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Land grabs drive Cambodian ethnic minorities to Christianity

High cost of ancient ceremonies also a factor in conversion

Land grabs drive Cambodian ethnic minorities to Christianity

Bunong worshippers attend a ceremony at Lumpuk Church in Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia (Abby Seiff)

Abby Seiff and Roeurn Heng, Mondulkiri

July 10, 2014

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As dozens of children sporting their Sunday best sped around the Lumpuk churchyard a group of women clad in traditional Bunong skirts led the congregation through a series of hymns. "Hallelujah," they extolled, in Khmer - a second language for most of the attendees. 

Across Mondulkiri Province, churches like this have seen surging membership in recent years. Lumpuk Church, which is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, is one of two evangelical churches in Bousra commune alone. Just down the street stands another popular church - that one Catholic.

"Before [10 years ago], maybe only 40 percent of Bousra believed in Christianity. Now there's a lot everywhere, every village has a church," said Nuon Truoy, Lumpuk's indefatigable pastor. "Now, about 75 percent of Bousra is Christian....A lot of Bunong people in this area want to be Christian because they have a lot of problems and want to pray to God to help them."

Cambodia's most populous indigenous minority, Bunong highlanders also make up the majority of Mondulkiri's population, numbering between 30,000 and 40,000.

Historically animist, Bunong have struggled in recent years as rampant land concessions and illegal logging have destroyed their traditional way of life. Spirit forests - sacred plots of land where family members are buried - have been razed to make way for rubber plantations, while the Bunong's ability to earn a livelihood has been decimated by the destruction of forests and fields.

To cope with such losses, tradition mandates elaborate ceremonies involving sacrifice of chickens, pigs and even buffaloes. But with access to food and forest products shrinking, such rituals are becoming rapidly untenable. Many Bunong, church officials included, admit financial realities have driven them to convert.

"All the people here have a lot of problems – they don't have money, they don't have animals for the ceremonies, so they become Christian," said Jan Kan, a teacher who helps manage Lumpuk church.

Outside the church, 30-year-old Neh Kim stands among a small group of fathers calming their young children. Like a number of younger congregants, he became Christian when his parents converted.

"I think my parents didn't want to be animist anymore. They were spending a lot of money on animals to make ceremonies, especially if someone died accidentally. You need to hold a lot of ceremonies and if you are poor, it's very difficult," said Kim.

That held true for Yer Rap, a young mother living in a nearby village who said she became Christian two years ago, shortly after the death of her son. The boy drowned – an accidental death that is believed to hold ominous connotations in Bunong culture. To ease the situation, Rap held two sacrificial ceremonies and burned down a traditional grass house. But her community insisted more effort was needed, and urged her to host two more sacrifices and destroy her large, wooden Khmer-style house. When Rap refused, she became a pariah.

"I became Christian because when my son died, I didn't have enough money to make the ceremonies," said Rap. "The people in the village stopped treating me like before....and then I wanted to start going to church.

"It's very different because when we get sick now, we just pray or go to the hospital – we don't need a traditional doctor, and don't need to make sacrifices for a ceremony, which is very expensive."

Though Christianity has grown more popular here in recent years, it is hardly a new entrant. Across Bousra's villages, older residents recall having converted decades earlier. Then, too, it was frequently destructive outside forces that pushed them away from their animist beliefs.

"I became Christian in 1973, because of the Khmer wars," said Mae Wer, an elderly Bunong woman who said she was unsure of her age but looked to be in her 60s. "Back then, we had a small village and kept very good Bunong culture. But then Khmers came and burned our houses. We needed to make a ceremony, but we weren't able to. [As a result] all of the souls - the house soul, the land soul, the rice soul - would have been angry with us and we could have died. So we became Christian."

While Cambodia's overall population is less than two percent Christian, according to US State Department estimates, indigenous minorities across the northeast highlands have far higher rates of conversion. According to the global evangelical database Joshua Project (which puts the total number of Christian Cambodians at three percent), more than eight percent of Bunong are Christian, 10 percent of Jarai, and 12 percent of Kraol. The disparity follows similar trends across the region.

"Where religion is concerned, while the highland ethnic minorities have been converting for a long time, it has generally not been to Buddhism but rather to one of the versions of Christianity," notes Robert L Winzeler, in his book Anthropology and Religion: what we know, think, and question.

Ian Baird, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has researched Christian conversion among the Brao ethnic minority in Ratanakkiri province, said it was not uncommon for minorities to shun the predominant religion when switching belief systems.

"It has been shown that many minority groups have adopted a different religion from the one practiced by the majority (i.e. Islam for minorities in the Philippines, Christianity for minorities in Thailand and Cambodia, etc). It is a way to indicate difference between minorities and the majority," he said via email.

But, he cautioned, "the issue can be quite complex".

Baird pointed out: "Sometimes Christian missionaries give benefits to minorities that join their religion."

The tendency toward Christian conversion has at times put ethnic minorities into direct conflict with the majority government. The starkest instance in recent history played out just across the border from Bousra, in Vietnam's central highlands, where crackdowns on Christian Montagnards sent thousands fleeing into Cambodia in the early 2000s. After Montangnards launched marches during Easter 2004 calling for religious freedom, and return of stolen land, Vietnamese authorities killed and beat unconscious a number of protesters, according to Human Rights Watch, before carrying out mass arrests.

For those who managed to make it to the border, the situation was little improved. Hundreds were forcibly, at times violently, repatriated to Vietnam, with senior Cambodian officials at one point defending border closures as necessary to prevent an influx of Christianity.

"[We can't] allow them to use our territory to become a place of Christianity," the Cambodia Daily reported Meas Sophea, the then-Deputy Commander in Chief of the armed forces, as saying in January 2005.

In Bousra, however, many residents would be happy to see just that. Kreung Tola, a community volunteer for the government, said Christianity had caught on among villagers tired of feeling hopeless.

"I became Christian because they could give me a very good education," he said. "It's become popular because they teach people to take care of their health, to stop smoking, to stop drinking – it makes them better people."

That education, in turn, could well help improve the lot of Bunong in Mondulkiri, said Tola.

"If we have a problem with our land, no, I don't think God can help, but the law can help if we are educated about it," he said.

Strapped across his chest, Tola's infant son dozed in a decidedly modern baby carrier. His outfit was a jumper made out of traditional hand-woven textiles. Asked the baby's name, Tola smiled: "Samuel."

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