In order to draw global attention to the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights, the UN General Assembly decided in 1994 to observe the 9th August of every year as the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. In Cambodia, the IP Day was celebrated for the first time in 2005 in Phnom Penh, organized by the Ministry of Rural Development with support from civil societies and international development partners.Since then, the annual celebration of IP Day has moved to different locations, preferably in the capital or provinces with a high indigenous population.
IP Day 2010 – a change of direction in many ways
“This year’s event marks a change of direction in many ways” says Pheap Sochea, president of the Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association about the decision by the organizers to celebrate the 2010 IP Day in Siem Reap. Although there are very few indigenous communities in the province itself, Siem Reap Town as the fourth largest city in Cambodia is the home of the country’s most important touristic attraction, Angkor Wat. IP Day celebrations in Siem Reap hence promised high public attention by a broad audience. “We reached more people and our voices have been heard nationally and internationally” states Pheap Sochea.
Another innovation of this year’s event was the significant extension of its program. In previous years the agenda comprised mainly official speeches and small cultural performances. But thanks to a large exhibition this year, where indigenous participants showed their traditional crafts and artwork, visitors were amazed to learn of the diversity of indigenous people’s culture in Cambodia. “Before I arrived here, I did not know anything [about indigenous people], but now, since I saw this place, I learned a lot about the indigenous people, their culture and about how they afford their living”, says Kakada, 17 years old visitor of the IP Day exhibition.
Increasing the public awareness of the indigenous people’s culture and diversity in Cambodia and thereby overcoming prejudices and stereotypes – which are still widespread among Cambodia’s society – is one of the main objectives of the event.A show at Angkor Kyung Yu - a spot popular among the city’s residents - where indigenous groups from 15 provinces performed their traditional dances, songs and ceremonies met this aim. Despite heavy rainfall in the evening, it was well attended by public and media.
A day of celebration away from the everyday challenges
Besides showcasing indigenous peoples’ culture and heritage, IP Day also aims to alert the public as well as the government about the difficult situation and the problems indigenous peoples face in Cambodia today. “The government will not let the indigenous people live in such poor conditions anymore. We are doing everything to promote the living standard of indigenous people in the same way we do for all our country’s inhabitants” promised Chea Sophara, Minister of Rural Development to the more than thousand participants. So far the government has developed policies and laws, relating to indigenous people’s rights to land and their communities’ development. Tuomo Poutiainen, ILO Representative to Cambodia, however, cautions that effects of these laws and provisions can only be evaluated in the long term: “The laws are quite recent and new. […] I guess it’s too early to say what impact they are having in practice.This day and the speeches today are a testament to the fact, that still quite a lot remains to be done. But there is some tentative progress“.
And progress on the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land is urgently needed. Illegal logging and the loss of ancestral land to private companies seriously threaten indigenous livelihoods and culture. But those issues rarely made it to the podium. Just like the messages on banners that participants carried during the opening march through Siem Reap’s center had been censored by the authorities.
Nevertheless, indigenous people from all over Cambodia felt proud to celebrate IP Day. “I am very happy to be part of this event, because it is our day!”says an indigenous Bunong(Pnong) woman from Mondulkiri province.“But next time we hope that IP issues will make it more to the front stage.”