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Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia

Ratanakiri (Khmer: រតនគិរី "Mountain Gems") is a province (khaet) of Cambodia located in the remote northeast. It borders the provinces of Mondulkiri to the south and Stung Treng to the west and the countries of Laos and Vietnam to the north and east, respectively. The province extends from the mountains of the Annamite Range in the north, across a hilly plateau between the Tonle San and Tonle Srepok rivers, to tropical deciduous forests in the south. In recent years, logging and mining have scarred Ratanakiri's environment, long known for its beauty.

For over a millennium, Ratanakiri has been occupied by the highland Khmer Loeu people, who are a minority elsewhere in Cambodia. During the region's early history, its Khmer Loeu inhabitants were exploited as slaves by neighboring empires. The slave trade economy ended during the French colonial era, but a harsh Khmerization campaign after Cambodia's independence again threatened Khmer Loeu ways of life. The Khmer Rouge built its headquarters in the province in the 1960s, and bombing during the Vietnam War devastated the region. Today, rapid development in the province is altering traditional ways of life.

Ratanakiri is sparsely populated; its 150,000 residents make up just over 1% of the country's total population. Residents generally live in villages of 20 to 60 families and engage in subsistence shifting agriculture. Ratanakiri is among the least developed provinces of Cambodia. Its infrastructure is poor, and the local government is weak. Health indicators in Ratanakiri are extremely poor, and almost one in four children die before reaching the age of five. Education levels are also low; three quarters of the population is illiterate.


resent-day Ratanakiri has been occupied since at least the Stone or Bronze Age, and trade between the region's highlanders and towns along the Gulf of Thailand dates to at least the 4th century A.D. The region was invaded by Annamites, the Cham, the Khmer, and the Thai during its early history, but no empire ever brought the area under centralized control. From the 13th century or earlier until the 19th century, highland villages were often raided by Khmer, Lao, and Thai slave traders. The region was conquered by local Laotian rulers in the 18th century and then by the Thai in the 19th century. The area was incorporated into French Indochina in 1893, and colonial rule replaced slave trading. The French built huge rubber plantations, especially in Labansiek (present-day Banlung); indigenous workers were used for construction and rubber harvesting. While under French control, the land comprising present-day Ratanakiri was transferred from Siam (Thailand) to Laos and then to Cambodia. Although highland groups initially resisted their colonial rulers, by the end of the colonial era in 1953 they had been subdued.

Ratanakiri Province was created in 1959 from land that had been the eastern area of Stung Treng Province.  The name Ratanakiri (រតនគិរី) is formed from theKhmer words រតនៈ (ratana "gem" from Sanskrit ratna) and គិរី (kiri "mountain" from Sanskrit giri), describing two features for which the province is known. During the 1950s and 1960s, Norodom Sihanouk instituted a development and Khmerization campaign in northeast Cambodia that was designed to bring villages under government control, limit the influence of insurgents in the area, and "modernize" indigenous communities. Some Khmer Loeu were forcibly moved to the lowlands to be educated in Khmer language and culture, ethnic Khmer from elsewhere in Cambodia were moved into the province, and roads and large rubber plantations were built. After facing harsh working conditions and sometimes involuntary labor on the plantations, many Khmer Loeu left their traditional homes and moved farther from provincial towns. In 1968, tensions led to an uprising by the Brao in which several Khmer were killed. The government responded harshly, torching settlements and killing hundreds of villagers.

In the 1960s, the ascendant Khmer Rouge forged an alliance with ethnic minorities in Ratanakiri, exploiting Khmer Loeu resentment of the central government.The Communist Party of Kampuchea headquarters was moved to Ratanakiri in 1966, and hundreds of Khmer Loeu joined CPK units. During this period, there was also extensive Vietnamese activity in Ratanakiri. Vietnamese communists had operated in Ratanakiri since the 1940s; at a June 1969 press conference, Sihanouk said that Ratanakiri was "practically North Vietnamese territory". Between March 1969 and May 1970, the United States undertook a massive covert bombing campaign in the region, aiming to disrupt sanctuaries for communist Vietnamese troops. Villagers were forced outside of main towns to escape the bombings, foraging for food and living on the run with the Khmer Rouge. In June 1970, the central government withdrew its troops from Ratanakiri, abandoning the area to Khmer Rouge control. The Khmer Rouge regime, which had not initially been harsh in Ratanakiri, became increasingly oppressive. The Khmer Loeu were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing their traditional customs and religion, which were seen as incompatible with communism. Communal living became compulsory, and the province's few schools were closed. Purges of ethnic minorities increased in frequency, and thousands of refugees fled to Vietnam and Laos. Preliminary studies indicate that bodies accounting for approximately 5% of Ratanakiri's residents were deposited in mass graves, a significantly lower rate than elsewhere in Cambodia.

After the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, government policy toward Ratanakiri became one of benign neglect. The Khmer Loeu were permitted to return to their traditional livelihoods, but the government provided little infrastructure in the province. Under the Vietnamese, there was little contact between the provincial government and many local communities. Long after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, however, Khmer Rouge rebels remained in the forests of Ratanakiri. Rebels largely surrendered their arms in the 1990s, though attacks along provincial roads continued until 2002.

