Every weekend at 8:30am on FM 93.5, the radio broadcast switches from Khmer to another language—one spoken by the Cambodia’s largest minority group of some 400,000 people: The Cham.
“Sat Cham,” or Voice of Cham, airs national and international news, and covers issues affecting Cham people; from jobs and poverty, to laws and health matters, said Sles Nazy, a journalist and the program broadcasting director.
Though it only reached audiences in the Phnom Penh area when it first launched in March 2004, Voice of Cham now reaches 19 provinces, Sles Nazy said.
“People are very happy that our voice is on the radio like other languages,” he said of the programs, which are pre-recorded the day prior to broadcast in a broom-cupboard-sized studio at a modest office near the National Museum.
The only complaints the seven staff of Voice of Cham receive is from listeners who are unhappy that their twice weekly Cham-language broadcasts are only 30-minutes long.
As far as history can tell the Cham have always been in the region, alongside the Khmer. But their history is often based on deductions since facts on Southeast Asia 2,000 years ago are scarce.
The Cham are believed to have arrived by sea to the coast of Vietnam, probably from Borneo two to three millennia ago, said historian Michael Vickery.
According to Vickery, while Cambodia’s southern kingdoms after the 8th century became part of the Angkorian empire, the kingdom of Champa dominated the southern region of Vietnam from north of Hue to the Mekong River delta for most of its history. And for a few brief decades in the 1360s, Champa controlled all of today’s Vietnamese territory.
A Cham stone inscription of the 7th Century speaks of a Cham prince marrying a Khmer princess, Vickery said.
Unlike Cambodia however, Champa never united into one Cham empire, he said. As the Vietnamese—who had gained their independence from China in the 10th Century—built up their strength, they drove the Cham south, and occupied all of Champa’s territory by 1802. In spite of a Cham rebellion in the 1830s, Champa simply ceased to exist as a nation.
Cambodia could have met a similar fate of being absorbed by its powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, had it not been for King Norodom signing a protectorate treaty with France in 1863.
During the French colonial period, a large portion of southern Vietnam became known as Cochin-china. And some Chams believe that at the official dissolution of Indochina in 1954, the Cham should have been given their own independent territory.
“I blame the French,” said Ahmad Yahya, Cham community leader and Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian.
“They forgot about us. We were a very small people [compared to the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotians].”
“But I don’t blame only the French,” he said. “I blame the Champanians…because we did not have a movement—if you don’t have a movement, they don’t know you. So they forgot us,” he said.
In Vietnam, there is a saying, said Ahmad Yahya, that if you lose, you lose everything.
“We lost everything: Now, our people are uneducated,” he said.
Starting from the 15th Century, the Cham moved west to Cambodia as the Vietnamese moved south through their former kingdom, although the Cambodian Chronicles only started to mention their arrival in the 17th Century, Vickery said.
Cambodians and the Cham had had their differences over the centuries. They had coexisted in peace until around the 11th Century when it is believed that the Khmer tried to take control of Vijaya—now Quy Nhon—located halfway between Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. It was Champa’s most important maritime port at the time, Vickery said.
This led to nearly constant warfare until the 1220s. One Khmer faction would unite with another Cham kingdom to fight against other Khmer factions and Cham kingdoms, as shown on wall carvings of the Bayon temple at Angkor, he said.
According to both Khmer and Cham inscriptions, King Jayavarman VII spent a great deal of time in Vijaya probably in the 1160s, Vickery said. Cham texts add that he was accompanied by Cham troops when he returned to Angkor and secured the throne in 1178.
It may have been a Cham kingdom hostile to King Jayavarman’s Cham allies that attacked Angkor shortly after, though Vickery does not believe that there was ever a huge conquest of Angkor by the Cham.
Following the Cham attack, Angkor was left strong enough for King Jayavarman VII to fight alongside Cham people against some Cham rulers as stated in Cham inscriptions of the 1180s and 1190s, he said.
Those Cham rulers would write in inscriptions from the 1220s that the Khmer king had at one point “conquered the Earth,” Vickery said.
Having lost their nation in the 19th Century, four Cham brothers led a rebellion in 1858 to turn today’s Kompong Cham province into an independent Cham country, said Agnes De Feo in a 2004 research document.
After the insurgents killed his envoy, King Ang Duong crushed the uprising and dispersed the 5,000 Chams of the area to other parts of the country as their leaders fled to Chau Doc, she said.
