Written by SEBASTIAN STRANGIO AND CHEANG SOKHA
Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Effective anti-terror efforts, peaceful Cham minority cited as key factors, but some challenges remain.
DESPITE having many of the attributes associated with terror-friendly states, Cambodia remains relatively safe from Islamist terror groups, said a report released this month by the RAND Corp, a US-based global policy institute.
"The Evolving Terrorist Threat to Southeast Asia: A Net Assessment", which includes an appendix assessing Cambodia's potential as an "operational and logistical hub" for regional terror networks, found the country had successfully managed to defuse the threat posed by Islamic radicalism.
"Superficially, Cambodia has many of the attributes of a terrorist-friendly nation, including relatively lax border control, endemic corruption, entrenched criminal activity, a small and marginalised Muslim population, and an essentially unregulated banking and finance sector," the report stated.
"In reality, however, the international terrorist threat in [and to] the country is minimal and is likely to remain so."
The report found that effective counterterrorism efforts, official surveillance and a largely acquiescent Cham Muslim population had contributed to the peaceful climate.
Observers have long expressed concerns relating to attempts by religious extremists from other parts of the Muslim world to infiltrate and "re-Islamise" ethnic Cham communities.
The RAND report noted that in 2003, Hambali, one of the architects of the 2002 Bali bombings, spent several months at a Boeung Kak lake guesthouse, while radicals from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia have also been suspected of using Cambodia as a base.
The report also warned that in the absence of strong anti-terror laws and an effective financial control mechanism, the country remains a "potential springboard" for religious fanatics.
But government officials said they were confident of controlling any attempt by regional terror networks to use Cambodia as a conduit for illicit funds or inflammatory ideas.
"We established a law on money laundering last year because we were concerned about such things happening," said National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith.
"We have [also] cracked down on JI [Jemaah Islamiah] groups who have been involved in attempted bomb plots."
Ahmad Yahya, a Cham adviser to the government, said that despite continuing concerns about foreign radicals, the RAND report was right in saying that the Cham community had not proven susceptible to malign foreign influences.
"Our people are not involved with terrorism and we believe that we should live peacefully," he said. A government education programme - conducted through public meetings and radio broadcasts with US government support - had also helped immunise the community against radicalism, he added.
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said the embassy "fully agreed" with RAND's assessment, adding that the Cambodian government had done a "commendable job" of establishing a good working relationship with Cham community leaders.
"This relationship and the government's efforts have significantly decreased the opportunity for local or foreign actors to foment anti-Cambodian or anti-American sentiment," he said.