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Minority Converts in a Majority Church

Bunong Encounters with Protestantism under the Khmer Republic (1970–75)

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
Author:
Catherine ScheerLecturer in anthropology, Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient ( efeo), Paris, France
Centre Asie du Sud-Est ( case), Statutory member, Aubervilliers, France

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Abstract

Conversion to Christianity among Southeast Asian highland minorities has been recurrently interpreted as a way of joining a valorised religion that distinguishes converts from often-Buddhist ruling majorities and sometimes as a means of adopting a ‘modern’ way of life. Neither of these explanations, however, seems to appropriately describe the situation of Bunong highlanders who turned to Christianity in Cambodia’s capital in the early 1970s. Under the pro-American regime of Lon Nol (1970–75), these spirit-practising inhabitants of the margins were brought to Phnom Penh to enrol in the national army. Khmer majority preachers visited them and led them to integrate themselves into the Khmer Evangelical Church. As light is shed on the astonishing trajectories of these Bunong recruits, it becomes possible to reflect upon what ‘entering Christianity’ meant for them. They were few in number, but the particularities of their experiences highlight the importance of an unprejudiced approach to Southeast Asian highlanders’ conversions.

Abstract

Conversion to Christianity among Southeast Asian highland minorities has been recurrently interpreted as a way of joining a valorised religion that distinguishes converts from often-Buddhist ruling majorities and sometimes as a means of adopting a ‘modern’ way of life. Neither of these explanations, however, seems to appropriately describe the situation of Bunong highlanders who turned to Christianity in Cambodia’s capital in the early 1970s. Under the pro-American regime of Lon Nol (1970–75), these spirit-practising inhabitants of the margins were brought to Phnom Penh to enrol in the national army. Khmer majority preachers visited them and led them to integrate themselves into the Khmer Evangelical Church. As light is shed on the astonishing trajectories of these Bunong recruits, it becomes possible to reflect upon what ‘entering Christianity’ meant for them. They were few in number, but the particularities of their experiences highlight the importance of an unprejudiced approach to Southeast Asian highlanders’ conversions.

In 2009, when I set out to study what it meant to be Protestant for people from the Bunong-speaking ‘indigenous minority’ living in Cambodia’s highlands, my colleague Neth Prak and I came across a conversion story that was surprising in several ways. Mé Nok and Pö Nok, a Bunong couple of farmers in their late fifties, told us that they converted in the early 1970s in a camp in far-away Phnom Penh, where Pö Nok was a soldier.1 They were persuaded to turn to Christianity by relatives back in the highlands who explained, through cassette recordings, that they had themselves just converted. Teachers (kh. lok gru), from the Khmer majority, then came to visit them in the camp and taught them songs and prayers.

This story made me wonder how these highland dwellers had come to Phnom Penh shortly after the coup d’état that brought the pro-American General Lon Nol into power, when their homelands were already under the power of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. I also found the reverence with which Mé and Pö Nok referred to their Khmer-majority Christian teachers to be somewhat counterintuitive. It did not fit well-established anthropological interpretations of conversion among Southeast Asian highlanders that present this shift as a way for minority peoples to distinguish themselves from a non-Christian ruling majority.2

Common Anthropological Readings of Highland ‘Minority’ Conversions in Continental Southeast Asia

In a much-quoted article on conversion to Christianity among Hmong peoples in Thailand in the 1980s, Nicolas Tapp drew the conclusion that ‘Christianity appears to offer an alternative way of remaining Hmong without being absorbed by the Thai state, through gaining an identity of a ‘higher’ order and thus avoiding the more mundane choice between a mere continuation of an ethnic minority status and total assimilation’.3 Ann Cornelia Kammerer formulated similar analyses with reference to the Akha in Thailand, underlining that their adoption of ‘Yesu zah’, or ‘Jesus’ customs’ can be understood as ‘a claim to difference from and a claim to equality with valley-dwelling Buddhists’.4 These interpretations take into account the deep-seated marginalization of Southeast Asian highland minorities as well as the Protestant missionaries’ relative lack of success among the Thai Buddhist majority.5 While they were undoubtedly pertinent in their given contexts, these readings should not be generalized to other groups and countries of the region, despite similarities in ethnic and religious politics.6

Yoko Hayami already argued this in the 1990s, explaining that the Karen with whom she did research in Thailand turned to Christianity not so much to distinguish themselves from the Thai majority but because their spirit practices did not appear adequate to them anymore in a context marked by considerable socio-economic change and decreasing autonomy.7 A similar argument took shape, a decade later, in Buadaeng Kwanchewan and Panadda Boonyasaranai’s work on religious conversion among Karen and Akha highlanders in Thailand.8 Based on their ethnographic research, they refuted the thesis that adopting Christianity was a way to stand apart from the majority society, and presented it rather as a way to cope with the challenges of a globalized world. Oscar Salemink brought these and other reflections together to approach the question on a regional level. He contended that even if the adoption of Protestantism has been a way for marginalised minorities to reaffirm their distinct identity in numerous contexts, it is ‘important to note that the claim of “religious profiling” of ethnic difference is certainly not universally applicable in Southeast Asia’.9 Analysing the meanings of shifting to Christianity in both upland and urban Southeast Asia, Salemink insisted as well on the fact that conversion might allow people—[majority] urbanites but also highland minorities—to be ‘subjects of the modern state and […] an essential part of […] global networks’.10 He related this reading to the influence of an expanding market economy and global media, attracting people to a ‘modern’ way of life.

Dealing With the Unwieldy

These alternative interpretations of conversions are undoubtedly interesting and enriching. However, they do not suffice to explain the decision to ‘enter Christianity’ (bng. lap chro’) that Mé and Pö Nok took in a camp in Phnom Penh, along with a small group of the Bunong soldiers and their families who were living there with them. Driven from their homelands by U.S. bombing, these Cambodian mountain minorities had first stayed in a South Vietnamese refugee camp, just across the border from their village, before going to Phnom Penh to fight alongside the national army of the Khmer Republic against the communist forces. Their conversion in Cambodia’s capital, and their integration into the Khmer Evangelical Church lead us to consider minority perceptions of the majority beyond antagonism and to examine the place of Christian actors in the predominantly Buddhist Khmer Republic. They also call for a more open approach to conversions among Southeast Asian highlanders. It is by no means my intention to extrapolate from this specific small group of people the significance that conversion to Christianity may have had for other Southeast Asian highland inhabitants. However, their experience and motivations show the need to think beyond established dynamics of national minority-majority tensions and global modernisation politics when approaching the adoption of Christianity among the region’s so-called ethnic or indigenous minorities.

