Visiting Thai General Tanasak Patimapragorn on Monday assured Cambodia that his country was stable despite a military coup in May, according to Defense Minister Tea Banh.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Islamic militant group that has captured large parts of Iraq in recent weeks and operates in war-torn Syria, claimed in a video released Thursday that Cambodian Muslim “jihadists” are fighting among its ranks.
The 13-minute propaganda video called “There Is No Life Without Jihad” was posted to YouTube and social media websites showing foreign ISIL recruits calling for young Muslim men from around the world to join the insurgency.
“We have brothers from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia, Australia,” said one of the speakers in the video.
“The cure for depression is jihad. Feel the honor we are feeling, feel the happiness we are feeling,” another said.
Senior members of the Islamic community in Cambodia were incredulous Sunday at claims Cambodian Muslims could be fighting a jihadist war in a Middle Eastern conflict zone.
“What has been said about Cambodians joining Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria is an invented story for publicity,” said Sos Kamry, general director of the Cambodia Islamic Center.
“There are no Cambodians fighting in Iraq or Syria,” he said.
Cambodia’s minority Muslim population is estimated at about 400,000, with about 80 percent belonging to the ethnic Cham minority, who traditionally practice a moderate form of Islam.
In the past two decades, Muslim nations and international Islamic NGOs bringing aid and development to impoverished Cham communities also instilled more mainstream religious practices.
Since al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. in September 2001, the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars on ramping up Cambodia’s anti-terrorist capabilities. There has also been close monitoring of the Cham population for radicalization, analysts say.
Anxiety over extremism entering Cambodia was compounded when in 2003, Indonesian extremist Hambali was revealed to have been hiding in Cambodia and a number of Muslims—including a Cambodian national—were arrested for plotting terrorist attacks.
Sos Mohammed, former vice president of the Islamic Council for Development of Cambodia, insisted there was no possibility Cambodians were among the radical mix of ISIL militants, and warned against assuming Cambodian students were being radicalized abroad.
“We have no conflict in Cambodia. Our students travel to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Thailand to study languages, engineering and I.T. as well as religion,” he said.
However, Alberto Perez-Pereiro, general manager of Breogan Consulting and a specialist in Islam in Cambodia, said it is highly possible that Cambodians are fighting in Iraq and Syria.
“The video is a very self-conscious, concerted effort to show that [ISIL]’s cause has global appeal, and Cambodia is not an obvious place—but it’s not likely they just made it up.”
No evidence has ever emerged to suggest indigenous Islamic extremism or militancy in Cambodia, but the video’s claims risk refocusing the lens of suspicion on the Cham community, Mr. Perez-Pereiro said.
“The Cambodian Muslim leadership has been very diligent in monitoring for signs of this kind of thing. Unfortunately, where there are lots of disaffected young men, there will always be a problem.”
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