The story of Muslims in Cambodia
Photographed by Bernardo Salce
Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is a country that for many conjures up images of a dark and turbulent past: the infamous Khmer Rouge. But most visitors to the “Kingdom of Wonder,” as it is branded to tourists, find it a nation of never-ending rice paddies, friendly locals and breathtaking Buddhist architecture.
The country’s panorama is a cornucopia of golden wats and pagodas, and skyward-reaching stupas. Not long after the sun rises each morning, the streets of even the smallest towns are brimming with orange-robed monks offering prayers to shopkeepers and pedestrians in exchange for alms. Of the 15 million Cambodians, almost 95% are Theravada Buddhists, the state religion, according to the census.
Occasionally, however, the sight of a stupa is replaced with a minaret, orange robes with a taqiyah (skullcap). In 2009, the Pew Research Center reported that there were more than 230,000 Muslims in Cambodia, less than 2% of the population. Other unofficial estimates suggest there may be as many as double this number.
Despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, Muslims in Cambodia have a rich and complex history and, according to many commentators, their integration and peaceful coexistence with the Buddhist majority can serve as a good example for other countries in the region.
On a sweltering June evening, more than 200 people gathered in a small mosque in the north of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. The courtyard was crammed with men who sat on large colorful mats, eagerly staring into bowls of a sweet-smelling beef stew. As the sun finally dropped below the horizon, signaling the first iftar of Ramadan, a tranquil silence filled the mosque, interrupted only by the din of metal spoons tapping against bowls and the opening of 3-liter soda bottles.
Within five minutes, most of the bowls lay empty and many of the younger men sauntered off toward a corner of the mosque to spark up cigarettes.
“I was 15 the first time I broke fast,” said Heat, a solemn-looking 21-year-old who sat trying to relight a cigarette with the one he just finished. “I was working on my family’s farm. It was very hard, especially without water.
“But now it’s a lot easier, though the first few days of fasting can be difficult,” he added, before admitting with a wry smile: “For me, the best part of breaking the fast is smoking, not eating. It’s such a relief.”
“Definitely cigarettes are the best part,” agreed Heat’s friend, a similar aged youth. “But fasting is very important. It’s about getting closer to God; it’s about the merit you get; it’s essential for a Muslim.”
Earlier that week, The Islamic Monthly spoke with Farina So, head of the Cham Oral History Project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), about the history of Muslims in Cambodia.
“Muslims have been living in Cambodia for centuries,” she explained. “The vast majority of them are Chams. They are ethnically different from the Khmers [Cambodians] and have their own language — which is also called Cham.”
An ethnic minority of Austronesian ancestry, Chams are descendants of the Champa kingdom, which was established in the second century in the area that encompasses much of modern-day central and southern Vietnam. Its neighbor to the west was the much larger Khmer empire, which eventually became Cambodia.
After centuries of conflict with the Khmer empire and Vietnamese dynasties, the Champa kingdom came to an end in 1832 when Vietnamese forces annexed the last remaining enclave. Today, more than 162,000 Chams still in live Vietnam, according to the country’s 2009 census, and the vast majority are Hindu — the religion of the Champa kingdom. The 4,000 or so who live in Thailand practice Buddhism.
Some historians believe that a number of Chams converted to Islam after the arrival of North African and Middle Eastern traders in Southeast Asia in the early seventh century. They then brought the religion with them when they migrated to Cambodia between the 16th and 19th centuries. Other historians, however, say Cham migrants converted to Islam once in Cambodia.
Today, almost all Chams in Cambodia are Muslim. Many live in Phnom Penh but a significant number reside in the Kampong Cham province, which was named after them, and other rural areas where most are fishermen or farmers. Most speak Cham and Khmer — the national language.
“As well as Chams, there is also a minority of Muslims in Cambodia of Javanese descendant called Chvea, and a very small number are of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin,” Farina said.
Furthermore, while most Chams today practice “orthodox” Islam, one minority group, referred to as Fojihed, follows an ancient Cham interpretation of Islam. Instead of praying five times a day, they pray once a week and practice pre-Islamic traditions such as belief in supernatural and magical powers.
But to most Cambodians, the words “Cham” and “Muslim” are synonymous.
“When the Cham fled to Cambodia [after Vietnamese attacks on the Champa kingdom] they were welcomed by the kings and the government. They were given shelter, accommodation and lived very peacefully,” Farina continued. “Today, the majority of Muslims are well integrated into Cambodian society and there’s very strong interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims. There’s also very minimal religious discrimination. Wearing a headscarf or plasticizing religion in the public sphere is normal.”
Indeed, it is now not uncommon to see Cambodians in burkas, although majority of women prefer to only wear a hijab — or krama in Khmer — and men the taqiyah, or skull caps.
“In some villages, Cham women wear the veil, and in others, they dress the same as Khmer girls. Some Cham guys go to entertain during Khmer New Year, so we have a lot of exchange of culture between Cham and Khmer,” Osman Ysa, a former researcher at DC-Cam and author, who has studied Muslim communities in Cambodia for decades, told the Phnom Penh Post in 2011. “The Cham and the Khmer have a common culture. We live together very peacefully.”
