On 14 September 2014, Sok Nai, the Khmer human rights activist living in Mondolkiri, a northeastern province of Cambodia, revealed that the conflict between Cham people (a Muslim ethnic minority) and Phnong people (a Buddhist and Christian ethnic minority) was intense after the government opened concession for rubber plantation in Mondolkiri area. The situation is closely observed by local media.
Sok Nai said that the Phnongs’ movement had been started to oppose the house construction for 300 Muslim families in Tual saweng Bou Sra village, following the government’s land allocation project to reduce poverty and improve quality among the Muslims. In NGOs’ aspect, it is the government’s plan to move the Muslims out of town pushing them to be workers for the concessionaires to clear up the forest for rubber plantation. While the Phnongs fear to lose their 2,400 hectares of forest to the multinational companies.
“The forest is very spiritually meaningful to Phnong people. Therefore, it is impossible for the Phnongs to deforest for rubber plantation. They have lived here for hundreds years. It’s suspicious that most of the Muslims were forced to move from Kampong Cham province where they live their lives as fishermen in the Mekong River and grow vegetables as their original way of life. But this year, the government tries to push them out of the town which has potential to have economic growth in the future. In Kampong Cham, corn and tobacco are the industrial drop which bring tremendous income. Meanwhile, the government ignores the minorities who also take part in the development. They see the Muslim Chams as unwanted citizen and think the Phnongs are wild people. That’s why many of them do not get Cambodian nationality and become wanderers. Finally, for the better image of the country, the project has been proposed while the private Cambodia and foreign companies are the wire-pullers” , said Sok Nai.
The activist also mentioned that the plan to push the minorities out of their villages tended to be more intense. Considering the government’s attitude, he said if the ethnic conflict created and the Phnong finally moves out of their villages after their forest is destroyed, the Muslims would be only workers. No matter how wealthy they are because of their higher income and fluency Khmer, comparing to the Phnongs, they will be only the government’s puppet once they are considered useless for forest reclamation. The government never has any policy allowing the Muslim Chams to possess land legally.