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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cambodia, UN mark 64th anniversary of UN Day

The Cambodian government and the United Nations country team on Tuesday jointly marked the 64th anniversary of UN Day, focusing on reviewing common priorities, said a press released from UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia on Wednesday.

The discussion with Prime Minister Hun Sen and 11 UN Representatives focused on the excellent working relationship between Cambodia and the UN.

"The United Nations brings around 100 million U.S. dollars of development assistance to Cambodia each year but our support stretches beyond the dollar value of this contribution. We have a long-standing history of promoting peace and human development in Cambodia and we are extremely proud to serve the Cambodian people" expressed UN Resident Coordinator to Cambodia, Douglas Broderick.

Topics raised during the meeting included climate change, the global economic crisis, drug awareness, disaster management and Cambodia's support to international peacekeeping.

Among the highest priorities for the UN Country Team is helping Cambodia to achieve its Millennium Development Goals including improving maternal health, the goal currently requiring the most attention.

"The United Nations believes that no Cambodian woman should die giving life. We are committed to assisting the government to scale-up the quantity and quality of midwives and to improve access to emergency obstetrics care and reproductive health services as part of our joint effort to advance maternal health" Broderick assured the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister shared UN concern that the Millennium Development Goals could be endangered by the combined impacts of the global economic crisis and climate change but was grateful to the UN system for its assistance in helping compile information on the goals' progress at sub-national level.

Regarding the global economic crisis and its impact on the local economy, both sides recognized the importance of coordinating closely to maintain focus on the most vulnerable groups.

"We have been pleased by Cambodia's active response to the global economic crisis especially the attention given to social protection and the progress made towards an integrated Social Safety Net strategy. The UN will work with the government to maintain efforts in this area of social protection to ensure that as the world moves out of this crisis, the poorest people are protected from current and future economic shocks"

In closing the meeting, the Prime Minister congratulated the UN on its 64th anniversary and vowed to continue the UN Day meeting tradition.

United Nations Day (October 24) marks the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945. Cambodia joined the United Nations on 14 December 1955.

The United Nations Country Team in Cambodia consists of 23 agencies, fund and programmes operating in the country.

Source: Xinhua
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In Cambodia, a threatened tribe of Islam

By Brendan B Brady


UDONG - Imam San was perhaps once Cambodia's most privileged Muslim. Legend has it that in the 19th century, former King Ang Duong encountered him meditating in the forest and was so captivated by the stranger's spirituality that he offered him land in the royal capital. A more cynical account relates that the Khmer royal family, at a time when its power was dwindling, found a ready and willing ally in the Muslim leader.

On the occasion of Imam San's birthday each October, the sect that emerged from his early followers gathers in the former royal city of Udong, about 30 kilometers outside of the present capital

of Phnom Penh, to honor his memory through prayer and offerings. The colorful mawlut ceremony reaffirms the sect's privileged heritage and its continued isolation from the rest of the country's Islamic community, which is dominated by a group known as the Cham.

The Imam San followers are the only group to remain outside the domain of the Mufti, the government-sanctioned leader of Islam in Cambodia - a status that was renewed by the government in 1988. Successive Imam San leaders, or Ong Khnuur, have held the prestigious title of Okhna, originally bestowed by the palace.

Cambodia's estimated 37,000 Imam San followers live in only a few dozen villages spread throughout the country. Geography has reinforced the sect's isolation, and the mawlut has become an increasingly important opportunity to forge friendships and - more essential to the survival of the community - marriages.

At the annual ceremony, parents search for eligible suitors for their children, who otherwise would not come in contact with teenagers and young adults from other Imam San communities. The day's use for matchmaking may have new importance as the sect's long-standing isolation is challenged by pressures from Cambodia's larger Islamic community as well as from abroad.

Many Imam San followers see their sect's relationship with other Muslims as the biggest threat to their way of life, as their most vehement critics come from within their faith. For Ek Bourt, an elder member of the Imam San community, it is discrimination from other Muslims that he fears most.

"Other Muslims look down on us since we practice our religion in a different way," he said. "I'm afraid the next generation might lose our unique culture and customs."

The pilgrimage to Udong's Phnom Katera - a site of great importance for Khmers' Buddhist and royal traditions - highlights what some other Muslims see as the Imam San community's unholy cultural proximity to mainstream Khmer society. Conspicuously, the mosque on Phnom Katera is adjacent to the tombs of former Khmer kings and its name, "The Islam Cham Temple of Imam San", is written in Khmer, Cham and English, but not Arabic.

Purity perceptions
Descendants of the Cham Bani from Vietnam, who converted to Islam in the 17th century, Imam San followers view themselves as devoted adherents of the Muslim faith even as they maintain religious and cultural practices that are viewed by some as at odds with Islamic teachings. Because they blend faith in the Koran with other religious customs, including animist-like ceremonies, the Imam San followers are seen by many other Muslims as impure.

