The Khmer Loeu
The Khmer Loeu are the non-Khmer highland tribes in Cambodia. Although the origins of this group are not clear, some believe that the Mon-Khmer-speaking tribes were part of the long migration of these people from the northwest. The Austronesian-speaking groups, Rade and Jarai, apparently came to coastal Vietnam and then moved west, forming wedges among some of the Mon-Khmer groups. The Khmer Loeu are found mainly in the northeastern provinces of Rotanokiri, Stoeng Treng, and Mondol Kiri. The Cambodian government coined the word Khmer Loeu--literally "Highland Khmer"--in the 1960s in order to create a feeling of unity between the highland tribal groups and the ruling lowland ethnic Khmer. Traditionally the Khmer have referred to these groups as phnong and samre, both of which have pejorative meanings. Some of the highland groups, in fact, are related in language to the Khmer, but others are from a very different linguistic and cultural background.
Khmer Loeu form the majority population in Rotanokiri and Mondulkiri provinces, and they also are present in substantial numbers in Kracheh and Stoeng Treng provinces. Their total population in 1969 was estimated at 90,000 persons. In 1971 the number of Khmer Loeu was estimated variously between 40,000 and 100,000 persons. Population figures were unavailable in 1987, but the total probably was nearly 100,000 persons.
Most Khmer Loeu live in scattered temporary villages that have only a few hundred inhabitants. These villages usually are governed by a council of local elders or by a village headman.
The Khmer Loeu cultivate a wide variety of plants, but the main crop is dry or upland rice grown by the slash-and-burn method. Hunting, fishing, and gathering supplement the cultivated vegetable foods in the Khmer Loeu diet. Houses vary from huge multifamily longhouses to small single-family structures. They may be built close to the ground or on stilts.
During the period of the French Protectorate, the French did not interfere in the affairs of the Khmer Loeu. Reportedly, French army commanders considered the Khmer Loeu as an excellent source of personnel for army outposts, and they recruited large numbers to serve with the French forces. Many Khmer Loeu continued this tradition by enlisting in the Cambodian army.
In the 1960s, the Cambodian government carried out a broad civic action program--for which the army had responsibility--among the Khmer Loeu in Mondol Kiri, Rotanokiri, Stoeng Treng, and Kaoh Kong provinces. The goals of this program were to educate the Khmer Loeu, to teach them Khmer, and eventually to assimilate them into the mainstream of Cambodian society. There was some effort at resettlement; in other cases, civil servants went out to live with individual Khmer Loeu groups to teach their members Khmer ways. Schools were provided for some Khmer Loeu communities, and in each large village a resident government representative disseminated information and encouraged the Khmer Loeu to learn the lowland Khmer way of life. Civil servants sent to work among the Khmer Loeu often viewed the assignment as a kind of punishment.
In the late 1960s, an estimated 5,000 Khmer Loeu in eastern Cambodia rose in rebellion against the government and demanded self-determination and independence. The government press reported that local leaders loyal to the government had been assassinated. Following the rebellion, the hill people's widespread resentment of ethnic Khmer settlers caused them to refuse to cooperate with the Cambodian army in its suppression of rural unrest. Both the Khmer and the Vietnamese communists took advantage of this disaffection, and they actively recruited Khmer Loeu into their ranks. In late 1970, the government forces withdrew from Rotanokiri and Mondol Kiri provinces and abandoned the area to the rapidly growing Khmer communist insurgent force, the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea (RAK), and to its Vietnamese mentors. There is some evidence that in the 1960s and in the 1970s the Front Uni pour la Libération des Races Opprimés (FULRO--United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) united tribes in the mountainous areas of southern Vietnam and had members from Khmer Loeu groups as well as from the Cham in Cambodia.
In the early 1980s, Khmer Rouge propaganda teams infiltrated the northeastern provinces and encouraged rebellion against the central government. In 1981 the government structure included four Khmer Loeu province chiefs, all reportedly from the Brao group, in the northeastern provinces of Mondol Kiri, Rotanokiri, Stoeng Treng, and Preah Vihear. According to a 1984 resolution of the PRK National Cadres Conference entitled "Policy Toward Ethnic Minorities," the minorities were considered an integral part of the Cambodian nation, and they were to be encouraged to participate in collectivization. Government policy aimed to transform minority groups into modern Cambodians. The same resolution called for the elimination of illiteracy, with the stipulations that minority languages be respected and that each tribe be allowed to write, speak, and teach in its own language.
