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Celebrating Diversity: How Defending Indigenous Rights Safeguards Cambodian Culture

Delve into how defending indigenous rights safeguards Cambodian culture, promoting diversity and preserving traditions for future generations.

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Cambodia is a country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage, influenced by the ancient civilizations of India, China, and Southeast Asia((Cambodia | History, Map, Flag, Capital, Population, Language, & Facts | Britannica)). Among the many ethnic groups that inhabit the country, the indigenous peoples, also known as Khmer Leu or Highlanders, have a distinct identity and way of life that reflects their close connection to nature and their ancestral lands.

Indigenous Souy march during the IPs Day 2023 in Kampong Speu, (Photo by CIPA)

According to Cambodia’s National Report on Demographic and Socio-Economic Status of Indigenous Peoples((National Report on Demographic and Socio-Economic Status of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia – Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Organization (, there are about 22 different indigenous peoples in Cambodia, comprising about 1.25% of the total population. The largest of these groups are the Kuy, Bunong, Kreung, Jarai, Tampuan and Broa who live mainly in the northern provinces of Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Stung Treng, Kratie, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri.

The indigenous peoples of Cambodia have their own languages, religions, customs, and traditions that differ from the dominant Khmer culture. They practice animism, worshipping spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena. They also have a strong sense of community and collective ownership of land and resources. They rely on shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and gathering for their livelihoods.

However, the indigenous peoples of Cambodia face many challenges and threats to their rights and cultures. They have suffered from decades of civil war, displacement, land grabbing, deforestation, mining, hydroelectric dams, and economic development projects that have encroached on their territories and disrupted their way of life. They also face discrimination, marginalization, poverty, illiteracy, and lack of access to basic services and opportunities.

The Cambodian government has ratified several international conventions and declarations that recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples((The rights of indigenous peoples | OHCHR)). The government has also enacted domestic laws and policies that aim to promote and safeguard the interests of indigenous peoples, such as the Land Law of 2001, the Forestry Law of 2002, the Protected Areas Law of 2008, and the National Policy on Development of Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities of 2009.

The government has recently promulgated the Environmental and Natural Resources Code, which incorporates all of the provisions of the Protected Areas Law and Forestry Law; however, indigenous input into the Code has received less consideration, causing concern among indigenous organizations and communities.

Indigenous Consultation workshop in Siem Reap on Law Amendment, 15-16 Aug, 2022, (Photo by CIPA)

These legal frameworks provide for the recognition of indigenous peoples as legal entities, the registration and titling of their collective lands, the participation and consultation in decision-making processes that affect them, the respect for their cultural identity and diversity, and the promotion of their social and economic development.

However, there is a gap between the law and its implementation. Many indigenous communities still lack legal recognition and land titles. Many face land conflicts with private companies, local authorities, or other settlers who claim or occupy their lands illegally or with dubious documents. Many are excluded from or coerced into development projects that do not respect their Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). Many are denied or restricted from accessing their traditional forests, rivers, and sacred sites. Many are assimilated or pressured to abandon their languages, religions, customs, and traditions.

What Are the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Indigenous rights refer to the collective and individual rights of indigenous peoples, which are based on their unique cultural, social, economic, and political characteristics. These rights are crucial as they recognize and protect the distinct identities, languages, traditions, and lands of indigenous communities. Upholding indigenous rights is essential for promoting social justice, addressing historical injustices, and fostering reconciliation between indigenous peoples and the wider society. It also plays a significant role in preserving biodiversity and traditional knowledge systems that contribute to sustainable development.

Therefore, it is imperative that the rights of indigenous peoples in Cambodia are respected and protected in practice as well as in principle. This means ensuring that they have secure tenure over their lands and resources; that they have a voice and a choice in matters that concern them; that they have access to justice and remedies for violations; that they have opportunities for education, health care, employment, and income generation; that they have support for preserving and promoting their cultures; and that they have respect and recognition from society at large.

Protecting indigenous peoples rights means conservation of Cambodian cultures because these two aspects are interrelated and interdependent. The cultures of indigenous peoples are rooted in their lands and natural environment. Their lands and natural environment are sustained by their cultures and traditional knowledge. By safeguarding one aspect, we safeguard the other. By harming one aspect, we harm the other.

Upholding indigenous rights is crucial for preserving the rich cultural heritage of its indigenous communities. These communities have unique languages, traditions, and knowledge systems that are deeply intertwined with the country’s history and identity. By recognizing and protecting their rights, Cambodia can ensure the continuation of these cultural practices and promote diversity within its society. Additionally, by valuing indigenous cultures, Cambodia can foster a sense of pride and belonging among its indigenous peoples, contributing to a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The cultures of indigenous peoples are not only valuable for themselves but also for humanity as a whole. They represent a rich diversity of worldviews, beliefs, values, and expressions.

Empowering Indigenous Communities: Preserving Culture and Promoting Rights

Cambodia’s indigenous communities have long been marginalized and their rights disregarded. However, there is a growing movement to empower these communities, preserve their rich cultural heritage, and promote their rights. One such initiative is the establishment of Multilingual Education Program, which aim to provide culturally relevant education while also teaching mainstream curriculum. Through these schools, indigenous children are able to learn about their traditional language, customs, and practices, ensuring that they do not lose touch with their identity in an increasingly modernized world.

In addition to educational initiatives, various organizations are working towards empowering indigenous communities by supporting economic development projects that are based on sustainable practices and traditional knowledge. For instance, some communities are engaged in nature-based tourism ventures that allow visitors to experience authentic indigenous culture while also providing income for the community. These initiatives not only help uplift the economic status of indigenous people but also foster a sense of pride in their cultural heritage.

Moreover, it is crucial to note that empowering Cambodia’s indigenous communities goes hand in hand with advocating for the protection of their land and natural resources. Often faced with land grabbing and encroachment from external forces such as corporations or powerful individuals, many indigenous communities find themselves displaced or dispossessed. By promoting land rights and supporting legal frameworks that recognize communal land tenure for indigenous peoples, efforts are being made to safeguard both their culture and environment.

Some recommendations have been made by various stakeholders, including indigenous peoples’ organizations, human rights groups, and UN bodies for improving recognition and respect for indigenous rights:

  • Simplify and expedite the process of communal land titling for indigenous communities, and ensure that they are consulted and compensated fairly when their lands are affected by development projects or economic land concessions((,((Indigenous World 2020: Cambodia – IWGIA – International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs)).
  • Implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Cambodia has adopted without reservation, and ratify the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples((,((
  • Strengthen the legal and institutional framework for the protection and promotion of indigenous peoples’ rights, including their rights to cultural integrity, education, health, and participation((,((
  • Enhance the capacity and awareness of government officials, civil society organizations, and the general public on the situation and needs of indigenous peoples, and foster intercultural dialogue and mutual respect((,((
  • Support the empowerment and participation of indigenous peoples, especially women and youth, in decision-making processes that affect their lives and interests((,((