Ysa says this peaceful coexistence may serve as a lesson to other Southeast Asian countries with religious tensions. In Myanmar, the exodus of Rohingya and other Muslims has recently hit international headlines, as have attacks on Muslim communities by Buddhist extremists over the past three years.
The spotlight has also been put on Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where concerns about radicalization, adoption of strict Shariah law in a number of regions and a growing divide between Muslims and non-Muslims have grown in recent years. In southern Thailand, a conflict between the government and an armed Islamic separatist movement has been going on since the 1960s.
According to numerous academics, one reason for peaceful coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims in Cambodia is history. Generally speaking, there has never been a ban on Muslim worship in Cambodia. In fact, when Malay Muslims started to dominate sea trade in Southeast Asia between the 15th and 16th centuries, both Malays and Chams saw their economic and political power increase. King Reameathipadei I, who ruled from 1642 to 1658, even converted to Islam — the only Cambodian monarch to do so.
In more recent times, especially during the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, who was crowned in 1941 and abdicated in 2004, there was greater effort to integrate Chams into Cambodian society. The king popularized the term “Khmer Islam” to describe Muslims in Cambodia. “‘Khmer Islam’ gave [Muslims] more of a sense of integration and unity with the Cambodian majority,” Farina explained. Although, she added, some felt it went against their identity with the Champa kingdom and their ethnicity.
“Muslims and non-Muslims [in Cambodia] are like brothers — always have been. There is no discrimination or restrictions of religious practice,” said Ly Ma Thno, hakim and imam of the Muk Dach mosque in northern Phnom Penh, as he sat cross-legged in his stilted home that backs onto the mosque.
The 67-year-old, born half a decade before Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, explained that such brotherhood is no recent occurrence. “I remember when I was young, everyone had enough rice, everyone had a job and there were no restrictions on Islam. Life at that time was peaceful” between Muslims and non-Muslims.
However, peace was not to last. On April 17, 1975, after five years of civil war, the communist Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and ordered the entire population to evacuate the city.
“They told us we were only leaving for three days and could then come back, so I left with only the clothes on my back,” said Thno, as his sanguine demeanor suddenly faded, his voice quieting as he recounted a story he must have been asked to tell too many times. “But that was a lie. I had only been married for two months, and my wife was separated from me for more than a year. I was separated from my parents and family too. There was so much suffering. It was a miserable experience.”
Entire cities were emptied overnight as the Maoist-influenced regime forced Cambodians to work on communal farms and into effective slave labor. Estimates vary, but it is believed that during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, between 2 million and 3 million people died from execution, starvation or disease —between a fifth and a quarter of the population.
As for the number of Muslims who died, estimates also vary. Ysa wrote in his book, Oukoubah: Justice for the Cham Muslims under the Democratic Kampuchea Regime, that 400,000 to 500,000 Chams perished during this four-year period. Historian Ben Kiernan, however, believes the number to be less than 100,000.
Regardless, it is clear that Muslims suffered greatly under the Khmer Rouge. Although the regime’s constitution officially recognized freedom of religion, the reality was that many churches, temples and mosques were razed to the ground and, in an act of contempt, some were turned into a pigsty.
“Every time they killed a pig, I was forced to eat [it], and every few days, they would kill a pig,” Lip Neang told the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a tribunal established to try senior members of the Khmer Rouge for their crimes, local media reported. “I would eat rice porridge with pork and as they knew we didn’t eat pork, they would make me eat it on purpose.”
The ECCC has ruled that crimes against the Chams constituted an act of genocide. However, Thno believes they suffered just as much as non-Muslim Cambodians. “We suffered together. We suffered like brothers,” he said.
Farina said this shared experience of suffering under the Khmer Rouge helped unite Muslim and non-Muslim Cambodians. “During the Khmer Rouge, Muslims and non-Muslims tried to fight together, so they had a common enemy. They died together too. History allowed them to unite,” she said.
Many Muslims in Cambodia, especially older members, have not forgotten this suffering nor the Vietnamese forces that liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. During our 30-minute interview, Thno repeatedly made reference to the gratitude many Muslims have for the Vietnamese, and for the current government of Cambodia.
Several prominent politicians in the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once part of the Khmer Rouge, but fled to Vietnam either to avoid the regime’s internal purges or because of ideological reasons. Many were also part of the Vietnamese forces that toppled the Khmer Rouge and subsequently took over the leadership of the country. Hun Sen has effectively been in charge of Cambodia since 1985.
“One of the reasons for the good relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Cambodians is because of government policy, which does a lot to promote harmony between the two groups,” Thno said.
For example, in 2008, the government issued a directive allowing Muslims to wear religious attire in public. “Before the directive, there was no ban but just a feeling that it wasn’t good to wear in public. Maybe some non-Muslim individuals were a bit unsure before, but due to the directive, it is now very normal to wear headscarves and other attire,” Farina said.
