Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Southeast Asia
     Oct 9, 2008
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 energy-development


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 countries.

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 Cambodia.

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.

Foreign identity
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 economy.

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 the state.

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 states".

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 geoffrey.cain@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Korean investors reach for Cambodian skies
(Sep 16, '08)

China presence in Cambodia grows
(May 30, '08)

1. Hockey moms and capital markets

2. The fatal flaw in Afghan peace moves

3. Government spending spree

4. 'Hoarding' is out

5. US wars keep the money flowing

6. China takes stock in crisis

7. Look who came to dinner ...

8. Syria plays hardball with the Saudis

9. Tata at a fork in the road

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Oct 7, 2008)

asia dive site

Asia Dive Site

All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110