The Al-Serkal mosque in central Phnom Penh stands impassive and calm, as if the eye of the political storm surrounding it, unaware of the divisions in the community it is designed to unite.
In its shadow earlier in September, Phnom Penh’s governor stood up and declared that a planned road here would bring prosperity; he promised to consult with the community on its construction. It was, however, the merest wisp of an offering. As he made clear, the building of the road was a foregone conclusion.
Not only is the road anticipated to cut through the front of the mosque compound, its position at the intersection of prayer and politics has exacerbated divisions between two of Cambodia’s most respected Cham Muslim political leaders: Othsman Hassan and Ahmad Yahya, even sparking a court case between them.
The road also threatens to divide the Cham Muslim community. Through the apparently related silencing of a weekly one-hour Cham-language radio broadcast, it has already had an effect.
The underlying tensions between the two men go back much further.
Both are politicians in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, though Yahya arrived relatively recently. While Hassan has won favour from Prime Minister Hun Sen because of his ability to whip up support in the provinces, Yahya’s powerbase has been focused in Phnom Penh.
This latest dispute could see a shift in those traditional geographical support bases. Hassan is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, as well as a minister attached to the prime minister. He is also the president of the Cambodian Muslim Development Foundation (CMDF), which appeals for funds to build mosques and schools.
Yahya is his counterpart in two respects: he is a secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, and he is president of the Cambodian Muslim Community Development (CMCD), which also facilities donations from abroad, such as cows for the recent Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. Notably, he does not enjoy the same proximity to Hun Sen.
The two are also tied by blood. Hassan’s mother, Yahya says, is his cousin.
“He did not know how to ride a bicycle; I helped him, taught him,” Yahya says.
Hassan declined to comment for this article, despite multiple attempts to reach him by phone and email over several weeks. When Post journalists approached him after the road announcement, he refused to comment, walked to his black Lexus and closed the car door.
On August 15, Yahya was found guilty of defamation for claiming Hassan was the mastermind behind the road, and highlighting his potential business interests in such a project, given that his foundation owns a portion of the mosque compound land.
Yahya was ordered to pay 100 million riel ($25,000) in damages. Some in the Muslim community rallied to raise the funds. Yahya has vowed to appeal.
A central issue regarding the proposed road is the lack of transparency. Mean Chanyada, a spokesman for the municipality, repeatedly refused to provide the Post with a copy of the map that outlines the road’s path.
“We cannot show you because it may cause further problems,” he said. “But we will reveal to the public soon, because [we have] nothing to hide”
That opacity means members of the mosque are also in the dark about where to position themselves, caught between Yahya’s hints at foul play, silence from Hassan, and promises from the municipality that a road to be built 30 to 50 metres from the mosque walls will bring fruitful investment.
Also packaged with the road project are promises of much-needed drainage systems for the area, which routinely floods since the Boeung Kak lake, where the mosque is situated, was filled in with sand in a controversial building project by a well-connected CPP senator.
Many of the threads in the current dispute stem from 2008, which was the year Yahya quit the Sam Rainsy Party for the CPP, putting him on the same side as Hassan and in the prime minister’s good graces.
That was also a windfall year for the Cham Muslim community, though one that has left a bitter aftertaste. It started when a Kuwaiti delegation visited the Kingdom promising a $5 million donation for the Cham community. A government committee of nine people was established – with both Hassan and Yahya as vice chairs – to manage the funds. Between $300,000 and $600,000 was delivered, but the rest never materialised.
Sos Mousine, secretary of state at the Ministry of Cults and Religion, and a member of the supreme council committee of Hassan’s CMDF said that was because the Kuwaiti government underwent a change of heart.
“We didn’t have any [memorandum of understanding] or agreement – only faith that they would send the money,” Mousine said.
Yet Yahya still bears a grudge, and believes Hassan was somehow responsible for the money drying up, although he has no evidence to support that assertion.
“The project was too late; [the government of Kuwait] asked to implement it very quickly, but delay, delay, delay, because of . . . I don’t want to say. Because of him,” Yahya said. “I am very frustrated. I am not happy with him.”
With Cham projects like mosques and madrassas appealing for, and regularly attracting, interest and funds from Islamic countries across the globe – including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Malaysia – there is a lot at stake.
