PHNOM PENH – The United States Embassy in Cambodia is financing the publication of new textbooks for minority Cham Muslims, a public diplomacy initiative that will revive a forgotten traditional writing system and attempt to discourage the use of Arabic as a language of instruction in this predominantly Buddhist Southeast Asian nation.
The textbooks, the first to be printed in the Cham script since the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 reign of terror, will initially teach more than 200 Cham Muslim children to read and write in a script derived from Sanskrit, according to the US Embassy, which is also financing the production and publication of the first Cham language dictionary.
Some here have suggested the initiative aims to cut lingual links with foreign radical Islamic groups known to have made inroads to the Cham community in recent years. While Cambodia has not suffered any terrorist attacks, there have been reported upended plots.
In 2004, a Cambodian court convicted Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operative and Indonesian national Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, and three other people for planning to bomb the US and United Kingdom embassies in Phnom Penh. Hambali, the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombing attack, is known to have traveled freely through Cambodia before his capture.
In 2003, Cambodian officials deported 28 Muslim teachers from Egypt, Pakistan, Thailand and other countries who allegedly had links with JI, a regional terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda. Acting on intelligence from the US, the Cambodian government also ordered the closure of an Islamic school.
More recently, in 2010, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged two foreign men, including a cook from Bangladesh, with terrorism after they sent prank letters warning the US, United Kingdom and Australian embassies of possible attacks. The US has since reiterated its concerns that radical Islamic organizations have infiltrated Cambodia’s Cham community.
In 2007, the US helped to establish Cambodia’s National Counter-terrorism Committee, where the two sides are known to cooperate on fighting terrorism. A year later, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened a large office inside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Then FBI director Robert Mueller, who opened the office, expressed concerns at the time that terrorists could use Cambodia as a transit route or as a “spot for terrorism”.
A US Embassy spokeswoman in Phnom Penh would not confirm that teaching Cambodia’s Cham Muslims how to read and write in their own script – rather than Arabic – was related to US counter-terrorism efforts in the region. She referred to the Cham textbooks as “a cultural heritage preservation project”.
“During the Khmer Rouge era, literature written in Cham was confiscated and burned or used as toilet paper. The texts which have survived exist because they were kept hidden or buried,” US Embassy spokeswoman Michelle Bennett said by e-mail. “By publishing these textbooks, we are making the script, and a teaching curriculum, available to the community again to fill a historical gap.”
Over the past decade, Cambodia’s Muslims have gradually moved away from their own customs and toward more orthodox Middle Eastern interpretations of Islam. The shift has been driven by generous donations and the arrival of religious teachers from Middle Eastern countries.
In 2008, for example, Kuwait and Qatar promised Cambodia millions of dollars in donations to build mosques and Islamic schools. Cambodia is now home to more than 400 mosques, the majority of which were built with foreign funds.
That’s a marked increase from the 130 Islamic places of worship across the country before foreign donations began to arrive, according to Farina So, a team leader at the Cham Muslim Oral History project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Those Islamic donations, however, often come with strings attached. “The funds that come to build mosques and schools, some of them come with some conditions like ‘You should follow this kind of Islam’,” So said.
As a result, Cambodia’s Muslims have become stricter in their practice of the religion, So said. The number of Cambodian Muslim women who wear the burqa, for instance, has increased significantly in recent years.
While both Arabic and Cham were used by Cambodian Muslims before the Khmer Rouge regime, today Arabic is the script used by the majority of Chams.
So said it was uncertain how well the new US-funded textbooks would be received by the wider Cham community. She said the old Cham script, also known as Ka Kha, was currently used by Cham Muslims in only three villages, representing around 35,000 people. The majority of Cambodia’s estimated 600,000 Muslims use the Arabic script.
“We are not quite sure yet how many people will welcome this textbook because the Cham people now identify more with religious identity rather than ethnic identity,” said So.
Those using the Cham script practice a form of Islam influenced by Hinduism that is out of step with many traditional Islamic practices. For instance, women are not required to cover their hair and many do not fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The Chams are descendants of the former Indianized kingdom of Champa that ruled territories in modern south and central Vietnam from the 7th to early 19th centuries.
“They call themselves Muslims but the difference is they pray only once a week. They practice an old form of Islam,” So said. “Those who pray five times a day say they are not real or proper Muslims.”
The Chams were severely persecuted during the Khmer Rouge period after they attempted to stage several revolts against the atheist government. In response, the Khmer Rouge forcefully relocated Cambodian Muslims away from their communities, forced them to eat pork and burned their religious texts, including the Koran.
While Chams remain a minority group in Cambodia, they are not openly persecuted by the government and are free to practice their religion openly. Cham leaders are represented at all levels of government, including the parliament, national assembly, military and various ministries.
At the same time, Muslims remain isolated from larger Cambodian society, with most preferring to live in segregated villages. They are also under-represented in the country’s universities and other institutions of higher learning. Since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, no new books have been published in the old Cham script.
Leb Ke, a Cham researcher helping with the US-funded project, spent 10 years traveling from village to village collecting samples of manuscripts that survived the war and interviewing elderly people who remembered the old script, according to a Cambodian Daily report.
Many Cham documents, including copies of the Koran, survived because they were secretly buried in the ground in plastic bags, according to So. Other than the Koran, the few surviving Cham manuscripts included poems, lullabies and “code of conduct” writings that advise women and men on proper etiquette, she said.
Regardless of the US-funded project’s diplomatic aims, So said the textbooks would help preserve the culture of Cambodia’s Muslims, which is fast disappearing as more devotees convert to the more conventional style of Islam and learn Arabic instead of the old Cham script.
“Whether this project contributes to preventing terrorist attacks is really hard to say. But the good thing is that it helps revive our identity,” So said. “They want to raise public awareness on the importance of Cham identity rather than just focusing on religious identity.”