Home Commentary Voices of faith | Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Jarai

Voices of faith | Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Jarai

Jarai people or Jarais, in Khmer: Charay (ចារ៉ាយ); in Vietnamese: Người Gia Rai, Gia Rai, or Gia-rai, are an Austronesian Indigenous people and ethnic group native to Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia and to the Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Đắk Lắk provinces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

The Jarai language is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is related to the Cham language of central Vietnam and Cambodia and the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, The Philippines, and other Pacific Islands such as Hawaii and New Zealand.

There are approximately 332,558 Jarai speakers. They are the largest of the upland ethnic groups of the Central Highlands known as Degar or Montagnards and they make up 23 percent of the population of Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia.

Both groups, the Cambodian and Vietnamese Jarai, share the same traditions and keep a close relation of cultural interchange, but their language is influenced by their respectively Khmer and Vietnamese linguistic environment.

A few Khmer Jarai words are borrowed from Khmer and Lao. While trading conversations between Khmer Jarai and Vietnamese Jarai, there can be some perplexity among them. Vietnamese Jarai has a written form in Latin script, while there are some linguistic projects to develop a Khmer Jarai script.

The Jarai people recognize an individual as an aboriginal if they reside among us, embracing and practicing our customs, social structures, and sustainable ways that contribute to forest conservation.

A significant aspect of our identity is the traditional housing style and the clan affiliations, such as Romam, Rochom, Sev, Klan, Thin, Sol, Kvas, Ropuy, Puy, and Romah. These clans guide matrimonial alliances, as it is customary for a man and a woman to belong to different clans to form a new family.

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In cases where a man wishes to marry a woman from the same clan, he must conduct a Sen Pren ceremony, which involves the sacrifice of a buffalo. The offspring of this union inherit the clan lineage of the mother.

We hold our ancestral language, Jarai, in high esteem, considering it sacred. Currently, the Cambodian Jarai community faces a challenge: our language lacks a formal writing system.

In contrast, the Vietnamese Jarai have developed their own script, utilizing the Vietnamese alphabet. As Cambodians, we feel the pressing need to establish a writing system for Jarai that employs the Khmer alphabet.

There have been some efforts in this direction, notably by Evangelists who have translated the Bible into Jarai. However, educational resources in Jarai are scarce in our villages, and while there is a selection of online content in Jarai, such as music, it predominantly represents the Vietnamese Jarai perspective, with limited material from the Cambodian Jarai community.

We advocate for the formation of volunteer groups in each village, composed of young individuals eager to teach Jarai to our children and to develop digital resources like e-books. Embracing the Jarai language is not only about communication; it’s a commitment to safeguarding our cultural heritage and spiritual practices in everyday life.

We consider that the main problems facing our Jarai communities at the moment are the following ones:

  1. Deforestation and destruction of our natural environments. 
  2. The loss of our ancestral traditions.
  3. Our families are facing poverty.
  4. Young people are not interested in the preservation of our ancestral traditions. 
  5. Young Jarai people are not wearing traditional costumes.
  6. Our elderly are not getting benefits from health care and they do not understand it very much. 
  7. There are no services such as water supply, good roads, and other services for the communities. 
  8. Our villages are losing the lifestyle of the traditional Jarai communities. 

For us Jarai people, the ancestral territory is very important because it is the main source of our sustainability. We have a rich land that produces whatever we need for life, with nutritious plants and animals. We consider wildlife to be sacred and important and it should not be touched or destroyed for any reason.

Wildlife keeps the balance of the forest and our communities. We should continue our freedom to plant and preserve the forests. Nature provides, it gives without limit, but it should receive our own appreciation. 

But we are sad that our territories are not really protected and it affects many things. For example, deforestation destroys also the water sources and the traditional Jarai plantations. It destroys the natural house of wildlife, the refuge of wildlife and it affects our livelihood. We lost much land for our own cultivation or the places where we find food, medicine, and water.  

We urge people engaged in deforestation to suspend that before it is too late. But we also should engage in reforestation. We can visit those places that have been destroyed and we can plant trees again and to promote care for the environment among people from everywhere, teaching of the benefits of the forest’s preservation. 

Preserving our ancestral territories means we are keeping the inheritance of the next generation and even preserving the land where we’ll be buried when we die. The land also means our traditions and identity as Jarai people.  

Our ancestral religion is that of the forests. For us, religion is to have faith in our rights as aboriginal people. We defend our right to teach our children the ways of our ancestors and we have many ways to teach them that.

The most important person in our community for communicating our spirituality is the Cha Thom (elder), who leads the ceremonies and explains the world of the spirits and how our ancestors understood it. The Cha Thom is like our priests, he or she is our religious leader. 

We consider that a way to promote protection for the environment and for our Jarai identity is to manage some ways of eco-tourism, where we can show to visitors from other regions of Cambodia our traditional handicrafts and customs.

But those programs directed to tourists must be led by our own communities. Another way to promote our identity and rights is the use of technologies such as social networks, websites, and videos.

If we ask something from official entities and NGOs it would be to support us in projects like that, but also in training our youth in how to preserve the environment if we have visitors and how to organize ourselves. 

We see the need to work on the preservation of the Jarai language and we can do that through technologies like the Internet and also through the establishment of Jarai language schools, music bands, and many cultural activities to promote the usage of Jarai languages, especially with our children and young people. 

Written by representatives of the Jarai Indigenous group during the third installment of the “Voices” program of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Kep province in Cambodia on January 27, 2024.

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