Cambodia's Muslims as geopolitical pawns
By Geoffrey Cain
PHNOM PENH - Competition for influence in Cambodia, recently seen as a
two-country race between the United States and China, has now seen another
deep-pocketed suitor emerge: petrodollar-rich Gulf states.
While Washington has required counter-terrorism cooperation for its assistance,
and Beijing has sought greater access to markets, Middle Eastern countries seem
keen to build religious ties with Cambodia's Muslim Cham minority.
Kuwait and Qatar promised as much as US$700 million in August, packaged as soft
loans and investment deals to help develop Cambodia's relatively primitive
infrastructure. The massive aid packages include agriculture and
initiatives, and a new open skies agreement granting Kuwait Airlines direct
flights to Cambodia.
Beyond the economics, was a geopolitical twist to the aid package. Prime
Minister Hun Sen agreed in principle to a Kuwaiti request not to support
military or economic interventions against Iran, a target of US criticism for
allegedly developing a secret nuclear weapons program. Hun Sen also plans a
tour in January to strengthen political and economic links with Middle Eastern
The financial aid package made big business headlines, but what went relatively
unnoticed were the millions of dollars earmarked for building Muslim
institutions. The impoverished and marginalized Cham, estimated to number about
400,000, have long sought and received funds from Middle Eastern patrons in
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and regional neighbor Malaysia to build mosques and
religious schools, travel on the haj and study overseas.
With that assistance, an increasing number of Middle Eastern imams have taken
up residence in Cambodia's traditionally moderate Cham communities and often
promoted Wahabbi and Da'Wah Tabligh fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.
Concerns that foreign influence was stoking local terror risks first arose when
four Muslim teachers from southern Thailand, Egypt and Cambodia were arrested
at Phnom Penh's Cham-run Om-al-Qora school in 2003 for allegedly being members
of the Jemaah Islamiyah regional terror group and using the school as a
terrorist training center.
The arrests came days before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations'
regional form opened in Phnom Penh, where then-US secretary of state Colin
Powell was scheduled to attend. One Cham religious leader said the arrests were
a political tactic to "woo the Americans", while Cham opposition
parliamentarian Ahmad Yahya lashed out at Hun Sen, referring to him as a
"second Pol Pot" because "he used to close schools as well".
Terrorism concerns intensified when authorities discovered that alleged top
al-Qaeda operative Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, took refuge in the same
school in the months leading up to his August 2003 capture in Thailand. The US
has since reiterated its concerns that radical Islamic organizations operating
in Cambodia were winning more influence over the Cham.
In an August farewell speech this year, US ambassador to Cambodia Joseph
Mussomeli told reporters that "there are some organizations here that are very
radical and that are very intolerant, and they are trying very hard to change
the attitude and the atmosphere of the Muslim population here in Cambodia".
Last year, the US helped to establish a National Counter-terrorism Committee
and this year opened a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) office in a
massive new US Embassy. Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, said at the
office's opening ceremony that Cambodia was important "because of the potential
for persons transiting Cambodia or utilizing Cambodia as a spot for terrorism",
according to news reports. Mueller was the first FBI director to ever visit
The minority Cham, the antecessors of the region's once-dominant Champa
kingdom, have long been open to foreign influences. They are also no stranger
to official oppression and prosecution, both in Cambodia and Vietnam. Ben
Kiernan, who heads the Cambodian genocide project at Yale University, estimates
that 90,000 of a total 250,000 Cham population were killed during the genocidal
Khmer Rouge regime which ruled between 1975 and 1979.
Only 21 of a total 113 imams, or Islamic teachers, survived the radical Maoist
regime, along with only 15% of Cham-built mosques, says Kiernan. That tragic
history, academics and analysts say, have made the Cham more susceptible to
outside religious influences. Islamic charities from Gulf states first entered
Cambodia in 1991, when a ceasefire was declared among warring militias,
according to academic Agnes De Feo, author of the upcoming book, Muslims of
Cambodia and Vietnam.
Faith-based charitable organizations, which Cham often refer to generically as
"Kuwait", came mainly from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait, and gained significant clout over the ethnic minority's traditional
Malay Muslim culture. Indian and Pakistani Islamic organizations, mostly
promoters of the Tablighi Jamaat, or dawah, an apolitical movement aimed
at revitalizing Muslim communities considered to be in danger of losing their
Muslim identities, arrived later in the 1990s.
