Southern Vietnam ethnic group wants recognition to preserve roots

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Lam Be, the head of the Ta Mun community in Tay Ninh, tells the story of his people

The Ta Mun people, now caught up in a debate if they should be added to Vietnam's list of ethnic groups, have built a community in the southern province of Tay Ninh.

It is nearly a century old and was created by a group of people who left their homeland by the upstream Be River in nearby Binh Phuoc Province, the oldest locals told Tuoi Tre newspaper, wishing for official recognition soon as the 55th ethnic group.

Lam Be, the village head, said the Ta Mun people still have their own spoken language and a New Year celebration that is unique.

Authorities consider them a branch of the S'Tieng or Khmer.

But the S'Tieng and Khmer people cannot understand the Ta Mun language, Be said.

Only the "so-called S'Tieng people" in Nam village, Hon Quan District, Binh Phuoc understand since they are the same people living in the Ta Mun homeland, he said.

The New Year celebration is enough to put the Ta Mun apart, he said. "The festival is only celebrated by the Ta Mun, not the S'Tieng, while the Kh'mer celebrate it in the third lunar month.

"But we're called S'Tieng. That's not right."

The Ta Mun people used to have a seven-day New Year festival at the beginning of the ninth lunar month -- which falls this year in mid-October -- but it is now celebrated only for three days, with many rituals not practiced these days, he said.

He feared that if the Ta Mun people continue to be ignored, their children would one day know nothing about their roots.

"If even the name Ta Mun is not recognized, the children will never know where they came from."

Many young locals in the village are already puzzled about their origins.

Lam Thi Be, a woman aged nearly 70, remembers clearly about the connection between the village and their hometown in Binh Phuoc.

She said her grandfather and father were the first ones to leave Binh Phuoc. It was in the 1920s, when the two along with several others were going to pay tax to the French in Tay Ninh.

They were hungry and thirsty, and were fed and allowed to stay at a camp in the jungle overnight by a Cao Dai leader.

Feeling grateful, they went home and brought their families to settle in Tay Ninh to help develop the religion, believed by its followers to have been created directly by the one who created the universe to save people.

The Ta Mun built the first Cao Dai cathedral in Tay Ninh using timber and leaves.

The religious leader thanked them by giving the people the family name "Lam," meaning forest since they were good with trees. They did not have a family name until then.

After that more Ta Mun villages rose up in Tay Ninh amid S'Tieng and Khmer villages and the country's predominant ethnic group, the Kinh.

"So now we have two communities in Tay Ninh and Binh Phuoc," the old woman said.

Official figures list the Ta Mun population in Binh Phuoc at 1,143 and in Tay Ninh at nearly 1,700.

Authorities said they know all this and more about the Ta Mun, but it is not enough to recognize them.

Le Hong Tang, deputy director of the Tay Ninh Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said the Ta Mun do not remember where they were before Binh Phuoc.

Further evidence is required to identify the Ta Mun as a separate ethnic group, he told Tuoi Tre.

Several studies done along with American and Russian experts in the early 1980s and 1990s concluded that the Ta Mun are not related to the S'Tieng, but that they have lost their links with their original group, and been influenced by the Khmer people lately.

The French School of the Far East was working with the Saigon regime to study the group before 1975. But the authors died before completing the work and there are no archival records.

Tay Ninh culture officials said they are searching for them.

Local authorities said they do not ignore the Ta Mun but help them as much as possible.

Huynh Van Dieu, a religion and ethnic official in Tay Ninh, said demographic surveys identify the people as S'Tieng, but their personal documents identify them as belonging to the Ta Mun since none of them wants to be considered as S'Tieng.

Conferences have been held in Tay Ninh and Binh Phuoc, with the Tay Ninh government recently sanctioning nearly VND400 million (US$19,200) to research into the roots of the Ta Mun.

Lu Van Que, chairman of the Fatherland Front's Ethnology Counseling Council, said his council has recommended that the central government should offer assistance.

Vietnam recognizes 54 ethnic groups, some of them with just several hundred people.

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