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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cham students caught up in Thailand's troubled south

Cham students caught up in Thailand's troubled south


CAMBODIAN Muslims have been returning home from Thailand's troubled southern provinces

in recent months after what they say is a Bangkok-ordered crackdown on students seeking

a religious education in the provincial madrasas of Yala and Pattani.

The new $500,000 mosque in Phum Trea, Kampong Cham, was built with funds raised in the United States.

Students and Muslim Cham sources said they were upset by this and added that Thai

authorities were closing schools and raiding mosques in response to Islamic militants

who were conducting cross-border insurgencies from Malaysia.

"The rebels are well-armed and mostly come up from Malaysia," one Cambodian

Muslim student said in Kampong Cham.

This student had spent three years studying the Koran at a madrasa for 300 boys in

Yala. All the students were Thai and Cambodian.

He said the Thai authorities were also rejecting visa applications lodged by Cambodian

students, effectively barring them from studies in Yala and Pattani.

A Thai Embassy official in Phnom Penh said on May 6 that the Royal Thai government

had no policy to deny visas to Cambodian Muslims. Visas were only denied if someone,

no matter what country, was on the government's black list, the official said.

Both southern Thai, predominantly Muslim provinces are viewed by Islamic militants

and moderates alike as "occupied territory", which has also been coveted

by the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiya (JI) to form part of a pan-Islamic

state covering much of Southeast Asia, including chunks of Cambodia and Vietnam.

The insurgencies in southern Thailand intensified last week when 104 people were

killed in bloody battles fought with the Thai authorities when militants stormed

15 police posts. Buddhist monks were killed and the attacks were blamed on the Pattani

Islamic Mujahedeen Movement.

Thai media reports have implied Cambodian students could have been involved in the

attacks while other sources have claimed the strikes involved war veterans from Afghanistan.

Seven of the dead were foreigners but further details have not been released.

The Bangkok-based Nation reported on May 3 that one of a group of Cambodian Muslims

crossing the border in Poipet said "We are going to live in Pattani in the future.

It's an independent state where all Muslims can settle down and get jobs."

Cambodian Member of Parliament Ahmad Yahya, himself a Muslim representing Kampong

Cham, denies that Chams are involved in the troubles in southern Thailand.

"Lots of Chams are going everyday, across Thailand to the south and to Malaysia,"

said Yahya. "They go to study, to work, some are legal, some are not. But the

Muslims in Cambodia do not support that fight for independence."

Yahya said he was aware that Islamic militants had visited Cambodia.

"They've come looking for help and we've said no," he said.

The battles were a severe embarrassment for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra,

who has consistently maintained his country is not prone to strikes by Islamic militants,

and high level diplomatic meetings are currently underway between Kuala Lumpur and

Bangkok over how to deal with the insurgencies.

Cambodian students expect to remain at home until a resolution is found but they

said this was unlikely.

Usually the students would obtain a two month working visa for Thailand, travel overland

through the border crossing at Poipet, then overstay. Others travel to Malaysia where

visas are not required for Cambodian passport holders.

"But now they're closing down the madrasas and the students are returning home--the

Thai authorities are brutal," one student said on condition of anonymity.

He said Cambodian Chams had not taken part in the Thai insurgencies which some analysts

said appeared linked to militants in Malaysia.

Malaysia has close links with Cambodia's Cham community, with one major connection

via the Da'wa Tabligh movement, a conservative school of Islam that is practiced

in Malaysia where adherents support the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the Islamic

political party that wants to institute the strict code of Sharia law across that


The sect has wooed thousands of converts from among Cambodia's Muslim Chams over

the last decade with offers of free education and financial assistance to impoverished

villagers, which sources said was being underwritten by Iran.

About 20 percent of Cambodia's 700,000 Chams have forsaken their traditional lifestyle

and converted to the Da'wa Tabligh school of Islam, according to Norwegian anthropologist

Bjorn Blengsli.

