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US Initiative Helps Chams Retain Language and Culture

Cambodian Muslim girl looks on as the Umm Al Qura school is closed by police in Mouk Kampoul, 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Phnom Penh.
Cambodian Muslim girl looks on as the Umm Al Qura school is closed by police in Mouk Kampoul, 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Phnom Penh.
PHNOM PENH - A US-funded cultural preservation project among Cambodia’s Cham Muslims has helped students learn to read and write in their traditional language and script.

Some Cham are increasingly looking toward Arabic countries and organizations for support. And while this has caused some worry that the culture and some of its half a million people could fall under the influence of extremist groups, US Embassy officials say the project is not directly a counter-terrorism effort.

At a Cham school in Kampong Chhnang province recently, villagers and children gathered before tables and books in the Cham language. Around 270 children have been taught so far under the project.

Sann Rofi As, a teacher, said she wants her students to learn to read and write in the their own language, to keep it from disappearing.

“Today my Cham people prefer learning only Javanese or Arabic, rather that Ka Kha,” she said, using the traditional name for the Cham language.

The US Embassy has funded the printing of learning materials in Ka Kha, hoping that teachers like Sann Rofi As and others can help preserve the cultural identity of the Chams.

Chams have a moderate form of Islam mixed with Hindu characteristics and local religious practices. Their cultural identity is important in a community that is viewed as widely non-extremist, though impoverished. That makes the community susceptible to more extreme forms of Islam and the influence of Islamic states.

“Watching them help us, I’m very happy, because my tradition is re-emerging,” said villager Feu Sari, as he watched the students study.

At least some students say they think the US is trying to keep them from falling under the influence of extremist groups.

“They may view us as too attracted to outside influences and want us to resist those influences,” said student Ker Sarath. “So they want us to know our own script and be well educated.”

For some Chams, the move toward a more orthodox form of Islam, one offered by organizations from the Middle East, is preferable. They have become more strict in their practices, and more supportive of Arabic texts and learning.

But Te Matt Ly, a local imam, told VOA Khmer he refuses any foreign aid that comes with conditions. But he also said he believes there are reasons behind the US initiative.

“The United States wants to help, so that we understand their minds and ideas,” he said. “It wants us to see what is good and bad, so it can reduce terrorism.”

Cambodia itself has never suffered a terrorist attack, but the head of the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya, a man known as Hambali, took refuge in the Muslim community here following a bombing on the Indonesian of Bali, prior to his arrest in Thailand in 2003.

In 2004, Western officials said they had disrupted a plot to bomb the embassies of the US and the UK in Phnom Penh.

And in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, Cambodia has been a willing ally in US counterterrorism efforts.

Kob Haron, director of the Kampuchea Samaritan Resource Organization, said the Cham community has never been under the influence of foreign aid, though many communities accept it.

“We think we have never received any influence from Arabic countries to be involved in any terrorism activities,” he said. “If they come build schools, hospitals or orphanages, that’s in line with Islamic law.”

US Embassy officials say the Cham cultural project has nothing to do with counterterrorism.

“The Cham heritage project has no religious connections,” said Michelle Bennett, a US Embassy spokeswoman. “It’s simply a program that teaches language and culture. It’s simply to show respect for other cultures.”