Thus, this article has a two-fold aim. Firstly, it sheds light on a still little-known period of Cambodian history—the late 1960s to the early 1970s—the particularities of which complicate established interpretations of highland minority conversions in contemporary mainland Southeast Asia. Secondly, it approaches indigenous minority conversions in a historically grounded but heuristically more open way, paying attention to people’s relations with humans and well as with spirits. Initially we explore how Mé and Pö Nok and fellow Bunong inhabitants of Mondulkiri province’s south-eastern border region experienced their place within the Cambodian nation and their relation to the Khmer majority in the late 1960s to ask how this might have influenced their decision to enrol in the national army in the early 1970s. We then investigate Christianity in Cambodia under the Khmer Republic and the Protestant missionary networks involved in the Bunong city-dwellers’ conversion. Finally, with these aspects clarified, we return to Mé and Pö Nok’s conversion story to reflect upon how they might have made sense of their shift to a new god in this very particular context.

This paper is based on a set of long discussions with Bunong who lived through the turbulent 1970s and agreed to address this heavy past with my Bunong colleagues and me when we visited them in their homes, in the highlands of Mondulkiri, in 2009 and later in 2020. Mé and Pö Nok were the only ones who could speak about conversion in Phnom Penh based on their own experience since, to my knowledge, they were the only ones of those who had adopted Christianity in the capital who made it back to their homeland after the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. Their stories were connected to the ones of fellow Bunong who converted in South Vietnamese refugee camps, as well as to elements gathered in interviews with Cambodian missionaries who had been involved with the Phnom Penh-based Bunong in the early 1970s. I consulted documents in diverse archives, such as the Texas Tech University’s Virtual Vietnam Archives and the Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives’ Les Kosem Collection. Partly autobiographical missionary and military historical accounts constitute complementary written sources.

Non-Assimilated Highland Allies: South-Eastern Mondulkiri’s Bunong within the Cambodian Nation

‘Bunong’ is a name that an estimated sixty thousand to seventy thousand people living on the Cambodian and Vietnamese sides of the Annamese highlands use today to refer to themselves.11 Dwelling on the southern tip of the mountainous range that Willem van Schendel called Zomia, the Bunong speak an Austroasiatic, Môn-Khmer language different from the Cambodian and Vietnamese national languages.12 Historically, they have been swidden farmers, interacting with surrounding spirit-gods rather than practising Buddhism. According to James Scott’s well-known and much-discussed anarchist history of the Southeast Asian highlands, they settled in this rugged area to evade the state and its hierarchical power-structures.13 This is not the place to delve into speculations about the Bunongs’ pre-colonial relations with surrounding lowland powers. However, it can be safely said that even forty years after the French placed Cambodia under their Protectorate in 1863, these highland inhabitants were still largely autonomous.

Integrating the Margins

An initial attempt to subdue the Bunong at the beginning of the twentieth century resulted in fierce resistance to the French administrators and their Khmer majority soldiers, climaxing in 1914 with the murder of explorer and civil service member Henri Maitre.14 While the French stayed out of the Cambodian highlands for nearly two decades, the 1930s marked a return of the colonial forces, but with increased equipment.15 This second attempt to ‘pacify’ the rebellious hinterland was more successful. It led to the establishment of military posts and in the subjugation of the region’s inhabitants to corvée labour.16 By 1939, the French seemed to have secured their posts. They equipped them with schools and organised medical tours to highland villages.17 At large, the colonial influence remained, however, relatively limited across the region.18

The central power from the lowlands came to be more strongly felt after Cambodia had reached its independence in 1953. In 1962, Prince Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum government created the province of Mondulkiri, which was put under military administration along with its northern neighbour Ratanakiri, created in 1959. Sihanouk’s effort to construct an independent nation subjected the inhabitants of these marginal regions to multi-layered assimilation policies. In addition to resettlement projects aiming to convert highland dwellers from swidden agriculture to irrigated rice cultivation and to fix them in space, the inhabitants of these new provinces were supposed to follow their more evolved lowland neighbours.19 Monks were sent to the region to promote Buddhism, local adornments such as ivory earlobe-plugs, ground-down teeth and loincloth came to be prohibited, and highlanders were asked to wear the same clothes as their majority neighbours and to speak the dominant language.20 These Khmerization endeavours were neatly encapsulated in Sihanouk’s nomenclature that turned those who, hitherto, had been generically called ‘Phnong’ into Upland Khmer (kh. Khmer Loeu). While the Sangkum’s assimilation policies were implemented more than once with physical violence, the densely forested highlands became increasingly invested by communist forces, both Vietnamese and Cambodian. Local bases of the so-called Viet Cong turned the border regions into a target of American bombings that started in the 1960s and lasted until the early 1970s. Contrary to the insurance that the U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger provided, these attacks hit and killed villagers in these areas.

Particular Circumstances in South-Eastern Mondulkiri

When we look closely at how those Bunong who went to Phnom Penh in the early 1970s concretely experienced assimilation politics, there appear to be certain particularities. In order to reflect on historical testimonials made by the inhabitants of Mondulkiri, it is useful to look at more well-documented events that took place in Ratanakiri during the same period. In this neighbouring province, the government’s attempt to ‘develop’ the highland’s fertile red soil led to the establishment, in 1960, of a state rubber plantation, which induced, among other issues, forced displacements of numerous villages.21 As local populations voiced their discontent, the military, in charge of governing the province, violently repressed them, using tanks and aerial attacks.22 In contrast, in the south-eastern part of Mondulkiri, which was home to Mé and Pö Nok and many of the other Bunong who had embarked to Phnom Penh, surprisingly most villages still remained in place by 1970.

A reason that might help explain the apparently less strict implementation of assimilation and ‘development’ policies in this area is that a Bunong dignitary, Pö Ok-Ngroong, governed it. This son of one of the first Bunong who collaborated with the French in the 1930s held an administrative position in the colonial post of Le Rolland before being put in charge of the O Reang district under the Sangkum government. Ngroong had been involved in setting up the irrigated rice fields that still exist around Bu Sra. While some of his close family members left their original village to join this wet rice enterprise, most Bunong dwellers of the area stayed in the forested hills and continued to practice swidden agriculture. It appears that this high-positioned Bunong official managed to shield those in his charge from one of the most disruptive aspects of the state’s Khmerization efforts. By doing so, he may have prevented or at least diminished the emergence of a hostile attitude towards the central power and, more generally its Khmer majority representatives. One may even wonder whether Pö Ok-Ngroong’s presence and his cushioning of ethnic discrimination indirectly favoured the involvement of Bunong from his region within Cambodian government positions, where they worked alongside Khmer people. In the district under Ngroong’s administration, I was told that there were Bunong who held positions of teacher and nurse and even some who had responsibilities in local army units during the Sangkum period. This, in turn, influenced the later enrolment of Bunong from this region into the Cambodian army after Sihanouk’s ousting in March 1970 and the establishment of the Khmer Republic, a right-wing and pro-American government led by Lon Nol, former army chief-of-staff and Prime Minister.

