Sacred Mountain Faces New Challenge: Commerce

Mondolkiri province – The smooth grey hillocks of Pich Chhreada district’s Nam Lyr mountain rise abruptly from the jungle, about two and a half hours east by dirtbike from the provincial town of Sen Monorom. Against the dense green horizon, the dome of dark rock has the austere might of an ancient temple. “This is the Phnong Angkor,” said Pi Bek, 65, one of about 3,000 Phnong minority villagers who live in the shadow of Nam Lyr and venerate the mountain.

But to officials from Moeung Sok Granite Product Enterprise, which in March was granted permission by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy to explore for granite in the region, the mountain represents something else altogether. Inside, the body of Nam Lyr is snowy, sparkling-and potentially commercial-granite.

The battle between ancient beliefs and modern economics at Nam Lyr reached a new pitch this week, as villagers and company officials dug in their heels in advance of negotiations, which were scheduled to begin Wednesday.

On Saturday, 120 Phnong minority residents from Bou Sra village went to Nam Lyr and hauled Moeung Sok’s two drilling machines out of the jungle with a tractor, villagers said this week. It took them seven hours. The seven workers from Moeung Sok who had set up camp near the work site-a makeshift bamboo platform with an abandoned game of checkers, tinned sardines and the remnants of a roasted deer-were no match for the angry Phnong.

Now the shiny machines sit beneath villager Beat Kouy’s wooden house, just off the main road in Bou Sra village. There they will stay, the villagers insist, until the company buys them a cow, a buffalo and a large jar of wine to appease the spirits of Nam Lyr. The villagers also want the firm to pay $10,000 in damages, and to agree to stop desecrating their sacred mountain.

At the beginning of this month, an ominous grid of boreholes appeared at the base of the mountain, which lies within the Phnom Nam Lyr Wildlife Sanctuary. On May 3, blasting began. Villager protests halted the company’s work on May 8, but already more than a dozen huge chunks of rock had tumbled from the mountain into a nearby stream.

“Next time they come, we will gather the whole village and use violence,” said villager Klab Kuh, 40. “We have no choice. If they destroy this, they kill us.” Villagers have bows and arrows, he said, and swords too. Mostly, the men of Bou Sra village have will.

In times of war the villagers looked to the spirits of Nam Lyr for guidance and protection. In times of peace, they pray for food. Their fathers’ fathers told them that the hill was the birthplace of the Phnong race. Pi Bek and Klab Kuh squatted near a smooth tunnel bored into the rock at the base of Nam Lyr, not far from where the blasting has begun. It is through this passage, they believe, that the Phnong people were born.

Each year, after the harvest is over in February or March, the villagers sacrifice a buffalo or pig to the hill sprits and pray for a good rice crop and protection from wild animals. They say they always get what they ask for. “We never face starvation,” Pi Bek said. “The people must take care of the hill, otherwise it will not take care of us,” he added.

The company states that it has every right to explore in the area. “We have a legal license to explore for granite there,” said a woman who identified herself as the first secretary of Moeung Sok company, but declined to give her name. She added that only a small group of Phnong villagers object to the firm’s work in the area; moreover, she said, the hill belongs to the government, not to the Phnong villagers.

“If there are minerals, even though they are under someone’s house, they belong to the government,” she said.

“The provincial authorities must work to ensure that we can explore for the granite,” she said, adding that if government authorities were to override the company’s legal rights, investors would hesitate to invest in Cambodia.

Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem, who signed the company’s exploration license, could not be reached for comment, nor could the ministry’s Secretary of State Chea Sieng Hong.  His fellow Secretary of State Ith Praing said Tuesday that he was too busy to comment.

Mondolkiri Governor Lay Sokha said provincial authorities would not allow the company to explore further on Nam Lyr. “We should keep the sacred place for the Phnong,” he said in an interview Tuesday. The threat of violence overrides any legal contract, he added. “What happens if the Phnong kill them?” he said, referring to company officials.

On Saturday, provincial RCAF soldiers were told to stop the company from doing any further work, said Ouk Nakai, 30, one of five soldiers camped in the jungle not far from the worksite. “When the company came, they had a license, but since the revolt of the villagers, we were told to ban them,” he said.

In the meantime, commerce is threatening to undo what 30 years of war left unscathed. Nam Lyr lies near the Vietnam border, close to an area the US identified as a Vietcong stronghold in 1969. Today, the surrounding jungle is still pitted with B-52 bomb craters. Twenty minutes down a rutted dirt track from Nam Lyr lie the remnants of a Vietcong bunker, hidden beneath a stand of dry bamboo.

“We have gone through many generations: the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese invasion, US soldiers, the French, and no one has done anything against that hill,” said Chhot Sovann, 41, a Bou Sra community activist.

Or almost nothing. The top of Nam Lyr is a near-volcanic landscape of black rock and bursts of green where trees and grasses have taken root in pools left by rainwater. Up here, the smooth hillocks of rock are scarred with men’s initials and the names of the women they love. “Tourists,” Pi Bek said.

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