Cham Offensive

Backed by overseas wealth, conservative forms of Islam are taking rapid root among impoverished Cham Muslims. Some now fear Cambodia could be used as a hideout for terrorists.

by Luke Hunt in Phum Trea and Phnom Penh, filed the following dispatch for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

In the village of Phum Trea, Imam Mohamad Abdul Majit is proudly showing off his community’s latest addition. A mosque built in brilliant white marble, twice the size of the holiest mosque in Phnom Penh. Next door is a new madrassa, or Islamic school with three floors and at least 15 classrooms.

The gleaming mosque isn’t the only thing distinguishes Phum Trea from most other villages in this predominantly Buddhist nation. On a relentlessly hot day, a woman approaches the mosque dressed in traditional Arab dress. Only her eyes can be seen in her flowing black robes. The imam explains that local girls can wear non-Islamic clothes outside the villages but not inside it.

“When going to the national schools they wear the uniform of Cambodian girls, but when here they wear the cloths of the Muslim school,” he explains.

The conservative Dawa Tabligh movement along with the ultra-orthodox Wahabi strain of Islam, are transforming the lives of Cambodia’s predominantly ethnic Cham Muslims. Like Muslims in many other parts of Southeast Asia, the Chams traditionally followed a syncretic form of Islam that incorporates elements from Buddhism and pre-Islamic belief systems. But in recent years, an estimated 40% of Chams have switched over to the more orthodox Dawa Tabligh and Wahabi branches of Islam.

Their reasons are not hard to understand. The Chams account for just 700,000 — or around 5% — of Cambodia’s population of 13 million, and have long been victims of discrimination. In the late 1970s, the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge came close to annihilating them. By the early 1990s, after three decades of civil war, there were just 20 mosques left. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States and 2002 in Bali, the Chams have come under fresh suspicions from Cambodia’s majority Khmers, with complaints also of police and official harassment.

As a result, many Cham communities have looked overseas for financial and other support.

“The scale of change among ethnic Chams is breathtaking,” says Norwegian anthropologist Bjorn Blengsi, who has made extensive studies of Cham society.

“Alien cultures derived from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have taken root through foreign aid and Islamic Charities, and basically tipped traditional life on its head.”

Not everywhere, though. Some Chams are deeply suspicious of Islamic outsiders, and have accused them of effectively stealing fatherless children to send to overseas madrassas. Those suspicions are shared by Western governments but for very different reasons. They fear growing links between Chams and fundamental Islam could turn Cambodia — a country notorious for porous borders and under-resourced security — into a base for terrorist attacks.

Much of the money donated to the Chams is coordinated through Cambodian non-government organizations (NGOs) that have paid generous fees to the government for the right to operate. Among the most prominent NGOs are the Cambodian Islamic Development Foundation and the Cambodian Islamic Youth Association, funded by aid flowing primarily from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Iran.

In Phum Trea, foreign donations began trickling in about a decade ago when residents started following Dawa Dabligh, an orthodox brand of Islam practiced by some in Malaysia. Imam Mohamad says the mosque was financed by Muslims living in America while regular donations accompanied Dawa Tabligh visits from Malaysia. Other Cham leaders who have not converted say much of this funding can ultimately be traced back to Iran.

The lure of overseas aid is hard to resist.

“Chams are the poorest of the poor, sit at the bottom of Cambodia’s social heap and are ripe for outside forces bearing gifts,” Says Blengsli. “Those who don’t convert must fend for themselves and they are scared and tired of being victimized.”

To experience such feelings at first hand, travel about 50 kilometres west of Phum Trea to a village in Kampong Cham, the Cham heartland. Leaders of the 2,000-strong villagers, which sits in Roka Poprum commune, asked for it not to be named for fear of retribution.

Unlike the people of Phum Trea, the traditional Chams here are terrified of Khmer authorities.

“Visits from the police are common,” the village chief says. He adds that ethnic and religious tensions have intensified since September 11, 2001, attacks.

“Boys are getting into fights and the situation for girls is impossible, so the parents have requested that their children be withdrawn from school. Since September 11 small problems have escalated into big problems,” he says.

According to Nguen Meng Chhay, director of the Deik Dos primary school in Kampong Cham, there’s been a noticeable decrease in enrolments among the Cham since September 2001, with Chams increasingly sending their children to religious schools or keeping them at home.

“Those schools don’t teach the Khmer curriculum,” he says. “This will probably worsen the situation among the Chams.”

Indeed education has turned into a flashpoint in the advance of the orthodox Islam in Cambodia. The people of the village in Roka Poprum commune are deeply suspicious of Islamic outsiders, particularly Arabs, who they say scout the countryside for orphans as well as fatherless children to send to overseas madrassas. Others share their concern about the impact of such education on young Chams.

“They study Islam and Arabic and not much else,” says Blengsli, the anthropologist. “They do not learn their native Cham and rarely their national Khmer language. Too me it’s disturbing if someone returns home and they can’t talk to their mum because of an orphan education.”

The arrival of outside forms of worship is causing other tensions within Muslim communities. Earlier this year in Roka Poprum, Cambodia’s top Islamic leader, Mufti Sos Kamry, had to intervene after traditionalist and orthodox Muslim communities tried to shout each other down during prayer services. The mufti ordered that only one type of prayer session be agreed upon and held, but the row is till going on. Elsewhere in Cambodia, mosques are being split into two or second mosques are being built.

To a large extent, the wider Khmer suspicion of the Chams is fuelled by rumors that they are planning to secede and re-establish the Cham kingdom of Champa, physically uniting Kampong Cham with the old heart of Champa in southern Vietnam. Such accusations gained credence after Cambodia discovered that for six months around the end of 2002 and early 2003, it hosted an unwanted guest, Indonesia-born Riduan Isamuddin — or Hambali — blamed for the October 2002 Bali Bombings that killed more than 200 people. Two Islamic schools were later closed, teachers deported and arrests made. Four alleged members of Jemaah Islamiah, a group associated with Hambali that advocates a pan-Asian Islamic state, remain in custody while prosecutors study their case.


Western security officials caution against painting a doomsday terror scenario. But they worry that Cambodia’s culture of impunity could be abused by militants in need of access to southern Thailand, which has witnessed Islamic unrest in recent years, or Malaysia.

“Nobody seriously thinks life in Cambodia is in peril, that there’ll be any Bali-style bombings or that militancy and belief in a pan-Islamic state will threaten the country,” says one Western counter terrorist agent. “But it is a place for terrorists to hide out and take in a bit of rest and recreation. Hambali proved that.”

Concerns over in-roads by fundamentalists led the United States embassy in Phnom Penh earlier this year to issue a 68-page glossy magazine espousing the virtues of Islamic life in America. But the village chief in Roka Poprum says 85% of his villagers couldn’t understand a word of it — it was written in Khmer.

But even if they could understand it, the document would struggle to make an impact on the hard-pressed Chams.

“The only assistance on offer for these people is from an alien branch of Islam that wants conversions, and this is achieved with the blessing of the government after the fees are paid, and these people are unwittingly prone to militancy,” says Belngsli. “Those who hold on to traditional values go hungry, are bullied in school and are picked on by the police.”

Back in Phum Trea, Mohamad is unimpressed by Muslims who fear the Khmer authorities and indifferent to the problems faced by traditional Chams since September 2001. Thanks to its benefactors, Phum Trea has electricity, the children are better educated and Mohamad is building himself a new home.

“The problems are not for all the country,” he says. “I care only for my village.”

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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