Only a few weeks after the coup, the national army (whose name was changed from ‘Forces Armées Royales Khmères’ to ‘Forces Armées Nationales Khmères’ or fank) lost Mondulkiri province and more generally, the Northeast to the Vietnamese communists and, increasingly, to the Khmer Rouge.23 Hence, it was arguably in a quest to strengthen the Republic’s frail army that Cambodian military representatives recruited highlanders who had taken refuge in South Vietnamese camps. In the early months of 1970, thousands of Bunong villagers from south-eastern Mondulkiri had run away from the American bombings and taken shelter in refugee camps across the border that were run by South Vietnamese and U.S. Special Forces. At least for part of these Bunong refugees, the decision to escape to foreign camps, rather than to hide in their own forests as many people did in neighbouring Ratanakiri, was influenced by the fact that they or their close relatives had been involved with the Cambodian state apparatus and were thus at risk to be killed by the Khmer Rouge.24

For Bunong to have engaged with the Cambodian central power, whether as teachers, nurses or soldiers, one can assume that there were limits to the hostility they felt towards that power and its majority Khmer representatives. Rather than being a consequence of successful assimilation policies, this apparent absence of antagonism probably resulted from the relative lack of policy implementation ensured by an influential Bunong intermediary. However, this does not mean that those Bunong who accepted official positions, both under the Sangkum and later with the Khmer Republic, did so to support or defend the Cambodian nation. In discussions with Mé and Pö Nok, and with relatives of the estimated two thousand Bunong refugees who accepted to enrol in the Khmer Republic’s army, it appeared that the reasons that led these highlanders to get onto a plane to Phnom Penh were complex.25 A doubtlessly strong motivation was the expectation that this move would enable them to return to their territory and protect it. Even if the Bunong draftees ended up staying around Phnom Penh until the Khmer Rouge took over the city in 1975, they had been initially told that they were to fight for their homelands, which Mé and Pö Nok, and potentially many other Bunong refugees, understood to be in Mondulkiri.

Although patchy, this region-specific reading of the ways in which the Sangkum’s assimilation efforts were mediated and received in south-eastern Mondulkiri complicates what we know about highland inhabitants’ experience of these policies as well as of their perception of the Cambodian central power and, more generally, its mostly Khmer representatives. Relatively protected from the most disruptive assimilation measures, it appeared conceivable for some of the region’s Bunong to collaborate with Cambodians from the lowland majority, not so much to serve the nation as to support their own Bunong people. However, this collaboration relativises the minority-majority antagonism that underlies the established interpretation of conversion to Christianity as motivated by a wish to differentiate from the dominant population. The second point underlying this interpretation, that of Protestant missionaries encountering little success among the Buddhist majority, was toned down in the short-lived Khmer Republic.

Connected Missionaries: Christian Evangelicals in Transnational (Para-)Military Networks

From Restrained Outsiders to Valued Supporters of the Cambodian Government

From their establishment in Cambodia in the early 1920s through the end of the 1960s, Protestant missionaries were subjected to restrictive regulations, which contributed to limit their success. During the French Protectorate, colonial administrators showed less enthusiasm to facilitate access to the field for the mostly American Protestant envoys than for their more familiar Catholic counterparts.26 After Cambodia’s independence in 1953, the prominence of Theravada Buddhism, which had been cultivated since the nineteenth century, was further strengthened by Prince Sihanouk in his discourses and politico-religious ideologies.27 In the context of the Vietnam war, Sihanouk’s increasingly hostile attitude towards the U.S. further limited the spread of evangelical Christianity as it resulted, in 1965, in the expulsion of all American citizens, among them a large part of the country’s Protestant missionaries. As the members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance (c&ma)—one of the first and main Protestant missions to have worked in Cambodia—left the country after close to five decades, there were only an expected few hundred to a thousand Cambodian converts regrouped in the Khmer Evangelical Church (kec).28

The Khmer Republic, however, marked a significant shift both in the Cambodian government’s attitude towards Protestant organisations and, as it seems, in widespread popular interest for this form of Christianity. The political overthrow that brought Lon Nol into power was almost immediately followed by the dramatically staged arrival of the U.S.-based Protestant ngo World Vision (wv) on Cambodian territory. As the organisation’s official story goes, only a few weeks after Lon Nol’s take-over, Stanley Mooneyham—wv’s by-then president—drove with truckloads of medicine and other supplies from South Vietnam into Cambodia.29 This American Faith-based Organisation’s influence grew when, in February 1972, the presence of U.S. officials in Cambodia became limited to two hundred persons, leading American funding to be channelled mainly through charities.30 The same year, Mooneyham held highly mediatised evangelistic crusades during which he was preaching in crowded stadiums, his words being translated into Khmer by Son Sonne. The latter was part of kec and heading the Khmer Bible Society.31 According to so-far unchallenged historical accounts by Christian authors, thousands of Cambodians were led to God in the early 1970s, and kec churches were increasingly visited.32 I leave it to others to further explore the influence that Protestant organisations had on the Khmer majority at that time, to focus on those missionaries who visited the Bunong highlanders in Phnom Penh and on the networks in which they were involved.

Khmer Missionaries in a Bunong Camp

According to Mé and Pö Nok, they and their fellow Bunong learned how to worship as Christians through the Khmer missionaries whom they called lok gru or ‘masters’ Soth, Saat, and Ith, who came to visit them in Prek Tasek camp, on the peninsula of Chroy Chongvar, right across from Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, I have not been able to retrace Chhun Ith, but had the chance to meet Yorng Soth and Yorng Saat on several occasions.33 These two brothers, who were still active within kec in 2020, were born in Kampong Cham province to parents who had been among the early Cambodian converts to Protestantism. Soth and Saat arrived in Phnom Penh in 1972 to study at the Takmao Bible School, which was part of the kec. Soth explained that in the morning, he was going to class, in the afternoon working at the publishing house of the Khmer Bible Society, and on weekends spreading the good news. According to his brother Saat, it was common for Bible School students to practice their evangelisation skills by going to one of the camps that were multiplying in Phnom Penh as the city was swelling with rural dwellers who were escaping American bombings.

