked

An Areng Valley activist was threatened to be killed by local authorities of acommune in the Cardamom Mountains in 2018. They filed this case to the police administration of the commune, but there was no resolution from the police, therefore they had to leave his house with their family to hide temporarily for their personal security. After two weeks in hiding, they returned home alone, leaving their family hidden in order to answer to their complaint regarding the death threat at the local police station, since the two sides had agreed to amicably solve the case. However, on a evening in May a shot was fired at them, while they were outside their house, by an unknown person. Fortunately, the bullet did not harm them. They told a local news source  that: “I feel scared and worried about my personal security. I think this time they missed me, but I will die next time if attacked again. This attack is not good, so I urge the armed forces and police to [intervene].” The victim and human rights groups continue to demand authorities to investigate the case and bring the offender to trial. The victim identified two motives for the threat and attack:

“I was a former member of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)8 and they wanted me to join with Cambodia Peoples Party (CPP) and I refused. Secondly, I am an environmental activist who is their target as well. Wood traders could not do as they pleased without protests, and we colluded with some of [the] authorities. Activists and forest lodgers are in a conflict.9

LICADHO (a Cambodian human rights organization) calls for urgent investigation by competent authorities to bring the offender to trial. A human rights officer at LICADHO told the authors:

“While negotiating with [the] two sides, they were asked whether they were backed by someone. But they dared not to tell, so [it can be] assumed there must be a third party [involved]. So, the police should not close the case this way, despite agreement of the two sides as it is a criminal case, leading to an attack. There should be a concrete investigation of who is behind [it]. This leads to disclosure of the attacker.”

The human rights officer found that the HRD was discriminated against and that their life was threatened following their delivery of petitions to the Ministry of Rural Development and other institutions, to request an intervention and an acceleration of indigenous identification in the Areng Valley. They is an environmental activist having advocated against the construction of a hydropower dam in Areng Valley and was a former CNRP supporter, refusing to join hands with the CPP after the dissolution of the CNRP.

Kui activists facing arbitrary arrests

For many years, an activist from Preah Vihear province, has been engaging in the struggle to protect the land and natural resources of his community. The most recent cases involved two big companies; China Group and Dellcom Cambodia. These companies are associated with the local authority, and they want to plunder indigenous Kui territory, forest, farms, land and natural resources. On top of this, the community is dealing with illegal mine extraction from individuals as well as from the company.

The activist is mobilizing his community to take action in order to stop the companies’ activities; protesting, demonstration, petitioning, conducting dialogues and blocking the road. Over the years, his community has faced many challenges, including arbitrary arrests from the local authority especially from the district governor. To date, he and the community members still receive constant threats from the district governor including arbitrary arrest, if they continue their protest action. These threats come on top of other challenges that the community faces as a result of the companies’ actions in the area. These actions result in chemical substance waste and air and water pollution which threatens the community’s physical and mental health. They are unable to farm their traditional lands as they are occupied by the companies. Women and children are disproportionately affected because the land, forest and farms have been grabbed. As a result, they have lost their daily income and experience an increased dropout rate of indigenous children from local schools. The water pollution has killed many animals and the communities are unable to use the water.

In another Kui community in Preah Vihear, another activist is playing a vital role to assist indigenous peoples in his province. In 2017, the number of land grabbing, arbitrary forest clearing and illegal logging events increased, especially with regard to the activities of the Heng Fu company. The land being grabbed is used by the indigenous communities for many purposes; viable farming, conservation, collective land uses and to protect spiritual forests. Three indigenous Kui areas were especially affected; Tbeng Meanchey, Chey Sen and Chheb. Indigenous individuals and their communities work hard to protect their land, forests and farms. The actions taken include; camping at the disputed basin, patrolling, petitioning and organising demonstrations. So far, in 2018 eight activists have been threatened and summoned by the provincial court for illegally obstructing two bulldozers in 2014.

The activist has received numerous threats to his life and threats of arrest from the local police. He has not taken any action on these acts of intimidation. However, in late 2018 he was part of the group which was summoned by the provincial court for illegally obstructing two bulldozers in 2014 and for preventing government development efforts. To address this allegation, he has worked with his lawyer to delay his court appearance in 2018. He received support from local NGOs such as NGOForum, CIYA and the CCHR. They made press releases, condemnations of the actions and broadcast on news and social media. He emphasized that these issues have negatively impacted many indigenous community members. Especially in terms of their income, food security, mental and physical health. The number of outsiders has increased considerably. Community members complain that many of them have brought drugs, affecting many of the local community’s youth. The activist and his family are also impacted due to the ongoing court case, which limits his freedom of movement, speech and assembly and threatens to affect his mental and physical health. 

