Cham as Descendants of Ancient Rulers in Southeast Asia

  • March 13, 2017      Joy Marie Salgado

Phnom Penh – Over 500 years ago, a dark past had become a beginning of the flight for survival of a Southeast Asian community. The refugees of the ancient kingdom of Champa fled from Central Vietnam as they were continuously persecuted and murdered. People traveled to Cambodia for safety.

With this unexpected migration, the people who lived under the Cham ethnic practice had to adopt the Cambodian language and culture even after the end of the kingdom’s reign in the 16th century. However, the ancient Chams were highly influenced by India that the transition to the new country came in gradually. Now, where are they and how are they living back in Vietnam?

Dialect and Distinction

The Cham can be found living in both Vietnam and Cambodia. The ones left in the Vietnamese regions are comprised of four distinct groups: Cham Balamon, Cham Bani, Cham Islam, and Cham Hroi. They speak a dialect of the Malayo-Polynesian language. Even though they have four different communities, they are collectively related to the Raglai, Gia Rai, Ede, and Chu Ru groups in the country. Moreover, they are one of the few ethnic groups in Indochina to have developed their own writing system.

The groups living in Cambodia, on the other hand, are mostly bilinguals who speak Cham and Cambodian. They speak a dialect that is known as Western Cham where the people also use Arabic script rather than the traditional Cham script used by those living in Vietnam. This particular distinction is an interesting feature which identifies the diversity within a single ethnic group due to the influences around them.

Moreover, the Cham people also share some similarities with Bruneians, Indonesians, and Malaysians. Their continuous connection with other locals as well as foreign individuals helps in the development of their rich culture and traditions. Even after years of living outside the Vietnamese region, they are still able to create their own form of community that represents their roots, beliefs, and many other attributes.

Losing the Memory

Even as the people continue to live within the tradition of their ancestors, the physical evidence of this rich ethnic group’s culture is slowly disappearing. The temple sites, ancient tombs, and other religious sites in Vietnam are now damaged or completely destroyed. Aside from the actual sites turning into ruins, tourist brochures and the lessons on popular histories neglect to mention the Cham’s rich and centuries-old roots. The younger generation should learn to look back into the past and see how their once powerful ancient rulers fought for their identity.

This is a sad reality that is closely turning into a common practice. In line with these, the government also plays a big role in the changing national views on the minorities. People are yet to fully engage and appreciate the colorful life of the Cham. However, this kind of neglect isn’t coming from the non-Chams alone. Now, only very few Cham in Vietnam can still read and write in their own native language. The spoken form is also at risk of extinction because of the strong movement to globalization and the influence of the majority. The government requires the use of Vietnamese in public engagements, schools, and business. With this, the ethnic peoples do their best in learning the language and gradually forgetting more of their vernacular. The younger generations of Chams need to look back to their roots and fully embrace the values of their ethnic community despite the swift movements of modernization and globalization.

Image from huynhnamphoto,