The brothers recounted that they had been going to preach to the highland Christians at Prek Tasek camp from 1973 onwards. Saat described that when they arrived at the entry of the camp, they only had to show their card attesting that they were part of the kec to the fank soldiers who were guarding the place in order to be let in. On some occasions, the Yorng brothers were accompanied by Pleuk Sary, a Bunong friend from Bible School who was a fank soldier, coming from Mé and Pö Nok’s village, and who helped with translation. It also happened that the Khmer missionaries had the company of foreign counterparts, such as Norman Ens of the c&ma and Alice Compain of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (omf). Once or twice a month, Saat dispatched medicine and vitamins on behalf of World Vision, which also provided blankets and other basic necessities, according to Mam Barnabas, who was in charge of administering the organisation’s relief work in 1973.

When I asked Soth about how he and his brother came in touch with this camp that was mainly regrouping ‘Khmer Loeu’, as people still used to call Cambodia’s highland inhabitants under the Khmer Republic, he explained that it was through Ksor Kok, a highland man from Vietnam, whom Soth knew from Bethany church and from weekly Bible lessons there. Ksor Kok apparently asked their teacher Merle Graven, who was also the principal of the Bible school and the head of c&ma in Cambodia (1970–1974), to send support to highland Christians in the camp. Graven would then have gotten in touch with the Yorng brothers as well as with various Protestant institutions and organisations to honour this demand. The Khmer missionary’s explanation begs at least two questions: what led a person from the Vietnamese side of the highlands to a church in Phnom Penh, and what was his link to Prek Tasek camp?

Political Cross-Border Connections

In addition to joining Bethany church and Bible classes, Ksor Kok, who self-identified as ethnic Jarai, was an officer in the fank and, furthermore, a member of the Front Uni de Lutte des Races Opprimées (fulro). This ethno-nationalist organisation involved ethnic minority peoples from the central highlands of South Vietnam, who had organised in reaction to the brutal loss of land and rights they were experiencing in post-independence Vietnam under the authoritarian rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem (1955–1963).34 In 1964, a segment of these highland militants merged with two Cambodia-based movements—one Cham, and the other Khmer Krom—with which they shared an inimical stance towards the Vietnamese as ‘invaders’. In September 1964, after having attacked several South Vietnamese military bases, these highland militants crossed the border and established their headquarters in Mondulkiri province.35 The fulro alliance, led by two Cambodian army colonels, Les Kosem, who was Cham, and Um Savuth, who was Khmer Krom, was accepted by Prince Sihanouk and endorsed by Lon Nol, by then head of the national armed forces. By mid-1965, close to two hundred highland ethno-nationalists from Vietnam came to be part of the Cambodian army.36

After Lon Nol’s overthrow of Sihanouk, those of the Vietnamese highland ethno-nationalists who, despite fissiparous conflicts, remained within the fulro, got promoted with in the fank.37 These fulro-fank from Vietnam then came to play a non-negligible role with regard to the Bunong refugees’ integration within the Cambodian army. Even if it was a high-ranking Bunong soldier—Pö Koan-Mbaay—who seemed to have handled much of the recruitment, it appeared that highland fulro members ensured the coordination with refugee camps in Vietnam.38 Further, some of these men, including Ksor Kok, managed the Prek Tasek camp. According to Mé and Pö Nok, Pö Koan-Mbaay was in charge on the ground level, staying with them in the camp on the Chroy Chongvar peninsula. However, they identified the camp leaders as having been Jarai, Rhade, and Bunong men from Vietnam who were based in Phnom Penh. It appears quite certain that all of them were part of the ethno-nationalist movement.39

A Common Religious Thread

To return to Kok Ksor, the fact that this Jarai man went to a kec church is not surprising since, like numerous highland inhabitants from South Vietnam, he had converted to Protestantism through missionaries from c&ma.40 The missionary organisation had been present since 1929 in the Central highlands of what was then Cochinchina, and even if it faced restrictions under French colonial rule, it managed to establish itself and start spreading the gospel.41 With the beginning of the ‘American war’ in Vietnam in the 1960s, the work of this and other Protestant organisations was eased as the U.S. army, in particular, the Special Forces took position in the highlands. Faith-based agencies ‘coordinated, encouraged and protected’ by the U.S. government were part and parcel of the ‘other war’, which aimed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population through humanitarian aid and economic development.42 In a c&ma journal, the mutual support between missionaries and ‘American servicemen stationed in Vietnam’ is described as providing the former the opportunity to evangelise among the locals after having taken care of the soldiers’ religious service.43

Although evangelical Christians seem to have remained minoritarian within fulro’s highland section, they held influential positions, starting with Y Bham Enuol, the movement’s charismatic Rhade leader.44 in south vietnam, c&ma missionaries, such as Bob Ziemer and Carolyn Griswold, would have relied on their well-established relations with highlanders to act as intermediaries between fulro militants and American or South Vietnamese authorities.45 According to missionary sources, the group of highland activists around Y Bham Enuol which established itself in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province in 1964 consisted of around a hundred Christians who came together on Sundays to read the Bible and sing, until they left this base in 1969 to go to Phnom Penh.46 Thus, it is understandable that those fulro highlanders, who had integrated the army, were reconnected to local c&ma missionaries based in Cambodia’s capital.47

In addition to this connection between fulro and c&ma, more recent but equally significant ties appeared to exist between fank and kec, also involving World Vision. These ties materialised most notably through persons like Taing Chhirc, who not only was the general secretary of kec in the early 1970s but also held the rank of Major in fank. In 1973, he interrupted his PhD in engineering in Edinburgh to come back to Cambodia.48 In Protestant sources, this kec leader’s grade tends to be specified and his military affiliation emphasised. Moreover, Taing Chhirc’s cousin, Minh Thien Voan, who held a Masters in engineering from the University of Georgia, became in 1973 the director of wv Cambodia.49 These two high-ranking Khmer Protestants were, like Ksor Kok and Soth, members of Bethany church.

The convergence between Protestant and military spheres under the Khmer Republic, for sure, requires further examination. The few elements gathered here nevertheless allow us to infer that Lon Nol, despite his strong reliance on Buddhism and occult practices, left an unprecedented space to western, mostly American Protestant missionaries and even admitted Cambodian Protestants and highland Christians from Vietnam in the Khmer Republic’s sphere of power.50 This intersection of military-religious networks not only explains how Protestants from the Khmer Evangelical Church came to preach in the Prek Tasek camp. It also helps us to grasp how the cassettes that transmitted messages from Bunong people, who had remained in South Vietnamese refugee camps, got to their relatives in Phnom Penh.