Blengsli estimates a further 20 percent of Chams have converted to the puritanical

Saudi Arabian-based Wahhabi sect.

Wahhabism's most prominent member is Osama bin Laden, and both sects of the Islamic

faith were virtually unheard of until a decade ago when Cambodia began emerging from

its communist past and opened its doors to direct aid from the Islamic world.

Over that period the number of mosques has grown from 20 to 280 countrywide, according

to an official at the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs.

Most foreign aid directed at Islamic causes in Cambodia stems from Saudi Arabia,

Kuwait, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia, says Blengsli.

Cambodian leaders are sensitive to criticism about their handling of Muslim fundamentalists

and insist that rising Islamic militancy, which has torn communities apart in other

Southeast Asian countries, is not an issue here.

However, counter-terrorism experts are warning that the country's notorious culture

of impunity, and widespread conversions among the Muslim Cham community to puritanical

sects within the faith, have also exposed Cambodia to unwanted militant pests.

The shift to more orthodox forms of Islam is typified at Phum Trea, a village on

a remote bend in the Mekong River in Kampong Cham province where the finishing touches

are being put on a spectacular new mosque which is twice the size of its counterpart

by the Boeng Kak Lake in Phnom Penh.

The Imam at Phum Trea, Mohamad bin Abdul Majit said the Mosque was funded by American

Muslims. Ahmad Yahya concurs and says that around $500,000 was raised in the US to

build the mosque.

Around 40 percent of the village's population have converted to Da'wa Tabligh, says

Blengsli, which he describes as a missionary movement that focuses on how faith permeates

all aspects of life.

Next to the mosque is a madrasa built in 1992 whose head of Koranic Studies is Suleiman

Ibrahim, also the leader of the Da'wa in Cambodia. Blengsli says that Ibrahim studied

the Da'wa in Malaysia and started preaching in Cambodia in the late 1980s.

Ibrahim came under scrutiny by authorities in the aftermath of the October 2002 Bali

bombings when investigators discovered Hambali, the alleged terrorist mastermind

behind the suicide strikes, had lived in Cambodia, before, during and after that

attack. Ibrahim was detained for 24 hours, questioned and subsequently released.

Hambali had passed himself off as a Thai while hiding out next to the Boeng Kak Mosque

in Phnom Penh from September 2002 until February 2003 but fled the country after

anti-Thai mobs rampaged through Phnom Penh and razed the Thai embassy.

He was arrested in Thailand last August.

In Cambodia, two Islamic schools were later closed, foreign teachers deported and

arrests made. Five alleged members of JI are still in custody.

"Hambali proved this country can be used by terrorists for a bit of R&R,"

one counter-terrorism agent said.

Some Cham students said some of the funding for the Da'wa Tabligh code of Islam in

Malaysia came from Iran. This assistance then spills into Cambodia through charities,

regular Da'wa visits to villages like Phum Trea, and inter-marriage between citizens

of both countries.

Most Cham say that in order to understand the problems in southern Thailand, one

has to consider the parallels between the situation there and Cambodian attitudes

towards Kampuchea Krom.

It's an issue that Majit prefers not to discuss; however he is proud of the radical

changes that have occurred in Phum Trea since the conversions to Da'wa Tabligh.

This includes the enforcement of strict Islamic dress codes, which requires women

to wear Saudi Arabian-styled veils. In the madrasa young men wear the traditional

Shalwa and skull cap normally associated with Pakistan.

Majit said he was aware of problems being encountered among Muslim Chams amid increased

tensions since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were launched

by bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network.

This was highlighted in late March when at least two Chams were hacked to death in

Kampong Cham after a car accident involving a taxi driver.

But Majit said relations between Phum Trea and Phnom Penh were solid and added: "I

care only for my village."

MP Ahmad Yahya is also aware of the move to greater orthodoxy among the Cham community

but says this is not a cause for concern.

"I disagree with teaching women to cover themselves like ghosts," he says,

"but it doesn't mean they are terrorists."



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