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Young Cambodian Indigenous Leader Looks to the Future with Hope and Confidence

I met Sochea Pheap for the first time this year at the Project Access 2013 Tribal Link Foundation training, at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).

As I checked into my Hotel Room a studious young Cambodian Man let me in, I knew he would have to be one of my room-mates so I gave him a hug and said "Pleasure to meet you, brother", we introduced ourselves and I recognised his name immediately and said "Hey - you are that guy that I get list serve e-mails from on the Asia Youth Caucus all the time - for YEARS now" - and we both laughed.

Life back in his homeland of Cambodia is no laughing matter for him or any of the 24 Indigenous Tribal Nations that try to live there; however; and with only 1.3% of Cambodia's 15 million National Population - they too are more often than not sacrificed in the name of 'National Development'.....another case of 'progress' at the expense of indigenous peoples rights to life, liberty - and the pursuit of happiness.

First, let me introduce you to this proud indigenous young gentleman and proud father of his first child - a beautiful baby girl he named (in the TRUE spirit of global Indigenous solidarity) 'Kuna Ya' - after his visit to the Kuna Tribal Lands in Panama; Central America.

Sochea Pheap is the 29 year old President of the Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association, and proud member of the Bunong Tribal Nation of North Eastern Cambodia; the traditional lands of his people also extend into the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The Bunong people number about 40,000 in Cambodia and 60,000 in Vietnam, and most of their lands and territories are jungle covered mountainous terrain.

Now - a brief history lesson: King Norodom of Cambodia (who's reign ended in 1904), had recognised the autonomy of the Bunong and their traditional territory, however; since then successive governments established in Cambodia by various invading neighbours, Colonial powers and ideological opportunists both from the East and West; the autonomy of the indigenous peoples of Cambodia has been as elusive as a shadow on a moonless night.

I wish you the reader to focus on the most infamous Cambodian of all - Saloth Sar (better known as 'Pol Pot'), few outside of Cambodia...I daresay few outside of the Indigenous Tribal Nations of Cambodia...know the truth of this man. You see, 'Pol Pot' actually fled from arrest from the lowlands of Cambodia where he had no support among the tribes there, to the highland tribes who offered him the same hospitality most indigenous peoples offer to ANY stranger seeking refuge. Pol Pot lived among the Bunong People for over two years and most of his initial recruits into his re-organising rebel army were young men from the highland tribes (though not the Bunong specifically), Pol Pot was greatly impressed with the agrarian and communal culture he experienced in the highlands, where generosity was paramount; and he mistakenly assumed that he could FORCE the urban peoples of Cambodia to ALL live like the humble and honest indigenous peoples who saved his life in his own time of need. Alas, the whole world found out the hard way - and the Cambodian people hardest of all - that such a radical social experiment will always be doomed to failure...mankind is a product of free will and none can change this. Even those born into an indigenous society CHOOSE to honour their ancestors, their culture, and their indigenous identity - by living the indigenous life out of LOVE and RESPECT for it and each other...not because anyone forces them to. The fact is that 50% of the victims of Cambodia's holocaust starved to death due to this 'agrarian slavery', but the other 50% died due to a demented state of paranoia that Pol Pot inserted into this 'human experiment' - which saw relatives murdering each other out of insane distrust (if you wore glasses it meant you were western educated and that meant that you were not a supporter of the social engineering so you must therefore be a traitor deserving of death...yes, it WAS that incredible!).

To add insult to injury, the long term detrimental effects of Pol Pot's 'noble inspired but ultimately evil in application' deed has been that to this day, when Indigenous Cambodians seek to recover their pre-Pol Pot autonomy to live in their humble agrarian way un-molested and in the security of their Internationally recognised and enshrined rights; the government officials in Cambodia basically tell them "Oh - you want to return to the Pol Pot era - and we will never allow that to occur again'...utterly failing to understand the intricacies of that dark period in history and the disassociation of the indigenous Cambodians from any culpability in what regrettably transpired.