Circulating Bunong Records From Camp to Camp

According to Mé and Pö Nok, the audio records had been sent at the beginning of the 1970s through Pö Koan-Mbaay. This Bunong fank soldier was going back and forth between the Cambodian and the South Vietnamese camps, enabling some basic interaction among family members who had been physically separated. In addition to the audio tapes that he brought to Phnom Penh, he also took photographs of the Bunong fank soldiers back to the highlands. Some of these pictures can still be seen today in the Cambodian highlands, kept safe by family members. Pö Koan-Mbaay was neither a Christian nor (as far as we know) a member of fulro. However, as a fank military, he was connected to both the Protestant and the ethno-nationalist groups.

The only aspect of the story that remains unclear concerns the production of the audio records. According to an elderly Bunong man who was among the first refugees from Cambodia to have converted to Christianity in one of the South Vietnamese camps, it was ‘thấy Philip’ who recorded their voices.51 By ‘teacher Philip’, he referred to Richard Phillips, an American c&ma missionary, who had come to Vietnam with his wife Lillian in 1958. Richard Phillips studied the Bunong Buneurr dialect from 1961 to 1963 before working on the publication of Bunong literacy and biblical materials. Even though he himself did not mention the production or sending of any records when I met him and his wife in North Carolina in 2010, he confirmed having gone out to preach and teach in Bu Bong and other camps in Quang Duc province during the couple’s last stay in the highlands, from 1971 to 1975. Of course, this does not prove that he made and sent the tapes, but it also does not exclude the possibility.

What is clear is that intersecting military-religious networks connected the central highlands to Phnom Penh and introduced the Cambodian Bunong recruits to Christianity. Moreover, they tied together Khmer, American and highland Protestants, an alliance that contrasts with the more recurrent opposition between a dominant Buddhist majority and Christianized ethnic minorities supported by western missionaries. With this peculiar and so far little-known situation elucidated, we can now return to the question of what it possibly meant for the Phnom Penh-based Bunong to adopt Christianity.

A Shared God: Protection from Bunong Spirit-Gods and Lessons from Khmer Teachers

Violence of War and Spiritual Vulnerability

In Mé and Pö Nok’s explanation of what the cassette-recorded voices of their family members told them, the central theme was protection. Their close relatives, who had stayed in the South Vietnamese refugee camp of Bu Bong, informed them that they had converted to Christianity out of fear of the spirit-gods’ (bng. brah-yaang) wrath. Knowing or fearing that back home in the highlands of Mondulkiri, their villages had been burned down by bombs or ground forces, they found themselves in a highly vulnerable situation. For them the burning of a house was far more than a critical material loss; it was an act of violence inflicted upon the more-than-human agents who were part of their household. Any damage done to these agents—rice, jars or gongs—required repair; sacrifices were offered to the spirit-gods. Such purification rituals were, however, difficult if not impossible to perform in the camps, where people lived devoid of their belongings and animals. Afraid of the spirit-gods’ anger and of related reprisals, the Bunong refugees explained that they had turned to the Christian god who sacrificed his son to purify human wrongs and was stronger than their brah-yaang.52 They urged their relatives who had left for Cambodia to join their submission to this mighty god so that they would be as well under his protection.

The concern about suffering from upset spirit-gods’ reprisals, causing sickness, accidents, or even death, must have affected the Bunong who had come to Phnom Penh as much as it did distress their family members who had remained in the highland refugee camps. Indebted towards the spirit-gods with whom they used to be in touch, they had been disconnected from their homelands for an exceptionally long time. When Mé and Pö Nok received their relatives’ tape-recorded messages in 1973, they and their fellows had probably painfully realised that in the near future there was no possibility of a return to Mondulkiri that would have enabled them to mend upset spirit-relations. They found themselves in an indefinite state of vulnerability, when their family members urged them to follow their own submission to this new god from whom they expected protection.

According to Mé and Pö Nok, several other families besides them also received audio-taped messages and decided, as they did, to convert. Lok gru Saat estimated the number of Christians in Prek Tasek camp around twelve families or seventy people, more than half of whom would have been children. These figures draw near to c&ma missionary Louisa Graven’s estimation of about one hundred Bunong Christians living in the camp close to Cambodia’s capital.53 Graven also reported that a weekend gathering of Phnom Penh churches had resulted in the baptism of fourteen Bunong in the Bassac river.54 Another rare evidence of these Bunong converts came from a photograph that Pö Koan-Mbaay transmitted to their relatives who had stayed in a South Vietnamese refugee camp (see Fig. 1). It reveals a group of people standing in front of a bamboo shack with, in the middle, a man wearing a white shirt and a black tie. The three elderly Bunong women who showed me this picture explained that the woman on the upper right is their sister, and the man on her side, her husband, holding their baby child. They identified a range of other people as fellow villagers and explained that the photograph was taken in front of the church in the camp.55

Figure 1
Figure 1

Group picture taken after church, with the young couple and their child on the upper right and several other adults and children from Mé and Pö Nok’s village.

Citation: International Journal of Asian Christianity 6, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/25424246-06010005

The Power of Experience and Knowledge

There is little doubt about the fact that the Phnom Penh-based Bunong recruits’ choice to follow a god who was described as a powerful protector had other reasons than aspiring to ‘modernity’ or distinguishing themselves from the country’s majority population. Nevertheless, one can still wonder how they saw Khmer Protestants and their own relation to them. Even if the Bunongs’ decision to rely on the Christian god was induced by their relatives, they shared the relation to this new spiritual agent with persons from the Khmer majority. The fact that the Phnom Penh-based highland Protestants were mostly in touch with Khmer missionaries who taught them how to behave as Christians led me to think that these Bunong converts might have perceived majority Cambodians as fellows with more experience and knowledge. This hypothesis emerged from two observations: that Bunong Protestantism, as noted in Mondulkiri by 2009, was deeply shaped by orthopraxy, that is, practice that conforms to established rules, and that pre-Christian rituals require practitioners to know the spirit-gods specific to their territory, a knowledge held in the first place by those who have always lived on this given territory.

