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Indigenous Peoples in the History of Cambodia

The history of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia is not well documented, but it is believed that they have been living in the country for thousands of years, long before the arrival of the Khmer people. They have developed their own distinct cultures, languages, and traditions, and have maintained a close relationship with their natural environment.

Indigenous Peoples during the IPs Day 2023 in Kampong Speu, Photo by CIPA


Some of the major historical events that have affected the Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia are:

  • The expansion of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to the 15th century, which brought some Indigenous groups under its influence and control. Some of them adopted Khmer culture and religion, while others resisted and remained autonomous((
  • The colonization of Cambodia by France from the 1860s to the 1950s, which introduced new concepts of land ownership and administration, and disrupted the Indigenous Peoples’ customary rights and practices. The French also exploited the natural resources of the Indigenous territories, such as rubber, timber, and minerals((
  • The civil war and genocide in Cambodia from the 1960s to the 1970s, which caused massive violence, displacement, and suffering for all Cambodians, including the Indigenous Peoples. Many of them fled to the forests or to neighboring countries to escape the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime((
  • The socialist period in Cambodia from the 1980s to the early 1990s, which imposed a centralized and collectivized system of governance and economy, and attempted to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples into the dominant Khmer society. The Indigenous Peoples were forced to abandon their traditional livelihoods and beliefs, and to adopt a new language and identity.
  • The transition to a market economy and democracy in Cambodia since the early 1990s, which has brought some opportunities and challenges for the Indigenous Peoples. On one hand, they have gained some legal recognition and protection for their rights and identity, as well as some access to development services and participation. On the other hand, they have faced increasing threats from land grabbing, deforestation, mining, hydropower dams, and other development projects that have encroached on their ancestral lands and resources.

These historical events have shaped the current situation of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia, who are still struggling to preserve their cultures and livelihoods in a rapidly changing society. They are also seeking more recognition, respect, and support from the government and other stakeholders to ensure their rights and dignity.

The Struggle of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia

Cambodia is a Southeast Asian country with a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Among its population of over 16 million people, there are 24 different Indigenous Peoples, who speak mostly Mon-Khmer or Austronesian languages and constitute about 3% of the national population(( The Indigenous territories include the forested plateaus and highlands of North-eastern Cambodia, approximately 25% of the national territory((

Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia have a long history of living in harmony with nature and practicing their traditional way of life, which includes rotational (shifting) cultivation, animal husbandry, forest harvesting, and weaving. They have a strong sense of community and collective identity, and they follow customary rules of land use and management((

However, in recent decades, Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia have faced many challenges and threats to their survival and well-being. These include:

  • Land grabbing and displacement: The Cambodian government has granted large-scale land concessions to private companies for agro-industrial and mining projects, often without consulting or compensating the affected Indigenous communities. These projects have resulted in the loss of ancestral lands, forests, and natural resources that are vital for the livelihoods and cultures of Indigenous Peoples(( Many Indigenous communities have been forcibly evicted from their homes and relocated to unfamiliar and inadequate areas, where they face poverty, food insecurity, and social exclusion((
  • Discrimination and marginalization: Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia face discrimination and marginalization from the dominant Khmer society, which often views them as backward, uncivilized, or inferior. They have limited access to education, health care, justice, and political participation. They also face barriers in obtaining legal recognition and protection for their collective rights and identity. The Cambodian government has not ratified the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, nor has it fully implemented the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it adopted in 2007(( The process of registering Indigenous communities’ land titles has been slow and ineffective, leaving many Indigenous lands vulnerable to encroachment and exploitation.
  • Cultural erosion and assimilation: Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia are under pressure to assimilate into the mainstream Khmer culture and abandon their distinctive languages, customs, beliefs, and values. The loss of land and natural resources has also undermined their traditional knowledge and practices, which are closely linked to their environment. Many Indigenous youths are leaving their communities to seek education or employment in urban areas, where they face discrimination and difficulties in adapting to a different way of life. The transmission of Indigenous cultures from one generation to the next is becoming increasingly difficult.

Despite these challenges, Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia have not given up on their struggle for their rights and dignity. They have formed various organizations and networks to advocate for their interests and needs at local, national, and international levels. They have also engaged in various forms of resistance and protest against land grabbing and human rights violations. They have sought legal remedies through the courts and other mechanisms. They have also maintained their cultural identity and diversity through various initiatives such as language revitalization, cultural festivals, community radio, and ecotourism.

Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia are an integral part of the country’s social fabric and natural heritage. They have much to contribute to the development and peace of the nation. However, they need more recognition, respect, and support from the government and society at large. They also need more opportunities for dialogue and cooperation with other stakeholders to find mutually beneficial solutions for the common challenges they face.