Struggles of indigenous human rights defenders in Mondulkiri

A Bunong activist from Mondulkiri province is one of the most proactive activists and is a key mobilizer for indigenous communities in Mondulkiri province. He has two children and supports his family as a sustainable farmer. Considering the increased rights violations and discrimination of indigenous peoples, he began to work as an activist in 2015. Although he recognises the danger of his work, he feels compelled to do it to prevent the suffering of indigenous peoples. He is afraid that without their land, indigenous peoples will lose their identity, culture, traditions, natural resources and homes. He has advocated on various cases, including issues of land concessions, environmental degradation, and extraction of forest, oil and mineral resources. So far, he has taken many initiatives to intervene in the companies’ actions. He has helped block roads, protested, demonstrated, marched and conducted dialogues with local authorities as well as provincial level authorities.

He is a coordinator of the Indigenous Networking Group. There he plays a vital role providing communities direct assistance as issues arise. As soon as communities send a petition or a claim he calls on the provincial authorities to intervene and broadcasts the issue on social media. Due to these activities, he has received a series of anonymous threats. His life and that of his family has been repeatedly threatened if he continues to defend the rights of his community and act against the company and government actions. He was also threatened with arrest by the district police when he obstructed illegal logging in 2017. He has remained steadfast in his commitment to protect indigenous communities as well as the forest. He says he is not afraid of being killed. However, the threats to him and his family affect them economically, and in terms of their mental and physical health. Furthermore, local authorities limit his freedom of movement, speech, assembly, life and those rights enshrined in the UNDHR, UNDRIP, ICCPR and ICESPR. Even though he has filed a petition, no solutions have been provided by the provincial department.

Another activist, an indigenous Bunong, lives 26 kilometres from the provincial capital, in Kbal Romeas village, Steung Treng province, Cambodia. An active indigenous human rights defender, he too works as a farmer. His village community used to be able to add to their income with the natural resources provided by the nature surrounding the village. This all changed in 2012, when an agreement was signed between the Royal Group of Cambodia and China’s Hydrolancang International Energy, forcing many of them to be relocated. The Dam’s 400 MW capacity has damaged the environment, their crops, farms, conservation lands and spiritual sites. Although the Bunong community tried to protest this project in many ways, it was completed in 2017. Their protests led many of the community members, especially the activist, his sister and his niece to be accused of resisting government development.

In September 2017, the Dam’s floodgates closed, resulting in the flooding of the Kbal Romeas village. Around that time, the community organised a traditional ceremony apologizing to their ancestors, forest and water spirits for their failure to protect the village. When the activist went to the market to buy groceries, a tourist bus caught his eye. When police, including the district governor, came to stop the tourist bus from continuing on their journey, they accused him of inviting the tourists, who were on their way to the Bunong ceremony. When he denied the accusation, the district governor grabbed his motor key from him, strangled his neck and forced him into his car. the activist managed to escape, but lost his motor, which was confiscated by the police. This affected his income and strained his mental and physical health. The local authority threatened his life, accusing him of obstructing government development. Due to these threats, his family has asked him to end his activism. He has not been able to recover his property to this day.

Notes and references

  1. There is variation in the estimates, because different writers perceive linguistic boundaries differently, see past editions of Indigenous World, as well “Indigenous Groups in Cambodia 2014: An Updated Situation” by Frédéric Bourdier (published by AIPP).
  2. These include multiple governmental agencies, CSOs and NGOs. The last assessment of indigenous peoples’ land rights which was carried out by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR, 2016) is one example. See “Access to Collective Land Titles for Indigenous Communities in Cambodia,” available at http://bit.ly/2IIG9F4
  3. See UN documents A/HRC/26/16 and A/HRC/26/16/Add.1. Cambodia’s next UPR is scheduled for January 2019 see http://bit.ly/2IDdlxM
  4. A fast and accurate summary of these state actions as of Jan 2018 is available from Human Rights Watch at http://bit.ly/2IIGE1U
  5. cit. CCHR, 2016. 11 communities, out of an estimated 500
  6. Despite the passage of national legislation that bans the logging of Cambodia’s forests, the CPP state has a long history of complicity in the illegal logging industry in which Hun Sen and his family are directly implicated. See Global Witness 2016 at http://bit.ly/2IR1Djs
  7. The cases cited here have been shared by the victims to the authors of this article to be used in The Indigenous World 2019
  8. See Phnom Penh Post, “‘Death of democracy’: CNRP dissolved by Supreme Court ruling” at http://bit.ly/2IIIeAS
  9. This quote comes from a local news source which has been kept anonymous to protect the identity of the activist

The activists in this country section have been kept anonymous to protect their identities and maintain their safety and that of their families.

This article was produced by Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance (CIPA). CIPA is an alliance of indigenous communities and peoples’ organisations, associations, and networks.



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