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Comments baffle Muslim leader

Comments baffle Muslim leader

Comments by a UN representative about discrimination and violence against Muslims in southern Cambodia are untrue and may mistakenly relate to Thailand, say a Muslim leader and an academic.

Heraldo Munoz, the chairman of a United Nations Security Council committee on terrorism told a press conference that Cambodia risked becoming a "breeding ground" for terrorist cells such as Jemaah Islamiyah.

"There is reason for concern, particularly since Cambodia in the south does have a Muslim community that has been discriminated against and there has been violence," Munoz was reported as saying.

Bjorn Blengsli, an anthropologist researching Muslims in Cambodia, said that while the population does experience some discrimination across the country, often relating to land or fishing rights, there have been no specific incidents in the south.

"I've never heard about this," said Blengsli. "They are a minority and they're treated fairly well.

"If there's something with terrorism, it would be someone from outside making a statement that was nothing to do with Cambodia," he said, adding that there was currently no proof of terrorist activity among the Muslim community.

Both Blengsli and Ahmad Yahya, a Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian and Muslim leader, suspected Munoz's comments about discrimination and violence related to recent bloodshed amid Muslim unrest in southern Thailand.

However, Yahya welcomed the warnings on terrorism, saying he disagreed with Prime Minister Hun Sen's harsh response to the UN and believed that Munoz was right in trying to attract international assistance for Cambodia.

"Of course we have to control this... our community has to help the government if there's any suspicion of terrorism," said Yahya, who was "100 percent sure" that Cambodia's Cham Muslims were not involved in terrorism.

Recent estimates put the Cham Muslim population to be around 500,000.

The Muslim community is currently in a period of transition, said Blengsli, with an increasing interest in purifying local Islamic practices, evidenced by conversions to the strict Wahhabi branch of the religion, and improving education paid for in part with money from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Blengsli said the first generation of religious students who studied in the Middle East are beginning to return to Cambodia, but the effects of this influx of the "future religious leaders on this country" will remain unknown for some time.

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