To unpack the hypothesis that Khmer Protestants were generally seen as more knowledgeable references by the Phnom Penh-based Bunong converts, let us look at what happened when a pre-Christian Bunong family or entire village asked to live on the land of another village (bng. raan boan), typically in the aftermath of some hardship related to their own place such as an epidemic, or a hostile attack. To be integrated into a village as well as with the land attached to it required newcomers to respect the local spirit-gods and call them to join all kinds of celebrations. This demanded the newcomers learn these spirit-gods’ names and locations from the original villagers, who would, however, always remain the primary knowledge holders. Surely, the institution of a relation with the Christian god differs from that with the brah-yaang in that ‘brah Yesu’ is not seen as tied to a specific place. It is nonetheless possible that the Bunong converts considered those who taught them how to practice as a Christian, that is, Khmer missionaries, as reference persons whose longer experience in communicating with this god invested them with legitimacy and primacy. This reasoning certainly held true for western missionaries, whom several Protestant Bunong interlocutors described as references for having known the Christian god for the longest time. It might even have extended to those who had converted little before the Bunong, such as the Jarai and the Rhadé fulro leaders from Vietnam.

If we compare the situation of the Bunong converts in Cambodia’s capital to their relatives who stayed in South Vietnam, we can reckon that the former perceived themselves as less subordinate to their ‘teachers’ than the latter. I argued elsewhere that for the Bunong refugees who stayed in the South Vietnamese camps, conversion appeared to have been linked to a feeling of surrender or submission to the westerners.56 In this context, Americans were not only more experienced correspondents of the Christian god, but they were also providing the exiled highlanders with vital food and shelter. When talking with former Bunong refugees about this period, I felt a profound sense of their unease with having depended on the external support of foreign camp leaders. It is likely that the situation of material precarity in which the displaced highlanders found themselves reinforced their sense of spiritual vulnerability, provoked by the inability to restore their relations with the spirit-gods.

Conversely, the Bunong in Phnom Penh seem to have felt less devoid of agency. When the few survivors of this mission recalled their years on Chroy Changvar, close to Phnom Penh, they portrayed themselves as allies rather than as dependents of those in charge of the camp. Most of the soldiers from Mondulkiri were in low-ranking military positions, subjected to Khmer, Jarai and Rhadé superiors, but the narrations of Mé and Pö Nok gave the impression of their having a comparatively larger margin of manoeuvre to handle and define their life. The Bunong soldiers were paid and housed with their families, but their dependants worked to cover all other living expenses (see Fig.2). Mé Nok, for example, was employed in a rubber factory. One can thus even wonder whether for the Bunong soldiers in Phnom Penh, living and fighting under the protection of the same god as some of their Khmer fellows, may even have reduced any sense of inferiority to them.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Mé and Pö Nok with their first baby in Phnom Penh in 1973. The couple sent this photograph to Mé Nok’s family in South Vietnam. Her younger sister kept it and brought it back to the Cambodian highlands when she was repatriated in 1986.

Citation: International Journal of Asian Christianity 6, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/25424246-06010005

Conclusion

For the Bunong recruits, turning to the Christian god seemed to be neither an act of rebellion against the Cambodian majority population nor a quest for a ‘modern’ way of life. Instead, one can see their conversion as an attempt to find protection from the wrath of the spirit-gods when it had become impossible to relate to them appropriately. Further, this shift of allegiance entailed a connection to Khmer but also Jarai, Rhadé and American, who prayed to the same god in a battle against the same enemy.

This interpretation of Southeast Asian highland conversions to Protestantism may be unexpected, but it is in part explained by the fact that under the short-lived pro-American Khmer Republic, Protestant Christianity had an unusual resonance in a Buddhist country that was well-known for its longstanding imperviousness to missionary work. Furthermore, the relationship between the Bunong from south-eastern Mondulkiri and officials of the Khmer majority seemed to be less conflict-ridden than that, for instance, of ‘minority’ inhabitants of certain parts of Ratanakiri. While the latter suffered land loss and extreme violence at the hands of Khmer soldiers under the Sangkum, at least among the Bunong from Mondulkiri’s south-eastern border region, the government’s assimilation politics appeared to be damped.

In addition to the influence of their unusual situation, the Bunong, refugees’ ways of interacting with their spirit-gods and, most importantly, their inability to maintain these interactions during wartime displacements played a key role in their choice to turn to Christianity. The wish to reconnect with the spirit-gods and ancestors and to perform the necessary rituals is likely to have contributed to highland refugees’ decision to enrol in the army and return to Cambodia. By the time these Bunong families converted in Phnom Penh—more or less two years after their arrival—the hope for a quick return to their homelands had probably faded.

This interpretation of how a small group of highland Bunong refugees made sense of their conversion to Protestantism at a very specific, even peculiar moment in time is not necessarily applicable to other Bunong or, more broadly, to other Southeast Asian indigenous minorities in different contexts. It does not question that, for certain of these minorities at certain times, a major motivation to become Christian lay in the fact that it was a valorised religion different from that followed by the majority population. It shows the importance of paying careful attention to people’s diverse and changing relations with fellow humans and more-than-humans.

It is impossible to know what happened during the years of war and conflict to all the Bunong people who appear in this paper. The young couple in the photograph, as well as Pleuk Sary, the Bunong soldier who went to Bible school, never returned to their village. Neither did the relatives of over a dozen Bunong people whose family members had left on this mission. Mé and Pö Nok seem to have been among the few recruits who survived the years spent close to Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge rule (1975–79) that followed. It took them more than two decades after the overthrow of that murderous regime to return to their homelands. Many of the Bunong refugees who had stayed back in South Vietnam converted to Christianity, either Protestant or Catholic.

When these Cambodian Bunong survivors were repatriated from Vietnam to Mondulkiri, the ones who had converted introduced Christianity to the province. In the 1990s, the Protestant Bunong established contact with kec representatives in Phnom Penh. Thus, it happened that teachers Soth and Saat, who had survived the Khmer Rouge violence, regained contact with their ‘highland brothers and sisters’, among whom Mé and Pö Nok.57 It would require another paper to explore the re-establishment of contact between the kec, c&ma and Bunong converts in detail. What can be said, though, is that the historical links between these Khmer and Western missionaries and Mondulkiri’s Protestants continue to shape Bunong Christianity as it is still practised within one of the main Cambodian evangelical churches.

Acknowledgements

The research at the core of this paper was undertaken with the precious help of my Bunong colleagues Neth Prak, Vannara Riem, Sochea Kim and Teun Somnang. In addition, I am deeply grateful to our interlocutors who agreed to recount stories about episodes of their life that were not always easy. I would also like to thank Rich Garella and Felix Wilfred for their editing work and the anonymous reviewer for their advice. All remaining errors are my own. The early phase of this research was funded by a PhD scholarship from the French government.

