Background: This conversation occurred between Farina So and Nathaniel Adams and DC-Cam's office in Phnom Penh on December 10, 2010. In it, Ms. So discusses issues of religion and identity in Cambodia's Cham community, including the role of women in safeguarding and transmitting these traditions. She also explains the importance of oral history, or as she calls it “history from below”, for empowering marginalized groups in Cambodia. She discusses how the Cham Oral History Project is contributing to memory and justice in correlation with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and inspiring a broader dialogue about religious and ethnic diversity in the country.
There is some unease in the U.S. and Europe about the Cham revival, centered on concerns about the possibility of radical Islamic messages being imported to Cambodia from other countries. How do you see these issues?
The questions in the media about radicalism can have negative effects on the mindset of the Cham Muslim communities and on the way other Cambodian communities perceive them. It’s not easy for me to approach the question in a totally objective way, because on the one hand I’m a social science researcher, while on the other hand I’m a member of the Cham community. But I believe that those who write about the Cham, especially regarding the spread of fundamentalism in Cambodia (a very popular topic now) do contribute to a negative perception of Muslim communities here. It is, of course, important to investigate why this kind of transnational Islamic network has spread to Cambodia and how Cham Muslims react to it. The issues of Islamic terrorism are clearly global, and other Southeast Asian countries have already encountered some of these challenges involved. It has not really been a significant issue in Cambodia until now. We have seen a few incidents, notably when Hanbali [the al-Qaeda operative named Riduan Isamuddin, who used the nom de guerre of Hanbali or Hambal] was captured in Cambodia [in 2003]. However, these incidents have been very minor compared to other countries in the region.
The danger is that when we focus on fundamentalism we tend to forget about the real life of Cham Muslims. So it is really important that we not focus solely on the topic of fundamentalism, but also look at the Cham way of life, the community, how culture and religion are changing — for example, if they speak their own language at home. The focus on fundamentalism is a distraction from the real problems these communities face. I have observed that most western media outlets, reporters and some researchers mostly focus on the issue of fundamentalism among Cham. That is very sad.
Do you think that Islamic transnationalism can be a positive force in development? Can it improve the conditions of life for members of the Cham community?
To some extent, yes. Of course financial donations help, but these donors want their funds to be used in specific areas, so it’s important to look at donor purpose. When we look at current funding from the Islamic transnational network, some funds contribute to community development in Cambodia, but other funds focus primarily on religion, and miss the real needs of the community. There is a lot of focus on building mosques. While it is important to build mosques, in some small villages you have two mosques. So it is fair to ask: what is the real importance of having so many mosques? We have to think more about schools and other community institutions that can contribute to development. An excessive religious focus is a disadvantage of these donations.
Many Cham students travel to other Muslim countries to study Islam. Is this mostly because the scholarships available just cover this subject?
We see an increasing number of Cham students majoring in Islamic Studies, both in Cambodia and abroad. Most of them travel to Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and some in southern Thailand, in Yala and other provinces. Some scholarships are funded by Islamic foundations in Cambodia, some by the government, and some by the destination country, Saudi Arabia for instance. These scholarships provide Cham Muslim youth with the opportunity to study outside the country. However, since most of them major in Islamic Studies, the real need for scholarships in the social sciences and the hard sciences is not met. We want students to be able to come back and contribute to real development in Cambodia. Further, most of the students who travel abroad to study are men. We need to ensure that there are more opportunities for women.
You are a very accomplished Cham woman; you’ve attended graduate school in the U.S. Was it a struggle for you to achieve higher education?
Yes, it was, but I recognized the importance of education early on. I realized anything could be achieved with commitment and hard work. So I tried my best and with spiritual and financial support from my mother, I finished my undergraduate studies in Cambodia, and I chose to pursue a graduate program in Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University. I completed my Master’s Degree there in spring 2010. My time at Ohio University was both challenging and interesting. It was not the first time I had traveled to the United States, but it was my first time staying there for an extended period of time. I had to adjust to the academic system and I also had to socialize there. I needed to be careful in adopting Western culture, to make sure that I only picked up the positive influences, those that are consistent with my own Cham culture. I had the chance to make connections with students from the U.S. and from other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and even the African continent.
Studying in the U.S. was very competitive and I had to work two or three times harder just to be prepared for everything before class. Money was also a concern for me during my stay, especially in my first year. However, I was awarded a fellowship from the Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund (MMMF) to fund my living expenses the second year of my studies, and this reduced some of the financial burden.
When I came back home, many Cham students were eager to learn how they could study in the United States and they wanted me to share my experience with them. I just gave them the advice to work hard, take on any challenges, and keep moving forward. I feel as though I was able to go abroad because I had already worked with the community here and I had a vision for how to help the community when I came back. Before I left, I already had several years of experience working with Khmer Rouge survivors, especially within the Cham Muslim community. I realized that these people still had hope about moving forward. I wanted to document their voices, recognize their suffering and preserve their memories from oblivion. This was the inspiration behind my thesis: An Oral History of Cham Muslim Women in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge Regime. During my studies I also realized that, with regard to religion and ethnic identity, only a moderate interpretation of Islam (or any other religion for that matter), can contribute to development because this concept accepts a balance of religious and secular education. This has driven me to put more even more focus on community and social services, especially on providing women with an opportunity to obtain education, to ensure they have the chance to contribute to developing their own community.
