Written by: Aim Sylph Lumactod
Hanny Heng (also known as Roeurn), lives in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. A proud member of the Bunong tribe, she is one of several women leaders from Cambodia who was able to attend the Women Environmental and Human Rights Defenders (WEHRD) conference held in Adonara, Indonesia, in May 2023.
The Samdhana Grants Team visited Heng in Mondulkiri, where she offered us her famous Bunong soup, made from tender rattan shoots and served with a variety of side dishes. She also provided an ‘open house’ visit to her traditional homestays (Bunong huts) and gardens – here she introduced her guests to sorghum (both standing and harvested), along with upland rice she had brought from Adonara, as part of the seed exchanges that took place during the WEHRD conference.
Heng then shared her personal experiences and the struggles of her community, explaining that she wants their story to be heard by others who are facing similar challenges. She also hopes other service-providing institutions will work with them as they continue to defend their ancestral domain, including the land and water resources found therein. Here is her story:
My life’s journey so far has been far from easy. I was orphaned at seven years old. I lost my father to a sickness, while my mother and three siblings were killed by members of my own community for being suspected of witchcraft or using black magic to kill other people in the village. For at least three years I had no one and nowhere to go. I stayed with strangers in my village who offered me food and shelter. Around that time, I learned to smoke and prepared tobacco myself.
Having been through more suffering than most other children of my age, I moved into my uncle’s home for about a year, knowing that his family of seven also struggled the same way other poor families did. I became a working student with a Khmer woman who taught physical education, or sports. She was a single mother. She offered me tutorials in the Khmer language, basic arithmetic using stones and other extra classes at her house. In return, I took care of her infant son. She had so much empathy for my situation and understood my determination to get an education and develop my skills. She referred me to an orphanage, hoping this would open doors to better opportunities for me.
The orphanage was a place of rigid systems and processes. I lived with other orphans, who were all ruled over by a lady who was the house director. I remember hurting so much that I thought I wouldn’t survive the pain. I did so much work every day that the word “rest” was like a foreign language to me. As a team of five, we were told to either clean the house or cook for everyone. One day, the house director got mad at our team because there was no food prepared. All the while, she did not know that I was always left to do the work because the other children used to go home to their villages. Bursting with anger, she ordered me to dig a deep and wide hole for the rubbish. I was then told to write and sign a paper promising not to violate any of the house rules, and that if I did it again I would be expelled from the orphanage. I cried and cried, feeling so alone.
Since childhood, I had dreamed of becoming a teacher. But the lady director always told me I would never become a teacher, because of my disability – I was blinded in one eye by measles when I was 10 years old. She said studying at university would be pointless, as teachers are not just someone who has completed a course, but also those who are physically able to stand in front of a class. She said I just wasn’t fit for this course, and those words cut me so deeply that I felt my personhood break into small pieces.
I could have been sent to university to become a teacher, with the support of my French godparents or benefactors, had I not been told that teaching is only for those gifted with complete physical attributes. However, this is all consigned to my unfortunate past. The house director told me to become a designer, which I really didn’t like. How could I do that, when you need both eyes to make exact measurements and I am one-eyed? I completed the Designer Certificate course and was able to learn French and English for free after masses in the church.
When I had the chance to study for two years at a university in Phnom Penh, I discovered that disability didn’t matter to everyone. I saw a few students in wheelchairs and others with physical imperfections. There was no judgment or bullying. If my lady director hadn’t convinced me that disability is an inability, I could have become a teacher; my long-held ambition for when I grew up.
For a time, I worked with an NGO. I was tasked with going into communities to collect and sell handicrafts. I also sold coffee or tea in a shop. There I began to improve my people skills.
When I was in my mid-20s, I decided to go back to my father’s village to check on his remaining properties. My uncle told me not to do it, because those who caused the deaths of my mother and my three siblings were still there. First, I did some soul-searching. Had I been keeping anger in my heart over all these years? I discovered no feeling of hatred toward them. I had come to forgive them and decided just to forget the past. How could I be angry at them, when they were also victims of a social condition at that time?
Extreme poverty caused severe malnutrition or death among young children and lactating mothers. With no health centres around, many women, including my mother, were compelled to save lives any way they could. Unfortunately, their efforts were mistaken for witchcraft or sorcery. Blame never came into my thinking. Instead, I had a forgiving heart for them (the perpetrators). I felt sorry for them; throughout their lives, they had never even gone to Phnom Penh. So I provided them and their children with a job at my shop.
It was only recently that I came to know of restorative justice, an approach that is intended to help victims heal. In this process, offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused; they are given an opportunity to redeem themselves, to discourage them from causing any further harm. I felt like reconciliation was a forlorn hope in my case. What influenced this reading of the situation was not what I learned from school, but my deep understanding of our Bunong tribal beliefs and traditions.
In 2019, land grabbing became rampant, not only in our villages but also in other contiguous areas. The sacred, funerary and spiritual lands were destroyed; young Indigenous Peoples were told to cut down trees themselves in exchange for paltry payments; forging of documents was widespread, with people forced into signing with thumbprints; there was harassment, bribery of community elders and exploitation of natural resources.
With my people, I went to the courts to share our complaints, provided support to our leaders who had been apprehended for violating laws we didn’t understand, met up with government politicians or personnel, and reported to the concerned government agencies any actions that violated our rights as Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, most of these efforts were to no avail. These community actions escalated, especially when Radang Hill was bulldozed by someone who claimed to own the land. Some 120 of our members protested. Our case has been in the courts for the last four years and continues to the present day.
One insight or lesson that I learned from these experiences was the importance of solidarity and connections between our people and with other groups. Government laws are not necessarily just; we need to fight and defend our rights. Trust in each other as a collective is foundational, and this is what sustains any community movement.
Indigenous Peoples are good-hearted people with a close connection to the environment in our hearts. As land grabbing becomes increasingly common in villages, we need to continue to assert our rights over our territories. Most importantly, we must be consistent with our values as peace-loving people. Our advocacy actions should be non-violent; any hatred should instead be transformed into goodwill and loving compassion for everyone.
I am Heng. I come from the Bunong tribe in Cambodia.