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Radio Waves Signal Hope for Indigenous Minorities

May Titthara / Khmer Times Share:
Jan Kham Phoo Phet, director of Karen-language radio station FM 90.75 MH2, at his studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand. KT / May Titthara

CHIANG MAI (Khmer Times) – She had to leave Cambodia to learn how radio can be used to keep indigenous communities both up to date and in touch with their roots – and now she wants to do the same for the ethnic Jarai community in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district.  

It was only the third time Sal Phala, 25, left her remote district. The first two times were to take a bus to Phnom Penh to apply for and then pick up her passport.

Last week, Sal Phala, 25 – carrying just a single suitcase – got her first entry stamp at Chiang Mai International Airport. She was visiting Thailand’s northern “capital” to meet representatives of other ethnic minorities from across Southeast Asia. They were gathering to hear how indigenous communities are using radio stations and citizen journalists to maintain a sense of community and keep abreast of news that impacts them.

Wearing traditional Jarai dress, Ms. Pala said her first time abroad gave her an idea of how to benefit Jarai communities who are struggling to maintain the language and other ties that bind them in a rapidly changing world. 

Citizen journalists and a radio station that broadcasts them are the key, she said while discussing her trip. “I was so frightened when I was on the plane,” she recalled in Chiang Mai, stressing that she was worried about the language barrier. She speaks Jarai as well as Khmer, but not Thai or English. “And I was so surprised. Everything was completely different from my community,” she said.

It was at the forum in Chiang Mai, however, where her surprise became enlightening. “I listened to other indigenous people from other countries. They have their own indigenous journalists, radio stations and newspapers,” she said. “But in my community, we have nothing.”

“I want to have a radio station or newspaper in my community because other indigenous people in Asia have them and we need to know everything that is happening in the country,” Ms. Pala explained. Her community is concerned about land grabbing, mining and human rights violations, but they only get their news from staff at NGOs who alert them to media reports, she added.

In Chiang Mai with a translator on hand, Ms. Phala became more inquisitive.

Still, she said members of her community did not care much about what was happening outside their district because they are focused on daily living, and the loss of their land, language and culture. 
“We worry about the loss of our land because companies that received economic land concessions have taken over. So, we are already losing part of our culture because we farm by shifting cultivation and have a community forest,” she said.  
 
“If we have our own radio station where we can speak our language I think that can help us a lot,” she added.

According to an analysis of land disputes in Cambodia published in September by NGO Forum, almost one-fifth of the 270 disputes examined affected indigenous people in eight provinces. Data also shows that the highest number of land disputes involving ethnic communities occur in the northeast. 

Visitors to Ratanakkiri may be surprised to learn that it was once covered by dense forest.  O’Yadav district, in the province’s east, remained one of the most remote areas of Cambodia after it emerged from decades of war in the 1990s. That changed in the last decade with the arrival of rubber plantations and a surge in illegal logging.

The province’s population was for the most part composed of ethnic minorities, including Jarai, Tampoun and Kreung communities. Their members outnumbered ethnic Khmer residents of the province. Many did not even speak Khmer, and that remains the case for many elderly members of ethnic minorities. Their grandchildren, however, are forgetting their language and relying on Khmer.

The 1998 Cambodian Population Census identified 17 different indigenous groups in the country. It was based on spoken languages and estimated the indigenous population at about 101,000 people or 0.9 percent of the then-total population of 11.4 million. Other research, however, suggests that that figure was most likely underestimated, and was as high as 160,000 people or 1.5 percent of Cambodia’s population at the time. Moreover, indigenous communities reside outside the northeast and, in fact, span 13 more provinces, research has found.

Many face the same problem – loss of the culture that links them.

“We are losing our culture a day at a time,” Ms. Phalla said. “We want to have our own radio station to talk about our culture like the Karen residents of Dong Dam village,” she said, referring to a village in Chiang Mai where members of the ethnic minority, which is concentrated in eastern Myanmar, reside. “They have their own radio station, they help their indigenous people a lot, they get all the information about their community and from outside their community,” Ms. Phalla said.

She said she was jealous of Karen people who live in the village. The radio station alerts them in advance about approaching storms or floods, which helps them keep safe.  

Jan Kham Phoo Phet, the ethnic Karen director of FM 90.75 MH2, said his station broadcasts in Karen language about Karen culture and is the main source of information in the community. “The reason I established this radio station is because Thailand has a lot of radio channels, but they did not broadcast our community news and our language, so I decided to do it for the community,” he said.

His community radio station keeps people informed. If something newsworthy happens people call him and tell him about it so he can broadcast it to everyone, he explained. 

“The young generation of Karen people like modern things and want to forget their culture, but after we started this radio station they started to love their culture again and now they say they are lucky to be born Karen. Before they hated being born Karen,” Jan Kham Phoo Phet said. 

Ran Sopheak Pagna, a community media program coordinator for Building Community Voices – a Cambodian NGO that works with a diverse range of communities – said indigenous people in other countries are better informed that those here. 

He said governments in other countries cooperate more with indigenous communities. 

His NGO tried to help set up community radio here, but authorities did not accept the proposal without saying why, Mr. Pagna said. 

“In Cambodia we have a lot of radio channels and newspapers, but they do not reach indigenous people,” Mr. Pagna said. “If some provincial radio stations reach the communities it is only in Khmer Language. We need community radio in their languages.” 

Despite its swift growth – Ratanakkiri is one of the country’s fastest growing provinces – the airwaves remain dominated by the Khmer language. 

“We need indigenous journalists and indigenous radio stations so we can learn and share what is happening in our community,” Ms. Phalla said. 
 

Sal Phala attends a forum for ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia in Chiang Mai, Thailand last week. It was only her third time outside her district in eastern Ratanakkiri. KT / May Titthara
 

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