Thursday, 18 December 2008

Why do minority tongues really face a grim future?

The Phnom Penh Post

Written by Stefan Ehrentraut
Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Dear Editor,

Your recent article "Minority tongues face grim future" in the December 9 edition of The Phnom Penh Post accurately highlights that the languages of Cambodia's indigenous minorities are threatened. But it is misleading and inaccurate in attributing the threats those languages are facing.

In its subheading, your article states that those languages "are being eroded by global forces beyond the control of government initiatives designed to revive them". But the forces of economic development and integration invoked in the article are in many important ways shaped by deliberate government decisions, though not exclusively. Furthermore, those statements imply that there are "government initiatives designed to revive" indigenous languages. But there are no such initiatives in Cambodia, and nothing in your article suggests otherwise. The initiatives under discussion are either not government initiatives or they are not designed to revive indigenous languages.

The article fails to elaborate on a wide range of government initiatives that contribute to the erosion of those languages.The article mentions the Department of Ethnic Minority Development, and the name of the department may suggest that developing indigenous languages is among its activities, but it is not and never was.

The real aim of bilingual education

The article also mentions that the Ministry of Education "was making efforts to introduce bilingual education in minority villages as a bridge to literacy and further education in the public school system". But bilingual education that phases out native languages over the course of three years is an integration program, not a language-revival program. It is neither intended nor designed to reverse the slide towards extinction of those languages, as your article seems to suggest. It is intended and designed as a temporary and transitional measure, a "bridge" to facilitate access to Khmer literacy and state schools that operate in Khmer language.

It is, of course, a good thing that the government wants to achieve education for all, that it facilitates indigenous people learning Khmer and that it utilises indigenous languages to this end. The government should also be applauded for having started to take more ownership of bilingual education, such as by replicating models developed by NGO/IO [groups] in a small but growing number of community schools and, starting this year, in six state schools in Ratanakkiri. But those efforts should not be mistaken for a minority language-revival program.

Your article states that "even once scripts are created and introduced into the education system ... whether the language flourishes depends largely on factors beyond the government's control". This is only partially correct. The following sentences accurately link the viability of minority languages to the viability of village institutions. But the viability of village institutions depends in important ways on factors that are clearly within government control.

Minorities and decentralisation

Take, for example, the government's decentralisation reform. None of the decentralisation laws makes any mention of indigenous languages, institutions or customary law. To the contrary, those laws require candidates for commune councilor to read and write Khmer language. Many indigenous people, women and traditional authorities in particular, do not speak, read or write Khmer language and are, thus, legally ineligible to represent and serve their own community. Local state institutions operate by default in a language that is foreign to most indigenous persons. They absorb local authority that in the past was exercised by village-based minority institutions. Those institutions contribute greatly to putting indigenous languages out of public use and to re-enforcing alienation and exclusion of indigenous communities. This kind of Khmer nation-building, the consolidation of a state with institutions that operate at all levels and in all places in Khmer language only, has been a feature of all Cambodian regimes since independence and has greatly contributed to the marginalised situation indigenous communities are in today.

Obligations under UN treaty

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, those groups have rights to education in their own language, along with rights to self-determination, to their lands, natural resources and so on. The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007, with an overwhelming majority that included Cambodia's vote. The government should be praised for supporting such an important measure and encouraged to apply it. It should also be noted that various international organisations, notably the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, have safeguard policies that make their support to the government conditional on respecting indigenous rights.

Stefan Ehrentraut

Ethnicity and Local Governance
Cambodia (ELGC)

The ELGC is a research project aimed at analysing state-minority relations in Cambodia. The project analyses both the aspirations of various ethnic minorities (Cham, hill tribes, ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese) and state policies and practices towards them.


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