The Mnong comprise around 67,000 people in Vietnam's Central Highlands and around 20,000 in Cambodia's Mondolkiri Province (with a handful of families living in its northern provincial neighbor, Ratanakiri). Although these two populations belong in the same ethnolinguistic classification, each of their dialects is not understood by the other. Nor would it be if it were written: literacy is just beginning to reach the Mnong in Cambodia — a fascinating story by itself and told further down this page. Mnong literacy in Vietnam is also relatively recent. The Mnong language was studied extensively by the linguist Richard Phillips in the early 1970s.
Once a part of the mighty Kingdom of Champa, which ruled this part of the world between the second and fifteenth centuries, the Mnong today are the ruled instead of the ruler. This change has had psychological effects, since the ownership and ruling of land plays a strong role in Mnong cultural heritage. Their rulers, in various forms, have included French colonialists (in both Vietnam and Cambodia), the US military (in Vietnam) and, most recently, the Khmer (in Cambodia) and the Viet (in Vietnam). Many Mnong villages have been displaced over the years by this turn in fortune, resulting in loss of land, livestock and other wealth. The Mnong are one of the groups recently (June, 2002) repatriated to the USA as political asylum seekers following protests at their treatment by their Viet rulers. They live a subsistence, agrarian life in which they are self-sufficient in food, growing mainly dry rice, corn, sweet potatoes, watermelon and cassava, yet they sell little produce. Recently the Mnong in Vietnam have cultivated coffee also, mainly as a cash crop. Traditionally semi-nomadic, slash-and-burn farmers, Vietnamese policy has made the Mnong sedentary in that country while, in Cambodia, UN- and NGO-funded programs are teaching them more sustainable approaches to agriculture.
The Mnong are notable for many reasons. Whereas most peoples in this part of the world abandoned domestication of elephants after very few attempts, the Mnong have been successful at it. They also hunt elephants, another rare practice in Southeast Asia. (Cambodia is currently believed to have only a few hundred wild elephants left.) Snake is also commonly hunted but sold more often than eaten by the Mnong. They are also the originators of one of the world's oldest musical instruments — the lithophone. Made of stone this instrument resembles a xylophone and is played only during certain ceremonies. It is believed to be five thousand years old.
My own time spent with the Mnong has been notable for many reasons also. The first reason has to do with the factors behind an important cultural landmark for the Mnong in Cambodia, namely the development of literacy. Until very recently the Mnong in Cambodia were a pre-literate people. Literacy had been brought to their cousins in Vietnam by Christian missionaries many years earlier. It took catastrophic world events and the ability of one man to foresee those events, to import that literacy to the Mnong in Cambodia.
In 1970 Mali and his wife, Troop, pictured right with their children, realized that the political instability and the uprising of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia posed to them a serious threat. Despite the danger of fleeing to Vietnam at that time (many people were trying to flee Vietnam for Cambodia!), they left their village to take their chances there. It would be eighteen years before they returned. During that time they met an American Christian missionary who had learned the Mnong language and had developed a writing system for it, based on modern Vietnamese script. Through this missionary Mali learned to read and write in his own language for the first time. When he returned to Cambodia in 1986, Mali brought with him not only Christianity, but also hymn books, prayer books and portions of the New Testament. It was the first time the Mnong in Cambodia had seen their language written down.
Mali spent the next few years teaching literacy in his village and in a few villages close by. Soon after his return, Cambodia became relatively more safe because of the political stability that came from the so-called democratic election of Hun Sen's western- and UN-backed regime. When news of his teaching filtered to Phnom Penh the "unofficial" reaction was to discourage it since the adoption of the Roman alphabet threatened the official national alphabet of Khmer. (The political reality was that a departure from Khmer script might put the Mnong closer to independence from their Khmer rulers.) Today, a cooperative effort is underway involving NGOs, academic linguists and Christian missionaries to re-invent Mali's literacy program, this time with government approval and using the Khmer alphabet. Although it will take a generation or two, the outcome will be widespread literacy among the Cambodian Mnong for the first time in their history.