Do you think that the Cham are going through a sort of identity crisis now, in terms of religious and cultural identity and what it means to be Cham?
Identity in Cambodia is complex, not just among the Cham. The first element that contributed to this complexity was colonization and European rule. The second element was the experience under the Khmer Rouge regime, and once again cultural and religious identity was severely affected, especially for ethnic minorities. For the Cham, it was illegal to speak the Cham language, and Cham names had to be changed to Khmer names. Some still carry these adopted names today, including my mother. The third element that has influenced identity in Cambodian communities is trans-nationalism and globalization. Many communities are now struggling between ethnic identity and religious identity. Muslims in Cambodia refer to Chwea and Cham. Have you heard about the Chwea, the Javanese descendants? The Chwea community speaks mostly Khmer, while the Cham community speaks the Cham language. These two groups are both mostly Muslim, but now they do not focus much on their ethnic identity. They are more focused on their religious identity. It will be important to see how this changes with time and what the impact will be on the next generation, how they identify themselves. These three stages have contributed to very complex issues for identity in Cambodia.
Has having Cham in positions of political power had a positive effect on the community?
It does help the community that their voices are heard, but, as you know, there are different political parties in Cambodia. Some Cham are in the ruling party, some are in the opposition parties. Political differences can affect the community in many ways because the leaders attempt to steer the community this way or that way depending on the position of their party. Sometimes the political tendencies of the leaders affect the community more than the community can influence the actions of the politicians. Thus there are advantages and disadvantages to having Cham in positions of political power.
You’re currently working on the Cham Oral History Project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam). Can you explain the importance of oral history for marginalized groups in Cambodia? What makes this kind of history more powerful?
Oral history is an important tool for building a more complete history of Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and also developing Cham scholarship. Oral history can help to reformulate Cham identity and contribute to nation-building. We began the Cham Oral History Project in 2005 to engage the Cham community throughout the Khmer Rouge tribunal. When we look at experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime, it’s important to hear the marginalized voices: those of Cham, other ethnic minorities, and particularly women in Cambodia. Recording Cambodia’s Cham Muslim oral history under DK came about for two reasons. First, it was to promote the history from below—from the people who experienced it, with special focus on marginalized groups or those usually hidden from the national narrative. Second, it sought to understand memory and its presentation in communities in a post-conflict society. The rationale is that, although the official histories of the DK era are important in their own right, the “untold stories” of marginalized groups such as Cham Muslims can help to elucidate the larger truth of human experiences, through their representation and social interpretation over time.
In addition, by revealing the [narrator’s] truth it may also help survivors feel a sense of closure, something that is conducive for reconciliation. It is noted that between survivors, telling a story is a way of sharing and healing. Stories increase our empathy towards the narrator. Perhaps the most important thing about oral history is to raise a multigenerational dialogue, which is three-fold. Between generations, telling a story is a way of sharing, healing, and educating about past atrocities in order to avoid the same mistakes.
Do you see the project complementing what is happening in the tribunal or is it more of a commentary on which voices are being left out?
This project contributes to both memory and justice. There has been a lot written on the experience of Cham communities under the Khmer Rouge, but rarely through the voices of the people themselves. We are allowing these voices to be heard by documenting oral history. That is important for memory but equally important for justice. The court has actually requested some oral history interviews for their legal proceedings. So it serves both ends at the same time. Beyond that, it is not just for this moment but also for the future, for the next generation to learn.
Do the legal proceedings around the tribunal resonate with the women that you have talked to?
In the beginning they were very doubtful about the tribunal. Many people already had negative perceptions of the legal system in Cambodia. After they learned that the UN was also participating in this process, since it is a hybrid court, people began to feel that perhaps justice would be done for them. Over time, through our outreach activity we brought them to the court itself. They had the opportunity to question legal officers, judges and prosecutors and they began to realize just how important the tribunal is. The Duch verdict is one of the successful outcomes that the tribunal has delivered to these women, and even though the sentence is too short [nineteen years to serve, according to a July 2010 ruling], they do feel that we are getting closer to justice. So it’s very important for them to be engaged in case 002 [Nuon Chea] because it’s probably the most important one and I think women are ready to attend and participate in the hearing.
Beyond the tribunal, though, there is more to be done. When we ask women if the tribunal is enough for them they say that it’s not enough; it does bring justice closer but they need something more. They talk about collective reparations and also some way to heal their emotional wounds because they lost many relatives; it is a tremendous loss for many of them.
