Business & Economy

Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia

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Frédéric Bourdier | Anthropologist | IRD France

Cambodia is home to 24 Indigenous peoples speaking Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages. Numerically important groups are the Tampuan, the Kuy, the Bunong, the Jarai, the Brao and the Kreung. While the exact population of these ethnic groups is controversial, they constitute about 2-3% of the national population, between 350,000 and 400,000 individuals as of 2020. Some recuse their ethnic identity because of social discrimination, intermarriage, migration, urbanization and diverse processes of acculturation. Indigenous people’s territories are scattered in 15 provinces (out of 24), but a majority is located in the three north-eastern provinces (Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri). While they are not disaggregated in the national census, human right groups maintain that Indigenous Peoples face discrimination and coerced displacement from their lands that is extinguishing them as distinct groups. Scientific investigations confirm that these patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction and land conversion (timber, minerals, hydro, and agro-industrial plantations), coupled with the growing in-migration from other parts of the country. National authorities regularly deny these assertions under the guise of an expected “national economic development for all”.

It is admitted that the principal adversaries of indigenous territorial and land claims in Cambodia, and by extension throughout the world, are the protagonists of a neo-liberal economic model that has impoverished and dispossessed major sectors of rural societies, blocked the improvement of locally based production (subsistence and commercial agriculture), and promoted capitalist expansion by excluding local populations. In the absence of any reliable mechanisms to secure land, many of the fertile and forested areas, traditionally occupied by autochthonous groups, started to be coveted by agribusiness companies, multinational consortia and wealthy politicians for monoculture exploitation: rubber, cassava, and cashew (north-east), sugarcane and corn (north).

Funeral ceremony, Andong Meas district, Rattanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

After a decade of Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia has followed a free-market ideology. In the 1990s, Cambodia’s economy relied on external financial support, but socio-political elites constantly captured the bilateral/multilateral aid from the West. Insufficient allocation redistribution for the general population and feebleness of public services reinforced social and economic inequalities. Furthermore, the 2001 Land Law, a by-product of Western aid, with improved additional legislations for monitoring Economic Land Concessions sanctioned by the sub-decree in 2005, offered legal tools for granting Economic Land Concessions to national and international (joint-venture) companies, even though Article 29 of the same Land Law states that “no authority outside the community may acquire rights to immovable properties belonging to indigenous communities”. Indigenous Peoples expected that the 2002 Forest Law would lead to a substantive remedy for protecting their lands, but it led to the contrary (extensive logging by officials and local Khmer/Indigenous elites). In 2004, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ratified a Master Plan, of which Ratanakiri Province was the epicentre. Once a remote area, nearly exclusively inhabited by non-Khmer populations, the province became a destination not only for landless migrants but also for politically connected opportunists, absentee landlords, and foreign corporations, due to its geostrategic position, Cambodia-Vietnam borderland region with fertile basaltic soils.

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Illegal logging with the complicity of military forces, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Leading developers/policy-decision makers keep on arguing that Indigenous peoples have to adapt to the contemporary economic world. Cambodia has to be competitive and must attract Foreign Direct Investment to advance the country’s economy as well as to modernize rural areas like the north-eastern provinces. Megaprojects constitute the ongoing skeleton of modernity. Subsistence agriculture and worse again slash and burn cultivation are mere testimonies of the past that can be confined to local places (for ecotourism purposes, under the label of cultural heritage) but which cannot contribute to the economic growth of the Kingdom. Land concentration restricts small scale ownership but, according to national authorities, will contribute to maintaining labour forces, providing Indigenous peasants “reasonable” daily wagers.

Dispossessed indigenous families work for a rubber plantation in Bokeo, Ratanakiri. Photo by Frédéric Bourdier

Working for others has always existed in a context of exchange of services among indigenous groups. Reciprocity conditions its acceptability. But the idea to be permanently or even seasonally employed is less conceivable, even for the Indigenous farmers having small plantations who prefer to recruit lowland workers. Disinterest for agrarian paid work in the plantation prevails. A job with restricting hours appears incongruous and unthinkable to the vast majority, except for the Indigenous landless families who have no other option. As a result, investors and companies recruit experienced Khmer and Cham from the lowland valley to work in their plantations located in indigenous territories. These skilful in-migrants and workforces decide to settle permanently (more jobs, better weather, less pollution, the myth of “abundance of nature”), and these, therefore, contributed not only to land speculation and socio-ecological conflicts but also exacerbated tensions between autochthonous people and new business-minded settlers. This new population have in turn convinced relatives and friends to flock into the indigenous people’s territories for lucrative business opportunities, opening small businesses, being seasonal workers, suppliers and contractors, or elaborating a partnership for a development project (transport/delivery services, construction, training, collective land acquisition).

Frédéric Bourdier is a senior anthropologist from the national scientific research centre from France (Research Institute for Development: IRD) and the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne. He started conducting ethnographic work in Cambodia (1994-1995), with the aim to compare the social ecology of various autochthonous communities in Ratanakiri Province – Tampuan, Kachok’ and Jarai. Since 2004, he came back to the Kingdom (after ten years spent in Brazil Amazon, South India, Columbia, China and Cuba). He has been in charge of two programmes focussing on health policies and the socio-political mobilisation of the civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He has been also involved in an ethnogenetic program in the Highlands, in a critical research insisting on the impacts of development on the livelihoods of the forest peoples. After being in charge of an interdisciplinary malaria research, an ethno-historical investigation of the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Ratanakiri in the sixties, he is actually organising anthropological surveys of the green economy in Cambodia. He periodically returns to Ratanakiri in the villages where he previously lived.

Citation: Bourdier, F (2020). Economic development and cultural genocide in Cambodia. Insights on Southeast Asia. Retrieved from https://sea-insights.com/2020/11/30/economic-development-and-cultural-genocide-in-cambodia/

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