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Electing the Imam

The Cham community on the outskirts of Koh Kong want to elect their leader.

Villagers wants to see progress and rely on their Imam to get things done.

ALTHOUGH it might not have captured the same headlines as the Arab Spring, the Cham community of Village 4 has had its own flirtation with democracy this spring. However, as opposed to the mass democracy movement in the Arab world, the Cham experience was entirely peaceful.

“We are electing our new Imam,” explains one of the villagers.

On the outskirts of the town of Koh Kong, Village 4 has one of the largest Cham communities in the province. Imam Yousos Sles, 46, has been the Imam for the whole of Koh Kong for just over a year. Of the 1,200 Cham families in the province 1,114 live in Village 4.

“They live here because their job is fishing and it is near the sea,” he says. “It is easy to dock the boat and to go to fish in the deep seas.”

According to the Imam, about 95 percent of the community rely upon fishing for their livelihoods. “There is no land to grow rice or crops so when the fishing season starts they go out to fish,” he says. The season runs from September to July, although the best time is from January to March.

Today the community is voting for a new Imam.

“It’s the first time they have done this,” says Ly Raman, 59, an advisor to the Ministry of Cults and Religion. He is in Village 4 today to monitor the election.

Traditionally Imams have been appointed rather than elected. However, the previous month the villagers requested the ministry to arrange an election so they could vote for their new Imam.

“They wanted to see the new leader voted in,” says Ly Raman. He says it is only the second time in the country that an election like this has been held. The previous time was in Kandal Province.

“They wanted to see which Imam has good ideas and popularity to develop the community,” he says.

The decision to hold an election seems to be a popular one, at least among the circle of men sitting in the shade of a large tree beside the mosque.

“To have an Imam by vote is better than by appointment,” says Dul Karim, 47. All the men in the circle seem to agree.

“We want to see the new Imam develop the community,” says Mat Moussa Kalamol Loh.

New roads, clean water, access to electricity – these are all things the men want their newly elected leader to bring to them.

“We lack water, we lack electricity, we want to have all facilities,” says Em Tres, 73.

Sitting next to him, Mat Sos wants the new Imam to unite the community.

“For a long time we had only one Imam,” he says. “But in 2004 we had two Imams. We don’t want to see the community separate. We want to see only one Imam to manage the community.”

Imam Yousos Sles agrees.

“We want to see a good person who has the vision to develop the community and to harmonise the Cham people,” he says.

For Mat Mousa Kalamol Loh, it’s not so important who gets elected as the next Imam, the very fact that the villagers are choosing their own Imam is progress enough for him. 

“I believe in the villagers,” he says. “If they decide I will believe it. If more people decide it is better than less people deciding.”



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