Cambodian Cham Identities in a Global Age


A review of From the Khmer Rouge to Hambali: Cham Identities in a Global Age, by Kok-Thay Eng.

The Cambodian Genocide: most scholars have heard of it. It is a critical case in ongoing studies of Genocide Studies, International Law as well as Memory and Social Trauma that many teachers will have to address. From forensic anthropologists to criminal investigators, journalists to historiansand even experts in literature—the case of a series of mass killings that emerged out of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 under the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime, most frequently referred to as the “Khmer Rouge”(Kh.: Khmer Kraham), will be an important study for college students and scholars for generations to come. The genocidal policies enacted against the Cham Muslim minority during this period are increasingly well known. In this context, the decade of work by Kok-Thay Eng as Director of Research at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM) is enough to produce several dissertations. In fact, one of the individuals who contributed much of the work to Kok-Thay Eng’s dissertation From the Khmer Rouge to Hambali: Cham Identities in a Global Age, Farina So, is now working on her own dissertation based in Lowell, MA. Several other individual researchers, working with DC-CAM critically contributed to this work. The sheer number of interviews conducted by the DC-CAM research center, as well as the number that are cited in this dissertation alone, is impressive. Finally, the lucid presentation of the dissertation’s argument is testament to the author’s success in tackling, by his own admission, his own greatest challenge: writing in a second language.

The theoretical frame that Kok Thay Eng relies upon is about identity construction, drawn mostly from the work of Jamaican-born, British sociologist Stuart Hall whose work focused upon hegemony and was foundational for cultural studies. Therefore, the theoretical frame will not only be of interest to sociologists, but also to academics in the fields of psychology, anthropology, archeology and history. The argument is that there are two central aspects to communal identity: the first is a “core,” comprised of aspects of identity that only shift over centuries, and a “periphery” that is comprised of additional aspects of identity. For Kok Thay Eng, in the case of “the Cham community living in Cambodia,” the “core” is comprised of “history” and “Islam,” while the “periphery” is “sectarian,” “political” and “economic” (pp. 11-12). Conveniently, although perhaps not consciously, the author refers to these five aspects of identity as “pillars,” evoking the very same phrasing that is used to describe the five duties of an individual Muslim.

The early chapters of the dissertation re-contextualize the case of Islam in Cambodia after the 2003 Hambali incident that linked several Islamicists to the terrorist bombings in Bali and resulted in the expulsion of Muslims from the country. For the author, delineating the difference between the Cham and the Malay (K.: Chvea) ethnicities in Cambodia is of primary importance here, since by the second chapter the author makes it clear that he really wishes to focus on the majority of Muslims in Cambodia who are ethnic Cham. The second chapter, therefore, delineates the ethno-religious topography of the Cham population in Cambodia, primarily focusing on delineations of difference in Islamic schools of jurisprudence and of religious practice. The chapter puts a close emphasis on the practices associated with calendrical rituals, holidays, and life-cycle rituals as well as legal practices associated with customary law (Ar.: adat). The third chapter then engages with the complex history of the Cham community in Cambodia, demonstrating that their heritage is tied to the classical Hindu-Buddhist civilization of Champa, as well as the history of the Cham community in Cambodia.

The later chapters are valuable contributions that will stand the test of time. The author discusses the experience of the Cham under the Khmer Rouge (Chapter 4), the period of “reconstruction” and the changes that took place in Cham communal organizations, economic strategies and educational choices from the 1980s onwards (Chapters 5 and 6) and the responses of the Cham community and the Cambodian government to the 2003 “Hambali incident” (Chapter 7). In these chapters, the author is able to provide his greatest expertise, drawing upon his extensive field work. He provides crucial evidence to support the argument that: Yes, there was a genocide in Cambodia, and, yes, the genocidal policies did fall under the U.N.’s legal definition of the term. Furthermore, these genocidal policies did indeed target ethnic and religious minority groups as is clearly demonstrated by Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Then, the author is able to discuss the turn in events toward the question of “radicalization” among Muslims in Cambodia to prove that concerns listed by American government-funded research on terrorism in Southeast Asia were both exaggerated and, later, unfounded.

In short sum, the work of Kok Thay Eng, as a whole, demonstrate the desperate need for the American government to invest increased funds in programs contributing toward to the formation of international education programs, soft diplomatic efforts and academic collaboration between institutions in Southeast Asia and the United States. As, it is only through the building of these programs that work inspired by that of Kok Thay Eng will be able to continue.

William B. Noseworthy
Department of History

Primary Sources

DC-CAM Document Collections including Revolutionary Youth Magazine and a number of documents formerly held by Khmer Rouge leadership.
Author’s interviews, in particular with Ysa Osman (October 1, 2006 and May 5, 2011) and Kai Taem (Febuary 29, 2010)
Interviews conducted by DC-CAM affiliated researchers: Sotheany Hin, Ysa Osman and Farina So

Dissertation Information

Rutgers University. 2013. 401 pp. Primary Advisor: Alexander Hinton.

Image: Photograph by Emiko Stock.  Used with permission.

Leave a Reply