By Antonio Graceffo
In the center of the village was a series of market stalls, selling Preap Sawath CDs and Eh Phou Thuong fight videos. Crowds of smiling Khmers mulled about, speaking their native tongue and preparing for the evening night market. In the distance, we could see the tall minaret of the local mosque. After people got over the shock of meeting a foreigner who could speak Khmer, they warmed up with happy cries of “Sua sedai.”
An older man, who I later found out was the village headman, invited my translator, Sheung Di and I to have iced coffee. He was just asking us why we had come to the village, when his phone rang, with a loud, Khmer ringtone.
This would have been a normal Sunday in Cambodia, but we were less than fifty kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, and this was the place that local Malays referred to as “The Khmer Village.”
Finding the village was a bit of a trek. Once we came off the highway, we drove down the dusty back roads, frequently asking directions to the Khmer village. People gladly gave us long dissertations, such as “Go to the big stone. Turn right at the old tree. Drive toward the sun. Then ask again.” We repeated this procedure over, and over, until finally, Sheung Di slammed on the breaks. “This is it.” He said, pointing at a market stall.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Because Malays don’t make sausage.”
Sure enough, one of the first stalls we encountered had long strings of Khmer beef sausage dangling from the roof.
Once we got out of the car, it quickly became apparent that my Chinese-Malaysian translator was mostly along for the ride and moral support, as I was going to have to do much of the talking, in Khmer.
For years, I had heard rumors that there was a Cham village near KL. But I had always just assumed that the people were Cham who had left Cambodia or Vietnam centuries ago, after the sacking of their empire. It is not uncommon to find isolated villages of Cham in places like Palawan and Borneo. But when I asked Malaysians about the Cham village, no one had heard of it. Eventually, I explained, “They are Muslim people who originally cam from Vietnam and Cambodia.” At which point, someone said, “Oh, you mean the Khmer village.”
As we sat with our ice coffees, talking to the head man, this certainly did look like a Khmer village. Within seconds of our arrival, the head man pulled a smart phone out of his pocket and showed me a satellite photo, proving that Preah Vihear temple was, in fact, in Cambodia, and not Thailand.
Yes, this was Cambodia all right. I thought, to myself.
Sheung Di pointed out that the village sold dried fish and fish sauce which further differentiated them from the Malays. One thing that was different from Cambodia, however, was that no one was wearing any traditional clothing. I didn’t see Khmer krama or sarong, and almost none of the men were wearing Cham hats. In fact, a lot of the women were wearing Malay Muslim dress.
They asked me if Khmer boxing was better than Thai boxing. I said it was the same. So they asked who could fight better. I said that Khmers had more heart but Thais had more equipment, food, and training. The villagers all nodded their approval of my answer. I had clearly dodged a bullet.
Everyone, even the small children were speaking Khmer. Some couldn’t speak Malay very well, and almost none of them knew English. Along the way, we had passed a mosque and an Islamic school, with Khmer writing out front, similar to a Cham community in Cambodia. But, when I asked the people if they were Cham, most answered, “Khmer Islam.” Some of them immediately followed with this statement, “Khmer Islam and Cham are the same thing.”
Sometimes, even in Cambodia, I hear people using these words interchangeably, but they are very different. Khmer Islam should refer to Khmers who converted to Islam. Whereas Cham is a separate ethnic group. Legally, there is a tremendous difference between these two groups, in Malaysia.
According to Malaysian law, all people are citizens who meet three criteria: are Muslim, speak Malay, and belong to the Malay race. Technically, they consider all Cham plus Muslim Indonesians and Filipinos to be Malay citizens.
Perhaps the people were being vague on their ethnicity on purpose to obtain Malay citizenship. The headman told me that less than 50% of the community could speak Cham. He said that they had their own Khmer school. He was very proud, to tell me that unlike Khmer Surin, in Thailand, where the people are also of Khmer origin, everyone in this community could read, write and speak Khmer. Most of them claimed to know Arabic. It is not hard to believe that they would get better Islamic education in Malaysia than in Cambodia. In addition to Khmer, Arabic, and some Cham, the children all had to pass school exams in Malay.
They had Khmer magazines and products flown in from Cambodia, and seemed to be up on all of the latest news and gossip from the kingdom. I rattled off the names of some of the popular bands and movie actors, and they all knew who I was talking about. When I mentioned Eh Phou Thoung, the headman suddenly said, “I know you!” He recognized me from Khmer TV and told the others that I was famous for Bokator and Khmer boxing. Then a few others said they had seen me as well.
The interviews got easier at that point.
The restaurant owner, a woman in her fifties, sat beside us, and told us how the village came to be.
“During the Khmer Rouge, at first, we held on as long as we could, because we didn’t want to give up our land. But then finally, we were forced to go to Vietnam.” She explained. “We had no food, no nothing. So, we moved to Vietnam. Then the Vietnam government and UN arranged buses for us to go to Thailand. But we had to pay money for the buses. The buses took us to Khao-I-Dang refugee camp.”
She kept saying, “The Thai army was so cruel, cruel.” And, “The UNHCR is good.” And “Thai government is cruel.” She had bullet holes where Thai soldiers shot her. The headman said that the Thai army pushed refugees out of the camp with guns driving them into the mine fields. “There were people dying.” He lamented. “It was like rain from all of the body parts and metal falling out of the sky.”
