The customary law of the “Co” ethnic minority
The ethnic minority groups of Co, also called Cor, Col or Cua, resides largely in eastern Truong Son areas of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces.

To Dong Hai

The ethnic minority group of “Co” (also called Cor, Col or Cua) resides largely in eastern Truong Son (Long Mountain Rage) areas of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces. With a population of some 22,650 (according to the 1989 census), the Co people speak the language of the Mon-Khmer family. They live on highly steep mountain slopes in various hamlets called “play”, a basic social unit of their own traditional Co society. Though nationalist-minded with great pride in the traditions, the Co people, during the process of their existence and development, have always promoted the cultural exchanges with neighboring ethnic groups such as Xe Dang, Hre..., while preserving their own cultural identity. As a result, the majority of the Co people can speak Vietnamese, the universal language of the country.

The Co people practice milpa farming with the cultivation of rice, maize and other food-bearing plants as their main crops. Their terraced fields are often cropped for several harvests, then abandoned for several years before they get fertile again for farming. Yet, in some areas, particularly flat fields, people adopt the sedentary farming with the growing of tobacco, fruit trees, cinamon, tung trees... as their cash crops. Particularly, the cinamon planting has long been practiced by the Co people, which yields high benefits and helps promote the trade exchange between people of this ethnic minority group and those in delta areas.

Such sidelines as forest fruit and vegetable picking, hunting, fishing... also play an important role in the daily life of the Co people while loom-weaving and bamboo-weaving are underdeveloped.

The major mode of production applied by the Co is the work exchange among families or people in the same hamlet. Slave or hired labor are not seen in the Co community as are money-lending, public land seizure or rent collection from land leased out. Under the Co customary law, people are entitled to own the land lots they have reclaimed and the crops thereon. Unlike people of some other ethnic groups the Co people do not trade in their terraced fields but only the yields therefrom.

The Co people live in separate hamlets with boundaries, which are named after the hamlet chiefs, rivers or water streams...

The movement of an entire hamlet to a new location is rarely seen, which occurs only when the hamlet witnesses an epidemic, a sudden death or a maternity-related death... In that case, people shall have to kill all their animals to be used as offerings to deities before leaving for a new place. The selection of location for the new hamlet is decided by the elderlies, household representatives and hamlet chiefs. Usually, a new hamlet shall be built on a high and dry place near a water source and with good soil for farming. A traditional Co hamlet is often carefully fenced off to prevent beasts and attacks from out-siders. Each hamlet accommo-dates one or several long houses, depen-ding on the number of dwellers. Living in each long house are several small families in separate compartments. In cases where there are new immigrants, the house(s) shall be lengthened with annexes.

The hamlet inhabitants are categorized into two: The indigenous dwellers (called khul uk, khul ddeh) who have contributed great services to land reclamation and the founding of hamlet, and their children; and the immigrants (called mnih man nho bri khul kray meaning people who live on other people’s land) who have moved from other places and joined the hamlets. Immigrants are easily accepted into Co hamlets provided that they are guaranteed by any natives.

All hamlet affairs are run by the hamlet chiefs (called khuk kra dop ktu dak) who are elected by people and must be indigenous people, exemplary laborers, prestigious and well respected by every people. They are tasked to urge people in their productive labor, to organize the defense of the their respective hamlets, perform religious rituals, handle violations of the customary laws and conventions by community members or settle disputes with neighboring hamlets. Apart from such responsibilities, the hamlet chiefs have not any special rights and privileges except that every year when the farming season begins, the entire hamlet people will help them with one work day.

The patriarchal regime is prevailing in the Co community with men running all affairs and holding all powers in the family. Only sons are entitled to inherit estates from their parents while daughters are given a very small portions of the property as dowries when they get married. Married daughters, when returning to their parents’ for visits, are subject to all family taboos like non-members of the family. Even in their prays, the Co people always obey the general rule: praying to the grandfather first, then the grandmother; to the father before the mother and to the paternal relatives before the maternal ones.

Monogamy is common in Co families though the customary laws of this ethnic group do not forbid men to get concubines in cases where the couples are issueless or the wives of their first marriages so agree. Marriages between people of the same blood line (within five genera-tions for paternal side and four generations for the maternal side) are strictly forbidden. Violations of this rule shall be condemned as incestion (called xak oh ay) and severely dealt with, usually with the violators having to pay a fine of buffalos or pigs for worshiping to deities, or with expul-sion from hamlets for serious cases.

The Co customary laws permit widowers to marry elder or younger sisters of their deceased wives but permit widows to marry only younger brothers of their deceased husbands. The marriages between sons or daughters of a woman and daughters or sons of her brother(s), or between children of sisters, or between half-brothers and sisters are strictly forbidden. Two brothers can marry two sisters, but the elder brother shall have to marry the elder sister and the younger brother marry the younger sister. After their marriages, the girls shall have to stay with their husbands’ families. Men are rarely seen staying with their wives’ families except for special cases where circumstances compel the girls to stay with their parents after the marriage.

Yet, through the process of cultural and economic exchanges with neigh-boring ethnic groups, some cultural traditions of the Co people such as costumes, the ways of naming individuals... have altered though their cultural identity has been preserved with customs and practices still strongly influencing the life of the Co community. Therefore, bringing into play the positive factors of such customs and practices while gradually abolishing the negative ones are extremely necessary for integrating the Co people’s life into the national life.-

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