No longer silent

Phnom Penh, October 26, 2014
Heinrich-Böll Foundation has been supporting the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Organization (CIYA) for more than 7 years now. CIYA was established by a group of Cambodian indigenous people and attempts to provide an indigenous youth group serving as a social network in Phnom Penh, as well as strengthening the capacity of these indigenous students and empowering them as the future generation of their indigenous communities. 

CIYA has developed into a strong organization and seen a noticeable increase in the number of new members over the last few years. Therefore it could also start initiating its second mission that is to enroll its members in various programs in their home communities to ensure protection and security of the land and natural resources and to preserve the indigenous identity and culture. 

Laura Kirchner from Heinrich Böll Foundation spoke with 22 year old Sokkhom Knet and 24 year old Sreyneang Loek, both members of The Cambodian Indigenous Youth Organization, about their involvement at CIYA and about their experiences as indigenous people in Cambodia.

1. How did you get involved with CIYA? 

Sokkhom: When I was a teenager I had dropped out of High School and worked on a farm for several years. But CIYA’s activities in youth capacity building in my village caught my interest and finally made me enroll in school again. After High School graduation I received a CIYA university scholarship which provides for university fees and accommodation and now I am a student of law in my 1st semester. 

Sreyneang: I also got involved with CIYA when they were working in my community. After graduating from High School I received an academic university scholarship because my mother could have never paid the costs. I studied law and just graduated this summer. 

2. What are the programs that you are in involved in for CIYA?

Sokkhom: I’ve been involved in advocacy work in my community for a long time. The majority of indigenous people in my community does not have any knowledge about the rule of law for example. For that reason we support them in various issues such as land disputes, deportation and we empower them in talking to authorities for example. We don’t want our communities to be silent any longer if there is injustice. Once I was even arrested by authorities for doing human rights activities. Although they threatened to arrest me again I am not afraid because I know that I am not doing anything wrong by defending our rights. To this end, the number of members has improved in 8 provinces and CIYA continues to support other youth students and provides them with private scholarships.

Sreyneang: I am involved in CIYA's women empowerment program. One of our aims is to inform women about their rights and to empower them when it comes to defending these rights. In workshops we engage in topics such as domestic violence and we try to encourage their engagement for political participation. These women are now able to write their own press statement, organize press conferences, set up demonstrations, give interviews and they can send their own statements to government institutions for example. 

3. Sreyneag, so how would you describe the role of an indigenous woman today? 

We do not have many good indigenous women researchers at present. One reason for this is that people generally tend to think that girls do not need to be educated. If they have graduated from High School, however, girls are then usually not sent to University as it is considered to be too far away. It is preferred to have them live in or at least very close to the community. In my village education is not really valued so far. This is also because many people don’t expect to find a good job afterwards. In addition, domestic violence is still a problem. But workshops have improved this situation as many women express to have better knowledge about that subject now. They are not afraid of their husbands anymore. 

4. As modernity has been coming with a great deal of challenges for indigenous peoples, do you see any difference in the way the older generation approaches the struggle of including their indigenous customs into modernity in comparison to the younger generation?

Sokkhom: I cannot see any major differences in the way the different generations address this challenge. What can generally be said, though, is that the indigenous culture and tradition are essential for the preservation of our indigenous identity, for the young and for the older generation alike. Especially the spirit of the forest and the ceremonies are the meaningful and constituent basis for the foundation or our indigenous identity. For us, the younger people studying in Phnom Penh, we try to integrate our tradition in our daily lives. When we celebrate indigenous festivities for example we try to continue to adhere to our traditional ceremonies as best as possible. As we are from different indigenous groups celebrating certain ceremonies in various ways we always choose a celebration tradition of one group and change alternately for every occasion. 

5. What would you say are the greatest challenges for Indigenous Peoples today? 

Both: The greatest challenges that Indigenous Peoples face today are poverty, lack of education and land grabbing and the destruction of their natural forest land.

Interview: Laura Kirchner