Ratanakiri's recent history has been characterized by development and attendant challenges to traditional ways of life. The national government has built roads, encouraged tourism and agriculture, and facilitated rapid immigration of lowland Khmers into Ratanakiri. Road improvements and political stability have increased land prices, and land alienation in Ratanakiri has been a major problem. Despite a 2001 law allowing indigenous communities to obtain collective title to traditional lands, some villages have been left nearly landless. The national government has granted concessions over land traditionally possessed by Ratanakiri's indigenous peoples. and even land "sales" have often involved bribes to officials, coercion, threats, or misinformation.  Following the involvement of several international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), land alienation has decreased in frequency. In the 2000s, Ratanakiri also received hundreds of Degar (Montagnard) refugees fleeing unrest in neighboring Vietnam; the Cambodian government was criticized for its forcible repatriation of many refugees.

Geography and Climate

The geography of Ratanakiri Province is diverse, encompassing rolling hills, mountains, plateaus, lowland watersheds, and crater lakes.  Two major rivers,Tonle San and Tonle Srepok, flow from east to west across the province. The province is known for its lush forests; as of 1997, 70–80% of the province was forested, either with old-growth forest or with secondary forest regrown after shifting cultivation.  In the far north of the province are mountains of the Annamite Range; the area is characterized by dense broadleaf evergreen forests, relatively poor soil, and abundant wildlife. In the highlands between Tonle San and Tonle Srepok, the home of the vast majority of Ratanakiri's population, a hilly basalt plateau provides fertile red soils. Secondary forests dominate this region. South of the Srepok River is a flat area of tropical deciduous forests.

Like other areas of Cambodia, Ratanakiri has a monsoonal climate with a rainy season from June to October, a cool season from November to January, and a hot season from March to May. Ratanakiri tends to be cooler than elsewhere in Cambodia. The average daily high temperature in the province is 34.0 °C(93.2 °F), and the average daily low temperature is 22.1 °C (71.8 °F). Annual precipitation is approximately 2,200 millimetres (87 in). Flooding often occurs during the rainy season and has been exacerbated by the recently built Yali Falls Dam.

Ratanakiri has some of the most biologically diverse lowland tropical rainforest and montane forest ecosystems in mainland Southeast Asia. One 1996 survey of two sites in Ratanakiri and one site in neighboring Mondulkiri recorded 44 mammal species, 76 bird species, and 9 reptile species. A 2007 survey of Ratanakiri's Virachey National Park recorded 30 ant species, 19 katydid species, 37 fish species, 35 reptile species, 26 amphibian species, and 15 mammal species, including several species never before observed. Wildlife in Ratanakiri includesAsian elephants, gaur, and monkeys. Ratanakiri is an important site for the conservation of endangered birds, including the giant ibis and the greater adjutant. The province's forests contain a wide variety of flora; one half-hectare forest inventory identified 189 species of trees and 320 species of ground flora and saplings.

Nearly half of Ratanakiri has been set aside in protected areas. which include Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary and Virachey National Park. Even these protected areas, however, are subject to illegal logging, poaching, and mineral extraction. Though the province has been known for its relatively pristine environment, recent development has spawned environmental problems. The unspoiled image of the province often conflicts with the reality on the ground: visitors "expecting to find pristine forests teeming with wildlife are increasingly disappointed to find lifeless patches of freshly cut tree stumps". Land use patterns are changing as population growth has accelerated and agriculture and logging have intensified. Soil erosion is increasing, and microclimatesare being altered. Habitat loss and unsustainable hunting have contributed to the province's decreasing biodiversity.

Government and administrative divisions

Government in Ratanakiri is weak, largely due to the province's remoteness, ethnic diversity, and recent history of Khmer Rouge dominance. The provincial legal framework is poor, and the rule of law is even weaker in Ratanakiri than elsewhere in Cambodia. Furthermore, government services are ineffective and insufficient to meet the needs of the province. The Cambodian government has traditionally accepted substantial support from NGOs in the region.

Pao Ham Phan is the provincial governor. Commune councils in Ratanakiri are composed of 219 members representing the CPP, 21 members representing the Sam Rainsy Party, and 13 members representing the Funcinpec Party. Political scientist Caroline Hughes has suggested that the CPP's overwhelming dominance in rural areas such as Ratanakiri stems from the central government's ability to suppress collective action, which in urban areas is offset by international donors and NGOs that provide support for opposition parties. Thirty-six commune council members in Ratanakiri (14.2%) are women, and 98% of Ratanakiri's government staff is Khmer. Bou Thang, a member of the CPP, represents Ratanakiri in the National Assembly of Cambodia.

Village government in Ratanakiri has both traditional and administrative components. Traditional forms of government, namely village elders and other indigenous institutions, are dominant. Members of each village designate one or more community elders to manage village affairs, mediate conflicts, and ensure that villagers follow customary laws, particularly about land and resource use. Elders do not play an autocratic role, and are instead primarily respected advisors and consensus builders. Village elders are generally male, but women also play a role in the management of the community and its resources. A village may also have a village chief, i.e., a local government person who is appointed by a higher governmental official. The village chief serves as a liaison between the village and outside government officials, but lacks traditional authority. The role of the village chief in village governance may be poorly defined; in one Kreung village, residents told a researcher that they were "very unclear exactly what the work of the village chief entailed.

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