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Cablegate: Khmer and Cham in Vietnam --

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: NA
SUBJECT: Khmer and Cham in Vietnam --
- Minorities by Ethnicity and Faith

1. (U) Summary: The Mekong Delta province of An Giang on
the Cambodian border is home to members of all of Vietnam's
recognized religious faiths and two of its larger ethnic
minorities, the Khmer and the Cham. The Khmer follow
Theravada Buddhism, while most Vietnamese Buddhists belong
to the Mahayana tradition common in Northeast Asia. An
Giang's Cham Muslim community is one of several scattered
around the Mekong Delta and south-central coastal Vietnam.
Both groups seem able to maintain their languages,
religions, and traditions, but also appear to avoid
undertaking actions that might be seen as controversial.
End Summary.

Khmer Theravada Buddhists

2. (U) Tri Ton District in southwestern An Giang is home
to about 51,700 ethnic Khmer people, 47 percent of the total
district population. Many of them appear to speak the Khmer
language at home and in town. The distinctive, colorful,
Cambodian-style pagodas clearly mark Khmer communities.
Despite the difference between the Mahayana and Theravada
traditions, members of both belong to the Vietnam Buddhist
Sangha, the GVN-recognized Buddhist organization. DCM and
delegation, along with several provincial officials, visited
a Khmer Buddhist temple in Tri Ton District, An Giang on May
20 and spoke with the head monk, Reverend Chau Ti. He spoke
no Vietnamese, only Khmer, although he has lived in Vietnam
his whole life, 57 years.

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3. (U) Reverend Ti described the situation for Khmer in
Tri Ton district. They have lived in the area for "several
generations." A few people fled to Tri Ton from Cambodia
during the Khmer Rouge period, but have long since returned,
he claimed. The Khmer language is taught at an ethnic
minority boarding school in the district center, and there
are other Khmer programs in Soc Trang and Tra Vinh
provinces. However, there is a shortage of Khmer-speaking
teachers, especially in remote villages. Monks also teach
the Khmer language at pagodas, as permitted by authorities.
Reverend Ti also said that local authorities also support
Khmer festivals and denied allegations that the GVN
suppresses the Khmer language and culture. There is some
radio programming in Khmer and some regulations are printed
in Khmer. Khmer language textbooks are published in Soc
Trang. Reverend Ti added that he uses Buddhist texts
published in Cambodia brought to Vietnam by businessmen.

4. (U) Reverend Ti pointed out that Theravada Buddhism is
practiced somewhat differently now than in the past. The
tradition of mendicant monks is less common. Currently,
those monks who wish to go from house to house to seek food
do so from 10:00AM until noon. They eat after that and then
fast until the following morning. Some men still become
monks temporarily. Pagodas used to take in the community's
orphans, who would then live in the temples. However,
because "socio-economic conditions are better" and because
the GVN takes care of orphans, he said, the pagodas no
longer undertake this role. Nonetheless, some "homeless"
children, apparently in their teens, do come to the pagoda
and stay there, he claimed. Mission officers encountered
several such teens helping out at the pagoda on the day of
their visit.

5. (U) While Reverend Ti said he has no contact with monks
in Cambodia, he regularly associates with other monks in
Vietnam, both Khmer Theravada and Kinh Mahayana. Relations
between the followers of the two branches are fine, he
declared. He had attended the tenth anniversary celebration
of the provincial Buddhist association at a Kinh temple in
Chau Doc that morning. One difference between followers of
the two traditions is that Mahayana initiates study in
Buddhist academies, while Khmer initiates study under senior
monks at local pagodas. The respective ranking systems of
monks are similar, however, he said.

6. (U) The pagoda that DCM and delegation visited has four
monks. The current structure dates from 1980. It replaced
another pagoda of the same name that had been built in about
1910, but subsequently destroyed. About 7,000 Khmer live in
the surrounding commune, according to Reverend Ti.

