Prominent members of the ethnic Cham minority say unease is growing in the Islamic community because no evidence has yet been presented implicating three foreign Muslims in acts of terrorism, despite claims the three belonged to a foreign militant cell.
Local Muslims are also angered by the decision to close two Islamic schools in Kandal and Kompong Chhnang provinces, and outlaw the Saudi Arabian based Om-Alqura organization, which funded the schools and employed the three suspected militants.
The heavy-handed decision, several Chams said Monday, deprived more than 600 poor Muslims students of their education and seemed less about combating militancy than signaling to the US that Phnom Penh is a staunch ally in its war on terrorism.
“Of course, they say about having evidence but the government have to prove to the Cham people they have concrete evidence,” Ahmad Yahya, secretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation, said on Monday.
“We are a peaceful, small community. We know each other, and I can say 100 percent [of Chams] are not interested in al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Jemaah Islamiyah,” said Ahmad Yahya, adding that Chams would be first to know if militant groups existed.
Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based Muslim organization, has been linked by authorities there to last October’s bombings in Bali.
Criminals should be punished, but hundreds of Cham students should be spared for the alleged wrongdoing of others, he added.
“Catch and punish, do whatever to the criminal. But the school should stay open…. The children are innocent,” Ahmad Yahya said.
“I talked to many people who have the same feeling. They don’t make demonstration, they just keep [their feelings] in their hearts. They suffered too much during the Pol Pot regime,” he said.
“The Muslims in the country, they feel bad because it came from American evidence. So America and the government must work together to show the Chams evidence,” he said.
“I’m not accusing, but I think [the government] wants to have a good relationship when [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell comes,” he said.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said on Monday the schools have been handed over to the Cham community and the arrest of the three suspects was not aimed at appeasing the US or anyone else.
The apprehension of the three suspects was followed by praise from the US State Department last week, which contrasted with recent stinging criticism by US Senator Mitch McConnell and State Department officials over Phnom Penh’s record on human rights and impunity.
“We did not do [the arrests] to satisfy anyone,” Om Yentieng said. “The Muslim people do not lose benefit, they are being prevented from the damage of being used as a staging area” for terror attacks.
“If the terrorists attacked foreigners…the victims firstly will be Cambodian people, particularly Cambodian Muslims,” he said.
Om Yentieng claimed last week that the two Thais and the Egyptian have links to Jemaah Islamiyah and were plotting to carry out “attacks” in June.
He would not release further details regarding the plot and whether it was linked to the June 16 to June 18 Asean ministerial meetings in Phnom Penh.
A second prominent Cham claimed Monday the arrests are being discussed widely in Muslim communities and the closure of the Islamic schools was the first of its kind since the Khmer Rouge.
“The government must do something to keep friendship with the Cham or it will be like the Philippines. It will be broken,” he said, adding the US should also make evidence available.
Ninety percent of Cambodia’s Chams belong to the traditional Shafi’i sect, but a growing percentage of their estimated 700,000 have joined the orthodox Wahabi branch of Islam since the mid-1990s.
While some Chams are unhappy with the spread of more orthodox versions of Islamic teachings, religious leaders are adamant that fundamentalism does not mean militancy.
Earlier this year, The Cambodia Daily obtained several VCDs in Phnom Penh featuring al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan and featuring the speeches of bin Laden. The VCDs were merely being watched out of curiosity, and not as aids to radicalism, said one Cham who has seen them.