Editor’s note: Across the region, indigenous groups are relentlessly pushed to the margins of society as traditions of communal land and shifting agriculture give way to private property and environmental degradation at the hands of the ethnic majority. In October 2007, Southeast Asia Globe explored the fading worlds of the tribal groups who have called Southeast Asia home for centuries. Now, for the first time, you can read their stories online.

In Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, a village headman is made very drunk by a group of Chinese and Khmer businessmen. He likes his new friends so much and appreciates the money they ‘donated’ to him, that he signs the document that will allow an indigenous Tampuan family to sell their land. Strictly speaking, the transaction is illegal under Cambodian law, but with the signature of the village headman, no questions will be asked. With the money they get from the land sale, the Tampuan family will most likely buy a used motorcycle, and then starve.  

A tour bus pulls up to the gates of Houy Sua Toa, an artificial village in Thailand’s northern province, bordering on Myanmar. Western tourists disembark and pay their entrance fee. Inside the village they pose for photos beside the exotic-looking Long Neck Karen hill-tribe women. Stateless refugees from the Burmese civil war, the Karen are permitted to remain in Thailand because of the tourist dollars they bring in. None of the money from the sale of tickets or souvenirs filters down to the women. Their pay is that they remain alive, albeit in a human zoo.

In the Philippines, in a remote tribal village, which lacks both running water and electricity, five kilometres from the nearest road and a three hour drive from the nearest city, a Tagbanua family survives, barely. In the corner of their filthy hut, a family member lays, dripping sweat. She has been suffering from malaria for weeks. The family have learned to live with the pains of hunger, which they experience at least five months out of the year after their single rice harvest is gone. 

Southeast Asian countries are home to many tribal ethnic minorities. Modern tribal people, the world over, are faced with issues of cultural preservation as well as physical survival, as they feel the press of a modern world. The ways in which each country deals with its ethnic minorities vary. Unfortunately, no one seems to have found a good solution. The tribal people are often referred to as living in the Fourth World. They are the now marginalised minorities of developing nations.

Ethnic minority, hilltribe people, hill tribe, Giaria people of Gai Lai build this elaborate tomb structure whenever a member dies, on display at Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, Jarai, Photo: free buck82 at

Once the land is gone

Graham Brown, an NGO worker in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, believes that the key to tribal survival is land ownership. His group, Community Forestry International (CFI), helps tribal people obtain rights for both forest and farmland.

“In collective cultures, everything is an all-or-nothing proposition,” he said. “When one goes, they all go. Once people give up hope they will all sell their land.”

And once the land is gone, the tribes will die out.

Unlike tribes in Thailand, who were transplanted from Myanmar, the tribes of Cambodia are actually indigenous. “They were always here,” says Brown. More importantly, the Cambodian tribes were all given full citizenship by Prince Norodom Sihanouk more than thirty years ago. As a result, they have the right to own land. The problem is that they do not understand the concept of private land ownership or its importance.

 “A common technique is to tell the villagers that the government didn’t really give them permanent land rights, and that the government is about to take the land back,” explained Brown. “So, they might as well sell while they have the chance. Then the commune or village chief is given a payoff to approve the sale. After the first sales the people lose faith in the government and in the system. They lose faith in the law and believe that they have no rights. So, they sell their land. They buy a second hand motorcycle, and the others in the village get jealous. So, they sell also.

“They are told they are stupid if they don’t sell, and that they are backward if they keep with the ancient ways. People have to move out of the village and then the structure begins to deteriorate. When they move, they have to clear new forest, which is both backbreaking and illegal. And, the government will just take the land away from them. Eighty percent of the tribal people don’t speak Khmer, and even fewer are literate. This gives very limited recourse to the law.” 

The situation of the Tampuan is typical of indigenous people everywhere. Their domain has become smaller. Even some of the Tampuan’s ancestral burial grounds have been sold. For the Tampuan, this is a great sin. 

