Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cham struggle to build new lives after moving

Cham struggle to build new lives after moving

A member of an ethnic Cham community that lived on boats for decades walks past a house being built as part of their new village in Kandal province.
A member of an ethnic Cham community that lived on boats for decades walks past a house being built as part of their new village in Kandal province. Heng Chivoan

Cham struggle to build new lives after moving

Mat Leb lives on land now, but he still washes his face with the waters of the Tonle Sap.

Leb, a 70-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman, spent 30 years living on a fishing boat on the mighty river until last month, when he and roughly 65 other Cham Muslim families decided to put an end to their traditional lifestyle and move to land.

Leb, a grandfather of seven, cried as he spoke of the harsh conditions that led him and the other families to pool their money to buy a small plot of land in Kandal province’s Ksach Tonle commune – and the struggles that followed.

“We have nothing,” said Leb. “Not even one stick for building a house.”

The Cham families along the Tonle Sap in this area of Kandal have traditionally lived and worked on the river, some for more than five decades. But now they are building a village on land called “Islam Thmey”, or “New Islam”, to seek what they hope will be a better life for their children.

Most said they hoped that by giving up a nomadic lifestyle, their children could attend school and learn to read and write Khmer, which many do not.

Others said they were too afraid of the daily dangers of living on the water, including the risk that their young children would drown or get sick and not have access to a hospital.

Some said they became too fearful of the massive storms at night that rock their boats from side to side, water lapping at their feet in the hull.

However, most say they have found that life is no easier on the land. Many of them, even after a month, are still living under tarps and sleeping on the dirt, too poor to build houses, although they have begun constructing a small mosque out of sheet metal.

Mat Leb, a 70-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman who is moving to land after three decades on a houseboat, said he hopes the community’s children will be able to have a better life than their parents.
Mat Leb, a 70-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman who is moving to land after three decades on a houseboat, said he hopes the community’s children will be able to have a better life than their parents. Heng Chivoan

Adding to their difficulties is the fact that the land is only big enough for half of the community members, with the other half still living in their houseboats.

The villagers are now appealing to Prime Minister Hun Sen and other donors for help.

Sixty-nine-year-old Ro Hymas, who said she lived in a houseboat for roughly 40 years before deciding to move to land along with the rest of the community, said that the situation was dire.

“We appeal to the leaders to help us, especially the aid from Samdech [Hun Sen] and other donors. Please assist to end these difficulties for us,” Hymas said.

Koh Ksach Tonle Commune Chief Seng Min expressed his sympathy for the families, adding that he happily facilitated their purchase of the land “because they are also Khmer”.

“I have been to their residence and it is very difficult,” he said. “I do not know how to help them. I will help them with what I can. I also regard them as my own people.”

Virtually all of the able-bodied men and women were out fishing and working yesterday, leaving only the elderly, the sick and scores of children at home. Yet Leb said villagers sometimes spend all day fishing to come up with barely enough of a catch to buy rice for the day.

Mit Sota, 65, who has lived in a houseboat for about 50 years with her husband and three kids, said villagers had nobody else to turn to.

“I never had time to experience being happy like other people,” Sota said, describing a life spent drifting from place to place in search of plentiful fishing, wondering where their next meal would come from.

“I have experienced much hardship,” Sota said.

“I do not want to see my children and grandchildren experience as I did. Even though I don’t have anything, I must come to the land.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Investors’ $14.4M projects approved

    New investments from local and foreign sources continue to pour into Cambodia despite the Covid-19 pandemic remaining a lingering threat to regional and global economies. This comes as the Kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to contract between one and 2.9 per cent this

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Rubber exports stretch 17%

    Cambodia exported 97,175 tonnes of natural rubber in the first five months of this year, surging 17 per cent compared to the same period last year as the Covid-19 pandemic stretches on, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries official Khuong Phalla told The Post on Thursday. Phalla,

  • ASEM supports Kingdom’s proposal to postpone meeting amid Covid

    The 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM13) scheduled to be held in Cambodia in November has been postponed until mid-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation press statement released on Saturday said. The decision was made during a two-day meeting

  • Coffee maker roasted for producing fake product

    The Ministry of Interior’s Counter Counterfeit Committee will send a suspect to court on Monday after she allegedly roasted coffee mixed with soybeans and other ingredients, creating a product which could pose a high risk to consumers’ health. On the afternoon of July 2, the

  • Cash handout programme 80% complete

    Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Soth confirmed on Thursday that the implementation of the Cash Transfer Programme For Poor and Vulnerable Households During Covid-19 had been implemented for more than 80% of the over 560,000 families. The programme was introduced one week ago.

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Where is Cambodia’s exit strategy that can save the economy?

    With the prospect of being slammed by a double whammy, the government is working on an economic recovery plan to deliver it from Covid-19 and the EU’s partial withdrawal of the Everything But Arms scheme in the next two to three years Cambodia is

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.