Most years, Hun Sen personally participates in the first iftar of Ramadan and the government regularly provides funds for the event. The prime minister was also the guest of honor for the inauguration of the Alserkal mosque, the largest in Phnom Penh, which opened in March to the tune of $2.9 million — privately funded by a Dubai-based businessman.
“We see the world, in some countries, religion has broken the nation [sic]. But for Cambodia, I can proudly say that we have lived together peacefully among races and religions,” Hun Sen said during the event, local media reported.
It is not clear whether the government’s support of the Muslim population is out of a genuine desire to promote religious tolerance or due to practical electioneering; anecdotal evidence from a number of sources say Muslims in Cambodia overwhelmingly voted for the ruling party, though in recent years, this seems to be changing.
In any case, Farina said, government promotion of religious tolerance is having a very positive impact, and is one factor that separates Cambodia from many other nations in the region.
“If [the government] tried to incite or disharmonize the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Cambodia, then things could become worse. But this hasn’t happened,” she said. “The government has said that extremism exists in Buddhism and Christianity, and Muslims in Cambodia are moderate. It has tried to defend the communities. This does not happen in other countries.”
For example, Myanmar introduced a law that could make it compulsory for women to space their children by at least three years. Many human rights campaigners say this is a blatant attack on the Muslim population, which hardline Buddhists allege is growing so quickly it might one day affect their religious majority.
“Activists with a racist, anti-Muslim agenda pressed for this population law, so there is every reason to expect it to be implemented in a discriminatory way,” Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement days before the law was introduced in 2015.
The Cambodian government, on the other hand, has even come to the defense of Muslims when the question of Islamic extremism arises. In 2007, Hun Sen clashed with a Thai government official over accusations that Cambodian Muslims had links with extremists in southern Thailand. “Cambodia is not a terrorist hiding place to attack Thailand. … Cambodian Chams are poor, but they don’t work for militants in southern Thailand,” he said at the time. “The Thai spokesman should not have used that kind of language. … I cannot tolerate the accusation.”
However, Farina said, this is an accusation that may drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim Cambodians.
On a sweltering evening in May, Zul, a 21-year-old student, stood outside the white-tiled Alserkal mosque holding an iPhone in one hand and a Quran in the other. “I think for young people, Islam is a very good thing. It teaches you how to be a good person,” he said, adding that his Buddhist friends feel the same way about their religion. “I have many Buddhist friends. They don’t care if I am Muslim. I don’t care if they’re Buddhist. This is how it is in Cambodia.”
However, Zul added that recently, many of his friends have begun asking him questions about Islamic extremism and groups such as ISIS. “I think they hear things on the TV or read on the Internet, and maybe it gives them a bad idea about Islam. I tell them that extremists who say they’re Muslim aren’t real Muslims.”
Concerns about the radicalization of Muslims in Cambodia began shortly after 9/11, but came to a head in 2013, when it was discovered that Riduan Isamuddin — also known as Hambali — an Indonesian terrorist with links to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing and often dubbed “the Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia,” had been hiding in Cambodia for six months with the help of a young Cham named Sman Ismael.
Ismael was a teacher at a religious school in the west of Phnom Penh that was funded at the time by a Kuwaiti charitable organization that the U.S. government claims was bankrolling various al-Qaida networks across the world. Hambali was eventually captured in neighboring Thailand and is in custody in Guantanamo Bay, while Ismael, two Thai nationals and one Egyptian were arrested in Cambodia — all except the Egyptian individual were imprisoned on charges of terrorism.
Concerns were added in June 2014 after a video was posted online by ISIS in which one fighter, a British national, stated: “We have brothers from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia” fighting in ISIS.
This was covered widely by the Cambodian media, which have more often than not covered such issues in a very balanced and fair manner. An article in the Phnom Penh Post followed the aforementioned statement with a matter-of-fact denial by Sos Kamry, the country’s grand mufti. “There is no relationship between Cambodian Muslims and those in the Middle East. In Cambodia, we don’t have extremists,” he was quoted as saying.
Indeed, except for the Hambali incident and claims by numerous academics and foreign government officials that Muslims in Cambodia could be radicalized and the country might be a fertile ground for extremism, there is currently little evidence of radicalization. This has left some members of the Muslim community feeling aggrieved. As Thno told The Islamic Monthly, “The media don’t care if we do good, only bad.”
For example, the New York Times has directly reported on the Muslim community of Cambodia once in the last 15 years, three other stories have offered only a fleeting mention of the minority group. The solitary article, published in 2002, was titled “U.S. Fears Islamic Militancy Could Emerge in Cambodia.”
Yet, Farina admitted, with increasing globalization and growing ties between Muslims in Cambodia and those in other parts of the world, it is important not to dismiss the possibility of radicalization in the country.
“The concern is about the outside influence and people who are trying to foster radicalization in Cambodia,” she said, before adding that Muslims would fight tooth and nail against anyone who tries to destabilize their peaceful and tolerant life in Cambodia.