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Cham in Cambodia

  • Profile

    Comprising between 1 and 2 per cent of the Cambodia population, Cham are concentrated around Kampong Cham, Kampot and Phnom Penh. Ethnic Cham are 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 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 in 1975-1979. 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.

    36 per cent of Cham died during the Khmer Rouge regime, compared to 19 per cent of the majority Khmer population during the same period. The Khmer Rouge also set out to destroy their culture, burning Qur’ans, prohibiting Cham from speaking their language and forcing them to eat pork, while also consciously setting out to erase their traditional way of life by dispersing communities across the country. Many Cham were executed simply on the basis of their identity.

    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

    Though Cham are generally free to practise their religion, their language is not used as a medium of instruction in state schools, even in areas where Cham are concentrated. This results in many Cham 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. Long marginalized, Cham’s situation has improved to some extent in recent years, though they still lack access to many educational and economic opportunities. In a June 2015 decree, the government stated its intention to address these issues through the hiring of 1,500 Cham teachers.

    There have been reports that suggest that in the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, ethnic Cham Muslims have been ‘under new suspicion’ by the wider Khmer public. There has also been internal discrimination within the community toward followers of smaller sects, particularly followers of the nineteenth-century Muslim leader Imam San. Many practice an indigenous form of Islam that draws on animist traditions. At times, Cham have been subjected to attacks due to misperceptions that they are engaging in ‘magic’.

    There has been some limited progress toward justice for historic abuses against Cham through the proceedings of the UN-backed Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). A verdict on Case 002/02, the second trial against Khmer Rouge leaders Noun Chea and Khieu Saphan, on charges of genocide against ethnic Cham and Vietnamese, is expected in 2018. However, there have also been continued delays and barriers to securing justice for other the victims of other alleged perpetrators of genocide. In 2015, charges were laid against Ao An, also known as Ta An, an acting secretary in the regime’s central zone, for crimes against humanity for ‘extermination, persecution on political and religious grounds and other inhumane acts’, implicated in his role of killing Cham Muslims. In December 2016, the investigation was closed and Ao An’s case was severed. Efforts were made to resume prosecution in 2017, although there was disagreement about whether his case fell within the jurisdiction of the ECCC.

    While most of Cambodia’s Cham Muslims still reside in rural areas, they also comprise significant urban communities and face a regular threat of eviction. For instance, Phnom Penh’s most publicized case of land grabbing involved eviction of residents around Boeung Kak Lake, following the government’s reclassification and leasing of the area on a 99- year commercial contract to private developers. Among the thousands of people evicted were entire Muslim Cham neighbourhoods, with families either offered minimal cash compensation or given homes in a relocation zone far outside the city, with little access to services or ability to make a living. As they were relocated away from Al-Serkal mosque, which had served as the community’s anchor for gatherings and religious services, their collective sense of community was also undermined. Following its demolition, the mosque was replaced with the help of a large donation from the United Arab Emirates, yet the community itself no longer resides in the area.

    Updated September 2018

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