World Politics Review
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- U.S. policymakers have raised security concerns about radical Islamic charities in Cambodia after delegations from Kuwait and Qatar promised $700 million in soft loans and investment for the country's embattled infrastructure. In an August speech, U.S. ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said militant groups are vying for influence over the country's Cham Muslims, and that Gulf states should "be careful" where the money goes.
Gulf delegates dismissed U.S. worries, claiming their interests in Cambodia -- garnering food security by investing in Cambodia's unused rice fields -- are economic, not cultural. But with $5 million of the loans earmarked to build Muslim institutions, the cultural element is certainly there. Pakistani ambassador to Cambodia Mohammad Younis Khan responded to the concerns over the funding by telling the Phnom Penh Post that Gulf states "simply like to help their Muslim brothers."
The loans are the latest demonstration of Middle East-Cambodia ties that began in 1991, when Cambodia's government was established by the Paris peace accords after years of civil war. At the time, Cham Muslims -- nearly wiped out by the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979 -- had little left in the way of religious and moral authority. Islamic charities, some affiliated with militant Saudi Wahhabism, moved in to fill the void, constructing hundreds of religious schools.
The U.S., meanwhile, set its counterterrorism sights on Cambodia in 2003, after Muslim insurgents from southern Thailand allegedly tried to bomb three embassies in Phnom Penh and authorities made arrests at a Cham school where Riduan Isamuddin (a.k.a. Hambali), the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings, was offered refuge. The ongoing insurgency in southern Thailand is also a source of concern, with some U.S. authorities fearing that Cambodian Chams might send students to the Thai south, as well as to Pakistan, for indoctrination and training.
But many scholars argue that the southern Thai conflict, like most Islamic insurgencies in Southeast Asia, is a local conflict, hardly a front in the global "war on terror" in which the U.S. need take serious interest. Cham scholar Agnes de Feo also argues that, unlike their Thai counterparts, Chams have shown little inclination to violence because they have no claim to an independent state against Cambodia. And they're unlikely to embrace a militant movement now that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has warmed up to Cham practices in recent years, calling for a Muslim prayer room at Phnom Penh's airport and offering significant radio airtime to Cham leaders.
Rather, the main threat in Cambodia, according to FBI Director Robert Mueller, is that its weak law enforcement and security capabilities allow extremists to use the country as a transit point for their operations. But Mueller's opinion, expressed at the January 2008 opening of the FBI office in Phnom Penh, doesn't quite match Mussomeli's repeated expressions of U.S. concern over Cham radicals under the influence of Islamic charities inside Cambodia.
Some analysts think the sudden surge of American interest in Cambodia could be a result of the growing influence of China, which eyes untapped markets in Southeast Asia and Africa to satisfy its thirst for resources. China has offered Cambodia more than $600 million in annual aid since 2005, topping all Western donors combined. On top of that, Chinese aid rarely comes with demands for democratic reform like that of Western counterparts, making it favorable for Hun Sen's scandal-ridden government. Cambodia has in return awarded Chinese companies billions of dollars in contracts to build dams that will power the Cambodian countryside, which, according to the World Bank, faces the highest energy costs in the world.
At a meeting last week in Washington between U.S. and ASEAN leaders (see Prashanth Parameswaran's WPR piece), Cambodian Foreign Minister Norodom Sirivudh summed up his view that Southeast Asia should not have to decide between the U.S. and China. With a growing U.S. security presence in the region, and Chinese aid flowing into Cambodia at an unprecedented level, the Chams could simply be a pretext for galvanizing U.S. influence in the Asian country.
Geoffrey Cain is a Phnom Penh-based contributor to the Far Eastern Economic Review and Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a U.N.-run news wire service.