The major Khmer Loeu groups in Cambodia are the Kuy, Mnong, Stieng, Brao, Pear, Jarai, and Rade. All but the last two speak Mon-Khmer languages.
In the late 1980s, about 160,000 Kuy lived in the northern Cambodian provinces of Kampong Thum, Preah Vihear, and Stoeng Treng as well as in adjacent Thailand. (Approximately 70,000 Kuy had been reported in Cambodia itself in 1978.) Most of the Kuy have been assimilated into the predominant culture of the country in which they live. Many are Buddhists, and the majority practice wet-rice cultivation. They have the reputation of being skilled blacksmiths.
The Brao, including the Tampuon subgroup, inhabit northeastern Cambodia and adjacent Laos. In 1962 the Brao population in Laos was estimated at about 9,000 persons. In 1984 it was reported that the total Brao population was between 10,000 and 15,000 persons. About 3,000 Brao reportedly moved into Cambodia from Laos in the 1920s. The Brao live in large villages centered on a communal house. They cultivate dry-rice and produce some pottery. They appear to have a bilateral kinship system.
A total of 23,000 Mnong were thought to be living in Cambodia and in Vietnam in the early 1980s. In Cambodia the Mnong are found in Mondol Kiri, Kracheh, and Kampong Cham provinces in villages consisting of several longhouses each of which is divided into compartments that house can nuclear families. The Mnong practice dry-rice farming, and some also cultivate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and other useful plants as secondary crops. Some subgroups weave cloth. At least two of the Mnong subgroups have matrilineal descent. Monogamy is the predominant form of marriage, and residence is usually matrilocal. Wealth distinctions are measured by the number of buffalo that a notable person sacrifices on a funereal or ceremonial occasion as a mark of status and as a means of eliciting social approval. Slavery is known to have existed in the past, but the system allowed a slave to gain freedom. The Stieng are closely related to the Mnong. Both groups straddle the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, and their languages belong to the same subfamily of Mon-Khmer. In 1978 the Cambodian Stieng numbered about 20,000 persons in all. The Stieng cultivate dry-field rice. Their society is apparently patriarchal, residence after marriage and is patrilocal if a bride-price was paid. The groups have a very loose political organization; each village has its own leaders and tribunals.
Several small groups, perhaps totalling no more than 10,000 people in Cambodia and southeastern Thailand, make up the Pearic group. The main members are the Pear in Batdambang, Pouthisat, and Kampong Thum provinces; the Chong in Thailand and Batdambang Province; the Saoch in Kampot Province; the Samre in what was formerly Siemreab Province (now part of Siemreab-Otdar Meanchey Province); and the Suoi in Kampong Chhnang Province. Some believe that this group constitutes the remnant of the pre-Khmer population of Cambodia. Many members of the Pearic group grow dry-field rice, which they supplement by hunting and by gathering. They have totemic clans, each headed by a chief who inherited his office patrilineally. Marriage occurs at an early age; there is a small bride-price. Residence may be matrilocal until the birth of the first child, or it may be patrilocal as it is among the Saoch. The village headman is the highest political leader. The Saoch have a council of elders who judge infractions of traditional law. Two chief sorcerers, whose main function is to control the weather, play a major role in Pearic religion. Among the Saoch, a corpse is buried instead of being burned as among the Khmer.
The Austronesian groups of Jarai and Rade form two of the largest ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Both groups spill over into northeastern Cambodia, and they share many cultural similarities. The total Jarai population stands at about 200,000; the Rade number about 120,000. According to 1978 population figures, there were 10,000 Jarai and 15,000 Rade in Cambodia in the late 1970s. They live in longhouses containing several compartments occupied by matrilineally linked nuclear families. There may be twenty to sixty longhouses in one village. The Rade and Jarai cultivate dry-field rice and secondary crops such as maize. Both groups have exogamous matrilineal descent groups (consanguineous kin groups that acknowledge a traditional bond of common descent in the maternal line and within which they do not marry). Women initiate marriage negotiations, and residence is matrilocal. Each village has its own political hierarchy and is governed by an oligarchy of the leading families. In the past, sorcerers known as the "kings of fire and water" exerted political power that extended beyond an individual village. The Rade and the Jarai have been involved intimately in the FULRO movement, and many of the leaders in the movement are from these two groups.
|Country Studies main page | Cambodia Country Studies main page|