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Official Gazette

Friday, February 3, 2023

The “Bahnar” - their rules and customary practices

Updated: 08:51’ - 22/03/2007

By To Dong Hai


With a population of around 137,000 (according to the 1989 census figure), the Bahnar is one of the largest ethnic groups of the Mon-Khmer language family in southern Central Vietnam and Cochinchina. They reside mainly in the province of Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Binh Dinh and Phu Yen. The Bahnar is also divided into subgroups with some particularities in their culture, costumes, customary practices... The subgroups of T’Lo and G’lar now see little distinction from the main Bahnar groups, while the Rongao, J’long and Ylang are considered intermediatary subgroups with the X’dang ethnicity, which reside in areas between the two ethnic groups of Bahnar and X’dang. The Krem subgroup is greatly influenced by the Viet majority’s culture, which lives mainly in Phu Yen.

The Bahnar people live mainly on farming rice and other food crops, vegetables, fruit trees, cotton, flax, indigo. Husbandry, particularly horse-raising, has been strongly boosted by the Bahnar, mainly through free ranching in forests. Besides, hunting, vegetable and fruit picking, forest product gathering and fishing play an important part in their economic activities. Such traditional handicrafts as bamboo weaving, textiles, smithery and porcelain making have strongly developed as the family economy.

The basic social unit of the Bahnar community is “plei” (similar to hamlet) which is often built on a vast area convenient for production and self-defense, chosen by the hamlet chief and aged men and baptized by “deities” through a solemn ritual.

Located in the heart of a “plei” is “nha Rong” - a common house for communal activities such as hamlet meetings, cultural entertainment by young people, solemn' rites, temporary dormitory for guests of families, for the exchange of goods between local people and traders..., and, of course, for trials of violators of Bahnar rules and conventions. When setting up a new “plei”, the Bahnar people build the “nha Rong” first then hold rituals to put up a drum and a sacred rock as the plei’s guardian angle at a gable of the house.

The “plei” affairs have been run by a council of aged villagers, called “Kra plei” which is headed by a “tom plei” (plei chief), often the eldest and prestigious man in the village who is knowledgeable of the community’s rules and customary practices. The “tom plei” position is usually passed from father to son or sometimes elected by people if he has no son to succeed or he has lost his credit by “letting” bad things or epidemics happen during his tenure.

Formerly, various “plei” of a same stock and with equal rights on a common land plot grouped into a bigger administrative unit called “t’ring”. A “t’ring” was often ruled by a family headed by a tribal chief.

In “plei”, rules, conventions, customary practices, code of conducts, the rights and obligations of each member of the community, including the rights to private ownership and distribution of estates... have been orally passed from people to people. Made in folk verses, sayings, those rules and conventions are easy to remember and learn by heart, being voluntarily observed by the people as well as the entire community, and handed down from generation to generation. Every violation of such rules and convention shall certainly be dealt with as the violation has, to the Bahnar people’s conviction, made “yang” (deities) or their ancestors’ spirits (kiak) angry then bring calamities to the villagers. That’s why even influential people in the “plei” dare not abuse the influence of their own or their families to break the rules or conventions.

All violators shall be brought to trial at “nha Rong” with “tom plei” in the chair. Every case shall be tried fairly and openly before the community and deities; and a violator shall only be convicted after his case is carefully considered and decided by consensus even if he/she has no one to defend his/her case.

Violators shall be quickly found out as all Bahnar consider it their responsibility before the community and the deities. Even the families of the violators want to quickly hand over them to the community for trial. If an offender escape to another hamlet, he/she shall be arrested and returned to his/her place.

The nucleus of a Bahnar “plei” is a big family comprising people of the same blood line, who often work together, share their meals and property. All family affairs shall be decided by the “bok tom” (the family master) or “akan tom” (the family mistress). It can be said that the Bahnar people’s sense of community is very high. All personal interests must be placed under the communal interests; and all individuals’ activities must strictly comply with the communal rules and regulations.

Though having not yet been gathered and compiled into books, the Bahnar rules and conventions have been divided according to subject matters, such as those on the family relationships including the relations between parents and children, the relations between senior members (grand parents, uncles, aunts...) and junior members (grandchildren, nieces, nephews...), the relations between husbands and wives; those on the rights to own property such as reclaimed land, to inherit estates,...; and those on the relationships between the community and its members as well as among members... All those “Civil” rules of the traditional Bahnar society have been established and preserved for many generations now, then strictly and voluntarily observed by people, thus helping to strengthen and develop the Bahnar community.

However, having appeared under certain historical conditions, the Bahnar rules and conventions, like those of other ethnic minorities, cannot help seeing their limitations. If those limitations are overcome and their positive elements are brought into play, the Bahnar rules and conventions shall be useful for the effective enforcement of State laws in the areas inhabited by the people of this ethnic minority.-


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