Were the Chams Killed Because of Their Cham Identity?

With the Khmer Rouge tribunal beginning hearings this week on charges of genocide against senior regime leaders, the treatment of Cham Muslims is in the spotlight, along with the debate over whether Pol Pot’s regime is guilty of committing genocide.

I had a chance to study the Cham’s fate under the Khmer Rouge and I believe that what happened to them constitutes genocide. To prove that the Khmer Rouge’s crime against the Cham was genocide, one simply needs to find that the Cham were killed because they were Cham.

The Khmer Rouge made several attempts to eliminate Cham core identities. They used both soft and hard approaches to achieve this aim. Their soft approach included the prohibition of Islam, forcing Cham to eat pork, cutting women’s hair short, eliminating their traditional dress, burning the Quran, closing or destroying mosques, prohibiting prayers, prohibiting the Cham language and changing Cham names to Khmer names.

The Khmer Rouge also broke up Cham communities into small family units and put them in Khmer villages across Cambodia. Traditionally, Cham people tend to live in concentrated communities with a self-sufficient Islamic and cultural infrastructure. The hard approach the Khmer Rouge employed was the execution of prominent Cham including religious teachers, called “hakems” and “tuons,” people who had completed a pilgrimage, called “hajis,” politicians, and the killing of ordinary Cham.

The Cham protests and rebellions in late September and early October 1975 in Koh Phal and Svay Khleang had profound consequences for Cham people in Kroch Chhmar as well as those in the entire Eastern Zone and beyond. In 1978, many survivors reported widespread racial killings against Cham people, specifically killing because they had Cham names or there was some evidence linking them with the Cham ethnicity. The racial killings were also made possible through the unstoppable momentum of the purges that occurred in the Central and Eastern zones in the same period.

On November 30, 1975, a high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre named Chhon wrote Telegram 15 addressed to Pol Pot and copied to Nuon Chea. It was also copied to two other Khmer Rouge officials named Doeun and Yem. According to the telegram, Chhon was writing in response to a previous order, or orders, on the evacuation of Cham people from their hinterland along the east bank of the Mekong River and the entire Eastern Zone, which came directly from the party center in Phnom Penh. Chhon specifically referred to this as the “dispersal strategy discussed in previous meetings.” Chhon estimated that 150,000 Cham in the Eastern Zone would be sent to the Northwest and Northern zones.

A conservative estimate of Cham deaths under the Khmer Rouge is about one in three. Nearly one-fourth of the Cambodian people overall died under the Khmer Rouge. This means that Cham died at a slightly higher rate than Khmer Buddhists. Because the Khmer Rouge targeted them using a top-down approach—namely the killing of intellectuals, religious persons, community leaders and villagers and even girls—the destruction of one-third of their population is a serious challenge to their ability to maintain their core identity.

According to Osman Ysa, many Cham intellectuals died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Of 339 hakems, only 45 remained in 1979. 262 (out of 300) touns were killed. There were approximately 1,000 hajis in 1974 and only 30 of them remained in 1979. Of 26 known overseas students who returned, only two remained. Grand mufti Raja Thipadei Res Lah, along with his two deputies, were also killed.

Due to the destruction of Islamic schools, mosques, Quranic texts, name changes and the prohibition of the Cham language, Cham had to work hard to restore their identities after the Khmer Rouge regime.

Kok-Thay Eng is deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Related Stories

Latest News