Insights and Analysis

In Cambodia: The Muslim Minority

September 19, 2007

By Roderick Brazier

Only 2-3% of Cambodia’s population is Muslim, but on the streets of Phnom Penh and its village suburbs, Muslims’ colorful veils and sarongs are a common sight. Historically, Muslims and the majority Buddhist Khmer population have enjoyed peaceful relations: the King has traditionally funded pilgrimages to Mecca for selected Muslims, and Muslims have served as advisors in the royal court and as government ministers. Since the events of September 11, 2001, though, there appears to have been more scrutiny of the Muslim community in Cambodia for signs of radicalization.

This trend may have been catalyzed by the fact that for six months around 2002-2003, Jemaah Islamiyah leader, Hambali, hid in Phnom Penh, geographically linking Cambodia to Islamic extremism. Although there is no evidence that Hambali was sheltered by the Cambodian Muslim community, the Cambodian government has since cracked down against perceived instances of extremism taking root on Cambodian soil. For example, in May 2004, Cambodian police raided and closed down a Middle-East-funded Islamic school named Umm Al-Qura near Phnom Penh. An Egyptian and two Thai teachers were deported; later in 2004, 28 foreign Muslim teachers were also deported by the Cambodian government

There have been credible reports that international charities are promoting radicalization by encouraging extreme theological interpretations of the Koran among the Cambodian Muslim population, and discouraging participation in mainstream Cambodian society, including voting at elections. Following decades of civil war and foreign occupation, Cambodia was destitute in the early 1990s. Since then, Cambodia has enjoyed peace, economic growth, and relative political stability. Several elections have been held, and have been adjudged as broadly free and fair. Discouraging the Muslim population to vote is an unhealthy development that may corrode the relative harmony of Cambodian society of the past decade and sow discord among religious groups.

Growing exclusivist tendencies could discourage Cambodia’s Muslims from participating in civic life. Muslim women, in particular, are being urged and sometimes forced to limit their interactions outside the home; some may be prevented from exercising their right to vote. This is an unwelcome development, as elections and civic participation are crucial moments in Cambodia’s civic development. As a minority group, Muslims should preserve their stake in Cambodian society through robust civic engagement and participation, not by isolating themselves.

Roderick Brazier is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Cambodia.

Related locations: Cambodia


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