Hassan has in the past personally appealed to Saudi Arabia to fund scholarships for Cham students, as indicated in a letter seen by the Post, and his CMDF has also outlined to prospective donors a list of Cambodian communities in need of mosques.
Yahya, though, says those places already have mosques. The two men’s rivalry and Yahya’s distrust of Hassan has only fuelled his belief that the latter has a financial interest in the road being built.
For Cham researcher Farina So, Hassan’s business interests cannot be ignored.
“Othsman Hassan is a longstanding businessman, not a statesman,” she says. “He ran businesses before he joined the CPP or became a political representative of the Cham community. Thus, business interests remain on top and are used to support his political interests.”
The radio station
Also in 2008, Hun Sen took steps to cement his standing within the Cham community. One of those steps was to personally bankroll Radio Sap Cham (Voice of Cham), the sole hour dedicated to Islamic news and views that was delivered weekly in the Cham language.
It was initially established in 2004 with a grant from the US Embassy, which provided annual funding through 2007. But in June this year, it was shuttered. Show producer and president of the Cambodian Muslim Media Centre, Sles Nazy, suspects the land conflict between Yahya and Hassan was at the core of that decision. That conclusion is all he has, as he was never given an official explanation.
“I still do not know the reason clearly,” Nazy says. “On that day [June 11], I went to the station, and the operator told me that the director of the station did not allow us to broadcast.”
“I asked the Ministry of Information, but they did not reply. But I remember I had Ahmad Yahya on air to talk about the mosque road plan,” he says, believing that must be the reason. “Now, people have asked to have the radio program back.”
Those involved in the radio station have an implicit understanding that he who gives can also take away.
One woman, swathed in teal-coloured cloth and visiting Al-Serkal mosque from the provinces, told the Post she missed the Cham-language show.
“I used to hear Cham radio, but now when I turn it on, it’s something else,” she says. “There should not be a conflict among the Cham.”
Farina So says the decision to pull the plug on the show had broader effects for Cham people across the country, hundreds of kilometres from the Al-Serkal mosque and the proposed road.
“It’s also about Cham voice and identity since it is inclusive. Thus, the effect is not minimal,” she says.
And so to the present and the contentious road, which has wrought divisions among some Cham. While some people highlight the economic benefits they see as intrinsically linked to the road, others say the project will risk one of the mosque’s key functions as a place for prayer and quiet contemplation.
Yok Kao, whose home stands behind the mosque, says the area must be reserved for prayer, and believes those who support the road are seeking financial gain.
Sos Mousine, however, echoes the thoughts espoused by municipal officials – that the road will attract more development and more money, which he claims will benefit the local community.
And Lip Karin, 53, a driver from Kratie who transports Cham people from the province to Phnom Penh, where they see their relatives off on pilgrimages abroad and then attend the city’s Al-Serkal mosque for prayer, says the road issue has now permeated the provinces.
“Most people are not in support of the road,” Karin says. “In the mosque after praying, people raised their hands, saying :‘I do not support it’.” Beyond the issue of the road, says Farina So, the community is split along cult-of-personality lines. A third group wants reconciliation between the disgruntled Cham heavyweights.
“Since the issue has appeared in public for a few months, divisions in the community have also taken shape,” she says. “It split the community into at least two main groups: Yahya’s supporters and Hassan’s supporters. The [third] group, however, [doesn’t] support the two leaders. They urged the two to compromise.”
“I think the two groups are siding along personal lines and benefits. Those who have close ties with the leaders or benefit from the split.”
She says that the conflict could yet see Hassan slip in the esteem of the broader community.
“He is seen to earn the prime minister’s confidence in mobilising Cham support of the CPP, although this . . . is diminishing due to many reasons,” she says. “Conflict of interests over the mosque and others seem to be an underlying cause.”
For teachers of the faith, lessons inscribed in the Quran are key to resolving conflicts such as these. Loep Saleh, a religious leader at the Darusalam Mosque on the Chroy Changvar peninsula, said that he could not speak to this case involving senior officials, but urged harmony.
“In line with Islamic religious principles, it is good to compromise,” Saleh said.