Over $700 million has been pledged to the nation over the last six
months by land-hungry Arab nations, raising concern that their rising
influence will radicalise Cambodian Muslims
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah during a state visit this year.
IN the last six months, more than US$700
million has been pledged to the Kingdom by oil-rich Gulf states,
sparking concerns among Western diplomats that the vast investments
could be used not just to kick start the agricultural sector, but also
to radicalise Cambodia's small but increasingly significant Muslim
"There are some organisations here from the Middle East that are very
radical and that are very intolerant, and they are trying very hard to
change the attitude and the atmosphere of the Muslim population here in
Cambodia," said outgoing American Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli in his
farewell speech to reporters on August 25.
At a time when rising international commodity prices have given a new
imperative to food security and made food export more lucrative,
Cambodia, with its vast swaths of under-utilised farmland, is in a
strong position to form relationships with cash-loaded but nonarable
In April, the emirate of Qatar said it would invest some $200 million in Cambodian farmland.
Last month, the Gulf state of Kuwait announced it would give Cambodia
more than $500 million in soft loans and revealed plans to establish an
embassy in Cambodia - which, were it to happen, would mark the first
embassy from an Arab nation to open in Phnom Penh.
"Kuwait, of course, is a very wealthy country, so in ways it could be
very helpful to Cambodia economically.... The one thing we all need to
be careful about is what the money is going to," Mussomeli said.
Cambodian Muslims are "very open and tolerant of other countries",
Mussomeli said, but he cautioned that as a very poor community they are
vulnerable to being manipulated by groups offering money who "are much
more rigid fundamentalists in their perspective and who certainly don't
like foreigners or other religions".
The recent series of high-level state visits from Kuwait and Qatar represent the newest round of contact from Arab countries.
COUNTRIES LIKE THE USA ARE UNHAPPY THAT CAMBODIA IS RECEIVING MONEY FROM KUWAIT.
Beginning in the early 1990s, money from Malaysia
and the Middle East flowed into Cambodia's Muslim community, ostensibly
to rejuvenate a minority community that had been devastated by the
Khmer Rouge and needed to solidify its rightful place in Cambodian
society, Cambodian Muslim leaders say.
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The primary focus of the most recent state visits have been trade. Yet
cultural ties are also at stake: Kuwait pledged some $5 million for
Cambodian Islamic institutions, including renovating the dilapidated
International Dubai Mosque near Boeung Kak lake.
Ahmad Yahya, a government adviser and president of the Cambodian
Islamic Development Association, told the Post on Monday that the new
facilities at the Boeung Kak mosque were necessary to accommodate the
steadily growing Muslim community.
He described the prospect the having Arab embassies in Cambodia as
being "symbolically very significant for our community here".
He added that the Muslim community in Cambodia "has just begun to grown
up" and pointed to a series of recent gestures by Prime Minister Hun
Sen as a sign that it is receiving the respect it deserves.
Within the last year, Hun Sen has called for a Muslim prayer room at
the international airport, instructed educators to allow Muslim girls
to wear a hijab in the classroom and granted Cham leaders an hour of
free airtime for Cham language broadcasts on public radio - all of
which Ahmad Yahya called a "big achievement for us".
In response to concerns by Western countries - particularly the US -
over how the money will be used, he responded: "If the money goes to
individuals and NGOs and no one monitors it, then maybe you have reason
to be afraid; but the money is going to the Cambodian government, so
why worry about it?"
Sith Ybrahim, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Religion, said in
an August 28 interview with the Post that the good relationship Hun Sen
has maintained with the Cham community has encouraged Islamic countries
to give loans to Cambodia and that while "some countries like the USA
are unhappy that Cambodia is receiving money from Kuwait, it doesn't
affect the feelings of the Muslim people here".
"Some say the money can help make Cambodian Muslims radical, but it won't," he said.
Yet past cases have put an uncomfortable spotlight on Cambodia's Muslim
community. In May 2003, police raided the al-Mukara Islamic school.
Three foreign-born men as well as one Cambodian man and the Saudi
charity that ran the institution were charged with international
terrorism and accused of having links to Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, the
Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda most famous for the 2002 bombings
in Bali, Indonesia, that killed more than 200.
It was later discovered that the head of JI, Riduan Isamuddin, had
spent almost a year laying low in Cambodia. Another serious scare came
in December 2003, when Thai Muslims living in Cambodia were arrested
for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on the US, British and
Australian embassies in Phnom Penh.
In the post-September 11 world, Western authorities have continually
raised concerns that Cambodia, with its record of poor law enforcement
and easy cross-border access, is a vulnerable site for money laundering
and purchasing arms, as well as other illicit activities that support
Most of Cambodia's 320,000 Muslims, as estimated in 2006 by Cham
specialist, Norwegian Bjorn Blengsli, are ethnically Cham, whose
practices have traditionally been moderate. But Blengsli has noted a
rise of fundamentalism in the Cham community, in particular of
Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam originating from Saudi Arabia that
he said is now taught in more than half of the Cham community's
"Economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries will lead to more
funding for Islamic organisations in Cambodia and, since they are often
unhappy with the purity of Islam as it's practiced here, there will be
increasing Arab influence on local Muslim practices," Blengsli said.
The penetration of Islamic missionaries, as well as development and
educational organisations into Cambodia, is problematic because of the
isolation some of these groups encourage, said Alberto Perez, a Cham
researcher who is based in Phnom Penh.
"It's extremely difficult for new understanding of Islam brought from
the Middle East to find expression in politics and mainstream public
life [in Cambodia]," he said.
"The result is that greater Islamisation tends to result in greater
separation from Khmer society - a bubble within which they can put
Islam into social practice far away from Khmer influence."
While Hun Sen has publicly stated that Muslims must be accepted as an
integral part of the country, Perez said many Khmers continue to
imagine Muslims as a foreign group and are "suspicious of their
intentions because of perceived connections between them and unwanted
But Sith Ybrahim feels that newly formed ties between Cambodia and
Islamic countries, as well as the growing presence of Cambodian Muslims
in high-ranking government positions, point to a clear trend: Islam has
found firm ground in Cambodia.
He added that Cham leaders want to eliminate the stigma in Cambodia
associated with their religion and rid them of the "shyness" they have
about their identity.
"I'm proud to be Muslim and so should be all Muslims here," he said.