Villagers in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley have accused the local authorities of deliberately disrupting their application to secure indigenous peoples status.
The villagers, who consider themselves part of the ethnic minority Chong group, said the Thma Baing district authority had repeatedly stalled the application process.
The local authority has set an April 25 ultimatum for the Chong people to dismantle their community headquarters in the district as they are not officially recognized as an indigenous group and therefore not protected by the laws governing indigenous people.
In petitions filed to the United Nations and several embassies in Phnom Penh this week, the villagers said the protracted process had taken more than a year after a commune chief declined to sign a letter authorizing them to take their case to the district and provincial level.
“The commune and district [officials] used excuses saying that ‘we are not Chong indigenous people; we don’t have a language proving our Chong minority indigenous group. Some authorities are afraid the land can’t be sold out when the people obtained the status of minority indigenous people. Other reasons were also made so that our documents couldn’t be sent to the provincial and the ministry level,” the petitions reads.
Hung Pov, a representative of the group, said their recognition as an indigenous minority would come with numerous benefits, both for the Chong and for the authorities.
“We can keep our ethnic heritage intact for the next generation, as well as for tourists who want to see how indigenous people live,” he said. “We also help preserve the forest resources.”
Orn Sothearith, Thma Baing district governor, could not be reached for comment.
Leap Samnang, chief of the administrative department of the Ministry of Rural Development, pledged to help the petitioners by bringing their concerns to his superiors.
The Areng Valley was the site of a highly controversial planned hydropower project before the project was shelved. Several Chong activists have been arrested for protesting against environmental destruction in the area.