Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Islam, Football & Cambodia

Footballer’s autobiographies tend to follow a set formula. Young kid growing up, having it tough, signs a contract, his opinion of self expands parallel to his salary, spit roasting expensive call girls or 18-30 holidaymakers, getting as drunk as possible with the lads and snorting a bit of cocaine through hundred pound notes. Very formulaic and very dull unless your idea of fun is reading what other people do with a barrel load of money.

I was walking up the ramp of the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh when I saw an old man. Perhaps about 70 years old, he had a wispy white beard. His bony frame belied sprightliness as he climbed the ramp without any real effort. At the top he turned and waited for his friends. Just another old man on his way to a football match? Yes. But this old man was different. He was wearing a white skull cap. A Muslim. In Buddhist Cambodia.

During the madness that engulfed Cambodia during the Pol Pot years from 1975 to 1979 it is estimated up to 25% of the country’s population lost their lives during the regime’s frantic rush to develop independence and communism quicker than any other country.

Cities were emptied as the population was set to work on ill thought out irrigation projects and poorly designed dams. Thousands died slow, painful deaths in the countryside as Pol Pot and his government set about building their agrarian utopia. Hunger and disease were rife but there was no medicine available. Just roots and local materials on the land.

If it wasn’t enough to have so many needless deaths on insane projects the regime took to imagining a 5th column working to destroy the vision they had created for themselves of a self sufficient society where everyone was equal and cash was not needed. People would eat what they grew. When the pat theories the leaders had developed as students in France didn’t pan out they lashed out against hidden enemies. And in Khmer speak, where children were extolled to be like a stalk of rice, to be anonymous, that meant anyone who was different.

The Chams were Muslims. Thought originally to have come from Malaysia they had moved north and created their own wealthy kingdom spanning parts of what we now know as Vietnam and Laos. When their empire fell in front of Vietnamese advancement they moved south and inland with a significant number settling around Kampong Cham, north east of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

With their mosques, distinctive clothing for men and women, and their diet they stood out from the main population even though they had been long settled in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, seeing enemies everywhere, turned on the Cham like they turned on those of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. The Cham were an easy target. Mosques were defiled while the Cham themselves were tortured and brutalized in large numbers.

The old man on the ramp at the Olympic Stadium would have lived through that brutality. He was lucky. He had survived. But it’s a fair bet that many of his family and friends would have lost their lives in Pol Pot’s madness in ways we cannot imagine. Torture was the norm, death often by a wooden axle on the back of the neck in a quiet field late at night.

The darkness of the Khmer Rouge ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded and Pol Pot with his henchmen bravely ran away to the mountains on the border of Thailand to hold out for the best part of a couple of decades. Now, Cambodia is enjoying a period of relatively stability. The population is increasing, the economy is booming and Phnom Penh sees worsening traffic jams.

The local C League is up and running and on the day I saw the old man Prek Pra Keila were playing Chhlan Samuth. The old man was there to cheer on Prek Pra Keila. A team from the outskirts Prek Pra Keila have a substantial Muslim following and there were a good couple of hundred out for this game, perhaps enticed by their team’s first win of the season the weekend before against title challengers Naga Corp.

The main stand at the stadium was filled with members of Phnom Penh’s Muslim community, aging men in their white headwear, middle aged women in head scarves and a younger generation who have never known the suffering their elders have taken for granting. A suffering through the Vietnam War, a Civil War, the Pol Pot years and another Civil War. Their elders saw the best years of their lives taken from them during 30 years of hardship.

But now, at last, these Muslims with a proud history are able to show off their culture and their identity without fear of disappearing. And they have crystallized around a football team, identifying with that team, sharing their cultural roots.

The team won again. The fans celebrated in the stand, blowing their horns and banging their drums, their raucous cheering bringing some life to the relatively quiet Cambodian League. Outside the stadiums the local public transport, tuk-tuks, were filled to overflowing as the fans made their way home, happy with a second win of the season.

And the old man? He shuffled off quietly with his family. Kids were dancing up and down, screaming and yelling, circling him. As an archetypal Asian patriarch he beamed munificently. I saw him climb into his tuk-tuk with his brood and I wondered about his life story. Just contemplating what he had been through, what he had witnessed, makes the lives and egos of players like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney so empty.

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