The headman said he was eighteen years-old in 1979 and was being pressured to join all of the various armies. He said, “There were the Sihanouk army and the Vietnamese army with Hun Sen.” Eventually, the pressure got to him, so he ran away. “We paid money to the porters to take us across the border, but we still got robbed. And, a lot of the girls got raped.” Eventually, they made it to a camp, where they lived for a time. “We would sneak out of the camp to sell things or work or play guitar to get money, but we had to pay some of the money to the Thai guards.”
Eventually, the Muslims were told to cue up, and they could go to Malaysia and get citizenship. Technically, only Cham meet the three criteria for Malay citizenship, Speaks Malay, Follows the Malay customs, Is a Muslim. True Khmer Islam only meet the third requirement, “is Muslim”. But no one seemed to make a distinction. In theory, under Malay law, all Cham still living in Cambodia are actually Malay citizens and simply need to go to Malaysia to collect their rights.
Sheung Di, who was born and raised in Malaysia told me that by local standards the village looked poorer than a Malay village. But I can attest that it was definitely richer than a Khmer village. Of course, looks could be deceiving. All of the people we met were sellers. They hung around the coffee shop all day, and then at night they went to market to sell.
The headman told me, “The law allows us to have 4 wives like other Muslims in Malaysia.” Many of the men said they had two. They pointed at one man and told me he had ten wives and lots of girlfriends. “He’s always running around” the lady told me. I didn’t know if these were official wives or if they were just joking.
“We can only marry many women if we have enough money to support them.” The headman clarified.
The Malaysian society often fractures along ethnic lines. The population of 28 million, is composed largely of three ethnic groups: Malay make up 50.4%, Chinese 27%, and Indians, mostly Tamil, 7 %. An additional 11.4% of the population is tribal. The predominant religions are Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism.
While these indigenous groups can’t always get along, the headman said that they didn’t have problems with Malays. “Our children go to school with Malays. We go to mosque with Malays.”
His one complaint was that they were not allowed to celebrate Khmer New Year. I wasn’t clear if the government actually prevented them or if it was because Khmer New Year is technically part of a Buddhist calendar that Muslims shouldn’t follow. But he said that they would get in the car and drive all the way to Phnom Penh for Khmer New Year celebration.
It had been a pleasant day and seemed a Khmer refugee story that had a rare, happy ending. But as we were leaving, a woman called me in her shop and asked her niece to speak to me in English, so the others couldn’t hear. Apparently, they were the only Buddhist Khmer family in the small village, and they said that there were a lot of problems between the Buddhist Khmer and the Muslim Khmer.
Through her nice, the woman told me, “Many Khmer came here to work or to sell things. They don’t have any rights, don’t have work permits. They overstay their visas and work in Malaysia illegally. The bosses often mistreat them and if they get arrested there is no one to help them.”
She explained that the Cambodia government obviously wouldn’t help them and the community wouldn’t help them because they weren’t Muslim. “The police ask for money to let them out of jail, but since they can’t pay, they can’t get out. They hold them for five months or more.” Five months in jail, with no hope of release. After five months, the police say they will deport the illegal Khmers. “But they have to pay the travel themselves.” And since they don’t have money, they could get stuck. Some people, she claimed, had been in jail for five years.
Her own life had been filled with tragedy. She had been in Malaysia for a total of 15 years. At some point, she met a local Chinese man, and fell in love. He left her with a baby and took off. Now, the grandfather and grandmother took care of the child, and
she worked as a house maid. She knew another Buddhist Khmer girl who worked as a house keeper, and the boss not only didn’t pay her, but also cut her with a knife.
The Buddhist family told me that about 20% of the whole Cambodian community is Buddhist and needs help. While she was talking, one of the Muslim men I had interviewed earlier came into the shop, looming, refusing to leave, so she couldn’t tell me anything.
Once you become a Malay citizen, some citizens have more rights than others. The Bumiputera, or Sons of the Soil, are the people of Malay race, and they enjoy the most special rights in the country. By these definitions, many of the Khmers we were interviewing had more rights than my Chinese translator who is third generation, born in Malaysia.
While the constitution guarantees equality to all of the races, under Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia, and the Bumiputra laws, more special rights are afforded to Malays. Thus, a contradictory, dual system is in place which gives advantages to Muslim Malays. A partial list of the special rights afforded to Bumiputeras include: admission to government universities and scholarships, government jobs, Companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange must be owned 30% by bumiputra. A certain percentage of new housing developments must be owned by bumiputra. A percentage of government mutual funds are set aside for bumiputra, and much, much more.
All of the above rights would, in theory, be afforded to Khmer Islam, but not to my translator, Sheung Di.
Very much like in Cambodia, however, the Chinese are an ethnic minority, but control most of the private sector economy. They are said to own 40% of the stock market. And Chinese families earn almost double what the average Malay family earns.
Racial tensions and legal strife aside, the Khmers in the village survived the Khmer Rouge and now have a new shot at life, with a Malaysian passport. Their lives are better and there is hope for their children.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is a columnist for Black Belt Magazine and the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.