Judging from the conversations you’ve had with Cham women, did the Khmer Rouge regime in fact strengthen or weaken their Islamic faith?
As I mention in my thesis, during DK women were more likely to use their capacity for emotional resistance rather than simply physical resistance. So Cham women reacted not just to survive, but to preserve their faith. Women were considered the most stubborn—the ones who would not give up their identity, religion and culture and actively preserved it within the family and society. They played a special role in preserving traditions by transmitting their knowledge and beliefs to their children, thus raising them in the circle of Islam. They often were able to have a closer relationship with the children than the men could. Even if they were separated from family members, they tried in every way they could to educate their children, to tell them about the concept of the family and transmit knowledge about their religion and cultural heritage.
They still fulfill that role now. There is little change in that regard between those harsh conditions and those today. Women continue to play an important role in religion. We know that women don’t play a large role in the religious structure itself, for example as Hakim or Imam, but it is important to look at women’s roles at home, in terms of education and in the preservation of religion, culture and identity.
Do you feel that learning about Cham women’s struggles under the Khmer Rouge can lead to a dialogue that will help empower Cham women in Cambodian society today?
Other women in Cambodia played similar roles as those I describe for the Cham during the Khmer Rouge regime. The difference is that Muslim women are very attached to the five pillars of Islam. Buddhist women also worked to preserve culture and religion, but in Buddhism there is a greater separation between lay people and the sangha. In Islam, however, everyone has the same responsibilities, whether you are a Hakim, a religious teacher, or a woman with no formal religious role. Everyone has to practice the Five Pillars of Islam. Looking as this difference helps us to understand how Muslim women were connected to religion during this era and how they are today.
We hope that we can engage women even further, after we publish the monograph (we are turning my thesis into a monograph). We will distribute it and ask women from Cham communities and other minority backgrounds to talk and share experiences and begin a dialogue. This dialogue can be a means of engaging all minority groups, so that everyone can better understand the experience of minority women during the Khmer Rouge era. They can share their suffering and their loss through the book or during the discussion forums. We hope to at least let women heal their wounds. It is a move towards reconciliation, both within their own minds and in relation to the perpetrators—though we try not to use the term perpetrators but rather survivors, because it is all-inclusive. It is important to encourage them to speak out more, because here, with the monograph, we have a story that these women have successfully narrated. Hopefully it will encourage others to talk as well.
Have you spoken to any Cham women who were collaborators with the regime?
Again, we rarely call anyone during that time a Khmer Rouge collaborator. There are a few Cham Muslim women that we have talked to who were former Khmer Rouge cadres or unit leaders. The way they narrate their stories, they mostly emphasize their victimization. It can be very difficult to draw a clear line between victims and perpetrators or cadres during this era.
You mentioned that in your thesis, you write that the Khmer Rouge offered a kind of false empowerment to women. How did this happen?
This is an issue that some women brought up in their narratives. During the Khmer Rouge regime the rhetoric was that they were liberating women. But those involved were more like victims than actual agents of change. This “liberation” was held up in rhetoric and in propaganda, but in reality the status of women involved was still lower than men. Women were also often the victims of sexual violence. That is why one of my thesis chapters focuses on how the women’s liberation declared by the Khmer Rouge actually just covered up their further victimization.
You highlight that the Cham community receives a lot of attention, for perhaps the wrong reasons. How do you think the discourse on Cham needs to change?
In reflecting about the discourse around the Cham community, we need to remember that most of the educators and well-known thinkers in the community were executed by the Khmer Rouge. Today there are not many well-educated members of the Cham Muslim community. If you look at the state of human resources now as compared to the past, it is very different. There’s very little real discourse about the Cham community and particularly about Cham women now as compared with discourse around the topic of fundamentalism. So it’s very important right now to balance this out. I know it is very hard to balance since outsiders are so much more interested in these geopolitical issues, but we are trying our best to change this.
We also need to work on awareness of different faiths in Cambodia. In connection to the genocide charge, we hosted two conferences in Phnom Penh that brought various ethnic minorities to talk about these issues. We used this genocide charge to talk about respect for ethnic and religious differences. We brought in Vietnamese, Khmer Krom [indigenous groups], Buddhist monks, Christians and Cham Muslims. We hope to do more to raise awareness about different faiths and encourage more mutual respect. Ignorance and bitter memories can lead to conflict if we don’t engage in dialogue to answer some questions left in the past. There are still a lot of misunderstandings, misconceptions and ethnic jokes around about these different communities. We need to dispel them.
Do you think that talking about the Khmer Rouge legacy is a good way to bring people together to talk about respect for religious beliefs in a non-threatening way?
It can be very helpful because everyone had similar experiences. Despite ethnic or religious differences, the fact that they have some things in common helps us broaden the discussion to other topics including relationships and dialogue among different religious communities. We hope to do more to raise awareness so participants can go back home and talk to other community members about what they have learned and what they will do in the future to avoid the kind of conflict that Cambodia has witnessed in the recent past.