Life sentences handed out by courts in Cambodia on December 29 against three Islamists, on charges of plotting attacks against the British embassy in the capital Phnom Penh, have cast light on the growing reach of Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia. Two of the convicts arrested last May, from a tip-off from U.S. intelligence, are Thai Muslims while the third is a Cambodian, one of the half a million strong indigenous Muslim population. They are believed to be involved with the al-Qaeda linked terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah as part of its campaign to radicalize Cambodia’s Muslims. In addition to the above three, an Egyptian, a Malaysian and the Indonesian militant leader Hambali (arrested in Thailand in August, 2003 and now in U.S. custody) were tried and sentenced in absentia (www.phnompenhpost.com)
Although the task of Hambali and Jemaah Islamiyah in the country appears to be at an early stage, and will come up against the relatively syncretistic form of Islam influenced by its Hindu and Buddhist environment, the country appears vulnerable to radicalization. The process is following a familiar pattern of Saudi Arabia-funded Islamic schools and mosques which answer to community needs for educational facilities, but where the local Muslim traditions are consciously undermined by outsiders attempting to ‘purify’ the faith. A report last October by the United Nations Security Council committee (www.un.org/apps/news) found that Cambodia could become a “breeding ground” for radicals if the process were not halted by international assistance. Its security services are not yet at a level to meet the challenge of transnational terrorism threat.