The following is part of series focusing on Muslim communities and minorities around the world.
Whilst the Rohingya community in Myanmar have faced untold hardships since becoming the subject of ethnic Buddhist aggression in 2012, their plight, which has attracted both international attention and condemnation, has largely overshadowed the existence of another Muslim minority in Southeast Asia. The Cham people, native to several countries within the region, have lived under the radar in recent years. In fact, one would not be far off in describing them as one of the most overlooked and in equal parts, historically persecuted Muslim populations.
The Cham are seen as amongst the oldest living ethnic groups in the world today, with their history dating back as early as the 2nd century AD. Their roots are traced back to what is now Vietnam and Cambodia, where they today still represent the majority of the respective country’s minute Muslim populations.
Several thousand reside within the south of Thailand, with immigrants having also settled in China, Malaysia, the islands of Indonesia and even France.
It must be noted that whilst a sizable majority of the Cham people adhere to the principles of the Islamic faith, the community is not entirely Muslim.
Elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and traditional culture are ever present, particularly amongst those residing within Vietnam. Most Cham in Cambodia however do practice Islam, or cultural offshoots thereof.
The Champa Kingdom
Cham lore tells a rather interesting tale of the community’s establishment, and the foundation of a homeland called the Champa Kingdom. As legend goes, Lady Po Nagar, a woman hailing from the mountains of Vietnam set sail towards mainland China on nothing more than a drift piece of sandalwood; an impossible journey aided by ‘spirits’. In China she married an heir to the royal family, with the two later establishing and becoming the rulers of a new kingdom to the south. The Champa Kingdom’s establishment based on historical accounts however, is listed around the 7th century.
Although Islam in modern day Cham culture is an ever-present, the community was actually founded on Hindu and Buddhist fundamentals. Interestingly enough, the first document presence of Islam is dated back to the time of Uthman and Ali (RA), two companions of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The former established the Umayyad caliphate, an empire that at its height is considered the fifth largest in human history. During this time, many Muslims were banished from this new caliphate, some traveling eastward and settling within the Champa Kingdom.
At this stage Islam’s presence was still miniscule, only taking massive strides and seeing notable growth from the 11th century onwards. As with many far reaching Muslim communities at the time, much of the religions expansion is attributed to a rise in trade with merchants from Persia, and the Muslim world overall. Champa was in fact one of the earliest kingdoms in mainland Southeast Asia to have established trade routes with the Muslim world, with many traders opting to settle in the region.
But the kingdom began a downward spiral during the 1400s, attributed to the rise of the Khmer Empire in neighboring Cambodia, as well as Vietnam’s expansion. This reduced Champa to nothing more than a small enclave against two rising powers. But as the overall population decreased, Islam became more prominent.
Amidst their Kingdom’s gradual decline and fall, many Cham begin migrating to nearby areas, including Cambodia. This came about through traveling up the Mekong Delta in search of trade, better security and treatment than what was dished out under Vietnamese rule.
Islam began to see rapid progression here during the mid 1600s when the ruling king of Cambodia converted to Islam, ordering those within the royal service to do likewise. Under his rule, Islam took massive strides amongst the Cham, and Cambodian population at large. By the 1670’s, the majority of Cham in Cambodia were practicing the religion.
Of note, the province in Cambodia where the majority of Cham opted to settle was, and is still named Kampong Cham.
The Khmer Rouge and Vietnam War
Cham history is riddled with tales of oppression, particularly during the Champa Kingdom’s fall at the hands of the Vietnamese. Their persecution during this time was in large parts a motivational factor for fleeing to nearby countries.
In a modern day setting, few things can compare to what was suffered under the extremely oppressive Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge were notorious for targeting ethnic minorities, with executions, starvation, forced labor, and disease the nature of the day. The Cham suffered the third highest casualty rate during this period, behind only the ethic Khmer population and Chinese immigrants. Around 100 000 of the 250 000 Chams living in Cambodia lost their lives; just a fraction of the 2 million people who died under the Khmer Rouge.
The ‘Khmer Genocide’, as it has been dubbed, is listed as the third biggest instance of ethnic cleansing in the modern era, behind the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide. During this period, around 132 mosques were also destroyed (often with people inside), and Muslim and minorities in general prohibited from practicing their respective religions.
But the Khmer Rouge’s rise is in large parts attributed to the Vietnam War, forming as an offshoot of the ruling government of North Vietnam. And during this civil war, the Cham also suffered greatly. Apart from having their lands overrun by everyday Vietnamese seeking to flee the conflict, their language and cultural practices were also forbidden. Although the entirety of the Vietnamese population suffered during this period, life for the Cham was especially difficult.
Modern day oppression
Little has improved in the condition of the Cham in Vietnam. Numerous media reports have detailed destruction of infrastructure, banning of cultural and religious events, confiscation of property, and substandard living conditions as just some of the ways the current Vietnamese government has continued the oppression of this small ethnic minority.
Reports become far more disturbing, with cases of murder, storming and destruction of mosques, and raping of cham girls amongst a host of incidents.
Breakaway Islamic groups
Because of the Cham’s longstanding history and diverse religious and cultural background, it’s no surprise that minority communities have sprung up blending Islamic culture with other elements. Apart from the Utsuls, a breakaway group from Vietnam’s takeover of the Champa Kingdom (which will be tackled later in the series) local practices have crept in as well, particularly amongst those in Vietnam. The Cham Bani, who represent a religious offshoot, have for example integrated elements of ancestry within their understanding of Islam, meaning that many religious practices see special significance given to their ancestors.
Another offshoot group, an extremely small population called the Kaum Jumaat, practice an adaption of the religion where fasting is only practiced on three days during the holy month of Ramadan. Furthermore, whilst most Muslims would, or at least should be conducted prayers five times a day, the Kaum Jumaat only pray on the day of yaumul jumuah.
The Cham today continue to face challenges such as poverty and education across the region, although those in Cambodia can be construed as being somewhat better off than their Vietnamese counterparts. Whilst the latter continues to face ridicule and oppression at the hands of their country’s rulers, the Cham have given free rein to practice their religion in Cambodia.
Taking nothing away from the ongoing struggles of Myanmar’s Rohingya community, there is little doubt that equal global attention needs to be directed at the historically rich and diverse counterparts to the south. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)