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On Island of Massacre, Chams Remember

On an island in the Mekong River in Krouch Chhmar district, about 50 km from Kampong Cham provincial town, lies a Cham village that is little more than a few bamboo, thatched-roof houses.

The village is on Koh Phal, or “Island of Harvest,” where Cham Muslims resisted the Khmer Rouge in an uprising in September 1975, just five months after the radical Maoists took power in Cambodia.

“The reason for the rebellion was that there was no more Islam,” Chet Sman, a 75-year-old widower and the head of one of the four families living here, told VOA Khmer in an interview recently. “The Khmer Rouge collected our Quran for burning and cut women’s hair, including my mother’s. This is the reason.”

Chet Sman sat in front of an old black-and-white TV in his cottage, smoking tobacco and describing the uprising, which led to a massacre of the Chams on the island. These killings, and others like them, will be a part of the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s upcoming trial against four jailed leaders of the regime.

The Khmer Rouge shut down mosques, forbid prayer and abolished head-covering for women, he said. They also forced the Chams to raise pigs and eat the pork, a deeply offensive act to the traditional Muslims.

Before the Chams of Koh Phal were pushed to rebellion, the Khmer Rouge went house to house, collecting swords, knives and other tools that might be used as weapons, Chet Sman said. But many villagers hid theirs, or quickly constructed new ones, as they decided to resist.

“The desperate villagers who dared fight against the Khmer Rouge with their swords or bamboo wanted to die as our religion disappeared,” he said, his own long knife and axes lying nearby.

In response, the Khmer Rouge surrounded the island with artillery and weapons. Within a week, they had killed the rebellious villagers, burned down their homes, religious schools and mosques and then turned the name of Koh Phal to Koh Phes, or “Island of Ashes.”

Then, two weeks later, Cham villagers in Svay Klaing, 10 kilometers away, rose up as well, after their teachers and religious leaders were arrested by the Khmer Rouge. Many more were killed in a single day and night.

Ysa Osman, author of “The Cham Rebellion,” which chronicles the uprisings, said the Khmer Rouge then sent survivors to four prisons in Kroach Chhmar district, in areas prone to malaria.

“At that time, there were not enough prisons to put people in, as there were thousands of people both young and old,” he said in an interview last week. “So the Khmer Rouge used schools and pagodas as detention centers for the rebellious villagers.”

Among an estimated 1.7 million people who were killed or died of starvation, overwork or torture under Democratic Kampuchea, an estimated 500,000 are believed to be Chams, according to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

In late 2009, the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal added the charge of genocide for four former Khmer Rouge leaders awaiting trials. The four, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, had previously been charged with crimes against humanity, murder, torture and religious persecutions.

As part of the trial, which could begin next year, Yusos Pinyamin, a survivor of the Svay Klaing massacre, was among those who have filed complaints as civil parties, and he said recently he wants justice done more quickly.

He worries the old leaders will die before they see trial.

“I knew that I could not win, but it was not worth living any longer,” the 56-year-old “hakim,” or village elder, said of the 1975 rebellion. “I was so desperate that I could not wait to be killed.”