Christian NGOs and ‘indigenous cultures’: on the morphing of missionary work among a Cambodian highland minority

  • Catherine Scheer
01 March, 2018

According to the Cambodia field director of the US-based Christian & Missionary Alliance (CMA), in an interview with this author in 2016, his organisation had always sought to establish a ‘holistic indigenous church.’

For this missionary, the term ‘holistic’ indicated a desire to address both spirit and body, while ‘indigenous’ referenced the organisation’s claim to being culturally sensitive in their approach to mission, in particular in their engagement with Cambodia’s highland minorities. The latter, whose mother tongue and livelihood practices differ from those of the Khmer-speaking majority, consist of less than 2% of the population.

Even a quick glance into history, however, indicates that attention to and inclusion of indigenous ‘culture’ has not always been a prominent feature of the work of these Christian missionaries among minority groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia. The place given to the local inhabitants’ specific way of life has shifted considerably over time in response to altering political contexts and broader changes in development policy and language. This of course could not fail to have implications for those highlanders in touch with CMA representatives.

Soldiers for Jesus

The CMA initiated its work in what was then French Indochina in the 1930s. It was only from the 1960s, however, and within the context of the Vietnam War, that the CMA gained a foothold among highland inhabitants. The American military facilitated missionary access to resettlement camps in South Vietnam set up as part of the government’s strategy of constraining the ‘communist threat’.

While providing aid to highland refugees, including to some that had come from Cambodia, CMA representatives also shared the gospel. They worked in and with indigenous languages but, at least indirectly, promoted an American model of church services and everyday behaviour.

The 1964 winter edition of CMA’s Jungle Frontiers, for example, showed a picture of a pipe-smoking ‘pagan tribesman adorned to attend the sacrifice’. This image was contrasted to another of male highland Christians wearing shirts and ties, properly lined up in front of a wooden church building.

Missionaries of development

When Vietnam was reunified under socialist rule the CMA was forced to suspend its missionary work. It was not until the 1990s that CMA representatives were able to re-enter the highlands, but this time on the Cambodian side of the border. The United Nations Transitional Authority had just re-opened the country after a decade of conflict following the violent Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79). This period of reconstruction saw NGOs of all sorts flood in to Cambodia to participate in the country’s post-conflict development.

A Canadian couple were among the earliest CMA workers to settle down in the remote highland province of Mondulkiri. In addition to teaching the Bible, they offered the local Bunong population health and hygiene classes, and literacy training in the Khmer language. In the 1990s, CMA workers’ attitude is reflected in the comment of one of them, stating that it was necessary for the Bunong to learn to read and write Khmer in order to become good Christians and functional citizens within Cambodia.

This neglect of local languages and other specificities was par for the course among the NGO sector in the 1990s. Few organisations proposed projects tailored for Cambodia’s ‘ethnic minorities’. Instead, these groups tended to be presented as particularly in need of assistance in order to jump aboard the same train to modernity as the majority Khmer national population.

Promoters of ‘indigenous culture’

In 2001, the term ‘indigenous peoples’ (chuncheat daem peaktech) made its entry into Cambodian official documents by way of a new land law. Government officials had earlier opposed its use arguing that the Khmer majority was just as indigenous as highland minorities. Nevertheless, under pressure from the international community and in a context of political fragility, the government eventually ceded to the acceptance of this internationally potent term.

The promotion of indigenous cultures and rights soon came to shape the language many NGOs used to frame their projects in Cambodia. The CMA was no exception here. Over the decade that followed, CMA equipped the Bunong and other highland Protestants with Christian books in their mother tongue (written in a Khmer-like script), and was promoting the use of local instruments and crafts.

Shifts with impacts

The changes in CMA’s approach have had significant impacts for the Bunong Protestants themselves. Some have embraced this turn to indigeneity by dressing in self-woven clothes to attend church and by using gongs – long repudiated as spirit-worshipping tools – during Sunday services.

On one hand, the valorisation of ‘indigenous culture’ fed into their efforts to buttress claims for communal land titles against the government’s attempts to hand out land concessions to major companies.

On the other, however, these attempts to reclaim their culture have not been without debate and contestation. Questions emerged about what was right to do and what was wrong. These assertions of identity by indigenous peoples provoked dissent between people from different generations or levels of education, and presented destabilizing dilemmas to local communities.

While what CMA claimed was a culturally sensitive approach to its work fits quite well with the current valorisation of indigenous peoples and their cultural specificity, it needs to be understood within its broader institutional contexts. For example, their position rests on a definition of ‘indigenous culture’ in which the terms are still to a large degree determined by members of the missionary organisation. Further, its reception is intensely influenced by the Christian NGO’s past shifting and partly contradictory delimitations of the aspects of indigenous life that are acceptable for a ‘good’ Protestant.

Such normative ideological shifts around issues like cultural identity and indigenous rights are not limited to religious NGOs. However, the entanglement of development goals and spiritual values render their changing nature even more difficult to handle, especially for historically marginalised peoples like the Bunong.

This post is part of a series on Religion and NGOs edited by R Michael Feener and Philip Fountain. Read their introductory post here and all posts in the series here.

The series has been produced out of a collaborative research project on ‘Religion and NGOs’ led by R Michael Feener, and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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About the author(s)
Catherine Scheer