“Although I don’t remember much of its history, I grieve for the loss of our country of Champa,” said Kay Toam, the 66-year-old leader of the minority Cham group Imam Sann Cham, and the eight leader of the community holding the title of Oknha Khnuor by royal consent.
“I wished my country had existed forever, but [the territory] could not become Champa again because we lost it hundreds of years ago and now we have nothing,” he said.
Today, the Cham population is estimated at about 80,000 people in southern Vietnam and around 400,000 in Cambodia.
In Cambodia, the Cham evolved into two distinct communities with different Cham dialects and different religious practices: the Imam Sann Cham, a minority group that abides by the ancient Champa ways, and the “modern” Cham who have adopted today’s mainstream Muslim rule, said linguist Jean-Michel Filippi.
The difference in Cham dialects spoken in the two communities suggests that they came to Cambodia at different periods, the Imam Sann Cham coming first and the majority group later on as the Vietnamese moved further south, Filippi said.
Cham people also comprehend the languages of the Rhade and Jarai hilltribes—the Rhade, or Ede, mostly live in the Vietnamese province of Dak Lak next to Mondolkiri province, and the Jarai in Ratanakkiri province and across the border in Gia Lai and Kontum provinces, he said.
“[Cham, Rhade and Jarai] are Maleo-Polynesian languages, which is an enormous group of languages virtually spoken throughout the Pacific Ocean, from Easter Island to Madagascar, and from [Southern China’s] Hainan Island-where there still are Cham people-to French Polynesia,” Filippi said.
Cham, Khmer and Mon, still spoken in Burma, were the first three languages to appear in written form in Southeast Asia about 1,500 years ago, said Cambodian linguist Thach Deth.
The Imam Sann Cham have kept the ancient Cham script while the “modern” Cham, whose leader is Oknha Sos Kamry, switched to Arabic and sometimes use Roman letters, said Isaac Tabor, a Dutch researcher who conducted a study on the Cham for the Documentation Center of Cambodia in 2004 and 2005.
The fact that all the Cham in Cambodia are Muslims—to the extent of making the word “Cham” mean Muslim in Khmer—puzzles researchers, especially since the religion of Champa was mostly Hindu and today’s Cham people in Vietnam are both Brahmanists and Muslims.
Some speculate this was due to trade between Cham and Malay people, which created a bond between the two groups.
“Malaysia continues to fascinate [the “modern” Cham] and serves as a religious standard as well as a model for economic success,” wrote De Feo, adding that Cham leaders send their children to study in Malaysia.
The “modern” Cham, who adhere to rituals prevailing in the Muslim world, pray five times a day while the Imam Sann Cham pray once a week on Friday, during an elaborate ceremony that lasts more than one hour, De Feo wrote.
“Modern” Chams tend to look down on the Imam Sann Cham, whom they consider non-Muslims, she added in an e-mail interview.
However, the two leaders have a good relationship, and have agreed that Sos Kamry should answer questions on “modern” Muslims, and the ones on Champa’s history and traditions by Kay Toam, Tabor said.
The “modern” Cham are scattered throughout the country and form most of the population in Kompong Cham province; the Imam Sann Cham community of nearly 34,000 people is concentrated in about 35 villages in Battambang, Kandal, Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces.
Kay Toam teaches Cham language classes every day, and the Imam Sann Cham still chants Cham ancestral poetry, Tabor said.
But their determination to preserve traditions is hampered by the fact that, unlike the “modern” Chams who receive some funding from other Muslim countries, the Imam Sann Cham does not get financial support for its cultural and educational projects, he said.
“We especially are facing a shortage of schools and trainers to teach our young generation the culture, traditions, customs and literature of Champa,” Kay Toam said.
“We still have our culture and traditions but, unfortunately for our young people, all historical books and documents, and writings about Champa were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge regime decimated the Cham population and destroyed about 130 mosques.
With the exception of arts and architecture, little or no material on Cham history, culture, language or society has been written since the mid-1950s, Filippi said.
Filippi’s Institute for the Development of Social Sciences in Cambodia is launching a program to train Cham students so that they can conduct studies in their own communities. One of the project’s goals is to ensure that Cham people themselves study and document their own culture, and not just leave the task to foreign researchers, he said.
Despite their separate identities and beliefs, the Voice of Cham broadcast team makes sure that both communities are covered and reached through their radio program, Sles Nazy said.
“We think that we have to cover everything in the Cham community, regardless of religious practices.”