WITH a population estimated to be between half a million and one million, Cambodia has the largest concentration of Chams and roughly 90 per cent of them are Muslims.
Also known as Khmer Islam, the Chams are considered to be a minority ethnic group which makes up 5 per cent of the country's total demographic of roughly 14 million people. Most live in the Kampong Cham Province, a 125km drive away from Phnom Penh City.
Their origins remain unclear to this day but the Chams are believed to be descendants of Champa, the first Indianised kingdom in the Indochina situated on the southeast coast of Vietnam.
There are three distinct groups of Muslims in Cambodia: those who speak the Cham language (Chams); those who speak both Cham and Khmer (Jahed) and those who only speak Khmer (Chves) and are further divided into two main categories: the Sunni and the Fojihed. The former category is for those often regarded as "traditional Muslims" who conform and abide by the Syariah Law and pray five times a day while the latter is for those "traditional Chams" who practise the ancient interpretation of the religion.
Neighbouring countries play a part in shaping the Sunni Muslims of Cambodia. Malaysia, being the most influential, is the preferred place for young Cambodian Muslims to further their studies. In February this year, 19 Muslims were awarded scholarships to study Bachelor and Master degrees sponsored by the Al-Manar Islamic College in Malaysia.
The continuous support and productive relationship between the two countries has been in existence for decades resulting in intermarriages with the Malay community. Today most Chams speak the Malay language with many of them adopting the Malay customs as their own.
An estimated 132 mosques were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period and Muslims were prohibited from worshipping. Approximately 400,000 Chams were among the millions of Cambodian's slaughtered during the horror which claimed the lives of more than 80 per cent of Cham's Muslim scholars.
Today, Muslims are able to practise their religion normally and out in the open. This commenced in the PRK era where Islam was given the same freedom as that of Buddhism, the official religion practised by the majority of Cambodians. The Chams also enjoydemocratic rights like all Khmer citizens, with the right to vote and be elected as MPs.
Although the current living standards for Muslims show signs of improving, progress is still considered slow and impeded by the lack of funds for proper development of religious education and its infrastructure that is wanting. The Muslims rely heavily on assistance from fellow Chams and other Muslims living in developed countries such as Canada, United States and New Zealand as well as Asean countries including Brunei Darussalam.
Today, Cambodia has a Muslim senator, one deputy secretary of state at the Women's Affairs, and five other Muslims holding positions as members of the Commune Councils. This is indeed a proud achievement for the Muslim women when compared to the 100 per cent illiteracy rate amongst the Muslim women prior to the Rouge.