Mosque Road Splits Imam and Worshippers

Cham Muslim meatball vendor Ly Nasy is loyal to his imam, his faith’s high religious leaders and the ruling party. But plans for a new road through the land surrounding the country’s largest mosque has put him at odds with all three.

“There is no way I will let them build this road,” he said at his stall inside another Phnom Penh mosque, the Muk Dac, on the Tonle Sap river. “In this whole village, there is no one who supports it.”

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Hundreds of protesters rally against a planned road outside Al-Serkal Mosque in Phnom Penh on Friday. The issue has caused a rift in the Muslim community. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

No one, that is, except the mosque’s 69-year-old imam Sary Oumoeu.

“If there is a family with five members, and one does not support it, we should not listen to him,” Mr. Oumoeu said on Wednes­day afternoon as he supervised work on a new cemetery near the mosque in Chroy Changva commune. “We need to develop the area. We should listen to the government.”

But interviews with a handful of Mr. Oumoeu’s followers suggest that when it comes to the planned byway alongside the newly built Al-Serkal Mosque, he is the wayward kin.

“We don’t support it—none of the Muslims in the country support it,” contended 45-year-old construction worker Man Ali, during an afternoon break at the riverside mosque. “These leaders just make decisions on their own.”

On Monday, hundreds of imams from the CPP-backed Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs unanimously, and in many cases reluctantly, joined Oth­sman Hassan, a Muslim community leader and Labor Ministry secretary of state, to endorse the road’s current trajectory toward a condominium complex and golf course at the site of former Boeng Kak lake, about 90 meters from the new mosque.

That vote—lauded by Mr. Hassan as “fair and democratic”—came after supporters of Ahmad Yahya, Mr. Hassan’s rival and Social Affairs Ministry counterpart, tore down fencing marking the road’s boundary last week. A few hundred Muslims staged another, more peaceful protest again on Friday.

Mr. Oumoeu said he sat out the vote, “because I knew that uncles and nephews would be divided by this question.”

But his congregation seems to speak with one voice: Don’t build the road.

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A man walks past Phnom Penh’s Muk Dac Mosque on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“I won’t let it happen,” said Yep Maiya, a 27-year-old relaxing on a bench at the mosque. “I will take the time to join when everyone goes to prevent workers from building the road.”

Mr. Nasy, the vendor, said on Wednesday that Boeng Kak developer Shukaku “has given City Hall gifts to push them to finish the project.”

“If the road is done, the cars or motorbikes or women in short dress might pass and it will disrupt our prayers,” he said.

The $2.9 million mosque was inaugurated last year with a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who praised his party’s tolerance for the roughly 350,000 Muslims that have faithfully voted for the CPP over the past two decades.

The close links between the party and the religious elders led de­puty opposition leader Kem Sokha to call last year for worshippers to elect imams and village-level leaders known as hakims instead of having them appointed by higher officials.

Mosquegoers at Muk Dac said Mr. Oumoeu and the local hakim had been chosen by their adherents and approved by higher authorities. Many distinguished between the corruption and collusion they saw in the road project and the government’s general backing of Cham Muslims—an estimated 70,000 of whom were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

“I still will vote for the current party, because I am not stupid enough to vote for puppet parties,” Mr. Nasy said, contending that CPP-led development exceeded the standards in Malaysia and Indonesia.

For Mr. Oumoeu, the road is a small price to pay for staying on the party’s good side.

“I love Mr. Yahya,” he said of the road’s foe. “But we should think a little about keeping our advantage so that we can survive a little longer.”

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