The typical defence for tribal people in the face of conflict is to simply push deeper into the forest. When we look at tribes in the 21st century, very few of them are living on the land they once used. Commercial farms and other interlopers usually take the choicest land, closest to the rivers and oceans. This has an immediate impact on the tribal diet, which they can no longer supplement through the use of fishing or river trading. As their land is squeezed, they lose their semi-nomadic ways and are forced to remain in one place, where they deplete the soil.

Moe Chan, village elder and elephant catcher in Pautrom Village, Mondulkiri. The Phnong are an indigenous minority hilltribe which has been living in the jungles of Mondulkiri, one of Cambodia’s most remote provinces, for centuries.

In the Philippines, the Tagbanua tribe are faced with a similar difficulty. The land they have inhabited for years no longer belongs to them. Each year their land is further encroached upon by lowland Filipinos and commercial farming concerns. Now, under a government program, called Ancestral Domain, they can get title to the land they live on, but this means remaining in one place. It also means they are no longer able to forage in the jungle, and that they have been cut off from the river.

NGOs often come in and pay for kids to leave the village and go to school in the cities. Afterwards, a large percentage of the kids don’t want to go back to live in the village. This drains the village of its youth and of its brightest members. And even when there are schools in villages, the education they provide is questionable.

“Schools are set up in the towns first,” said Dr. Fernandez, a leading anthropologist and tribal expert. “As you move away from the centre, the education and education budget peters out. The worst teachers are the ones sent out to the most remote schools. The schools that need the best teachers are given the poorest.”

In Cambodia, Brown paints a bleak picture of the Tampuan situation, “Many Tampuan children go to a government school whose focus is to teach Khmer values and ideas. They become Khmer. And suddenly, they need things that they never needed before. They need cell phones and motorcycles. And the informal education that they get is much more powerful than the formal one. The informal education comes at the hands of officials and party members, who push the development paradigm. They are told that their tribal culture is stupid, and that what they have is backward and without value.”

Kuy, ethnic minority found in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, hilltribe people, owner washing one of his elephants, Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bound for life

An 18-year-old boy, named Bop, washes his 17-year-old elephant. “He is like my younger brother,” he says. They have lived together since they were babies.

Bop is a member of the Kuy tribe, an ethnic minority found in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. For centuries, the Kuy have lived in jungle villages with their elephants. 

When a baby elephant is weaned, at age two, it is given to a Kuy youngster who becomes its primary caregiver. The child and the elephant grow up together. They learn to understand one another and to communicate in a mix of Kuy language and intuition. A close bond is formed between them, and they work together to support the family, often by performing in elephant shows or by doing manual labour. 

The boy and the elephant remain together until one of them dies. Elephants have long lives, like human beings, and the normal retirement age for a working elephant is sixty.

The Kuy migrated from the south of India, which is the same migration path as that of the elephants. Hundreds of years ago, the Kuy captured the land from other tribes and made a place to live, but they never had a big kingdom. Later, the Thai kings employed the Kuy so they could use the elephants for the military. 

In a small village near Sorin city, in one of Thailand’s three Khmer-speaking provinces, we talk to a local abbot. “All rituals in the villages must be related to the elephants,” explains the abbot. 

“For example, when the Kuy get married, they have to tell the elephants and ask the elephants to give them a blessing. Failing to tell the elephants is an evil mistake in Kuy culture. If the elephant is sick, it is like having a person in your family sick. The Kuy regard the elephants the same way they do people of corresponding age. So, a one-year-old elephant is treated like a one-year-old child would be treated.”

In the centre of the village field is a big statue of the god of the elephant handlers. “He is from India, part of the Brahman religion,” the abbot explains. “His mother came down from the heavens.” The god is holding a hooked stick like the mahouts still use to control the elephants.

 Many elephants are illegally killed for their tusks, which, in addition to being used to make amulets, are also regarded as medicine and are often used in magic spells. Many of the monks wear amulets made of elephant tusks. 

According to the abbot, it is not illegal to sell elephant products in Thailand, but it is illegal to kill elephants:

 “Killing an elephant is like killing a person, or a member of your family.”


