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Official Gazette

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Khmer minorities - Their customary laws and practices

Updated: 16:23’ - 23/02/2011

To Dong Hai


With a population of 890,000, the Khmer ethnic minority group resides mainly in the western part of the Mekong River delta on the territories of the provinces of Can Tho, Soc Trang, Kien Giang, Minh Hai, Song Be and Tay Ninh as well as Ho Chi Minh City.

Since their early days, the Khmer have practiced wet rice cultivation with the application of fairly high techniques in soil preparation, seed selection and building irrigation works. In addition, they have grown subsidiary food crops, developed river and sea fishing, cattle and poultry raising, bamboo and rattan weaving, textile, pottery, etc.

The Khmer people live in “phum” (village) and “sroc” (district) in coastal and riverside areas or at the feet of Ba The and Bay Nui mountains in An Giang province. “Phum” varies in sizes with some having only one house and others having hundreds. As administrative units similar to “lang” (village) and “huyen” of the Viet people, “phum” and “sroc” in the traditional society of the Khmer were managed by “me phum” and “me sroc” respectively, who were the most prestigious and eldest persons selected by the local inhabitants.

Yet, many researchers thought that the pagoda-managing board, which is still exerting strong influence on the social life in “phum” and “sroc”, has become the real manager of such administrative units. There exists in each “sroc” at least one pagoda which has long been a center for cultural and spiritual activities of the local people.

The Khmer society is characterized by paternalism, though the maternalistic traces have been left until today. The small-size family is the typical form of the Khmer people’s social organization though big families still exist in the form of “phum” where people of the same family line live together.

Prior to the import of the Small-Vehicle Buddhism into the Khmer society in the 13th century, the people of this ethnic group worshipped their ancestors and followed totemism. “Arak” and “Neak Ta” were considered the protective deities of clans, “phum” and “sroc”. Besides, Khmer people used to be polytheists as clearly seen through their agricultural rites. According to researches, before it was replaced by Buddhism, Bahaism existed among the Khmer people in the early Christian era with the traces of Bahaist center being left in areas inhabited by the Khmer. However, Buddhism has greatly influenced every aspect of the Khmer’s social life - religious, cultural and social- According to the 1979 statistical figures, among then population of more than 700,000 people, 10,620 were Buddhist monks and nuns residing in 408 pagodas. When reaching the school-age, children have been sent to Buddhist schools where Buddhist ideology and morality have been taught. When growing up, most of the male youth have entered secluded monkhood for a period of time. Every Khmer desires to be burried in the pagoda premise when he/she dies. The pagoda has also become the place for communal activities, for receiving guests, for storing valuable books, etc. The pagoda-managing board is composed of the most prestigious members of “phum” and “sroc”, who also have great influence on the communal life.

The existence of various religious and folk beliefs has constituted the basis of the Khmer customs and practices as well as code of conducts. Preaching books have often been used to persuade people to do the right thing and observe the moral norms set by the society.

The father and husband in the family is considered its master who can represent the whole family in various social transactions. However, all family affairs are discussed between the husband and the wife in the family before any decision, including the husband’s entry into monkhood, is made. There is no discremination between sons and daughters in the family, though girls often stay with their parents before getting married while boys are sent to pagodas for monkhood and schoolings.

Regarding property ownership and inheritance, the husband and the wife, sons and daughters are equal therein. After their wedding, the man and the woman are equally entitled to own their common property as well as their personal assets such as land, things, money... given by their respective parents. The father and mother are both entitled to bequeath their property to their children, and the children, regardless of the sexes and orders in the family, ages, are entitled to inherit equal part of the property.

The Khmer people’s marital conventions and customs support monogamy and marriage between people of the same “phum” or “sroc”. Marriage with people of other ethnicities (for instance Hoa, Viet...) is not prohibited under the Khmer customary law. Incestion, particularly between people of direct blood line, is strictly forbidden whereas the marriage between cousins is permitted and the levirate as well a sororate also exist in the social life of the Khmer people.

The marriage is arranged by parents and with the consents of the young couple. A poor bridegroom has often to stay in his wife’s home for some time as if to make up for the cost of wedding paid by the girl’s family. After the wedding, the couple can live either with the man’s or the girl’s family or separately on their own, depending on the conditions of each family.

However, staying in the girl’s home (a trace of maternalism) is most favored by people. According to a legend, the Khmer woman used to ask for the man’s hand. That no longer exists in the Khmer people’s social life now.

Regarding funeral, cremation is practiced by the Khmer. The ash of the dead bodies is often stored in towers built in front of pagodas. After such funeral, the dead’s sons often entered the secluded monkhood in pagodas for some time.

In the Khmer society, Buddhist monks are most respected by people. With broad knowledge about customs and practices and with rich experiences in production, they are considered intellectuals whom villagers often come to for advises on important issues of the entire community, and their opinions are considered the Khmer people’s code of conducts in their daily life.

In a nutshell, the Khmer customary laws have been firmly established for long now and still continue governing various aspects of the social life of this ethnic group. So, it is extremely necessary to make full use of the traditional customs and practices in making new laws in areas inhabited by the Khmer people, helping them build a healthy cultural and moral life suitable to the modern life and to their fine traditions as well.-


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