Cambodia’s chunchiet (literally “nationality”) or Khmer Loeu (“upland Khmer”) are one of the ethnic minority groups found scattered throughout the hinterlands of Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and parts of southeastern China. The chunchiet live primarily in the remote villages of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces, although small communities also inhabit parts of Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, and a few live in the mountains of southwest Cambodia, near Koh Kong. It’s estimated that the chunchiet make up one percent of Cambodia’s population, although in the highlands of the east and northeast they have always been the majority, at least until the recent influx of Khmer from the rest of the country.
The chunchiet, like the Khmer, are regarded as indigenous inhabitants of the country. Smaller in stature and darker-skinned than the Khmer, they divide into more than thirty distinct tribes, ranging from comparatively large groups such as the Tampoun, Kreung-Brou, Jarai, Stieng and Phnong, all of which number in the thousands, to much smaller tribes, including the Kavat, Lun, Peahr and Meul, which are believed to number fewer than a hundred each. Every group has its own language, each with several dialects; additionally, none of the chunchiet tongues has a written form. Traditional garments are used only on ceremonial occasions, from which strangers are normally excluded. Indeed, relatively little is known about chunchiet rituals and ceremonies, though it is known that animism and ancestor worship are central to the chunchiet belief system.
Unfortunately, the traditional way of life is now nearly extinct. Repeated attempts have been made to bring the tribes round to the Khmer way of life. The French recruited them to work in the rubber plantations and on road-building projects, while the Sihanouk government tried to restrict them to farming fixed plots. In the mid-1960s, government troops seeking the guerrilla Khmer Rouge – who had fled to the jungles of Rattanakiri – burned down chunchiet villages. Indeed, bombed by the US in the early 1970s and continually harassed by Lon Nol soldiers, the chunchiet were ripe for recruitment by the Khmer Rouge, although those who did join them were most likely siding with them against a common enemy rather than sharing their ideology.
Today, in theory, chunchiet lands are state-owned and cannot be sold to private Cambodians, but since 2001 tribal lands have been sold, sometimes by village headmen, to savvy Khmer who have cleared the land for farms. Latterly, the government has allowed economic land concessions (ELCs), which permit ground to be cleared for plantations. According to Cambodian law, ELCs can only be used to clear non-forested land, but regardless of this, vast swathes of forest have now been cleared to make way for plantations of rubber and cashew; according to a report by Global Witness (see Illegal logging) this is a way of flouting the rules regarding illegal logging. The consequence for the chunchiet is that the forest on which they have long relied for their livelihood has been largely destroyed. Appeals for the return of their land has been to no avail. Some still manage to eke a living out of the land, others have found work locally in tourism, while some have been forced to abandon their traditional way of life entirely.
Although many villagers have become accustomed to foreign visitors, they remain shy and modest – some may even see your presence as voyeuristic, so it’s always better to visit in the company of a local guide. It’s also worth noting that the chunchiet do not like having their pictures taken and are embarrassed by shows of public affection and by exposed flesh (bare legs, arms and so on).