There are ethnic minority groups throughout Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and parts of southeastern China. In Cambodia they live primarily in remote highland villages and are usually known as the chunchiet (literally “nationality”) or the Khmer Loeu (“upland Khmer”). It is estimated that the chunchiet make up just one percent of Cambodia’s population, but in the provinces of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri the chunchiet have always been the majority, though the balance is changing with an influx of Khmer from the rest of the country. Small communities of chunchiet also inhabit parts of Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, and a few live in the mountains of southwest Cambodia, near Koh Kong.

Darker-skinned than the Khmer and particularly small in stature, the chunchiet, along with the Khmer, are regarded as indigenous inhabitants of the country. There are more than thirty distinct chunchiet tribes, ranging from comparatively large groups like the Tampoun, Kreung-Brou, Jarai, Stieng and Phnong, all of which number in the thousands, to much smaller tribes, such as the Kavat, Lun, Peahr and Meul, which are believed to number fewer than a hundred each. Every group has its own distinct language, each with several dialects, which has historically made it hard for them to communicate with Khmers or even among themselves; additionally, none of the chunchiet tongues has a written form. Particular tribes can’t usually be distinguished by their clothing, as traditional garments are now used only on ceremonial occasions (the rest of the time the women wear blouses and sarongs, the men T-shirts and trousers), though for the observant they do have subtly different features.

Animism and ancestor worship are central to the chunchiet belief system, with rivers, lakes, rocks and trees regarded as sacred; the Jarai, for instance, place carved images near graves to protect the deceased and to keep them company. In general, however, little is known about chunchiet rituals and ceremonies, as even these days, strangers are normally excluded.

Repeated attempts have been made to bring the chunchiet round to the Khmer way of life and, unfortunately, their traditional way of life is nearly extinct. Since 2001 tribal lands have been sold, sometimes by village headmen, to savvy Khmer who have cleared the land for farms. The consequence for the chunchiet is that the forest on which they relied for their livelihood has been destroyed, making it impossible for them to continue with traditional ways of farming or foraging.

Learning Khmer in school has increased the number of chunchiet able to communicate outside their own communities, leading to a more materialistic “Khmer” way of life. In the long term it’s hard to see how they can survive as individual tribes.