Saturday, 12 May 2012

Cambodia - The Lost Kingdom of the Chams

Flag of the Cham Liberation Front
I've always been fascinated by 'lost kingdoms' or 'countries that might have been'.  The map of the world today is a product of History and it's interesting to think how it could all look so different.  I touched on this when I was blogging about the Veneto - Venice was a republic and a nation for so long, it seems a bit unfortunate that the Venetian nation no longer exists, although it's for the greater good of the Italian state.  Similarly, it would be interesting to see Champa on the map of South East Asia in the 21st century, as it was for many centuries in the past.  I guess the Cham people have been unlucky in the end and now their culture and 'nationhood' remains somewhat obscure and unheard of by most people. 

So where was Champa?

Cham ruins in Vietnam by GlobalCitizen01
I first heard about the Chams when I was travelling through Vietnam.  Although most Chams now live in Cambodia, the Kingdom of Champa was in southern Vietnam and this is where the architectural legacy of the Cham people still remains.  I remember travelling on one of those horrid tourist buses from the old French hill station at Da Lat to the seaside resort of Nha Trang and we stopped along the way to look, rather bleary-eyed, at the ruins of a Cham palace. 

Ancient Champa had its capital at Indrapura, which is near modern-day Da Nang in Vietnam.  Champa flourished until the late 17th century when the northern Viets started to push the Chams out of the Vietnam, a situation that continued until well into the 19th century. 

The Chams in Cambodia

The Chams were eventually defeated by the Viets and many of them moved to Cambodia, settling around the area now called Kampong Cham (Port of the Chams), as well as along the shores of the Tonle Sap lake.  They retain their own culture, language, stories etc and they've become well-known in Cambodia for their weaving and dying skills.  There are more than 300,000 Chams in Cambodia, but they are very much a minority group within Cambodian society.

Conversion to Islam

Cham performer by GlobalCitizen01
One thing that makes the Chams stand out from other Cambodian citizens is the fact that most Cambodian Chams are (Sunni) Muslims.  Islam had made some headway in South East Asia before the Chams moved to Cambodia but, perhaps in an effort to maintain a separate cultural identity, most Cambodian Chams have adopted Islam.  It has also served a practical purpose, allowing Chams to fish and kill animals, in a country where most people are Buddhist and don't wish to take the life of another creature.  There are small Cham communities in Thailand and Laos as well.  Interestingly, the majority of the 130,000 or so Chams who remain in Vietnam have retained their Hindu faith, as much as faith continues to exist in a Communist country like Vietnam!

Suffering under the Khmer Rouge

By all accounts, the Chams suffered horribly under the Khmer Rouge, being treated in much the same way as the ethnic Viets living in Cambodia.  It's hard to measure the extent to which the Cham population suffered, but some estimates suggest that as many as half a million Chams could have been murdered by the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to 'ethnically cleanse' Cambodia.  I have written about ethnic cleansing before in my blog about Barbados.

Connections with Aceh and Malaysia

It surprised me to learn that the Acehnese people have their origins in the Cham Kingdom of Vietnam, having fled to Aceh after a defeat by the Vietnamese in the 15th century.  The Cham language is closely related to Acehnese, so that they are 'in the same part' of the language family tree.  Both Cham and Acehnese are part of the Malayo-Polenesian branch of the Austronesian language family.  There were long-standing cultural and trade connections between Champa and the Malay peninsula and, by all accounts, the Malaysian constitution recognises the right of Cham people to claim Malaysian citizenship.

Other Chams, Khmers and Viets

Cham ruins by GlobalCitizen01
I guess our 19th-century obsession with creating nations has left a simplified map of the world today.  We tend to think of Viets in Vietnam, Cambodians in Cambodia etc., but the nature of human and cultural migration has left more complicated patterns.  As well as the main Cham population of South East Asia, there are also people like the Jarai of central Vietnam (called montagnards by the French colonisers), numerous hill tribes of northern Vietnam, the Chamic Tsat people of Hainan in southern China etc. 

There are more than a million ethnic Cambodians who have always lived in the Isan region of (what is now) Thailand, known as the Northern Khmer, as well as another million or so Khmer Krom living in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta.  Likewise, there are more than half a million ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia, so the ethnic make-up of South East Asia is much more complicated than a map of the region would have you believe! 

Image credits:

For this blog post, I've chosen to highlight the work of flickr member GlobalCitizen01 who has taken lots of photos of East Asia and Australia.  All of the images above were taken in My Son in Vietnam.  You can see more of GlobalCitizen01's photos on his photo stream and he also has a really interesting blog, which is worth checking out!

His most recent blog post is about Kuril islands in the Russian Far East (north of Japan) - the photos are very well mounted and explained. 

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