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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
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  • 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)

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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.

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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

Foreign Journalists Quit as The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia, Fired The Top Editor

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

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Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.
Foreign Journalists Quit in protest at The Phnom Penh Post, VOA

All but a handful of foreign journalists on staff at The Phnom Penh Post, Cambodia’s last remaining independent daily newspaper, resigned on Wednesday. Citing differences over the meaning of “editorial independence,” they quit within days after new owners fired its editor-in-chief who refused to remove a published article from the website linking the new owner of the paper to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The resignations mean only a few foreign journalists in the newsroom when the paper was sold remain with the Post. The English-language newspaper, which had employed Cambodian and foreign journalists since its founding in 1992, was known for a feisty voice often critical of the government and well-connected economic interests.

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.

Sivakumar’s public relations firm lists Hun Sen as a client. Sivakumar has not responded to requests for comment from Voice of America, which has tried to reach him since the sale of the Post was announced Sunday. Sivakumar issued a statement dated May 6 refuting links to Hun Sen, calling the reporting “totally untrue and cannot be concluded based on what took place between the PR firm and the client more than 25 years ago.”

Fears of crackdown

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner.

“I doubt the Post will continue to be the fearlessly independent press it has been for 26 years,” Erin Handley, a former Post reporter told the VOA Khmer Service in an email exchange. “My resignation is a decision I did not take lightly, but on an emotional level it feels like I am betraying my Khmer colleagues, who I am so incredibly proud of.”

The sale of the Post and the subsequent upheaval comes amid concerns over the government’s crackdown on the press and critics in the run up to a general election set for July 29. Hun Sen and his party are expected to win, having dissolved the main opposition party in November.

The Post had come under pressure in recent months following the closure of its rival English-language daily, The Cambodia Daily, which was hit with a hefty tax bill. The Post was also handed a tax bill to the tune of $3.9 million, which was settled ahead of the sale, according to a statement from Clough.

Son Chhay, a former MP with the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said that the closure of the Daily and the sale of the Post, coupled with the quieting of numerous radio stations that broadcast critical coverage of the Hun Sen regime, had stifled debate ahead of the July general election.

“If The Phnom Penh Post, which we always thought of as a newspaper offering publication without fear or favor, was sold to serve political interests, I think it’s a big regret and it will cause criticism of the media landscape in Cambodia,” he said.

The journalists resigned after staging a walkout and meeting with representatives of the new owner
Kay Kimsong, editor-in-chief of the Phnom Penh Post, VOA

Press freedom, timing of sale

In its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded the crackdown on media freedom in Cambodia, which fell 10 places and is now ranked 142 out of 180 countries.

“From the outside looking in, the most troubling thing is the timing of the tax bill’s settlement and the Post’s subsequent sale. The odds of them not being connected seem incredibly remote,” the paper’s former editor-in-chief, Chad Williams, told Reuters Sunday.

“That’s troubling because it suggests the Cambodian government may have used the threat of a shutdown to essentially coerce the sale,” Williams said.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), rejected the allegations of government influence in the sale.

“It’s a selling and buying. They made a bilateral contact. The government didn’t interfere with this,” he said.

‘My trade is journalism’

Kay Kimsong, the editor-in-chief of the English and Khmer-language editions, was fired Monday after representatives of the new owner ordered senior staff to remove the article on the paper’s sale from its website.

He refused.

Five senior staff members resigned in protest that day, as did CEO Marcus Holmes. More than 20 staff members signed a statement that expressed “disgust” at Kimsong’s dismissal, and many staffers walked out.

A lawyer for Sivakumar, identified by the Post on Tuesday as Ly Tayseng, a Cambodian, said the new editor-in-chief, identified as Joshua Purushotman, would vet articles in future editions. According to LinkedIn, Purushotman spent a decade working in PR.

The Post reported Tayseng said that the article on the sale was ordered removed because it “damaged our reputation” and declined to discuss the alleged inaccuracies in detail.

“According to the new owner, he thinks that I have made a huge mistake,” Kimsong said. “They think the article should not have been published.”

“My trade is journalism and I don’t know what else to do,” he told VOA Khmer. “There are two options — one is that if I can’t go back to newspapers, I will just sell fried noodles.”

The journalists’ move came after the sale of the Post by Australian mining businessman Bill Clough to Malaysian public relations executive Sivakumar S. Ganapathy.
Phnom Penh Post’s office, VOA

Loss of independence

In a staff meeting, Tayseng and Purushotman said Kimsong’s firing was a money-saving business move as the new owners had hired a new top editor, and only wanted to pay one, according to the Post’s own story.

Chhay Channyda, chief of staff at the Post, said she was concerned by the possible loss of independence under the new management.

“This is what we worry about because on the first day when there is a new boss or new company, they came to ask us to remove an article that we wrote,” she said.

Yon Sineat, a reporter, said she saw the takeover as a “serious threat to press freedom.”

“We are concerned that we will not be able to fully practice our journalism or write to reflect the truth,” she said.

Tipping point

For many of the foreign journalists, the tipping point was when “the article, which outlined our new publisher’s company’s previous business and government connections, was taken down, and despite our protests, it didn’t seem like it would go back up,” Handley, the former Post reporter told the VOA. “That appeared to be a breach of our editorial independence and … (it) became increasingly clear that the editorial staff and the new management had irreconcilable ideas about what editorial independence’ entails.”

Handley told VOA that while “I can’t speak for my Khmer colleagues, only my own impressions, but I think there was despair and hopelessness in the newsroom, and perhaps a sense of resignation or inevitability.”

Handley said the foreign and Cambodian journalists supported each other.

“There are few stories non-Cambodians could report solo — we rely on them and they are key,” she wrote. “So I don’t pretend arrogance — the loss of non-Cambodian staff sends a message, but it is important to bear in mind that non-Cambodian reporters can afford to be a lot more cavalier. However, the resignation of all foreign news staff sends the message that there are consequences for trying to undermine the intelligent, in depth and independent ethos of our masthead.”

In the run-up to the July 29 national elections, Cambodia’s independent press is “in ruins,” according to Reporters Without Borders.

Also Read: To Protect Election Integrity, Google Suspends Ireland’s Abortion Referendum Related Advertisement 

The 24-year-old Cambodia Daily published its last edition September 4 with the headline “Descent into Outright Dictatorship.” Days later, Radio Free Asia, which like the Voice of America is based in Washington and operates under the auspices of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, closed its Phnom Penh news bureau because of similar pressure over a tax bill.

Two former RFA reporters, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, were charged with espionage in another case in November. They were denied bail recently.

Aun Pheap, a veteran Cambodian journalist, has been granted refugee status by the United Nations’ refugee agency and has fled to the United States, fearing arrest on charges related to reporting before the June 2017 local elections. (VOA)