kampot district, Kampot province – As the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s promise of secular justice nears, it is clear that for some, reckoning with history is a spiritual problem as well as a legal one.
On Sunday, about 100 people from 46 mosques in Kampot, Takeo, Prey Veng, and Svay Rieng provinces sat on the cool white tiles of the Essherkireen mosque in Kampong Keh village, about 7 km outside Kampot provincial town. The men sat on the right and the women, in colorful hijab, sat on the left. All had come for what the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which organized the meeting, said was the first-ever public forum on justice and reconciliation for Muslim survivors of the Khmer Rouge.
“I want you to think, ‘What is justice?” Youk Chhang, the director of DC-Cam, said to the assembled crowd. “What level of justice can you accept?”
Rim Moseur, 41, agitated and angry, came to the front. He sat down against a pillar and stretched out his legs, pressing on his kidneys, to show people how the Khmer Rouge had tortured him. “I saw with my eyes about 200 people killed,” he said. “I cannot forget what the regime did.”
“This suffering,” said another man, “cannot be satisfied.”
The history of Cambodia’s Cham Muslims under the Khmer Rouge has not been completely written. It is unclear how many Chams died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge: Ysa Osman, a researcher at DC-Cam who has written two books on the subject, claims that as many as 400,000 to 500,000 Chams died between 1975 and 1979. But these numbers, Youk Chhang said, need to be substantiated.
That is part of the work of Farina So, the coordinator of DC-Cam’s Cham Oral History project. A Muslim herself, she has spent three years making the rounds of 369 mosques across the country, collecting stories to fill out the history of Cambodia’s Chams under the Khmer Rouge.
For Muslims, she said, notions of legal justice are bound up with Koranic ones. “Adil is justice in Arabic,” she said. “They talk about this word from the Koran. The tribunal has to be adil.” The Koran, she added, allows for retribution commensurate with a crime, but also counsels patience. And it was on these poles, of retribution and forgiveness, that Sunday’s conversation turned.
“I am patient,” said Math Habibash, 55, a Koran teacher. “I stopped being angry.” Let the Khmer Rouge leaders die naturally, she added. “I feel pity for them.”
But Sa Math, 49, the hakem, or imam, at the Essherkireen mosque, said, “In the Koran, if they kill us, we need to kill them back.” Should, then, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge be killed for their crimes? “Yes,” he said. “But according to the Constitution of the country, you cannot.”
The relationship between the Koran and the court is complex, and Sunday’s discussion barely scratched the surface. Abdul Raman Ibrahim, 35, who had come from O’Chrov village in Sihanoukville’s Prey Nop district for the conference, raised his hand and asked that the words of the Koran not be included in any literature on the tribunal.
“[The Koran] is the words of Allah,” he said. “Muslims value that very much. When it is taken to be put into another book, its value goes down.”
Sa Math, like many others, said he was ready to let the courts decide what is just.
Many people at his mosque suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, he said.
“They tell us their husbands died, their children died,” he said.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t know what to do. They already died. It’s your fate.’”
The tribunal, he hopes, might give him a better answer to give to those people.