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Voicing Concerns over Potential Loss of Bunong Language and Traditions in Cambodia

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Sylvain Vogel
Dr. Sylvain Vogel, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language. VOA
  • Vogel’s first book about the language translated Bunong grammar into the international phonetic alphabet
  • Lorang thinks that having the Bunong language and culture documented in a written and published form can help prevent it from disappearing
  • Vogel has spent most of the past 25 years studying, researching and teaching, and helping anchor the fledgling rebirth of a culture of scholarship in this Southeast Asian country

US, June 18, 2017: Sylvain Vogel, a native of France, grew up in Alsace-Lorraine speaking French and German. Since then, he’s acquired fluency in English, Portuguese, Farsi, Pashto and Khmer, the language spoken by the majority of people in his adopted country, Cambodia.

Vogel has spent most of the past 25 years studying, researching and teaching, and helping anchor the fledgling rebirth of a culture of scholarship in this Southeast Asian country following the repressive and anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge rule of the 1970s.

A professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, he teaches — no surprise — linguistics and Sanskrit, which is closely related to Khmer.

Dr. Sylvain Vogel is talking to Bunong people in Mondulkiri. VOA

Passion project

Outside the classroom, he has pursued a passion project — documenting Bunong — since the mid-1990s. A largely unwritten language, it is spoken by members of the Bunong ethnic group, who live in Cambodia’s sparsely populated Mondulkiri province, a place of mystical beauty under threat from modernization and encroachment by the Khmer population and foreign investment.

Earlier this year, Vogel’s scholarship and independent research received a boost when it was recognized by the Fainting Robin Foundation. The U.S. organization supports independent scholars and announced in March that Vogel would be the first recipient of its “distinguished scholar” award.

Most of Vogel’s research over the years about the Bunong language and people was carried out at his own expense, said Peter Maguire, chairman of the Fainting Robin Foundation.

“It was a project that took close to 20 years, with no outside support, with no support or minimal support,” said Maguire, an author and historian who set up the foundation in Wilmington, North Carolina.

“He [Vogel] is a resource that is very important to Cambodia,’’ said Chan Somnoble, one of Vogel’s first Cambodian students, who earned a Ph.D. in linguistics in 2002 from Université Paris Nanterre and is now the deputy director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and head of the prestigious National Council for Khmer Language.

Dr. Chan Somnoble, deputy President of the Royal Academy of Cambodia and head of National Council for Khmer Language. VOA

First meeting, fluency

Vogel first met members of the indigenous Bunong community in 1994. He became intrigued by the unwritten language and the Bunong’s rich folklore, which was passed orally from generation to generation.

“I knew Bunong is in the family of Mon-Khmer languages,’’ Vogel told VOA Khmer. “As a linguist, I had to learn Bunong to compare Khmer and Bunong.’’

So, Vogel being Vogel, did just that. He gradually immersed himself in the Bunong community and its distinct way of life, staying in remote villages for days and then weeks at a time.

Fluency in yet another language came as he deepened his relationship with the Bunong, and over the years, Vogel found their way of living among the rolling, jungle hills changing.

A governing system centered on village chiefs and local elders gave way to administrative officers and provincial officials. Bunong children were encouraged to attend schools where they spoke in Khmer, learned about computers and studied English.

Dr. Sylvain Vogel, left, professor of Sanskrit and linguistics at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and independent researcher on Bunong language.VOA

What losing a language means

Vogel voiced his concerns over the potential loss of the Bunong language and traditions.

“Bunong language is not used much, the society is changing a lot, so I am afraid that Bunong language will disappear,” Vogel said.

Becky Butler of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who wrote her dissertation while at Cornell University on Bunong, agrees with Vogel’s assessment.

“The Ethnologue says it’s developing. UNESCO says it’s severely endangered,” Butler told VOA Khmer. “So I’d put it probably at vulnerable.” She estimates there are about 75,000 Bunong speakers in Cambodia, Vietnam and the United States.

Vogel’s first book about the language translated Bunong grammar into the international phonetic alphabet. It was published in 2006 in French. Vogel has written two other books about the grammar and aspects of oral literature, such as epics, songs and chants, and one book about Bunong culture.

“I think that is tremendously important … because he’s recording the sort of oral tradition, which speaks a lot to who people in the community are and what they believe in their history, and how they see themselves in another perspective on life that might otherwise be lost especially as the older generations pass away,” Butler said.

Bunong minority children in a remote village, Krang Tes, in Pech Chreada district, which located near the protected forest in Mondulkiri province on March 10th, 2015.VOA

Yun Lorang is a native Bunong and he also worries that his language is deteriorating.

“I am quite worried because language is related to identity,” Lorang, secretariat coordinator of Cambodia Indigenous People Alliance, told VOA Khmer. “In a crowd, they [Bunong people] rarely speak Bunong, they speak Khmer.”

Lorang thinks that having the Bunong language and culture documented in a written and published form can help prevent it from disappearing.

“History is very important for us to recover our own spirit, values and identities,” said Lorang, who lives in Sen Monorom town, the capital of Mondulkiri province.

“The idea of any language dying, I think is tragic,” Butler said. “Language is so intensively tied to who we are. People say that it determines how we see the world.