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1

Our interlocutors’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity but follow a Bunong modality: parents are called mother (mé) or father (pö) of their first child, which is in this case, Nok (pseudonym).

2

Charles Keyes, ‘Being Protestant in Southeast Asian Worlds’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27:2 (1996), 280–92.

3

Nicolas Tapp, ‘The Impact of Missionary Christianity Upon Marginalised Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20:1 (1989), 70–95.

4

Cornelia Ann Kammerer, ‘Customs and Christian Conversion among Akha Highlanders of Burma and Thailand’, American Ethnologist 17: 2 (1990), 285. For similar interpretations in the Indonesian, Muslim-majority context, see Lorraine V. Aragon, ‘Reorganising the Cosmology: The Reinterpretation of Deities and Religious Practice by Protestants in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27: 2 (1996), 350–73 and Rita Smith Kipp, ‘Conversion by Affiliation: The History of the Karo Batak Protestant Church’, American Ethnologist 22:4 (1995), 868–82.

5

On the limits of the expansion of Christianity in Thailand, see Charles F. Keyes, ‘Why the Thai are not Christian: Buddhist and Christian Conversion in Thailand’, in Robert W. Hefner eds, Conversion to Christianity: Historical and anthropological perspectives on a remarkable transformation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 259–83.

6

Although J.C. Scott draws on specific examples to show how Christianity served as a “resource for distance and modernity” among highland peoples, it remains to be proven whether this tendency was indeed prevalent. James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), pp. 319–22.

7

Yoko Hayami, ‘Karen Tradition According to Christ or Buddha: The Implications of Multiple Reinterpretations for a Minority Ethnic Group in Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27: 2 (1996), 334–49.

8

Buadaeng Kwanchewan and Panadda Boonyasaranai, ‘Religious conversion and ethnic identity: The Karen and the Akha in Northern Thailand’, in D. McCaskill, L. Prasit and H. Shaoying, eds, Living in a globalised world: Ethnic minorities in the greater Mekong Subregion (Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2008), pp. 59–88.

9

Oscar Salemink, ‘Is Protestant Conversion a Form of Protest? Urban and Upland Protestants in Southeast Asia’, in F. Khek Gee Lim and J. Bautista, eds, Christianity and the State in Asia (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 36–58 at p.47.

10

Salemink, ‘Is Protestant Conversion a Form of Protest’, in Khek Gee Lim and Bautista, eds, Christianity and the State in Asia, p. 47. See also Hayami, ‘Karen Tradition According to Christ or Buddha’, 347.

11

Numbers are vastly diverging depending on sources, but there would be 37’000 Bunong (or Mnong) speakers in Cambodia (2008 national census) and 32’500 in Vietnam (sil, 2002 quoted by Endangered Languages Project, https://www.endangeredlanguages.com/lang/4045, [accessed on 27 August 2022].

12

Willem Van Schendel, ‘Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20:6 (1 December 2002), 647–68.

13

Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed.

14

Mathieu Guérin, Paysans de la forêt à l’époque coloniale: La pacification des aborigènes des hautes terres du Cambodge (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008), pp. 87–89.

15

Guérin, Paysans de la forêt à l’époque coloniale, pp. 101–106.

16

Guérin, Paysans de la forêt à l’époque coloniale, pp.121–25.

17

Guérin, Paysans de la forêt à l’époque coloniale, pp. 125–27.

18

Guérin, Paysans de la forêt à l’époque coloniale, p. 320.

19

Richard A. Melville, A Northeast Forest: Field Notes on the Hilltribes and Fauna of Cambodia 1959–1962 (Hallowell, Maine: Richard Melville, 2000), pp. 17–21.

20

Melville, A Northeast Forest, p.21; Charles Meyer, ‘Les nouvelles provinces: Ratanakiri-Mondolkiri’, Mondes en développement 28 (1979), 685–86; Jean-Claude Pomonti and Serge Thion, Des courtisans aux partisans. La crise cambodgienne (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), p. 119.

21

Meyer, ‘Les Nouvelles Provinces’, 686–87; Jacqueline Matras-Troubetzkoy, Un village en forêt: l’essartage chez les Brou du Cambodge (Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1983), pp. 19, 52.

22

Charles Meyer, Derrière le sourire khmer (Paris: Plon, 1971), p. 169, Pomonti and Thion, Des courtisans aux partisans, pp. 118–21. The consequences of these politics are described by Sara Colm, ‘Pol Pot: The Secret 60s. Building the “People’s War” among the Tribal Communities’, Phnom Penh Post (24 May 1998), 14–15; Ian G. Baird, Rise of the Brao: Ethnic Minorities in Northeastern Cambodia during Vietnamese Occupation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), pp. 36ff; Frédéric Bourdier, Temps de guerre, temps de révolte chez les populations autochtones du Cambodge. Première assise populaire khmère rouge à Ratanakiri (1967–1971) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2020), pp. 74ff.

23

Kenneth Conboy, The Cambodian Wars: Clashing Armies and cia Covert Operations (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013), p.18; Colm, ‘Pol Pot: The Secret 60s’, 15. See also Ros Chantabrot, La République khmère (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1993).

24

On the situation in Ratanakiri, see Baird, Rise of the Brao, pp. 55–56; Bourdier, Temps de guerre, p. 97.

25

These figures are based on interviews with Bunong people in Mondulkiri, on partial official sources of the Cambodian and the South Vietnamese government (Les Kosem Collection, DC-Cam Archives), and on Louisa Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places: The Story of Merle and Louisa Graven (Camphill: Christian Publications, 2004), p. 143.

26

Catherine Scheer, ‘When the spirits get angry God gains in popularity, Aséanie, 28 (2011), 51–52. Brian Maher with Uon Seila, Cry of the Gecko: History of Christian Mission in Cambodia (Washington: Gorham, 2012). On Southeast Asia more broadly speaking, see Keyes, ‘Being Protestant in Southeast Asian Worlds’, p. 285.

27

Anne Hansen, ‘Khmer identity and Theravada Buddhism’, in John Marston and Elizabeth Guthrie eds, History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004), pp. 40–62; Ian Harris, Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), pp. 131–156; Nasir Abdoul-Carime, ‘Réflexion sur le régime sihanoukien: La monopolisation du Verbe par le pouvoir royal’, Péninsule 31 (1995), 95.

