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

Voices of faith | Indigenous Peoples in Asia: Kreung

The Kreung (Khmer: គ្រឹង; Krung) are an ethnic group that live in Cambodia, mainly in Ratanakiri Province, and a relatively small number in Stung Treng, Mondulkiri Province. There are 22,385 Kreung people in Cambodia as of 2013.

For the Kreung people, being aboriginal encompasses a deep understanding and practice of our ancestral language, arts, dances, costumes, musical instruments, handicrafts, spirituality, beliefs, and ceremonies, including weddings and funerals. It also involves sustaining oneself from the forest while simultaneously preserving it.

To us, the knowledge and preservation of our culture are paramount. Regrettably, we observe a growing trend among our community members who are drifting away from our cultural identity markers, adopting foreign ways of dressing, diminishing the use of the Kreung language, and abandoning our traditions.

In our communities, the use of the Khmer language has become prevalent. It’s concerning that many of us feel a sense of shame in speaking the Kreung language, particularly in public settings. This is a matter worthy of introspection. There is no justifiable reason to feel embarrassed about using our own ancestral tongue. One contributing factor could be the influx of non-Kreung individuals settling near our villages.

To counter this, proactive measures are essential, such as the creation of Kreung language books. Fortunately, there are online resources available, including artists who perform songs in Kreung. These efforts are crucial as they aid in the preservation of our language. It is imperative that we convene our community, especially the elders, to impart traditions, educate the youth in our language, and foster a sense of pride in our Kreung heritage.

We enlist as our main problems as Kreung communities the following ones:

  1. Destruction of the environment and loss of natural resources.
  2. The obsession with materialism, especially from our young people.
  3. The drastic change of our traditional lifestyle, while getting away from a rural life. Now families are hiring others to work in their own agriculture and we are buying more and more from markets. 
  4. Our children are attending schools where they have to speak and learn only in the Khmer language, forgetting our own language. 
  5. Our elderly are left behind in health care.

The prevailing notion of development is paradoxically leading to the degradation of nature, placing our wildlife in jeopardy of extinction. The wild animals, once familiar to our communities, are now becoming scarce and unfamiliar to our children due to their displacement from our villages amidst rampant deforestation.

- Newsletter -

Witnessing the relentless felling of trees by those who disregard our pleas leaves us feeling both dismayed and powerless. Such individuals show apathy towards our communities and the wildlife, driven solely by their personal gains. Their actions are not only selfish but also display a profound ignorance. Our traditions hold the forest in high esteem, revering it as the dwelling of spirits and our ancestors. Yet, these sacred spaces are being desecrated, with venerable trees that we hold dear being callously cut down.

We see the urgent need to establish the boundaries of our ancestral territories and to protect them from these situations, to reclaim our community properties, and to disseminate education among many people on the need to protect our forests. 

Our ancestral religion is what they call “animism” and it has to do with the belief of spirits and dreams. Our spiritual traditions have to be seen also with ceremonies that include the sacrifice of animals and they are led by Cha Thom, who is the elder in charge of transmitting those traditions to the new generations. The Cha Thom can be a man or a woman because, for us, both genders have the same dignity and respect in our traditions. Any man or woman can get knowledge and wisdom, by learning how to deal with the spiritual forces of our beliefs in the way of our own ancestors. Any person willing to learn that can start the process of training, studying, and getting ready to know the forces of nature. 

We need to promote our identities, especially now that many young Kreung people are migrating to the cities and it puts a big challenge to our traditions. In our villages we are near to nature and to the spirits and ancestors. But when you transfer to the cities, where is all that? In the cities we see a lack of cooperation, nobody takes responsibility and people are indifferent to the needs of the tribe or village and, even worse, they become indifferent to our ancestors. For this reason, when a young Kreung migrates to the cities for study or work, the elders or the Cha Thom give them a little piece of our ancestors’ land, as a way to keep in touch with our spirits, with our territory, with our ancestors. A Kreung person far away from home, should not forget who they are. 

For us, the forest is sacred, it is the purifier of air and it is our direct contact with Mother Earth. It is the source of animals and plants, the source of life, the provider of water. Cambodia has very well-written laws for the protection of the environment, so we all just have to respect those legal rules. Forests and wild animals should be preserved at any cost. We call on people to stop the destruction and contamination of forests and water sources, because they are also the space of natural medicine. Money will not be important or useful to anybody if we lose the environment. It is the environment, the real gain, the authentic richness, the authentic pharmacy, and the authentic food basket. We, aboriginal peoples, have the knowledge about natural medicine and we have some knowledge that we can share with others, but they have to respect our forests. 

Our spirituality is very ancient and it has to do with very old traditions. We believe in the visions of our dreams when we sleep. Through dreams, we receive revelations. It is important to our lineage of aboriginal inheritance. But we are worried because we see how many elders are not teaching our ancient traditions to the young generations. For us, the elder is the spiritual leader of our village. The elders of a village, a man or a woman, are the main contact with the ancestors and their knowledge. For us, men and women have the same dignity, respect, and knowledge. Any person can become wiser if they have a strong memory and if they are practical in the situations of the community, with wise common sense. 

We are tolerant of everybody who wants to follow another religion, but we are also worried that those who follow our own ancestral beliefs are becoming a minority among us. It is important that our people do not forget old traditions, the spirit world, and the dreams, otherwise, we will lose our identity as a people. Everybody’s free to migrate to the cities, but we have to get an agreement on how we can preserve our identities inside a city and who will stay to protect our ancestral lands. Aboriginal people who settled in cities lost very often their own identities, traditions, and cultures and their contact with their origins and it is like being dead. People who abandon or forget their own aboriginal identities do not cooperate with others, they do not show responsibility inside the community, they change their mindset, thinking more in themselves, and they are indifferent to the environment (to the forests.)

How is it possible that somebody cannot understand that forests are the source of life? For example, the forests clean the oxygen we breathe. In this crisis of climate change, forests are part of the solution. They can reduce global warming. The forests are the main source of food for all humanity and for water. 

We recommend to all peoples in the world and in Cambodia to put environmental protection as a priority. Once more, in the laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia, it is clearly stated the prohibition to hunt wild animals and deforestation. The laws are written, so it is just to respect them. There are also instructions for the reduction and even suspension of the use of toxic substances that would fall into water sources. All those indications are concrete steps to preserve the forests, to preserve water, and to preserve natural medicine. You do not need to spend a lot of funds on it. How much money do you need to just stop cutting trees? But when you cut trees, you put in danger the public health of your own people and it is very expensive for your society and for the planet. 

We, the Kreung people, need more education, more schools, and more materials to guarantee that our children and young people get their rights to education. There are villages where children have to travel very far away to study and many other villages where it is impossible. It is important to improve access to health services as well. If government departments, NGOs, and other groups want to support our Kreung villages, we think it is in education of our children and youth, the improvement of water systems, health services, road access improvement, and access to technologies like the Internet.  

Written by representatives of the Kreung 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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