Cambodia’s largely Muslim Cham minority have long been considered by many to be unwavering supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party.
The Cham suffered brutal religious persecution under the Khmer Rouge regime, which forced them to abandon their faith, eat pork and give up their Qurans. Their communities were deliberately dispersed, and subjected to massacres for which defendants at the Khmer Rouge tribunal are facing charges of genocide.
Now, ever since a Vietnamese-backed invasion led by Khmer Rouge defectors – including Prime Minister Hun Sen – forced the Khmer Rouge from power and went on to rule the country as the CPP, the Cham have rewarded them with their votes.
Interviews this week with numerous Cham residents in Kandal province and Phnom Penh as well as experts and observers indicate that the same will likely hold true when Cambodians go to the polls in Sunday’s commune elections. But even if Cambodia’s Cham population is still expected to turn out for the CPP, there are stirrings of opposition support in the community, and even among CPP stalwarts, signs are emerging that their political priorities are changing.
Over the decades, the CPP has further cemented their status as a loyal ally of the community defending Muslims’ right to wear the hijab and other religious garb, putting its support behind prayer rooms at Phnom Penh International Airport and providing free passports for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are encouraged to make at least once in their lives.
After the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, even being allowed to speak the Cham language and attend Islamic schools came to be seen as evidence of the CPP’s commitment to protecting their community.
Him Khorm, 63, a fishing net maker in Kandal province’s Doeum Mean commune, on Wednesday said her vote still hinged on the stability the ruling party afforded Cambodia after the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea and the instability that ensued after the regime’s collapse.
“The CPP rescued me from Pol Pot,” she said. “I need to be grateful to them – I am sure when [Hun Sen] falls there will be conflict, people will fight for power.”
CPP campaign rhetoric invoking the possibility of war if the opposition should win during the commune elections appeared to hold much sway over older Cham, who in separate interviews repeatedly mentioned the Khmer Rouge and their fear of disastrous instability caused by a declining CPP.
“I am with the party that brings peace,” said Ha Chi, 55, a resident of Kandal province’s Prek Thmey commune.
Speaking across the street from her mosque as the local CPP headquarters – located less than 100 metres down the road – blared election talking points over loudspeakers, Chi stressed the benefits of CPP rule. “I pray [five times a day], no one restricts my rights and the CPP educated my children,” said Chi, a mother of 10.
“We must keep peace at all costs for these children,” she insisted, gesturing with her prayer beads to a crowd of hijab-clad girls.
But according to Farina So, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia who manages the Cham oral history project, political convictions so strongly rooted in the trauma of the Khmer Rouge era are beginning to give way to more immediate considerations, pointing to improved access to information via social media and education raising political expectations.
While the majority of Cham people still generally support the CPP, So said, “elections now are less about repaying a debt of gratitude to the CPP, [than about] their commune and the future of their children”.
Indeed, two young prospective CNRP Cham voters in Phnom Penh’s Chraing Chamreh I both identified development as a key determinant in their respective choices yesterday.
“I really want change,” said El Rany, 35. Rany said she began desiring political change three years ago. The accounts of friends who lived in Australia provided inspiration. “Everything is clean, orderly, and they have very high wages,” she said.
Naming traffic jams and the construction of a sewage system as her primary electoral concerns, Rany said that she had neighbours who felt the same as her, even if they didn’t say so in public.
Cham fish vendor You Razet, 28, also said he supported the CNRP for the commune elections, explaining that while “parties are not important”, he wanted improved roads in his commune. Razet explained that he saw Malaysia where he spent three years as an undocumented worker as a model for Cambodia’s development.
“The salaries are higher,” he said wistfully.
Alberto Perez-Pereiro, the general manager of social science and market research firm Breogan Consulting, who has extensively studied Cambodian Cham Muslim communities, said that travel abroad has certainly redefined the worldview of many young Cham.
Going to other countries for study or work, particularly Malaysia a Muslim majority country opens the eyes of young Cham to new possibilities, he noted, though he could not say whether this would led to an upsurge in Cham support for the CNRP.
But identifying local issues and development as their primary motivating factors was not unique to pro-opposition Cham voters. “I will support the CPP; I never thought of changing,” said Sok Serey, 25, of Kandal’s Prek Thmey commune.
“Whatever we request, they develop for us. Before, we used to have a very muddy road, [and] we requested a concrete road last year,” he said, casting a satisfied glance at the concrete road beneath his feet.
In interviews, however, all the Cham voters who identified with the CPP still referred to what they saw as the CPP’s religious tolerance as an important reason for their support. Farmer Han Zan, 40, said he “only votes for the CPP” in part because the government does not demand he pay income tax, but also because the CPP “gives full rights to wear religious garb and pray five times a day”.
Food vendor Ya Ney, 26, of Takhmao town’s Doeum Mean commune, said that five years ago, the government “cleared our old mosque and built a new one in the same place”, adding that she never contemplated switching parties.
Nonetheless, historian Ysa Osman – the author of The Cham Rebellion and Oukoubah, about the persecution of the Cham under the Khmer Rouge, and the CNRP’s Khmer-Islam Movement director – believes the CNRP can soon become the party of the Cham, particularly as community members gain more education and travel abroad.
According to Osman, the closure of the Cham radio programme Radio Sap Cham in 2016 and controversial plans to build a road through a Boeung Kak mosque compound – an on-air discussion of which may have led to the programme’s closure – demonstrate that the CPP cannot be trusted. “Islam supports democracy, human rights and the right to choose their leader,” he said.
Osman’s hopes rest with the younger generation of Cham. In 2016, he said, the Khmer-Islam Movement had only two Cham volunteers. Now, said Osman, there are 20, many of whom returned from studying in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
Khmer-Islam Movement volunteer Van Sakrany, 41, of Tbong Khmum province’s Porpel commune also expects a surge of CNRP support from the younger generation of Cham. “There are Cham who support the CNRP in my community, but they are not publicly open,” Sakrany said.
Unlike Osman, who emphasised the importance of foreign-educated Cham, Sakrany said young unemployed Cham, much like young unemployed ethnic Khmers, were more likely to support the CNRP to stimulate “change”.
Ministry of Religious Affairs spokesman and CPP member Sous Musin, who is also a member of the Cham community, maintained yesterday that Cham support for the CNRP remains negligible. “Voting between Cham in rural and urban areas, I think they still support CPP, it has no difference,” he said, dismissing the incidents Osman brought up as inconsequential.
But increased political participation in both parties would be constructive in its own right, according to Sles Nazy, the president of the Cambodian Muslim Media Center and former producer of Radio Sap Cham. Nazy, who said he “does not go for any party”, believes it is best for the Cham community if they can attain positions of influence in both the CPP and the CNRP.
“We need to have a member of parliament to bring Muslim issues to the National Assembly.”