Perhaps no tradition of the Imam San community is more offensive to critics than praying only once a week, while praying five times a day is standard practice for most Muslims. And none is more bizarre than the chai ceremony, in which they dance in a possessed state, sometimes carrying prop weapons.

In fact, about 85% of Muslims consider the Imam San followers to be so heterodox as not to qualify as Muslims, according to a study by Norwegian Bjorn Blengsli, who has studied Muslims in Cambodia for nearly a decade.

"They're not true followers of Mohammed," said Hussein Bin Ibrahim, a Salafi Muslim who lives in Phnom Penh. "They don't really count as Muslims. For Muslims like us in Cambodia, our Islam is now becoming more like the Islam in Arab countries. We have grown closer to Mecca." Hussein prays in the outskirts of Phnom Penh at the Norul Ehsan mosque, which was recently renovated with funds from Kuwait.

Most of Cambodia's Muslims are ethnically Cham, whose practices have traditionally been moderate. But the last several years have seen a rise of fundamentalism in the Cham community, most notably of Wahhabism, an austere form of Islam originating from Saudi Arabia.

Growing economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries suggest the trend will only strengthen.

Last year, after making high-level state visits, Kuwait and Qatar pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in soft loans to Cambodia for agricultural development. The aid sparked concerns among some Western officials that the money could be used not just to invigorate Cambodia's farming, but also to radicalize its Muslims.

"There are some organizations here from the Middle East that are very radical and that are very intolerant, and they are trying very hard to change the attitude and the atmosphere of the Muslim population here in Cambodia," said then-outgoing American Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli in his farewell speech to reporters in August 2008.

The primary focus of the most recent state visits has been trade. Yet cultural ties are also at stake: Kuwait pledged some $5 million for Cambodian Islamic institutions, including renovating the dilapidated International Dubai Mosque in Phnom Penh.

Economic ties with Arab countries will reverberate in Islamic practices in Cambodia, according to Blengsli. "Economic ties between Cambodia and Arab countries will lead to more funding for Islamic organisations in Cambodia and, since they are often unhappy with the purity of Islam as its practiced here, there will be increasing Arab influence on local Muslim practices," he said.

Islamic revivalism
The penetration of Islamic missionaries, as well as development and educational organizations into Cambodia, is problematic because of the separation from other cultures these groups encourage, according to Alberto Perez, a Spanish anthropologist who is writing his PhD dissertation on the Cham.

The Imam San community has been further estranged amid a wave of Islamic revivalism embraced by the majority of Cambodia's nearly 350,000 Muslims. In the past, Imam San followers have rejected donations from wealthy Middle East-based Islamic groups and resisted pressure from foreign preachers, whose requests that they convert to orthodox Islam are frequently backed by offers to finance the construction of new mosques.

But this long-maintained separation is weakening under the same foreign influences that, according to Blengsli, have made Cambodia's mainstream Muslims one of the fastest-changing Islamic communities in the world.

The Imam San community is losing numbers to other Muslim sects, including the Salafi, Jamaat Tabligh and Ahmadiyya, which have international standing and deeper pockets, he said. In particular, young Imam San followers who are sent to Phnom Penh to continue their studies face pressure from other Muslim communities to convert to orthodox Islam.

"We're especially afraid that the young will be tempted to join other groups that are well-funded," said Kai Tam, the Imam San's current Ong Khnuur. But such concerns would not have him change his group's practices.

"Our people are strong because we believe in our ancestors and we believe in their culture and the way they practiced Islam - to change would be an insult to our ancestors. We have the same goal as other Muslims, but we get there a different way."

Ahmad Yahya, president of the Cambodian Islamic Development Association and an advisor to the government on Cham issues, has said that Imam San followers should break their isolation and reform their observance. Yahya has aggressively solicited foreign funding for Cambodian Muslims to continue their studies locally and abroad, and he believes Iman San followers should make the changes necessary to avail themselves of such opportunities.

Indeed, some Imam San villages have begun praying five times a day as a compromise to foreign donors who have financed new mosques for them. But for 19-year-old Keu Sarath, whose home is in the same village as the Ong Khnuur's, her faith in the way of her ancestors has not wavered.
"We love God just the same as others," she said. "But we don't tell others how to practice and they should show us the same respect."

Brendan B Brady is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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Where’s This War Headed?

Ayaz Amir

The resort to arms, as any armchair strategist will tell you, can never be an end in itself. You go to war to achieve a political aim.

And if you don’t have that aim—if you are not clear what you are hoping to achieve—picking up arms is the height of folly. You can be the strongest military in the world—as the Wehrmacht was on the eve of the Second World War, or the US armed forces are now—but if there is no clarity in your mind about why you are going to war, or if your aims are open-ended and not rigorously thought through, in the face of a determined opponent your efforts are likely to be doomed.

America’s Vietnam venture was bereft of reason. It made no sense at the time, it makes less in hindsight. Against a weak foe this impiety would have succeeded. But the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were anything but weak. Eventually America had to drink deep from the cup of humiliation.

