Approximately 500,000 people (Ethnologue gives a figure of 220,000 based on 1992 Cambodian government sources; a 2004 Radio Free Asia report refers to as many as 700,000) concentrated around Kampong Cham, Kampot and Phnom Penh are ethnic Cham of Malay-Polynesian origins. Most are Muslims and speak the Cham language, which belongs to the Austronesian family. Another distinct group of Cham is sometimes called Chvea. They speak mainly Khmer and may have originated from Java. Both groups belong to the Shafi branch of Sunni Islam. A third group is known as the Jahed: also Sunni Muslims who speak Cham, they trace their ancestry to Cham refugees who fled the ancient Kingdom of Champa (primarily the principality of Panduranga) at the end of the seventeenth century, after their defeat by the Vietnamese. Large numbers of the aristocracy and members of the Cham royal family settled around Udong, and their descendants are still present in this region today. Though they are also Sunni Muslims, their version of Islam incorporates elements of Hinduism (they also do not pray five times a day and do not use Arabic as their religious language), and they also write in the Cham script (which other Chams no longer do). Today they number just over 20,000.

In the countryside, Cham live in their own villages, often directly next to Cambodian villages. In the cities, Cham are clustered in their own neighbourhoods or suburbs. Cham maintain their distinctive style of dress: women have long hair and cover their heads with scarves; men wear skullcaps and often grow beards. The emphasis on matrilineal descent is stronger than among the Khmer.

Historical context

Originally, Cham were the inhabitants of the medieval Hindu kingdom of Champa, located on the coast of what is now central Vietnam. Many, particularly among the elite, converted to Islam as the Muslim faith spread eastward into island and peninsular South-East Asia. After the Khmer deserted Angkor, the imperial capital of Cambodia, in the fifteenth century, the Vietnamese, expanding south from their historical base in Tonkin and Annam, gradually conquered the Champa principalities. Preferring to live among the Hinduized Buddhist Khmer rather than the Sinicized or Confucianized Vietnamese, many Cham abandoned Champa after the seventeenth century and migrated to Cambodia, settling around Udong and along the rivers and the Tonle Sap lake.

Before 1975, Khmer and foreign estimates numbered Cham as between 150,000 and 250,000. During the Sihanouk and Lon Nol eras, Cham, unlike ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese, were citizens. However, they were severely persecuted during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-9). In many areas Cham communities were sent to the countryside or executed en masse. Probably in response to prohibitions on the practice of their Islamic religion and the threatened loss of their Islamic identity, some Cham rebelled against the Pol Pot regime from 1975. More than one-third of Cambodia's Chams were murdered during the next four years. With the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, Cham were able to resume their traditional lifestyles and religious practices, rebuilding their former mosques and returning to their traditional neighbourhoods and occupations.

Current issues

A private radio station was allowed to broadcast programmes in the Cham language by the government for the first time in 2004 – though this initiative was actually funded by the United States. The broadcasting in Cham was expanded to two hours a week in 2006. Though the Chams are generally free to practise their religion, their language is not used as medium of instruction in state schools, even in areas where the Chams are concentrated. This results in many Chams outside of Phnom Penh enrolling their children in schools in the south of Thailand or in Malaysia (which use closely related languages as medium of instruction), or increasingly in madrassas, which have become more numerous in recent years.

In 2001 there was a move by state authorities to restrict some Muslim religious activities and contacts with Muslims from abroad; though since withdrawn, these restrictions raised concerns over a possible anti-Muslim trend in government policies, in light of the ongoing international ‘war on terror'.

Share this content: