About 500 Cham imams and Muslim leaders from across the country gathered at a Boeung Kak mosque yesterday and unanimously voted for a controversial road across the mosque compound to plough ahead – a display decried as a “set-up” by opponents.
A high-profile line-up of Cham leaders, including Grand Mufti Sos Kamry, Ministry of Labour Secretary of State Othsman Hassan and his counterpart at the Ministry of Cult and Religion Sos Mousine touted the benefits of connectivity and a sewage system the construction project would bring, ostensibly urging their audience to vote in favour of the road.
The road has been a source of tension that has divided the Muslim faithful. On Friday, worshippers tore down a temporary metal fence delineating the project after officials who came to “measure” the road last week immediately began construction without further consultation.
Sith Ybrahim, an adviser to the government and a Muslim who opposes the Phnom Penh municipality’s plan, maintained that the hastily convened event invited only those who already supported the project.
“It’s all a set up. The result was all pre-arranged,” he said, referring to a ready-made document declaring mass support for the project just after the vote was taken.
“The most important thing is the people – not their representatives. This commitment does not come from the heart of the people who attend the mosque.”
Ahmad Yahya, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs who has been sued for defamation over his criticism of the road, said yesterday’s events came as “no surprise” and stressed that lower-level Muslim leaders who supported the project likely did so out of fear they would lose their positions – which he said were appointed by the Mufti Sos Kamry.
Yahya – who defected from the opposition in 2008 – added that the dispute could have broader political implications.
“The election is coming. If they continue like this, the Muslim community will be divided,” he said. “The tradition of the people is to support the Cambodian People’s Party, but if we are divided, we don’t have that tradition anymore.”
Othsman Hassan, the orchestrator of yesterday’s meeting, said those who had previously opposed the development project were misinformed and believed a “particular group could benefit”.
Hassan’s foundation owns part of the land where the mosque was built, prompting criticism from Yahya, which sparked their legal dispute.
“They think now the road construction will not cause them loss, it will bring more prosperity to Muslim people – that is why they are happy and agree with the plan,” he said. “And after listening to the explanation, more than 90 percent of Muslim people in Cambodia are supporting this plan.”
Grand Mufti Kamry called yesterday’s meeting a “landslide victory”, while Sos Mousine said the voters were a “legitimate” representation of the Chams’ wishes.
Prior to the vote, multiple people from Kandal, Takhmao and Kampong Cham said they already backed the plan.
El Yokkob, 73, from Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district, said he initially opposed the road, believing it would cut the mosque in two. “But now I support the plan, and building roads is in our Islamic religion. Muslims want roads,” he said.