Ruling CPP Safely Retains Vote Among Cambodia’s Muslims

The colorful tiles of the Kilometer 8 mosque in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district glistened in the late afternoon sun as one of the country’s largest Cham Muslim communities gathered Wednesday to celebrate the first day of Ramadan, the beginning of a strict month-long fast.

This year, the dawn-to-dusk fast of the roughly 350,000 Muslims in Cambodia coincides with the campaign for the national election on July 28, an important event for a minority that traditionally throws the vast majority of its support behind the ruling party.

Cham boys eat their first Iftar, or evening feast, during Ramadan, Islam's holy month, which started Wednesday. (Thomas Christofoletti)
Cham boys eat their first Iftar, or evening feast, during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, which started Wednesday. (Thomas Christofoletti)

But at the Kilometer 8 mosque, Imam Sa Les, with a white turban and neatly trimmed beard, said that he strictly separates politics and religion, even though his community of more than 1,400 households is actively engaged in the run-up to this month’s vote.

“During fasting we are not al­lowed to speak lies or commit bad things,” he said sitting outside his mosque while the first Ramadan feast was being prepared.

“We do not talk about politics here, we talk about Ramadan,” Mr. Les said, explaining that Mus­lims are forbidden from consuming liquids or having sex between dawn and sunset during Islam’s sacred month of worship.

Despite this religious abstention, the Chams represent a core bloc of support for the ruling CPP.

In June, the CPP announced the defection of several hundred alleged opposition members—including a group of 25 disaffected Cham Muslims.

Among those who defected was Sith Ibrahim—who, until April, was deputy secretary-general of the Human Rights Party. And, as in previous elections, the vast majority of Muslims in Cambodia are expected to vote for the CPP.

“Many people here vote for the CPP because they know that the CPP has saved the country from the Khmer Rouge,” who particularly targeted the Cham minority, said Sman Sakim, a 34-year-old Cham from Kandal province, who came to the mosque to pray and break fast with about 100 male Cham worshippers.

“We see a lot of development in our community such as [the construction of] mosques, schools and hospitals and the CPP brings prosperity for our community,” he added.

The food, which included dates, rambutans and a simple rice porridge with shrimp, was donated by the Kuwait Social Reform Society, an umbrella group for Islamic organizations across the world.

Mohammed Fouad, a native Egyp­tian and the organization’s director, who has worked with Cam­bodia’s Cham community for more than five years, said support for the CPP was strong among Muslims be­cause of the party’s pro-Cham rhetoric.

“People [Cham] here think that 90 percent of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen is good. They feel welcome, like they are one of the family, because [Deputy Prime Minister] Sok An and Hun Sen always say Muslims belong to us,” Mr. Fouad said.

With 350,000 Cham votes at stake, the CPP has worked to garner their ballots by allowing them to practice their religion freely and even nominating Cham candidates for the upcoming election, like Othsman Hassan, a secretary of state at the Labor Ministry, who is running in Phnom Penh.

Candidates like Mr. Hassan, Mr. Sakim said, have clearly helped to convince his Cham community in Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district to vote for the CPP.

“Villagers in my district will vote for the CPP because they see that their candidate [Mr. Hassan] has helped to develop the district by providing education and preserving our culture so they love him very much,” Mr. Sakim said, predicting that more than 80 percent of voters in Mok Kampoul would side with the CPP.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Thursday that the Cham voters were important for the CPP, and that his party purposely allowed them to defend their interests through the party structure.

“We have Cham CPP officials to preserve and protect their own interest and they get a voice through the CPP,” Mr. Siphan said.

In contrast, there will be no Cham candidate running for the opposition party in the election, said El Rafeuth, a CNRP representative for the Cham community.

Eng Kok-Thay, a Cham researcher and deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that the Muslim community have historically aligned themselves with the ruling party as it had always promoted the group’s freedom in the country.

For instance, permission to build mosques is easily obtained, women can wear hijabs wherever they want and many Cham students here travel to the Mid­dle East to study.

“They [CNRP] know that [Cham] are supporters of the CPP—it’s a lost cause,” Mr. Kok-Thay said, referring to the opposition. “The prime minister has always defended them…. They live in a very favorable situation, they can practice freely,” he added.

He also said that even after generations of living in Cam­bodia, many Chams still see themselves as guests.

“The Buddhists still view them as coming from Champa [central Vietnam]. So there is a conception that they are refugees, that they are living in someone else’s house and they don’t want to anger the [host],” Mr. Kok-Thay said. “I think they will all go to vote, and they will vote CPP.”

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.