Three examples of these implications struck me the first time I stayed in Mnong villages in Cambodia. In November, 2001, September 11 of that year was of course still fresh on my mind. The Mnong I met were aware of what had happened from photographs they had seen in Khmer-language newspapers. When I questioned them on their understanding and opinions about it they each denied having an opinion, justified by having no understanding of why the attacks had happened. That lack of understanding is due largely to their inability to read Khmer with any degree of true comprehension. The most salient observation to them was a realization that other parts of the world could be as dangerous as Cambodia. Yet as the young boy pictured above demonstrates, when images instead of words create their understanding, Mnong youths are able and willing to relate to events they've seen portrayed in the US! Imagine how much greater would be their understanding of such a globally significant event if they could read about it in their first language.
The second example comes from my experiences in a village school. Pictured left, the official enrollment at this school is twenty-five. The attendance on the day of my visit — four — is closer to the norm. Although many of the teachers in their villages can speak basic Mnong, they must revert to Khmer when any part of the lesson calls for something to be written. Growing up pre-literate, these children are immediately lost when this happens. Any parent will appreciate the lack of motivation it creates in a child when the child is lost in the material. Imagine the increase in motivation when that same child sees the writing in Mnong.
The third example has to do with Mnong cultural heritage. Like any people, the Mnong have a unique history that has been retold for countless generations. Because it has been passed on by word of mouth, much of that history has already been lost. In fact, my efforts to locate someone who could relate parts of their ancient folklore proved in vain. Fortunately, in parallel with the Mnong literacy program in Cambodia, efforts are underway to search in far more villages than I had time to do and write down what is still known of this history directly in the Mnong language.
The second reason I've found the Mnong notable comes from the time I was fortunate enough to join in a village wedding celebration. A wedding in a Mnong village is a much bigger event than any wedding in the west. The celebrations last at a minimum for three days and continue around the clock. Everyone from the bride's and groom's village attends and the bedlam of music and mass consumption of rice wine has to be seen to be believed. (The Mnong are matrilineal, although only the children adopt the bride's clan name. The groom retains his own family name, since he is not considered to enter his wife's clan at marriage. Despite this matrilineage, though, village leaders and decision makers are still exclusively male.)
Considering I had stumbled across this very personal celebration by chance, and I knew no-one from either village before I arrived, the Mnong wedding party and guests were as welcoming as anyone has ever been at weddings of my own friends and family.
The final reason, and a very enduring personal memory, concerns an experience in a remote Mnong village in Cambodia. This village has seen few outsiders. I arrived there soon after the first diesel-powered electricity generator had been brought into the village. One of the most popular uses of the generator was when someone had returned from the closest Khmer town with movies on videocassette. One night a new movie was being shown in a large house that doubled as the village meeting hall. Although admission was only about 5 US cents, this totals a significant spending by an average family of 8 to 10 people. This, I learned, was why there were far more people outside, taking turns to peek through the door, than the handful that were inside. I had no idea how many were outside, but when I offered to pay two US dollars to allow them all inside the host jumped at the chance. I have never received such gratitude for giving such a small amount (to me) of money anywhere.
A footnote deserves mention here. Although I don't take artifacts from the villages I visit — except for handicrafts that are made for sale — I realized the likelihood while conducting this research that the Roman-alphabet Mnong hymnbooks that Mali brought into Cambodia may soon be lost when Khmer-alphabet literacy makes them obsolete. I took one of these (with permission) for the safekeeping of an important piece of Mnong cultural history.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2021, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Indigenous Literacy in Cambodia (short film on YouTube).
The animist Phnong hill tribe in Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia
Maurice, A., (1996) Les MNong des Hauts-Plateaux (Center Vietnam). Paris: Edition L'Harmatan.
Condominas, G., (1994) We Have Eaten the Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. New York: Kodansha International.