To Dong Hai
According to 1989 census figures, the “Ma” ethnic minority group has some 25,500 people residing on southern plateaus, largely in Lam Dong (some 20,000) and the provinces of Dong Nai, Binh Duong and Dac Lac.
The Ma people speak the language of Mon-Khmer family, which is very close to the languages of Muong, Chro, Xtieng and particularly K’ho ethnicities. Their vocabulary is greatly influenced by Khmer language factors.
Besides the name of “Ma” (or Mir in the dialect of this ethnic group, meaning milpa) these minority people have also called themselves Chau ma, Che Ma or Cho Ma (with Chau, Che or Cho meaning people). This ethnicity is also subdivided into Ma Ngan, Ma Xop, Ma To, Ma Krung, with Ma Nga being considered the main subgroup. The people of Ma To subgroup live on highlands near water sources while the Ma Krung live on plains and Ma Xop on basaltic soil areas.
Among various ethnic groups living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam the Ma is considered indigenous, with its ancient history of a so-called “Ma kingdom” as formerly spoken of by some people, though such a hypothesis has triggered debates among researchers into this ethnic group.
Milpa farming has long been practiced by the Ma people as their main production mode. To them, there are two types of milpa: “mdrik” (new milpa) and “mpuh” (old milpa). “Mdrick” are cultivated with rice in the first year after they have been reclaimed, while “mpuh” are cultivated with rice for another year or with subsidiary food crops for several more years before they are abandoned. Their fields are often intercropped with maize, pumpkins, gourds, chili, cotton, tobacco.
Husbandry has not been promoted by the Ma people who raise domestic animals to be used mainly as offerings in religious rites. Few families raise horses or elephants for mountain transportation. Their popular handicrafts include bamboo weaving, loom weaving, embroidery, smithery. Forest products gathering has become their routine activities, that bring them vegetables, firewood, etc., for daily use.
Formerly, the Ma people led a nomadic life, having settled in their hamlets for 15 to 20 years before moving to new places with more fertile soil. A Ma hamlet is small and often built near water streams, in valleys, on hill sides, accommodating one to three long houses. For instance, there is in Bo Sur hamlet, Loc Trung commune, Bao Loc district, Lam Dong province, only one house, 54 meters long, where 12 households live. By the early 20th century there had existed houses of several hundred meters long.
Like people of other ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, men of this ethnic group wear loin cloths while women wear skirts. They have also practiced teeth filing and ear piercing.
As a closed society, each Ma hamlet becomes a socio-economic unit with self-sufficing economy. It can also be considered a social unit characterized by an enlarged paternal clan, then later by communal neighborliness. Every people in the hamlet is entitled to own land and natural products on the hamlet soil. Each hamlet is headed by a chief called “Knang bon” assisted by “tom bri” (forest owner) and “chau at bri” (forest manager), who manage land and run farming activities.
Big paternal families have been in the process of disintegration, each of which is headed by “Po hiu”, an old man of the oldest generation in the family. “Po hiu” has great power, deciding important affairs of the family, from productive labor to the organization of rituals, procurement or exchange of big assets and representing the family in its relations with other families and the entire community.
People of the same blood line, called “Nao”, are not allowed to marry each other. Yet, under the Ma customary law, a daughter of a woman can marry a son of her brother while her son is not allowed to marry a daughter of her brother. Marriages between brothers’ children or sisters’ children are not common. Though monogamy has been advocated by Ma people, men of this ethnic group can marry concubines provided that their lawful wives agree and shall be compensated for by the concubines. Divorces must be approved by “Khang bon” (the hamlet chief). When either spouse dies, the other can marry a younger brother or sister of the deceased. Adultery is considered a serious crime and the adulterer or adulteress shall be severely punished, having to organize rituals to ask for forgiveness from dieties and to pay compensation to the betrayed, depending on the verdicts of the customary law court.
The wedding ceremonies held by the Ma people are very complicated. They are organized at the girl’s house with a very important formality: The couple stand in front of a diety-worshipping post, of all hamlet people, their relatives, the hamlet elderly, the match maker and the witness(es). The wedding presider puts on the couple a blanket as a symbol of people’s wish for the newlywed’s happiness. The couple then exchange bracelets and drink a horn of alcohol. And on the following day, a ceremony shall be held to escort the bride to the bride-groom’s home where the latter’s family shall present the bride’s relatives with many valuable things such as gongs, alcohol jars, clothings... In cases where the bridegroom is poor, being unable to find such offerings, he shall continue to stay at the bride’s home till the offerings are ready.
The customary law of the Ma ethnic minority has long been established with customary law courts being set up in hamlets and chaired by the hamlet chiefs who were assisted by a number of people called “Chau Zac zong” or “Chau vong hoa” who are knowledgeable about Ma customs and practices, honest, straightforward and impartial. Brought to such courts for trial are such cases as disputes inside the hamlets or between hamlets, violations of the hamlet’s rules such as adultery, incestion, robbery, theft, causing fire or damage to property of the hamlet, individuals, etc. A court shall base itself on local regulations and rules recorded through rhymatic proses to hand down penalties to offenders.
The judgements are executed in public before the hamlet community, often in the form of fine. The offenders have to organize deity-worshipping rites with offerings.
The customary law of the Ma people dwells on ethical norms, morality, traditional conventions handed down from generation to generation, which all fit the conception of the Ma people and are accepted and voluntarily observed by them.
Even now, such customary law and its courts still exert strong impacts on the life of Ma people. So, the question is to find appropriate measures to bring into full play the positive elements while limiting the negative aspects of the Ma customary law so as to actively contribute to building a new cultural life in areas inhabited by the Ma people.-