Cambodian Cham Muslims continue to face difficulties in the modern age. They survived the brutal policies of the Khmer Rouge, in what many argue was an attempt at genocide, but have never fully recovered what was lost in that period.
A new book, “From the Khmer Rouge to Hambali: Cham Identities in Global Age” by Eng Kok-Thay, research director at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, examines that struggle.
Today, there are about 290,000 Chams in Cambodia, Eng Kok-Thay said in an interview, about 2 percent of the population. There are about 340,000 Muslims, including Cham, Javan and Khmer. Originally, most of the Chams were Hindu, and they had a kingdom in today’s central Vietnam, Champa. They were pushed from there, moving to Cambodia, where they converted to Islam, which was then spreading across Southeast Asia.
In the modern age, they’ve faced persecution as a minority, he said.
“It’s normal that as a minority group in a country, similar to other minorities in other countries, you would face some discrimination,” he said. “But the Cambodian government does have policies that state clearly that Chams have equal rights to other people in Cambodia. They can follow their religion, they can go to their mosques to worship and go to schools just like Khmer children. The Cambodian government also allows students to wear their headscarf to school and to build a place for them to worship five times a day.”
Chams were nearly wiped out under the Khmer Rouge. They have rebounded slightly, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, they face new challenges, he said.
“Terrorism that happens around the world has greatly affected Chams in Cambodia,” he said. “But there is no evidence that Chams in Cambodia directly took part in terrorism, whether it happened in Cambodia or in other countries. Terrorism and receiving aid from Islamic countries affected the Cham's reputation. This was due to the wide influence of Islam that they got through economic aid and teachings from foreign imams.”
In 2003, the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah bombed nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia. The leader of the group, a man called Hambali, hid in Cambodia for six months, amid the Chams, “but we don’t know whether they knew he was a terrorist,” Eng Kok-Thay said. “Still, they helped him. Maybe because they thought that Hambali was an imam who they should respect and help, that’s why they offered him a place to stay and help him with traveling in Cambodia until he left for Thailand.”
Hambali was later arrested in Bangkok.
“Later because the world found out that Hambali was hiding in Thailand, there was a serious investigation on foreign imams who came to teach in Cambodia, and two mosques in Kandal province and Kampong Chhnang province were closed,” Eng Kok-Thay said. “And two imams in those mosques were kicked out of Cambodia.”
In 2004, the Thai government accused Cambodian Chams of associating with the Thai Muslims in the south of the country. “But there is no evidence yet that they were associated with the conflict in southern Thailand.”