Background to Research

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My research spanned two neighboring communities in a mountainous region of Kompong Speu province in southwestern Cambodia. The first of these two communes I call Prei Phnom and the second I call Doung Srei. Each of them consists of a collection of villages. I based myself in Prei Phnom’s west�ern�most village, which I call O’Thmaa, bordering on the wilderness of the Cardamom mountain range. I made regular excursions to the other villages in Prei Phnom commune as well as to several in Doung Srei.   

At the time of my research in 2003, O’Thmaa had a population of 175 people dispersed over 40 households. There were few elders in the community, especially men, because of the war and the large number of executions that had occurred within the village in the early 1970s. From 1970 until the mid-1990s, all men and many women old enough to become soldiers were conscripted by the Khmer Rouge, the government, or both. This lack of elders had significant repercussions for this community, where elders were considered the symbolic vessels of moral and traditional knowledge and therefore played important roles in the transmission and practice of religious and social events. Moral knowledge is acquired over a lifetime; such knowledge is considered to be wisdom in old age. Being morally wise means not only knowing right from wrong but also knowing the ways of the ancestors who are considered imbued with the best moral qualities, including honesty, wisdom, and virtue. An elder in Cambodia symbolically becomes like a living, and therefore accessible, ancestor.  

 The vast majority of villagers in the communities where I worked considered themselves Theravada Buddhists; however, 10 percent of O’Thmaa’s population were Methodist Christians. Indigenous animist and Hindu “Brahman” practices interlaced the practices of villagers of both of these faiths. These villagers occupied the lowest ranks of Cambodia’s socioeconomic ladder due to high illiteracy rates, continuous forced displacement since 1970, a shortage of arable land, and an overall lack of resources. Before the war they cultivated small rice paddies and gardens, and subsidized their living through trade in forest products such as resin, aloewood, and betel. Today people again tend rice paddies and gardens, but at the point of my study had been unable to grow sufficient rice and food to sustain them throughout the year. Instead, they relied on the illicit sale of forest products and aid from development agencies.

 

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