To their credit, the government of Cambodia HAS ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and have passed several laws that do theoretically recognise indigenous land rights etc...BUT - they have created a burdensome and intricate wall of bureaucratic red tape as the 'qualification' process that would make the United Nations itself stand in awe. You see, in order to obtain land rights as an indigenous people or community in Cambodia one must successfully 'convince' three different government entities that you are indeed an 'indigenous people or community', it is little wonder then - that out of hundreds of applicants only 5 have ever been granted land titles. Once again, these 'commendable efforts by a progressive (appearing) government' have proven to be nothing more than 'cosmetic solutions' by another Neo-Colonial assimilationist regime continuing the ignoble work that began with the Doctrine of Discovery over 500 years ago - and has NEVER ceased to this day.

Deforestation is also a serious problem for the indigenous Peoples of Cambodia, due to the law known as 'Directive 01BB' - that was created purely from the mould of un-bridled capitalism; timber concessions for forests on indigenous lands are being sold by the Cambodian government - because the indigenous can rarely ever succeed in 'proving' that they are indigenous - and therefore those wonderful sounding legal protections for indigenous peoples that are gathering dust on the Cambodian legal books cannot be applied....much to the 'disappointment' of a 'truly caring and progressive government' obviously.

It doesn't stop there however, illegal settlers on indigenous lands continue to arrive with crisp new 'land titles' from the Cambodian government (because the indigenous inhabitants never 'proved' their Internationally legally recognised Inherent and undeniable Rights - according to the convoluted National Laws of Cambodia); furthermore - Mega Dams are being planned - and these too will destroy indigenous Cambodian peoples and cultures in the name of 'National Development and Progress' ...but I ask you...is it really 'progress' when financial concerns take precedent over the lives of human beings? Is this what we call 'civilisation'?

No 'National Development' in Cambodia is ever genuinely the result of obtaining any sincere 'Free, Prior and Informed Consent' (which is MANDATORY under International Human Rights Laws concerning Indigenous Peoples), like several Neo-Colonial countries of this world 'consultation' is mistaken for being synonymous with 'consent'....when in truth and in fact 'consultation' is a process and 'consent' is a right under International Legal interpretation...and this is something ALL indigenous peoples the world over should commit to memory and use in negotiations with States who still exercise an illegal de-facto rule over us in OUR own lands. If it was not so sad - it would be comical, but in Cambodia in the minds of government officials, if they hold a public meeting about a 'National Development' project, everyone who sat in the audience (even if they said nothing or verbally objected) 'has consented' to the project (merely by being present). One dares not stand to object in these kinds of staged publicity stunts either, or one will likely be angrily shouted down (and possibly removed from the room by security) by the government officials on stage who will say without shame "The Prime Minister has approved this project - how DARE you oppose it!".

Despite this, dear reader, do not be disheartened, one cannot reach the summit without overcoming the mountain...no matter how long or how hard the uphill climb may be. I have met Sochea, I have peered into his soul in a way perhaps he himself did not discern, and I have every confidence that he...like many other priceless human gems that the Tribal Link Foundation finds all over the world... and brings here to New York to be fully trained and immersed in the Project Access Global Capacity Building course, and in the United Nations system; and whom I have seen leave with a degree of confidence and knowledge in how the world REALLY works - that I honestly do not think they can obtain anywhere else on Earth today....and with this priceless insight and hands-on experience from the very best of teachers - they return home and become force multipliers for the many who cannot be here. The beauty of the Project Access training lies not only in the aforementioned, but in the hearts and minds of the genuine human beings who make it all possible, the donors, the organisers, the trainers, the FRIENDS FOR LIFE you inevitably make here...for such as these are who make great and positive changes possible in this world of ever encroaching darkness....yet as long as a light such as Project Access shall continue to shine...the darkness shall not overcome us.

Damon Gerard Corrie
 
Founder & President of the Pan-Tribal Confederacy of Indigenous Tribal Nations, Co-Founder and President of the registered non-profit Caribbean Amerindian Development Organisation (CADO) - which was itself created as a direct result of 2012 Project Access Training - the motto of which is "Dedicated to the Preservation and Promotion of Amerindian Cultural Heritage, and the Hemispheric National Implementation of Internationally recognised Rights of Indigenous Peoples" He is also the CARICOM Commissioner on the Indigenous Commission for Communication Technologies in the Americas (ICCTA), a member of the Working Group on the American Draft Declaration with the Organisation of American States (OAS) since 2000; and a registered participant of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) since 2008, and Chief of the Barbados chapter of the United Confederation of Taino People (UCTP).

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