Cham Muslims Recall Khmer Rouge-Era Brutalities

kroch chhmar district, Kompong Cham province – These days, the Cham Muslims in Svay Kleang, a sleepy village nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, are called to prayer by loudspeakers blasting Arabic chants far and wide. But before the loudspeakers, there was the Taga, a Moorish-style brick structure that rises high above the ground and once served as a makeshift broadcast tower for the local imam, as well as a potent symbol of Cham identity.

Svay Kleang is one of the oldest Cham communities in Cambodia, and one of the most famous, with multiple religious leaders and even a Cham king hailing from the village. But its prominence—and its prominent landmark, the highest such Cham tower in the region—also made it a target for the Khmer Rouge, who occupied Svay Kleang starting in April 1975 and terrorized its residents, attempting to stamp out all traces of their distinctive religion and ethnicity before forcibly ev­ac­uating most of them later that year.

Sitting in the cool and spacious wooden home of the village chief on Monday, Roun Masitah, 53, sobbed as she described her suffering under the Democratic Kampuchea regime. Not only were her parents and several siblings killed, she said, but she and other Chams were treated with particular cruelty.

“In the morning for breakfast we sat several Muslims to a table, and they pointed guns at us, saying, ‘Eat this pork. We’ll see whether you die or not,’” Ms Masitah remembered.

“I think they knew us very clearly,” she said. “They knew we were a Muslim community, and they targeted us because of that. When we prayed, they always ordered people to watch us.”

“I think this was genocide,” she said.

Her use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe what happened strikes to the heart of a long-standing quandary for prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal: whether and how to bring charges of genocide against the former Khmer Rouge leaders currently detained by the court.

The word is often used by observers who are struggling to find a way to describe the horror of acts committed by the Khmer Rouge, but in a legal context, genocide is a very specific term that refers to a very specific crime. The UN Genocide Convention of 1948 defines it as the commission of acts with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Although Khmer Rouge leaders are accused of killing millions between 1975 and 1979 in an effort to build an agrarian society, opinion is divided over whether or not they were attempting to destroy any particular ethnic or religious group. In their initial allegations, lodged in July 2007, tribunal prosecutors proposed filing genocide charges against all five suspects- Duch, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea- but so far this has not happened. Instead, both Duch, whose trial will end later this year, and the other four suspects, who will be tried together beginning next year, have been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One solution to the dilemma is to investigate the Khmer Rouge regime’s treatment of specific minority groups like Cham Muslims, who were often singled out for their differences by a regime that craved uniformity above all else.

The question of whether the Chams were victims of genocide is the topic of heated debate among scholars of the era. Although there are no precise statistics for how many Cham perished under the Khmer Rouge, Yale University historian Ben Kiernan pegs the figure at about 90,000, which represents nearly one third of the number of Chams living in Cambodia before 1975. To Mr Kiernan, these killings were undoubtedly genocidal.

“There is no doubt that the Democratic Kampuchea regime intended to destroy the Cham Muslim religious group ‘as such,’” he writes in his 1996 book, “The Pol Pot Regime.” To support this claim, he cites the wholesale repression of Cham language and culture and the forced relocation of nearly all Chams (only city-dwelling Khmers were generally relocated).

Many others disagree. Historian David Chandler wrote by e-mail yesterday that there is no clear evidence that Democratic Kampuchea leaders had genocidal intent toward the Cham.

“No group was targeted for killing,” he wrote, “except people thought to be enemies of the revolution, a very flexible category that included lots of Chams.”

“I see no advantage in trying people for genocide over trying them for crimes against humanity,” he continued. “The Chams were never treated like the Jews, or the Tutsi, or the Armenians.”

Reached yesterday for comment, ECCC legal affairs spokesman Lars Olsen would only say that genocide charges are “still under consideration” by the court’s co-investigating judges, whose investigation into Case 002 will continue until the end of the year.

In the meantime, Svay Kleang village is the latest stop in a long-term Documentation Center of Cambodia project to record and catalogue atrocities committed against the Cham. Over the next week, a 12-person DC-Cam team will be going door-to-door in the village to collect testimonies from survivors. Their immediate goal is to help victims of the Khmer Rouge file complaints and civil party applications with the tribunal, but they also hope that the information they collect will be useful in pursuing charges of genocide against the four suspects in Case 002.

“The co-investigating judges said it might be hard to prove genocide charges, so we are trying to assist,” said Terith Chy, the leader of DC-Cam’s Victim Participation Project.

“Other religions were persecuted,” Mr Chy added, “but persecution against Chams was really very bad. In traditional practices, girls were not allowed to cut their hair, but the Khmer Rouge cut it; they made them eat pork. Spiritually, that’s really a hard blow upon the community.”

Indeed, in interviews this week Svay Kleang villagers recounted stories of beatings and torture and death under the Khmer Rouge, but they also said they were haunted by persistent violations of their spiritual beliefs.

You Sos Pun Yamin, 56, a Kroch Chhmar district religious leader who hails from Svay Kleang, described the onset of terror in the village as gradual.

“After 17 April 1975, they started to knock on doors day and night, making arrests of men- first the rich and the businessmen. Twenty to 30 men were arrested every night,” he recalled as he chain-smoked in the village chief’s house, tapping the ashes into a crack in the floor. Soon, he said, soldiers stopped allowing villagers to pray and closed the doors of the local mosque, which was eventually destroyed.

“They eliminated our religious rights-they did not allow us to pray five times a day, they were very strict about our style of dress and they forced us to eat pig’s meat, which is a very serious religious abuse,” he said.

After a failed uprising in October 1975, most of the villagers were evacuated to neighboring districts for forced labor. What had been a peaceful and prosperous town of 1,242 families was gutted, with only 190 families remaining in 1979.

Still, even Mr Yamin is not sure this treatment amounts to genocide.

“For me, I think not only Islamic people have suffered, so I cannot say the Khmer Rouge time targeted specifically Islamic people,” he said. “They tried to eliminate religion in general.”

Sa Sab Tah, 75, grew up in Svay Kleang and remembers the days when it was a center of scholarship, with Chams flocking from around the region to study with religious leaders here. Now one of the oldest people in the village, she received visitors this week in the two-room house that she has lived in for more than 30 years, plying them with ripe bananas and glass after glass of warm tea.

After studying Cham language and culture intensively in her youth, Ms Sab Tah married a policeman and had three sons and two daughters. She supplemented the family income by selling eggs and making fishing nets before being evacuated by the Khmer Rouge to Kompong Thom province, where she was put to work digging canals and carting rocks.

“It really was painful,” she recalled of her evacuation and forced labor, “because I was a devout person who always prayed five times a day. I had my hair cut short, and I had my hair covering taken from me, and in our religion women were not allowed to show their heads to anyone else.”

Her husband and five children were killed together in late 1978 or early 1979; she can’t remember exactly when.

“I am very poor and have no family left alive,” Ms Sab Tah said. “If there were no Khmer Rouge regime, I would have a happy life. But because of this regime, I lost everything and am lonely.”

“I don’t understand the term ‘genocide’ clearly,” she added. “But what I can say is that this regime was a terrible regime.”


Related Stories

Latest News