The result was a schism in the Cham community between the Tabligh Jamaat and
Wahhabists, which have generally sought to fit Cham Islam into a more universal
framework of Wahhabism, according to De Feo. However, scholars credit foreign
Islamic groups for revitalizing the Cham's once-vibrant culture and sense of
Muslim identity after its decline in the 1970s. Cambodia had 280 imams in 2007,
a marked increase from the 21 that survived the atheist Khmer Rouge era.
With charities from the UAE funding much of their construction, it is customary
for Cham to name newly built mosques "Dubai", followed by the Cambodian city or
village in which they reside. De Feo and other scholars note the new mosques do
not resemble Khmer Buddhist pagodas as they did pre-1975, but rather have taken
the form of standard mosques in Gulf states.
Other mosques have taken on Indian and Pakistani forms, implying, some say, a
shift from the Cham's traditional Malay Muslim-influenced practices. Cham
formal dress has also recently changed to resemble more dawah and Middle
Eastern styles, says De Feo.
Cham leaders have used foreign funds to start at least 19 cultural
organizations that promote Cham heritage, most notably the Cambodian Muslim
Development Foundation, run by Osman Hassan, secretary of state at the Ministry
of Labor, and the Cambodian Islamic Development Association, led by opposition
parliamentarian Ahmad Yahya, which develops and promotes local Muslim
institutions. Few such groups existed before 1975, and their establishment
post-1991 signifies a cultural resurgence among the Cham.
Sith Ibrahim, an ethnic Cham who is a secretary of state in the Ministry of
Cults and Religions, recently told the Phnom Penh Post that "Cham Muslims have
received direct benefit from the government's political and economic links with
countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait."
At the same time, scholars cite mainstream Khmer concerns that the
foreign-backed Cham cultural reawakening has caused them to resist Cambodia's
new drive to speed up economic development and integrate with the global
Influenced by fundamentalist Gulf charities and increasingly assertive local
Cham organizations, the group's religious leaders often now say they don't want
to cede their unique ethnic identity for a sense of Buddhist Khmer
universalism. Critics say the Cham are instead conforming to foreign
interpretations of Islam, which emphasize loyalty to faith before loyalty to
Some argue a similar mindset has entrenched in Southern Thailand, where
foreign-influenced ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents are have been fighting a
bloody battle against the predominantly Buddhist Thai state for decades. The
Thai daily The Nation reported in 2004 that hundreds of Cham attempted to cross
into the southern Thai province of Pattani after the deaths of nearly 100 Thai
Muslims at the hands of the military.
Despite those incidents, De Feo argues that despite deep-rooted historical
connections Cambodia's Cham and southern Thailand's Malay Muslims operate in
completely different geopolitical contexts. Unlike Thailand's Muslim
secessionist insurgents, the Cham have no claim to independence and therefore
little reason to embrace militant ideologies. Many Cham still view themselves
as immigrants to Cambodia and they are an ethnic minority elsewhere in the
region, including Vietnam and Malaysia, De Feo claims.
Other analysts say the Cham pose little threat, even with the growing presence
of cash-rich Wahhabist charities in their areas. Some point to a January 2008
report by the US Congressional Research Service which advocated developing "a
foreign aid approach that addresses the attractiveness of China's policy of
non-interference with domestic affairs" and engaging "regional Muslim states
and populations in a way that both supports moderate Islam in its struggle
against radical Islam and brings the United States closer to regional Muslim
Instead, the US's current focus on developing counter-terrorism initiatives in
Cambodia is pointed directly at Cambodia's ethnic Cham. Whether the US believes
that threat is real, or is rather using it to strategically position itself
vis-a-vis China's growing economic clout, is still an open question. But with
the big, new Middle Eastern investments earmarked for Cambodia, and with the
Hun Sen government's and the local Cham's warm response, the US may now find it
has two major cash-rich competitors for influence rather than one.
Geoffrey Cain is based in Phnom Penh and a contributor to the Far Eastern
Economic Review and Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a United
Nations-run news wire service. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.