Cham Community, Khmers in Relaxed Co-existence

Story by Jon Bugge

With the world’s attention focused on the relations between Western nations and followers of Islam, the Chroy Changva village just east of the Japanese Bridge in Phnom Penh could provide a model for the future. In a community with more than 300 houses, five mosques and two pagodas, Islamic Cham people and ethnic Khmers live in harmony.

The Chams pray five times a day in mosques funded in part by Muslims from wealthier countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia or the United Arab Emirates. About 70 percent of mosque funding comes from immigrant Chams who are giving back to their communities, said Ahmed Yaya, secretary of state of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. Successful local Chams like Yaya also pitch in.

Cambodia has about 200,000 Muslims out of a population of about 12 million. The Chams are descendants of the once-powerful Champa empire, founded along the southeastern coast of present-day Vietnam about 2,000 years ago.

The anti-US protests and ethnic tensions common throughout countries with Muslim communities since the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington have been largely absent here.

A recent edict forbidding Chams from holding political discussions in mosques was annulled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said it was contrary to government policy. But Cham leaders have warned that the US government must continue to make clear that it is doing battle against terrorism, not Islam.

The Chams’ history of suffering might be a significant factor in their peacefulness in Cambodia, community leaders say.

The Khmer Rouge killed a higher proportion of Chams than any other ethnic group. “It taught a lesson that we should be moderate,” Yaya said.

Chams are now focused on giving their children an education and on building businesses, rather than on political activism, said Osman Hassan, a parliamentarian and Hun Sen’s envoy to the Cham community. Many from rural areas are unaware of international events in any case, he said.

“They just [recovered] from a war,” he said.


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