Cambodian Jarai People

The Cambodian Jarai People (in Khmer ជនជាតិចារ៉ាយ – Chon Cheat Chareay) is an ethnic group based primarily in the Province of Ratanakiri, northeast of Cambodia, but it is possible to find Jarai people in other provinces of the country, especially youth that migrated in search of education and work in main urban areas like Phnom Penh. The natural expel of population during the troublesome years of war and internal conflict in Cambodia between 1970 and 1991 and beyond, put Jarai migrants as far as Thailand, North America, Europe and Oceania, as many other Cambodians and ethnic minorities. 

The Cambodian Jarai are related to the Vietnamese Jarai People (Gia-ai) of the provinces of Gia Lai and Kon Tum, although their respective Jarai language keeps already radical differences and they need attention to understand each other. Both, the Khmer Jarai and the Vietnamese Jarai, have a big influence from the Khmer and Vietnamese languages. The Vietnamese Jarai writes in Latin scripts like the Vietnamese language. The Khmer Jarai is not written and Jarai children write in Khmer rather than in Jarai. No known efforts have been done to write and teach in Khmer Jarai language so far, something that makes the language vulnerable to extinction if Jarai children and youth learn only in Khmer.

There is a close relation between Cambodian and Vietnamese Jarai in terms of cultural linkage, share of cultural artifacts and regular visits crossing the borders. There is little connection between Cambodian Jarai people and their relatives in most developing countries. It would be a good contribution if Jarai groups in USA, Europe or Australia, get more interest in their cousins in Cambodia.


The Jarai People, as many other highlander ethnic minorities of northern Cambodia, can be integrated into the Zomia Region, a term created in 2002 by historian Willen van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam to designate the hill areas of Southeast Asia and even the Tibetan Plateau that is rich in different ethnic groups that have grown for centuries with their own uniqueness, traditions and languages, out of the control of the most powerful lowlanders. The word Zomi is present in different Tibeto-Burma languages spoken in the Indian-Bangladesh-Burma border area meaning “Highlander” – in Jarai Nanui tona Che’.

By their own language, Jarai is related to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family, but the Jarai people has a more extensive origin. In 2017 some of the Jarai children studying in Don Bosco Kep got a DNA test to know their haplogroup. Surprising they got as a result T-M70 that is present in southern Europeans, North Africans and Middle East – the Mediterranean basin. It is also a very ancient migration traced around 40,000 years ago and it is more frequent in modern times in populations of North Africa and Middle East. As Jarai belongs to T-M70, we have the evidence of the most eastern ancient T-M70 migration from the west into the Southeast Asia region.


As in many other countries where a ethnic majority is the leading social, political and economical force, Cambodians in general know very little about the origins and cultures of the ethnic minority groups like the Jarai. Rather many Cambodians see them as foreigners  (ជនជាតិ – Chon Chiet) and show little curiosity and respect for their language, believes and traditions. In Ratanakiri Province, ethnic minority groups face the challenge to be look down in their own land by some Khmer people, especially those with selfish economical interests in that region.

Land grabbing

The upcoming of Khmer colonizers to the ethnic minority protected areas is becoming a big issue in places like Ratanakiri, but in general in many other areas of Cambodia where indigenous communities and poor farmers are suffering forces evacuation from their ancestral lands. The ownership of the indigenous lands is a common rights to the indigenous communities. Therefore, it cannot be sold, changed or evicted.

“People who inhabited a land before it was conquered by colonial societies and who consider themselves distinct from the societies currently governing those territories are called Indigenous Peoples.” (Hymowitz, 2003)

Unfortunately, strong colonizers, using the instruments of political and economical powers, are taking the lands of the Cambodian ethnic minorities to their own benefit and letting the communities in poverty and hopeless for their future. If it is a plan of development for a certain region, Cambodian ethnic minorities should be included in the grand benefit of any sort of investment and they must not be left behind. If their leaders lack the intellectual capacities to deal with new projects of development, it is the duty of the State to provide the correct training for the local leaders to protect and defend the rights of their peoples.

Destruction of the ecosystem

It is very much sad to see the destruction of the ancestral jungles in places like Ratanakiri where the Jarai people and other ethnic minority groups have inhabited per centuries. They have lived from the forest, considered, by the way, sacred and the mother of life. It is not only about land grabbing, but the arrogant destruction of the ecosystems in order to convert amazing jungles into monotonous lines of  rubber trees. It is also pity that some Jarai children and youth accept the logic of this kind of colonization as a social benefit. In our visit to a Jarai village, one teenager explained that the rubber plantations give a lot of money. In this sense, we understand that the destruction of the ecosystem is not only the cut of old trees to make luxury tables and doors for the houses of rich colonizers, but also the destruction of the soul of the Jarai people that forget the ancient traditions and friendly relation with the jungle to be linked to the same selfish mentality of the colonizers coming from the cities.

The corrupt system in a place like Ratanakiri is doing a lot of damage to the ethnic minority groups and to the environment. It is possible to see beautiful and amazing works of wood around Cambodia like big doors, tables, giant pitchers made of a single tree… an ancient tree of gross trunk grown during the centuries in the middle of precious virgin forests now destroyed without mercy by the ambition of a small group of people.

A huge tree can live until 2,000 years. Many of those trees that they cut out for their hideous business, were born even during the time of the splendor of Funan, Chenla and Angkor. Destroying the forest is also destroying the soul of the Jarai people and condemning them to become beggars, low caste and people without future. No one who  persist in destroying the forest, can receive the blessing from any religion, because they are already destroying the natural sanctuaries of God.

Language and Education

The Cambodian Jarai has not a written language. It makes them vulnerable to a cultural absorption. As it has happened in many other countries, when an ethnic minority forgets their own language, it is declared as extinct. Although Jarai People are currently talking in their own language when they are at their village and in the privacy of their home, it is important to develop a written system in Khmer scripts (not in Latin) and teach it to the children in their basic Jarai education. Of course, it is vital that they dominate Khmer language that is the official language in their nation.

Publication of Jarai books, videos, music, will help the children to appreciate their own language and keep their face before other ethnic groups, especially the dominant Khmer. In Don Bosco Kep we are working with our Jarai students in order to develop that Jarai script writing system, as well as promoting the Jarai students to talk frequently in their own language any time there is the opportunity.


All this situation of land grabbing of the Jarai land – and the land of other ethnic minority groups -, the lack of opportunities for study and to develop their own culture and traditions, open the way for the meddling of certain foreign religious groups that see the opportunity to impose their own believes and foreign cultural systems. While their own country people, the Khmer, despise them as people of the forest and look how to get the best advantage for them, these others come with a hypocritical kindness to conquer them for their own religions, giving the last lurch to their cultures. Religious people is welcome to get in touch with any indigenous community around the world, but with a genuine interest to support their growing as people, with the respect for their culture, traditions, believes and languages. Buying a religious conversion is fake. Any religious leaders leading a group of people that converted only to thanks the food, is a divider, another cultural destroyer, not less than the selfish colonizers that put price to the ancestral jungles.

Read also

  • Hymowitz, Sara and Others (2003). The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. University of Minnesota, Human Rights Library. Link retrieved on 04.30.2017 from this link.
  • Mu Sochua (2015). Government Should Protect Indigenous Peoples and Their Forests. The Cambodia Daily, 1st April 2015. Link retrieved on 04.30.2017 from this link.
  • A Preliminary Jarai – English Dictionary. Link retrieved on 04.30.2017 from this link.

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