The invasion of Iraq was another exercise in folly. It had no aim beyond the display of arrogance. Meant to “shock and awe” the world, it has done incalculable harm to American prestige and power. Where the US strode the planet like a colossus after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Iraq has made it look like a wounded giant.

Afghanistan was a bit different. With the Taleban giving sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the invasion of Afghanistan, to much of the world, appeared as a legitimate response to the Sep 11 terrorist incidents on the US soil. But with the US occupation of Afghanistan in its eighth year (two longer than the Second World War), and doubts on the rise in Washington about US war aims, America’s Afghan enterprise makes less and less sense. Indeed, far from achieving anything, the US occupation is now the prime cause of Afghan turbulence. Indeed, unfolding in Afghanistan is a popular insurrection, people drawn to the Taleban not out of love for their primitive philosophy but out of hostility to the foreign occupier.

With more troops the Americans can probably hold Afghanistan’s cities, as the Soviet army did before them in the 1980s. But that is not the same as imposing their will on the entire country.

Gen McChrystal is calling for more troops to stem the tide of Taleban resurgence. But just as domestic support for the Vietnam war plummeted, the same is now happening in relation to Afghanistan. There is no shortage of armchair warriors in Washington urging Obama to go with the McChrystal recipe of 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan. But the president is right to take his time. This is a critical moment for him. He makes a wrong move and it is him, not the sofa gladiators, who will have to take the fall.

Cambodia was a sideshow in the Vietnam conflict. Pakistan is not Cambodia to Afghanistan’s Vietnam. It is the buttress which sustains America’s Afghan enterprise. Take away the Pakistan army from this equation, and America’s continuing presence in Afghanistan becomes untenable. Pakistan’s role is thus not that of a satellite. It is the central point of the Afghan constellation. It is a failure of Pakistani leadership that instead of being in the driving seat of strategy formulation Pakistan is made to look like a supplicant holding on to America’s coattails.

This is all the more strange when set against another phenomenon: whereas anti-war sentiment is on the rise in the US, over the last few months we have seen a burgeoning pro-war movement in Pakistan, expressed in the feeling that enough is enough and extremism must be countered head on.

A small body of critics apart—spearheaded by the Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan—all the signs suggest that there is popular backing for the army. After a long time (and may this never end) nation and army are marching to the same tune.

But where is the higher direction of this war? Who is laying down the political parameters of this conflict? We know that Gen Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, is directing the military effort. There are no doubts on this score. But who is the political commander-in-chief, the Churchill—and I will have to be forgiven this analogy, but just to make things clear—to Kayani’s Montgomery?

As our army moves against the strongholds of the Taleban in South Waziristan, where is the higher direction of war? Where is the political leadership? Who will attend to the political aspects of this struggle?

The foremost political aspect relates to our relationship with the US. This is a relationship full of contradictions. The US is our ally---or rather we are doing the donkey’s work in this partnership---but its continued presence in Afghanistan is turning out to be our biggest headache. We are engaged in a grim struggle to defeat militancy and subversion. But the US presence in Afghanistan is the principal factor now keeping militancy alive.

Vietnam knew no peace until the Americans withdrew from there. Afghanistan will know no peace, and Pakistan will not be able to insulate itself from its effects, until the last American soldier gets out of Afghanistan.

Clearly, the Americans won’t get out of Afghanistan because we tell them. They will exit, when they finally do, out of their own calculations and compulsions. But the political direction of the war from our side demands that Pakistan not appear as a sentry man at America’s door, because that compromises our position and fighting the Taleban becomes all that much harder.

We should be seen as our own masters, acting in our own interests, not America’s. But for this fine balancing act to succeed it is essential that we keep some distance from the Americans and engage in a dialogue of equals with them.

What the US is now beginning to undergo in Afghanistan is a trauma. We may be a cash-strapped country with a perpetual begging bowl in our hands but America is stuck in a quagmire. Between a begging bowl and a quagmire there is not much to choose.

The objection to the Kerry-Lugar act is not that it compromises our sovereignty but that it makes us look like a lackey receiving his wages. Pakistan may have done foolish things in the past but the Swat and South Waziristan operation are tokens of a new beginning. Our soldiers’ sacrifices don’t go with a lackey image.

The Americans are telling us what to do, which is strange given that they are not doing too well in Afghanistan. They should be listening rather than giving sermons. Being their allies, and taking more hits than they are, it is now time for us to tell them that their occupation can’t last much longer. Sooner than they now think possible, it will have to be rolled back and other options examined. When they depart we will still be here. Bolstering Pakistan and its military should not be seen thus as a favour. From America’s point of view it should be a strategic necessity.

But such exchanges are possible only if the political direction of this conflict is in firm hands. This is where our weakness lies: where there should be leadership there is a yawning chasm. The military is on its own and that is never a good thing.


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