Cham Muslims

7. (U) Almost 20 Muslim followers warmly received DCM, his
delegation, and several provincial officials at the Phu Hiep
village mosque on May 20. They introduced themselves by
title, rather than name, and included the local community
chief, the deputy chief, and the village's Imam. About
17,000 Chams live in An Giang, the chief said. Most of the
people in the village are Cham Muslims whose ancestors had
migrated there after "wars" with the Kinh. Non-Muslims who
marry Muslims must convert to Islam to be accepted by the
community. If they do not, the couple usually moves away.
Young people who leave the area usually move to other places
with Muslim communities, including Ho Chi Minh City, they
said. The community also participates in cultural events
and festivals with Cham Muslims elsewhere in Vietnam,
especially in nearby Tay Ninh province, according to the
chief. The Cham language is very similar to those of the
Roglai and the Ede minorities in the Central Highlands and
is also closely related to Malay, they added. Several of
the Muslims told mission officers that they had more than
one "wife," but only one official wife under Vietnamese law.

8. (U) The mosque in Phu Hiep was established in 1750 and
has been renovated four times, most recently in 1967. The
GVN declared the mosque a historic relic in 1989, according
to the deputy chief. About 500 households with a total of
2129 people use the mosque. The Imam pointed out that the
mosque is two kilometers from the Cambodian border and
recalled that Pol Pot's forces had destroyed five mosques in
An Giang and damaged several others.

9. (U) The Muslim leaders credited the GVN, and more
specifically local authorities, for improvements in living
conditions after "liberation" in 1975. They also expressed
thanks for charitable donations from Australia, Malaysia,
and the U.S. that have helped overcome the consequences of
heavy flooding during the past three years. The Imam
highlighted help from U.S. veterans groups and former
Ambassador Peterson. He also mentioned that they were happy
that Vietnam had re-established relations with the U.S.

10. (U) The Phu Hiep community has developed ties with
overseas Muslims in recent years. Since 1994, several
elementary and secondary students have gone to Malaysia and
a few to Indonesia to study the Koran and other subjects.
The Imam and the deputy chief said that there are currently
eleven such students overseas. Sponsors in those countries
pay for their education and may pay for university education
overseas as well. The Imam said he expects the students to
return and work in Phu Hiep. The Imam was one of the first
from the village in recent years to undertake the Hajj;
about 50 others have followed, including three this year.
Most, if not all, have been sponsored by the Saudi royal
family, he claimed.

11. (U) Activities at the mosque itself include the cycle
of five daily prayers from 4:30AM until 8:00PM, Friday noon
prayers, and classes every day but Friday. There are four
teachers, two male and two female. They hold classes for
two hours a day on the Koran, and for Arabic and Malay. The
Imam clarified that students learn Malay in preparation for
possible study in Malaysia, but that no teachers from
overseas come to the mosque. Another object for their
studies is to prepare for Koran reading competitions. The
winners of these competitions are invited to go to Malaysia,
Thailand, and Brunei, according to the chief.


12. (U) Contrary to some reports, it does not appear that
GVN authorities are attempting to suppress the Khmer
language and culture in An Giang. The Khmer whom Mission
officers encountered appeared relaxed and able to practice
Khmer customs at will. Khmer pagodas appeared to be in good
repair and the provincial government includes Khmer
officials. Khmer communities appear to be somewhat poorer
than those elsewhere in An Giang, but they are decidedly
better off, at least in economic terms, than their brethren
across the border in Cambodia. DCM and the monk had some
opportunity to speak directly to each other in Khmer and the
monk came across as uninhibited and forthright.

13. (U) The Cham Muslim community leaders adopted a
uniformly positive tone to describe their current situation
and their attitude towards both the GVN and USG. The
community's ties to Malaysia and Indonesia are more
extensive than Mission had known, but are not entirely
unexpected. Other religious groups in Vietnam including
Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants also send members
overseas for religious education, although not at such a
young age. The Chams appear to shy away from activities
that may seem controversial and show no sign of being
influenced by Islamic fundamentalism. It is encouraging
that local authorities allow and perhaps even encourage both
groups to provide education, including language instruction,
at religious institutions.

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