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Spotlight on ignored minority

121218 17a
Young children from Kampong Cham stand in a bed of corn. Photograph supplied

CAMBODIANS' knowledge of the Cham ethnic minority population, more than 40 per cent of who died during the Pol Pot regime, is minimal at best, says Maitre Olivier Bahougne, co-lawyer for the civil parties team at the the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Tonight the launch of a photographic exhibition of Cham – who with the Vietnamese, are the only people to be defined as vicitims of genocide of the Khmer Rouge by the ECCC – will bring to light not just traditions and a way of life, but also the face of contemporary Cham, living integrated lives in the city.

Captured during the Maât legal team’s tour of Kampong Chnang and Kampong Cham, the show is evidence of the richly distinct culture the legal team encountered since taking on the civil parties case.

But the effect of the exhibition on Cham people themselves is what counts most.

“We consider this also important for the victims of genocide. To see their culture – to see that (their culture) is a good thing and useful and for them to be proud of who they are,” he says.

Using the services of Cham translator and cultural interlocutor "Abu" Leb-Ke, the team stayed with families and took part in weddings, harvest festivals and healing ceremonies. As well as a distinct spoken and written language, the photographers documented the different architectural designs and aesthetics of the Cham communities.

“When you speak about Cham, you cannot say ‘Khmer Muslim’,” Bahougne says, stressing that the religious distinctions are different from the cultural.

“One day we were with my co-lawyer (Lor Chanthy) in front of a mosque and he was shown a book written in Cham and even he didn’t know what language it was . . . I think in Cambodia there are a lot of people who know nothing about the Cham. They consider Cham and Arabic the same.”

Bahougne admits when first preparing for Case 002, he too knew little about the culture of their Cham clients. Around 250 of the 560 civil parties are ethnic Cham; proving that they were victims in their own right of Khmer Rouge genocide in the court’s Closing Orders was a significant step – one he fears will not be given justice if the court’s funding problems aren’t fixed.

“These people are not very well informed (about the court). They trust in us. My job is to (represent them) but there is also a danger not just for all the victims but for national reconciliation – to judge correctly all the crimes.”

After its run at Meta House gallery, the French-speaking Maât  team want the exhibition to  travel around the Kingdom and onto galleries overseas. “For the victims and to teach people,” Bahougne says.

The Cambodian Cham launches tonight at Meta House at 7pm and features Cham poetry. It runs until January 3.

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