Khmer Rouge Initially ‘Loved’ by Cham, Expert Tells Tribunal

An expert witness told the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday that most of Cambodia’s Cham com­munity initially supported the Khmer Rouge but attitudes changed drastically after an estimated 500,000 members of the pre­­dominantly Muslim minority group were killed by the regime.

Currently employed as an analyst for the tribunal’s investigating judges, Ysa Osman, himself an ethnic Cham, testified on Tuesday re­garding the treatment of the group during the period of Democratic Kampuchea, a subject on which he has published two books.

Ysa Osman testifies at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday. (ECCC)
Ysa Osman testifies at the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Tuesday. (ECCC)

“The Cham people loved and sup­ported the King Father [Noro­dom Sihanouk], and therefore they supported the revolutionary front, which was supposed to be led by the King Father,” he said, citing then­-Prince Sihanouk’s call in 1970 for people to enter the forests and join the resistance against the Lon Nol government.

Genocide against the Cham is among the charges against senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in the second phase of Case 002, which began in October 2014.

“The Cham people loved the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Osman said, not­ing, however, that the affection did not last long once arrests against the group, including of religious leaders, began in 1973.

He highlighted three clashes—beginning in 1973 in Kompong Cham province’s Trea village—when attempts by Pol Pot’s regime to ban Cham cultural and religious prac­tices led to armed resistance and then violent suppression.

Mr. Osman listed five conditions that the Khmer Rouge insisted all Cham must follow: women cutting their hair and not wearing headscarves; Qurans being gathered and burned; raising pigs and eating pork; closing mosques and stopping prayer; and existing marriages be­ing annulled with spouses forced to remarry non-Chams.

The witness said it was natural that attempts to force the Cham to abandon their cultural and religious practices were met with resistance.

“Cham people who believed in Is­lam, they had to preserve this prac­tice of their ancestors. They would never give up their religion,” he said.

While there was little response in Trea village when a group of angry res­idents burned down a local of­fice, Mr. Osman matched previous testimonies at the court in describing later rebellions during Rama­dan in 1975 in Koh Phal and Svay Khleang villages—in what is now Tbong Khmum province—that elic­ited deadly responses.

In his 2002 book “Oukoybah,” or “Jus­tice,” Mr. Osman wrote that there were about 700,000 Cham living in Cambodia in 1975, but on­-

ly 200,000 remained by 1979. On Tuesday, he stood by those numbers, explaining that while pre-Democratic Kampuchea census data was patchy, he was confident that the figures based on his interviews with survivors, government officials, historians and religious figures were accurate.

Mr. Osman said that by 1977, de­spite many Cham having adopted Khmer dress, language and eating ha­bits, they were increasingly ar­res­ted and killed.

“They killed without discrimination. They killed all those who were Cham,” he said.

Mr. Osman’s testimony is due to con­tinue today.

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