Indigenous People speak up at VOICES, Cambodia

The Social Communication team of the Cambodia Salesian delegation of the province of Thailand organized a two-day innovative programme “VOICES” at Don Bosco Kep (a technical school and children center at the southeast seacoast of Cambodia), on the 27 and 28 of January with the participation of representatives from 8 indigenous groups.

 As a continuation of the second version of the “Voices” programme launched at Hua Hin, Thailand in September 2023, Fr Albeiro Rodas and Mr Bonny Seun, a Don Bosco Kep past pupil and a young indigenous Jarai leader, designed the third edition of Voices extending invitation to different indigenous groups of Cambodia, mainly in the northern province of Ratanakiri, and also in other provinces like Oddar Menchey, the ancestral land of the Kuy people to come and express themselves.

 The event began with the inauguration in front of the symbolic Becchi house, with the introductory words of Fr Albeiro Rodas, the director followed by inaugural message of Fr. Harris Pakkam, from the Social Communication Sector, Rome. This was followed by the traditional blessing by all the elders of the eight groups, who prayed together to the spirits to bless the place and the two days programme.

 The meeting took place in the Sala Rong of Brother Jaguar which had the images of traditional indigenous figures and designs, slogans and quotes of the indigenous people, displayed in the background. After a short self-introduction by all the participants, the dynamics of the programme was explained, namely discussions in each indigenous group followed by sharing in the assembly. The indigenous people shared about their identity, language, traditions, spirituality, territory and problems. With their traditional customs, a young person and the Cha Thom or elder, explained to the others those topics, adding stories, their problems, proposals of solutions and their cries for help.

 The online greeting of Fr Gildasio Mendes, the General Councillor for Social Communication to the whole assembly and his interaction created a great enthusiasm and gratitude among the indigenous people, who felt that the Salesian Congregation was at the side of the indigenous peoples. Day one concluded with the cultural night and ancestral traditional music and dances perfomed by the students of various indigenous groups.                                                                     

 Day two also witnessed a very passionate sharing on the part of the indigenous people, who voiced out their concerns on the challenges they face and the hopes and aspirations for their future. In the afternoon, all the participants left for a visit to the Bokor National Park Mountain, a sacred place for the Cambodians. On the Bokor Mountain, all the participants gathered inside a hundred years old abandoned Catholic Church, for a moment of prayer. This was followed by  a short ceremony of commitment led by Fr Rodas and Fr Pakkam, wherein all symbolically expressed their commitment to protect and defend their indigenous rights and traditions and share the knowledge to the rest of the world.

 The concluding ceremony of “Voices” took place around the joyful camp fire on the evening of day two, under the full moon, wherein all the eight Cambodian indigenous groups represented by an elder and a young person, shared their impressions and the impact of Voices programme. The elders expressed a great sense of gratitude for the awareness that this programme had created, to express themselves and also to know about the situation of the other indigenous groups. They also suggested that all the discussions and sharing of “Voices Cambodia” be documented and published in the form of a book in the Khmer and English language.

 One elder of the Lun indigenous group with fewer population in Ratanakiri province remarked, "I am grateful for this invitation to participate. It is the first time that I met members of other indigenous groups and I found not only so many similarities in our traditions, but also in our problems and challenges."

 Another young person from the indigenous group remarked, “Voices has provided us platform to unite ourselves, to protect ourselves and voice out our concerns. We will do everything to document our patrimony and share our traditions to the rest of the world”.

 Speaking about the outcome of the Voices programme, Fr. Albeiro Rodas remarked, “I am glad that Don Bosco Kep can take a lead to unite, accompany and lead the indigenous groups of Cambodia. This year we had representatives just from eight groups and the next year I hope we will have representatives from the other existing groups”.

 Mr Bonny Seun, the young indigenous leader from the Jarai group who coordinated the whole event remarked, “This is a historic event for the indigenous people, as it is the first time they have come together under this Voices platform to participate, speak and discuss. I hope that there will be lot of awareness created about the situation and plight of the indigenous people who also have a dream and a future”.

 The event was also attended by Mark Saludes, a journalist from the Bangkok-based news agency Licas, and also by several students studying at Don Bosco Kep, belonging to various indigenous groups.