The Cham and the Khmer have a common culture
Despite tragic past, good relationships prevail
An independent researcher and author about the Cham Muslim people says the relationships with local Buddhist Cambodians are particularly friendly and warm, especially compared with other Muslim and non-Muslim communities living nearby in other parts of the world.
Osman Ysa is the author of three books about the Cham, the most recent of which is Cham Muslim and Khmer Buddhist Intermarriage, which was published in 2010.
“Cham people don’t normally have extreme ideas,” Ysa says.
“The Cham and the Khmer have a common culture, before and after the Khmer Rouge; we live together very peacefully.
"In some villages, Cham women wear the veil, and in others they dress the same as Khmer girls. Some Cham guys go to entertain during Khmer New Year, so we have a lot of exchange of culture between Cham and Khmer.”
According to Ysa’s findings, Cham Muslims invite a lot of Buddhist neighbours and friends to their weddings And, by the same token, the Chams are invited to Buddhist weddings.
“They make friends and love one another like brothers and sisters. The chefs even cook halal for the Cham.”
Ysa says one special thing the Cambodian government did for the Cham community was to issue a policy that allows young Chams to choose their own dress.
“They can wear anything.”
At the beginning of his research about Cham intermarriage, Ysa thought that perhaps Cham men tended to marry more Khmer Buddhist women, but when he conduc-ted the research he found the Islam-Buddhist intermarriages to be about 50-50 between men and women.
“I found a special thing in this religious relationship,” he says.
“Islam requires the believers to bring their partner to come to Islam before marrying.
"Anyone who wants to marry another religion, no problem, but under one condition: your partner will have to convert to Islam.
"But I interviewed a lot of Buddhist monks and leaders and from outside, and I found that Buddhism does not have any conditions that prohibit the believer from marrying whoever they like.”
Ysa says very few Muslims convert to Buddhism, but a lot of Buddhist people convert to Islam because Buddhism does not restrict against it.
“Buddhism doesn’t have any prohibition on people’s conversion,” he says.
In addition to his book on intermarriage between Cham and Khmer people, Ysa also wrote Oukoubah: The Cham Muslim under the Khmer Rouge (2002) and The Cham Rebellion (2006).
Ysa was born in Svay Khleanv village, in Kampong Cham, which has a population of 420 families at present.
Ysa’s first book, Oukoubah, is largely based on documents he found at the Tuol Slang Genocide Museum.
Some of his own family members died of disease because of poor nutrition and a lack of medicine during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“There was no food, no hospital, no medicine. This sickness was caused by hunger.
"My family was killed, a lot of people in my own village were killed and thousands of Cham were killed during that time. So far, no one has paid much attention to why they killed Muslim people.
"Everyone knows they killed a lot of people, but the quest-ion is how they were killed – and why they were killed.”
The reason the Cham people were killed, according to Ysa, was because the Khmer Rouge wanted to abolish all races, not just the Cham.
“They wanted one nationality, no differences in clothing, language or culture. Everyone had to be the same.
"The problem was that the Cham have to be different because they're Cham. They are not Buddhists; they have different practices.”
The Cham were killed because they were different.
In Ysa’s village, people rebelled against the Khmer Rouge because they would not eat pork and would not stop praying and going to the mosque. The uprising was not successful and, as a result, the Khmer Rouge set a policy to disperse the population by separating everybody from every village.
Neither the Khmer Rouge policy nor the Cham uprising were successful, so the Khmer Rouge hatched another policy in 1978 to kill every Cham, Ysa says.
“So they called every Cham to come back and told them they would get their land back. When they brought them all together, they were killed.”
Ysa’s second book, The Cham Rebellion, focuses on his own village of Svay Khleanv and another settlement, an island in the Mekong called Koh Phal. It had a population of about 2,000 people, but today nobody lives there.
The rebellions in those two villages occurred in September and October of 1975, after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.
“At the time, the situation became worse and worse. They knew the rich and the educated were being elimin-ated, and when they finished those, they arrested lower people and finally they felt they would have to fight,” Ysa says.
Not only was the uprising unsuccessful, but it made things worse.
“Those two villages rebelled because of that; the Khmer Rouge set a policy to transfer the Cham from their home villages to separate areas in small groups.”
The island of Koh Phal in the Mekong was shelled by Khmer Rouge artillery and was difficult for the Khmer Rouge forces to control because it had to be accessed by boat.
“During the rebellion, so many people were killed, bombed from long distance with heavy artillery until they went inside the village and they could see the bodies lying, dying everywhere, on the ground.
"They bombed everybody; the villagers used knives, stones and sticks _whatever they could get to fight.
One night, in Ysa's own vill-age, they sent all the res-idents, including newborn babies, old and sick people and put them in prison: men in one prison, women in another.
“They started to select the people in the prison to be killed. The very worst killing during the rebellion happened in 1978,” Ysa says.
Of the original 1,200 families in his village, only 120 families survived the Khmer Rouge regime.
Ysa is grateful that Hun Sen and the Vietnamese army arrived to liberate them from the Khmer Rouge.
“I'm talking about reality, not politics. The Khmer Rouge planned to kill the Cham completely before 1980. The Vietnamese coming saved Cham lives. If the Vietnamese had not come, maybe Pol Pot would have killed all the Cham people.”
Ysa, who has been working for the US-funded Document Centre of Cambodia, says people should be proud to be Cham Cambodians.
“I prefer myself to be a Cham over being a Muslim and even a Cambodian,” he says.
“A Cham is very special. A Pakistani can be a Muslim, so can a Bangladeshi, a Malaysian or an Indonesian.
"But a Cham is a unique name and refers to our hist-ory from hundreds of years ago. Nobody can be a Cham but a Cham.”
“Cham people also have a special religion, and some of the groups practise their trad-itional ways; they pray once a week.
"Some of the Cham in Vietnam still practise something like Hinduism, so when you say Cham, it doesn't mean every Cham is Muslim.
"It's like a democracy; nobody can force people to believe this or that.
Even a leader cannot force another group to believe like they believe.”