By Brendan Brady

BANLUNG, CAMBODIA — In frontier lands, religious conversion must be the domain of fiery preachers — purveyors of divine wrath who menace those of little faith with warnings of perdition — or of austere missionaries who embrace a punishing lifestyle to inspire the unenlightened. At least, so went the image in my mind.

But Sman Sleh, the province’s imam, was neither. He had soft features and an affable demeanor; he lived comfortably, though not conspicuously so. He moved to this dusty provincial capital several years ago from the country’s Muslim-minority heartland a couple of provinces over, in Kampong Cham. A successful meeting with him, I was told, would ensure me access to the region’s small, reclusive Muslim community.

I met him on his front porch where we sipped sweetened green tea — an Arabic style of preparation — and exchanged pleasantries. The imam said that if I wanted to see Islam at work in indigenous communities, I should visit a recently converted village an hour’s drive away. So off I went the next day on an unmuffled motorbike.

I had traveled to Ratanakiri — a sparsely populated province of hills, forests and plantations in the northeastern corner of Cambodia — to witness Muslim and Christian missionaries proselytizing among the indigenous hill tribes, who, traditionally, are animists.

Ratanakiri lies along the borders of Laos and Vietnam, but its isolation has not kept it free from foreign power struggles. The province was heavily bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War.

These days, the outsiders profess peaceful intentions. Christian and Muslim missionaries are enticing the locals with the promise of a brighter future. Gifts of money and food are often used to attract new followers — a powerful incentive given the extreme poverty of these indigenous groups.

“We saw that the Muslims ate well and had good health. We saw that Islam was the religion of the future,” Rooma Joon, an elderly man of the Jarai ethnic group, told me as we sat in a newly built mosque beside a dozen thatch-roof homes. That the mosque was built with money from a Kuwaiti government development fund heartened the elderly man. After years of alternately rough and brutal treatment at the hands of French colonizers, then the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, and now an entrepreneurial government that is giving away indigenous peoples’ land in under-the-table deals with agriculture companies, he felt as if he finally had an ally with some clout. Kuwait has begun investing in Cambodia, and the government here is allowing Kuwait to distribute some aid to local Muslim groups.

I didn’t wish to disappoint him by telling him that the Kuwaiti government itself was set to invest heavily in Cambodian land — a move that could lead to further displacement of people like him.

My reservations over being a killjoy were less relevant the next day since, for the several dozen ethnic Brao kids attending the bible sing-along I joined, the stakes didn’t yet seem quite so high.

Sitting in a Presbyterian church wedged between rice fields and accessible only by a muddy dirt path, the kids were animated by the acoustic guitar, and even more excited by the cookies that they gobbled and stuffed in their pockets. It was things like music and cookies, a Muslim missionary had told me earlier, that gave Christianity a leg up over Islam in recruiting locals.

Kim Jong Roong, the church’s Korean founder, has lived in Cambodia for a decade, speaks Khmer fluently, and says he has improved his understanding of agriculture in order to teach his local followers better farming techniques.

The way he explains it, his cause has universal appeal. “I love them and they love me,” he told me. “It’s my job to make people understand how to love Jesus, too.”

But for Sman Sleh, his mission in Ratanakiri is intensely specific. This didn’t become clear to me until I heard his take on the area’s history.

The imam, like most of Cambodia’s Muslim community, is an ethnic Cham, originating from the Champa Kingdom. At the peak of their power in the 9th century, the Cham controlled substantial swathes of what is now Cambodia and Vietnam. But today they reside in these countries as a small (and often belittled) minority. This much is widely accepted.

But many Cham also believe that some of Cambodia’s hill tribes, the Jarai in particular, are actually those of their descendants who migrated to Ratanakiri, which was then on the edge of the kingdom, and then lost ties with Champa and reverted to living in the wild.

Though today the Cham are stateless, they haven’t entirely forgotten their former glory, and missionary work offers the trappings worthy of an influential people.

“The Jarai came from Champa many years ago. They separated and became people of the forest. But they are still our brothers,” says Sman Sleh.

“Now, we let them come back to Champa. We want to restore them even if we no longer have Champa.”

[Published by The International Herald Tribune on November 19, 2010]