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Ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples in Cambodia – Discrimination in the face of development

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As Southeast Asia’s most ethnically homogenous nation, minorities in Cambodia are challenged with being different from the Khmer majority. Challenges range from land grabbing, to citizenship to denial of basic social and economic rights.
The people of Cambodia, now faced with the challenges of rapid development and rebuilding a nation, continue to show unparalleled resilience in the face of hardship. Confronted with abject poverty, deficiencies in education and health care, and a myriad of other challenges and injustices, Cambodia’s ethnic minorities (EMs) and indigenous peoples (IPs) must rely on their resilience in the absence of justice, political representation, and adequate social welfare.

Cambodia is Southeast Asia’s most homogenous nation; up to 95% of the approximately 15 million people belong to the Khmer majority. The remaining 5% is composed of an extremely fragmented subpopulation of EMs and IPs with a wide range of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Cambodian government recognizes only two indigenous groups, the Cham and the Khmer Loeu (an umbrella term for all IPs in the Northeast provinces). Unrecognized minority groups include the ethnic Vietnamese, Lao, Chinese, and Montagnard refugees fleeing from Vietnam.

As tourism and foreign investment flood the country, Cambodia finds itself in an era of unprecedented development. Despite substantial benefits, some alarming trends have emerged in its wake. Endemic corruption continues to plague all levels of society, impeding development and facilitating human rights violations. Abuses of power by government officials, law enforcement, and the military are commonplace, and vulnerable minorities have become easy targets for profiteering. Illegal logging on Indigenous traditional land is on the rise, as is “land grabbing” and subsequent displacement of entire communities.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has committed, in principle, to land security for marginalised groups, and has stated that land held illegally by officials and other private agents will be repossessed and redistributed. In practice, however, land grabs are still commonplace, and there have been few cases of restitution by the State regarding misappropriated land. The Prime Minister has also stated that illegal logging operations must stop, but with evidence that the multi-million dollar industry is spearheaded by associates and relatives of Hun Sen, it seems unlikely that the State’s fight against illegal logging will amount to anything more than political rhetoric.

The Cambodian government has created bodies such as the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Ethnic Minorities Development and the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Highland Peoples Development to address minority and Indigenous issues. However, despite the existence of these mechanisms, there is an apparent lack of political will to strengthen these institutions, which, combined with rampant corruption, seeks to undermine their effectiveness. Certain minorities, particularly ethnic Vietnamese, are further alienated and marginalised through legal mechanisms that refuse to acknowledge them as citizens of Cambodia, denying them basic rights and freedoms granted in the Constitution. Legal technicalities are often used as justification for land grabs against Indigenous communities, providing a thin veil of legitimacy for private interests.

Among the numerous challenges and impediments facing Cambodia’s EMs and IP, some recent developments provide reason for muted optimism, although effective implementation remains a challenge. The State has initiated a decentralisation program aimed at curbing corruption and increasing responsiveness to community needs. If successful, this program could result in more accountable, participatory and responsive government in rural areas. While official development aid supports a substantial part of the government budget, donor governments and agencies have not effectively employed their increased leverage in curbing government corruption and rights abuses.

The new UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose adoption was supported by Cambodia, is an important step in ending discrimination and promoting the rights of Cambodia’s recognised IPs. Now the challenge lies in the implementation of these rights and freedoms into realistic policies and legislation.