“I think we all lose something, some knowledge about the human conditions, some knowledge about why people think the way they do, and we lose some aspects of, I think, beauty in the world.”

A rare level of commitment

Maguire has known Vogel for years and spent some time with him in Mondulkiri province. He praised Vogel’s dedication to studying Bunong, a language that has received little attention from established researchers and academic institutions, Cambodian or international.

Vogel also teaches his Cambodian students Sanskrit and general linguistics rather than French because of historical ties between Khmer and the ancient language.

Vogel said not many Cambodian students wanted to study Sanskrit but that “even one” was enough “because more Sanskrit inscriptions may be discovered in the future’’ in Cambodia, he said. “If there are Khmer experts on Sanskrit, they can work with international researchers to translate Sanskrit inscriptions which belong to Cambodia.”

Vogel’s work as a Sanskrit and linguistics professor, whose instruction helped nurture respected Cambodian scholars such as Somnoble, is another reason the foundation recognized him, Maguire said.

“As long as I knew him, he taught linguistics five days a week, and he taught in Khmer,’’ Maguire said. “He didn’t teach in English. He didn’t teach in French. He made a huge effort to learn the language, to learn it well, to learn it grammatically correct, and to learn how to read it and write it. That’s a level of commitment very few scholars have.’’ (VOA)

  • Eve Robertson

    Lovely article! Quick correction though: Sanskrit and Khmer aren’t even remotely related to one another, as the article states in the introduction. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, and Bunong is a Mon-Khmer language. Khmer has borrowed many words from Sanskrit over the years but the two aren’t related to one another as far as anyone can tell; if there is a relationship at all between them, it is so distant in history that it is completely undetectable to historical linguists.

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  • Eve Robertson

    Lovely article! Quick correction though: Sanskrit and Khmer aren’t even remotely related to one another, as the article states in the introduction. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, and Bunong is a Mon-Khmer language. Khmer has borrowed many words from Sanskrit over the years but the two aren’t related to one another as far as anyone can tell; if there is a relationship at all between them, it is so distant in history that it is completely undetectable to historical linguists.

Next Story

“We Got in Line And Handed Them The Money,”Cambodian Migrants Heading Home for the Holidays

If we didn’t have any money they would not have allowed us to return [to Cambodia,]

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On April 9, Cambodian migrants trying to return home for Khmer New Year wait at a checkpoint at the Thai-Cambodian border. RFA

Thousands of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand have flocked to the border along Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces to return home for the Khmer New Year holiday. But many of the migrants say that before being allowed to return to Cambodia, they had to bribe both Thai and Cambodian border police.

The three-day holiday, running from Apr. 14-16, is the most important holiday in the country, and it is customary for Cambodians to return to their hometowns.

“We workers are not educated and we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to return. We didn’t want any problems, so we just paid the officials,” said migrant worker Heng Chanhieng, in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday.

He said that when he was trying to cross through the border checkpoint in Battambag’s Kamrieng district he was asked to pay the equivalent of $6 to the Thai police and $3 to the Cambodian police, adding that nobody even dared to protest against the officials demanding the unofficial payments.

money
We know that thousands of migrants work in Thailand. The government should have a policy to help them get through the border checkpoints faster without having to pay extra money, Pixabay

Another migrant, Lon Samnang, said he believes the Thai and Cambodian officers are in league with each other, colluding to extort the workers during the holiday season. He said that the officials demanded they put away their cellphones while collecting the money because they were afraid their pictures would be taken.

“If we didn’t have any money they would not have allowed us to return [to Cambodia,]” he said.

The migrant said he had to wait five hours before the police would even allow them to leave the border checkpoints.

Neth Phirum, meanwhile said police collected $10 from him during his return trip.

“We got in line and handed them the money,” he said, adding, “Nobody knows where that money went [or what it is for].”

Sok Kun, a Kamrieng immigration police officer denied that either the Thai or Cambodian police were taking bribes. He said the money was given to them voluntarily after the officials helped the migrants cross the border in an organized, timely manner.

“The money was their way of saying thanks,” he said.

The same situation was experienced by workers at the Poipet checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey’s Ou Chrov district.

Keo Soveacha said Wednesday that after he offered to pay a bribe, the Cambodian and Thai police split the proceeds.

“I wanted to speed up the process, so I said ‘I have $13,’” he said.

Dy Thehoya, a program officer for the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said he wants the government to stop the yearly extortion of the thousands of migrants returning home.

“We know that thousands of migrants work in Thailand. The government should have a policy to help them get through the border checkpoints faster without having to pay extra money,” he said.

dollars
He said that when he was trying to cross through the border checkpoint in Battambag’s Kamrieng district he was asked to pay the equivalent of $6 to the Thai police and $3 to the Cambodian police, adding that nobody even dared to protest against the officials demanding the unofficial payments. Pixabay

Heang Kimsoeun, a social worker, filed a complaint Thursday to Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit, asking them to investigate corruption along the border. The complaint said workers are made to pay $10-$11 to get through border checkpoints. He said that those responsible for the corruption should be brought to justice.

Also Read: Rakhine: Ban on Donations to Help War Refugees

“What are [the police] doing with that money? This is illegal,” he said.

RFA attempted to contact Thai officials for comment. The deputy immigration chief declined to answer any questions, whereas the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received questions but did not reply. (RFA)