28

The Khmer Evangelical church would have counted around 300 people in 1970, according to the Protestant author Don Cormack, Killing fields, living fields: An unfinished portrait of the Cambodian Church-the Church that would not die (London: Monarch Books, 2003), p. 117. Brian Maher indicates that the kec estimated that there were 2000 converts in 1965, adding that ‘others’ considered there were close to 1000 (Maher, Cry of the Gecko, p. 456 (Ebook).

29

Jeanette Lockerbie, When the blood flows, the heart grows softer (Wheaton: Tyndale Publishers, 1976), p. 78. According to wv’s historical presentation, there was $100,000 worth of goods in that first transfer (www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/-learn/world-vision-Cambodia, [accessed on 12.11.2010].

30

On the Symington-Case Amendment, see William Shawcross, Sideshow. Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), pp. 227, 318. A large hospital was built by World Vision and was to be managed by c&ma but had not yet opened when the Khmer Rouge took over the city in April 1975 (Lockerbie, When the blood flows, photo caption, no page number).

31

Lockerbie, When the blood flows, pp.170–71. Barnabas Mam, Church behind the Wire. A Story of Faith in the Killing Fields (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), pp. 45ff, 170.

32

By 1973, significant growth was reported, the year ending with 1200 Christians celebrating Christmas in Phnom Penh. In 1974, there would have been even more conversions, with 400 people baptised over the first four months and hundreds of Cambodians converting a week by the end of the year Cormack, Living fields, killing fields, pp. 134–135, 144. According to Mam Barnabas, a Protestant pastor who witnessed the Christian activities in the 1970s, ‘there were twenty-seven evangelical churches in Phnom Penh and an estimated ten thousand believers’ before the Khmer Rouge took over the country Mam, Church behind the Wire, p. 159. See also Lockerbie, When the blood flows, pp. 80–81. For a critical Catholic reading of this growth see François Ponchaud, La cathédrale dans la rizière. 450 ans d’histoire de l’Église du Cambodge (Paris: Le Sarment-Fayard, 1990), p. 198. On the impact on kec see, Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p. 167; Lockerbie, When the blood flows, pp. 78, 85.

33

According to Soth, Ith Chhun was working with the Thompsons, who were c&ma missionaries in Cambodia then. He insisted on Ith Chhun’s impressive language skills and explained that he was as well working as a teacher.

34

On the fulro, see Po Dharma, Du flm au fulro. Une lutte des minorités du Sud Indochinois 1955–1975 (Paris: Les Indes savantes, 2006); Gerald C. Hickey, Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954–1976 (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1982); Oscar Salemink, The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders: A Historical Contextualization, 1850–1990 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003). On Kpa Doh’s position within the Lon Nol government, see Henry Kamm, ‘Montagnards Who Fled Cambodia Get Little Aid’, The New York Times, 10 April 1971.

35

Hickey, Free in the forest, p. 108.

36

Les Kosem Collection, Queen Mother Library, Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives.

37

Dharma, Du flm au fulro, pp. 136–37.

38

Hickey, Free in the forest, p. 220; Kamm, ‘Montagnards Who Fled Cambodia Get Little Aid’, p. 7; Jean-Claude Pomonti, ‘Des officiers cambodgiens recrutent des soldats dans les minorités ethniques’, Le Monde, avril 1971.

39

On the camp leadership and the presence of highland fulro members in Phnom Penh see Rôih Kra, ‘La mesure de l’homme. Y Bun Sur (10/09/1939-21/05/1975). Vie et mort d’un jeune Mnong Rlam’, Siksacakr 16 (2021), 128–135; Catherine Scheer, ‘Subaltern soldiers: The overshadowed fight of Bunong highlanders within the Khmer Republic (1970–75)’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 53:1&2 (2022), p. 142.

40

Hickey, Free in the forest, p. 51. An even larger number of the early fulro leaders had turned to Catholicism, which they had similarly discovered through the French missions, notably in Kontum, with their educational offer.

41

Gordon H. Smith, The Blood Hunters: A Narrative of Pioneer Missionary Work Among the Savages of French Indo-China (Chicago: World Wide Prayer & Missionary Union, 1942), 37.

42

Thomas Pearson, Missions and Conversions: Creating the Montagnard-Dega Refugee Community (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 141, 151.

43

Jungle Frontiers, Winter 1964, p.9.

44

Among the one hundred highland leaders that Gerald Hickey listed in his Ethno-history of the Central Vietnamese Highlands (1954–76), there would have been fourteen Protestants. Y Bham studied at c&ma’s Buon Me Thuot Bible School in the 1940s, Hickey, Free in the forest, p. 307; p.51).

45

Hickey, Free in the forest, p. 134. Salemink, The ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, p. 200. On missionary involvement with the Special Forces, see Salemink, The ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, p. 216. On missionary relations with the cia see Pearson, p. 37. More specifically, on c&ma missionary Drew Sawin who worked in parallel for the cia see Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 115; Salemink, The ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, p. 200.

46

c&ma missionary Louisa Graven who relates this testimony of a Protestant Rhade army officer, does not specify that these Mondulkiri-based ‘tribesmen’ were part of fulro, Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p. 144.

47

Graven, Hope in the Hardest of Places, p. 144.

48

Cormack, Killing Fields, Living Fields, p. 133; Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p.127; Lockerbie, When the Blood Flows, p. 183; Mam, Church behind the wire, pp. 160–64.

49

Lockerbie, When the Blood Flows, pp. 179–180.

50

To get an impression of the place Lon Nol attributed to Buddhism within the Khmer Republic’s political agenda, see Lon Nol, Néo-Khmerisme (Phnom Penh: République Khmère, 1974).

51

On evangelisation through radio among Hmong populations from Northern Vietnam, see Tâm T. T. Ngô, The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019).

52

For a more detailed analysis, see Scheer, ‘When the spirits get angry God gains in popularity’, pp. 57–61.

53

Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p. 143. Graven employs the term ‘Mnong’ recurrently used in linguistics as well as in Vietnam to refer to those who call themselves ‘Bunong’.

54

Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p. 141. The book’s photo section includes a picture of the baptism.

55

A church would have been built in the camp, Graven, Hope is in the Hardest of Places, p. 143.

56

Scheer, ‘Subaltern soldiers’, pp. 132–33.

57

By 2010, according to my estimations, less than 10% of Mondulkiri’s indigenous Bunong inhabitants were Christian, and most of them were Protestant. The large majority of the Bunong continued to practice to their ‘spirit-gods’ (bng. ôp brah). For further details on the spread of Christianity in this part of the Cambodian highlands, see Scheer ‘When the spirits get angry God gains in popularity’, pp. 61–66.

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