Land of the pure

Present in Cambodia for five centuries, the Chams are the heirs of the great Hindu kingdom of Champa. The 1471 destruction of Vijaya, Champa’s capital, was a catastrophe that forced thousands of Chams to flee to Cambodia. It was upon arriving in Cambodia that most Chams converted to Islam. 

Although they have lived in Cambodia for centuries, the Chams continue to cultivate their own identity. For many Chams, Champa represents a sort of myth that allows them to keep the splendour of their former identity alive. 

Certain Chams follow the rigorous laws of orthodox Islam. On the other hand, the ‘pure Chams’, who call themselves Kaum Jumaat (the ‘Friday group’) because they pray only once a week, have religious practices quite unlike those of orthodox Islam. 

The “pure Chams” form a small community of several tens of thousands. Peaceful and accommodating, they are the descendants of a group of Chams who fled Vietnam in the 19th century. Unlike other Chams, who were converted to the Shāfi‘ī school of Islam by the Malays in the 15th century, the pure Chams were already Muslims when they arrived. And the Muslim faith they developed in Vietnam is distinctly unorthodox, with certain aspects that resemble Brahmanism, Buddhism or Sufism. 

The talismanic script of the Chams traces its origins back to India

First of all, the call to prayer is not performed by a muezzin but with a drum, as Buddhists use. As for the status of women, there is no denying that it constitutes another significant difference from orthodox Islam: the women are rarely veiled and share equal rights with men concerning inheritance and divorce. 

But the most noticeable difference between the “pure Chams” and the other Chams, lies in their attachment to the kingdom of Champa. For above all, they consider themselves to be the sole guardians of Champa’s cultural heritage. Among all Chams, they are, therefore, the ones who desire to remain the most faithful to age-old traditions – and that includes pre-Islamic tradition.

Living off the land

The Phnong are the indigenous people of eastern Cambodia who have lived in the jungles of Mondulkiri for centuries. They are semi-nomadic, animist, subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers whose religious laws prevent them from cutting down the forests which cover 90% of the province. 

There are about 30,000 Phnong in Mondulkiri and their way of life is under threat like never before. With improved roads, people from other parts of Cambodia are moving there. A tourist industry is starting. Corporations are buying land to start plantations or extract minerals. This growth is threatening a lifestyle that traditionally depends on open access to large rotating forest areas. 

Traditionally the Phnong grow rice and crops in forest clearings, and move on when the fertility is depleted. They own livestock such as chickens, buffaloes and elephants that are left to wander freely in the forest. The animals are too precious to be part of the everyday diet. They are reserved for sacrifices or special festivals paying honour to the spirit world which pervades every part of Phnong life. They worry about the availability of land to maintain their farming, foraging, and grazing practices.

 Some of the more unique aspects of Phnong culture are changing fast. Low slung thatched dwellings that hug the undulating landscape are being replaced by wooden shacks with tin roofs.

They have an oral culture with no written script. With the encroachment of Khmer speakers and schools, it is feared that this language and its songs, and the history and culture it records, could be lost in as little as fifty years.

Phnong mother and child in front of their tradtional home in Poulong Village, Mondulkiri. Photo: Aroon Thaewchatturat

The language of the Phnong

The Phnong language belongs to a Bahnaric sub-group of the Mon-Khmer family of languages, which together with the Munda language of India form the Austroasiatic family. The term ‘Phnong’ covers a number of dialects spoken in the highlands of southeastern Cambodia (Mondulkiri) and southern Vietnam (Darlac). 

Although comparable to Khmer, and most other Southeast Asian languages, on the basis of a common typology – there is no gender; no congruence; no overt case, or the use of classifiers – the two languages are not mutually understandable. They were separated from a common root several millennia ago. 

As an oral language, Phnong is intimately connected to the history and culture of its speakers. Songs and poems, as forms of collective memory, play an essential role in preserving the past, present and the future.

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