Arrests Prompt Concern for Cambodia’s Muslim Minority

Islamic Human Rights Commission

Briefing: Arrests prompt concern for Cambodia’s Muslim minority

22 July 2003

Brief history and treatment of Cambodia’s Muslims

Cambodia’s Muslim community is estimated to be 185,000 to 200,000 strong; forming 5 to 10% of Cambodia’s predominately Buddhist population. Cambodia’s Muslims are mainly drawn form the Cham group, with a small minority of ethnic Malays.

The Cham group

The Cham (Muslim) group are descendants of the 14th century Hindu kingdom of Champa in what is today central Vietnam, which embraced Islam. In the early 1800s, the Cham migrated to Cambodia to escape religious and cultural persecution. The Cham are widely considered as “non-confrontational” and their practice of Islam is often referred to as “Khmer Islam”.

In 1975 Cambodia’s Cham Muslim population was estimated to be 200,000-250,000. With the advent of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodian Islam was plunged into crisis. Faced with forced population transfers and a ban on both practising Islam and their native language, an estimated 100,000 Cham Muslims were killed and Cambodia’s mosques destroyed.

Recent arrests provoke concerns for Cambodia’s Muslims

May and June 2003 witnessed a series of arrests and expulsions of foreign Muslims working with Cambodia’s Cham Muslim population.

On 30 May, acting on US intelligence, Cambodian authorities raided and closed down a foreign-funded Muslim school, ‘Umm Al-Qura’, near the capital Phnom Penh. An Egyptian, two Thai Muslims and a Cambodian Muslim were arrested. The suspects have been accused of links to Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, the Indonesian group held responsible for the Bali bombing. The Cambodian government subsequently expelled from the country 28 foreign Muslim teachers and their families, bringing the total of those expelled to 47.

In light of the school raid, the Minister of Cults and Religions, Chea Sauoeun stated “What I am afraid of is the people from outside. We are going to have to have more inspections”. His comments were followed by the arrest of another Muslim teacher at a Kuwaiti-funded Muslim school west of Phnom Penh in early June. Again accusations of Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah links were alleged.

The War-on-Terror

The May and June 2003 arrests are part of the enlargement of the US-led “war-on-terror” and follows a consistent pattern of hysteria over Al-Qaeda that has swept the governments of South-East Asia, often a pretext for anti-Islamist crackdowns, as witnessed in Indonesia and the Philippines. The raids took place in the run up to a state visit to Cambodia by US Secretary of State, Colin Powell. As many prominent Cambodian commentators have reflected, including the Muslim parliamentarian Ahmad Yahya, the arrests are intended to show to the US government that the Cambodian government is prepared to crackdown on terrorism, regardless of how fictitious or non-existent the threat may be.

Prospect of Buddhist-based nationalism

IHRC fears the rise of Buddhist chauvinism in Cambodia, more specifically a narrow Buddhist-based form of Cambodian nationalism. The Muslim experience in neighbouring Thailand is testimony to this concern. It has to be noted that the Cambodian government has declared Buddhism as the state religion and provides preferential treatment to the Buddhist faith. Indeed Cambodia’s Muslims have come under the spotlight of certain Buddhist elements that have raised complaints and concerns as to the financial assistance Cambodian Muslims have received from foreign Muslim charitable organisations.

Alarmingly, in October 2001, the Ministry of Cults and Religions attempted to impose draconian measures and procedures on Cambodia’s Muslim population. In a document, ‘Maintaining order in the Islamic religion in the Kingdom of Cambodia’, proposals covered restrictions on mosques and normal religious activities, as well as contact with fellow Muslims from aboard. The controversial document was withdrawn from government policy soon after its publication.

Cambodia’s Muslims and Christians also reported delays by some local government officials in acknowledging that official permission had been granted to conduct prayers and other religious activities in homes. This raises fears as to government interference in the private, religious sphere.

IHRC’s concerns for Cambodia

IHRC is deeply concerned at the May and June arrests. This is in light of the Cambodian government’s track record of arbitrary arrests and detentions, despite their prohibition under Cambodia’s constitution. IHRC further holds reservations as to the Cambodian government’s reputation for holding suspects incommunicado and without access to lawyers. IHRC also has concerns as to the treatment and physical safety of those detained. IHRC points to an August 2001 survey which reported that nearly 12% of suspects detained in police custody were tortured. IHRC calls for their immediate and unconditional release.

IHRC calls upon the Cambodian government not to jump on the ‘war-on-terrorism’ bandwagon. IHRC believes that such a move would jeopardise Cambodia’s fragile civil liberties and risk the alienation of important minority groups, such as the Cham and Malay Muslims.

IHRC also calls upon the Cambodian government to allow Cambodia’s Muslim populous to re-generate itself unimpeded, especially given years of Khmer Rouge repression, and permit the free movement of foreign Muslims in Cambodia.

For more information please contact:

Islamic Human Rights Commission
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