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Understanding the Cham identity in mainland Southeast Asia: contending views.


I had a chance encounter with a Cham man on a boat trip from Chau Doc (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh. His name was Iskandar and a native from Kompong Cham, Cambodia. On the journey, the passengers (most of them were from Western countries) had to surrender their passports to him as he was in charge of showing them to the Cambodian customs. Taking particular interest in the name written in my passport, he looked at me curiously. This gave me an opportunity to observe him. At first glance, I could not tell whether he was Khmer or Cham but he was definitely not ethnic Kinh. (1) Suddenly, he said "Assalamualaikum" the standard Muslim greeting that means "Peace be unto you". Automatically, I replied in the affirmative "Waalaikumsalam". He smiled and to my great surprise, began conversing with me in Malay and Cham. The conversation turned out to be rather friendly and he spoke excellent Malay. I learnt that he had worked for the boat company for a few years and was paid very well. He learnt Malay in Vietnam, from classes run by the Malaysian government in Saigon and managed to work for some years in Malaysia. What was most impressive was that he could speak Vietnamese, Khmer and Malay and such knowledge made him a "valued employee" as he could communicate and more importantly negotiate with the customs officials on both sides of the border. He said that the Vietnamese guides in the company would rather not deal with the Cambodian officials, as "troubles would arise". Therefore Cham workers were sought after because they were "tolerated more" by the Cambodian officials at the river checks. Iskandar then roped in his friends from the village to work with him. He would return to work in Malaysia or Indonesia if the opportunity arose but to do that he must establish good relations with a certain mosque in Cambodia where the Imam disseminates information on the working opportunities for Chams.

Asked whether he liked working in Malaysia or Indonesia, he replied that he liked both because "Urang Cham" (Cham people) like him felt very comfortable living among people who spoke a similar language and practiced a culture that bears close similarities to that of the Chams. He said enthusiastically that more importantly, only in "Nagar Urang Jva" (country of the Malays) that he felt "free" as nobody would see him as an "outsider" because he felt that he was accepted by the people of such countries. His ethnicity was not questioned or discriminated against. Before disembarking, I thanked him for the conversation and wished him well, he replied that if I so desired, he could arrange for me to meet several Cham women in Pattani, saying "Kumei siam lo" (women, very pretty). Several of his relatives lived in Pattani after marrying the local women there.

This experience represents a prevailing occurrence during my fieldwork throughout South Vietnam and Cambodia, especially in areas inhabited by the Chams, where one met many of them who knew how to speak Malay, had worked, and even lived in countries where there were large Malay speaking populations.

The History of the Chams and Some Contemporary Issues

The Chams are a Malayo-Polynesian ethnic group in Vietnam. They have a culture and language that bear great affinities with peoples from Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (Thurgood 1999). They were the earliest inhabitants of the area of South Vietnam. Champa, the kingdom of the Chams, existed from 700-1471 A.D. (Vickery 2004, p. 9), was composed of the five territories Indrapura, Vijaya, Kauthara, Panduranga, and Amaravati. The long existence of Negara Champa (E.F.E.O. 1981) have left deep social and economic imprints and contribute to the Cham's historical consciousness of the "Champa motherland" or, in Cham terms, "Inu Nagar". The Chams once dominated what is today South Vietnam and other ethnic minorities looked highly upon them. (2) Furthermore the Chams could speak the language of the Jarai, Raglai, and Chru peoples, the major tribes in the Central Highlands (Hickey 1993). This allowed for greater participation in the economic activities of the Highland peoples as recorded in some Cham manuscripts I possess. (3) These peoples who share close linguistic and cultural affinities with the Chams such as the Jarai, Rade, Chru, and Raglai formed part of the Cham conception of the "Nagar" or Negara, which facilitated their economic interaction with the Chams (Hickey 1982).

Besides groups of the same ethnicity in the nearby Central Highlands, the Chams also engaged other Malayo-Polynesian groups further afield in Southeast Asia. This is recorded in Malaysian and Indonesian historical sources. (4)

The Vietnamese kingdom, then known as Dai Viet, invaded the Chams (Wade 2003) in 1471 A.D. The gradual annexation of Cham territories such as Vijaya, Indrapura, Amaravati, and Kauthara followed. The Vietnamese not only reduced Champa's territory but cut off its access to the sea with the capture of ports in the conquered territory (Vickery 2004). This cost Champa its economic viability and the Chams were eventually reduced by the 1800s to only one autonomous territory called Panduranga. (5)

Contending Views on Cham Ethnicity

The Chams Had "Primordial Ties" with the Malays

At this point, it will be interesting to propose that the Chams were able successfully to participate in the cultural and social dynamics in societies not of their own because they had primordial ties with the Malays of such countries, e.g., Malaysia. The Cham seem to be more successful where the dominant community accepts Chams as one of their own (as part of the ethnic Malay family). This line of argument seem to be best represented by Clifford Geertz's work, writing largely in the framework of the primordialist school of thought, in an article titled Primordial ties he maintains that being born into a particular religious community and using a particular language are powerful forces that sometimes transcends the spiritual (Geertz 1996). The Muslim Cham ethnic group possesses some of the attributes mentioned by Geertz, such as having a particular language, social practices, and a dominant religion; and therefore they have a well-defined sense of their culture, history, and traditions. Though the main focus of this article will be on the Muslim Chams, I recognize the diversity of the Cham people and that there are Hindus among them.

The Chams' (both the Hindu and Muslim Chams in both Cambodia and Vietnam) consciousness of their ethnicity was made more potent in the light of the Cham's historical memory that they were once a great and powerful people that had a kingdom in what is now South Vietnam. The Vietnamese had invaded and destroyed the kingdom of Champa and relegated its people to a minority position. (6)

In addition to a common language, cultural practices, and a dominant religion, I argue that the "primordial ties" of the Cham were conditioned by their historical memory of themselves as once a sovereign people of a kingdom. The Chams today are of the opinion that they are like a conquered people. I argue that when the historical memories of the Chams engage with the Cham's perception of their present situation, (7) tension is produced that leads to a certain dynamism in the way the Chams articulate their existence through the manifestation of certain imaginaries such as having "primordial ties" with each other and more significantly, with peoples that are like the Chams, e.g., the Malays of Malaysia. (8)

The Chams and the Instrumentalists

The Chams successfully participate in the cultural and social dynamics in societies other than their own because they were able to use their ethnicity for specific agendas. This perspective would be congruent with the framework of the instrumentalist school of thought with regards to theories of ethnicity. For the proponents of Instrumentalist argumentation, ethnicity is a "social, political, and cultural resource for different interest and status groups" (Hutchinson and Smith 1996, p. 8). The work of Abner Cohen takes this notion further when he maintains, "... ethnicity is essentially a political phenomenon, as traditional customs are used only as idioms and as mechanisms for political alignment" (Cohen 1996, p. 84). He alludes to the possibility that ethnicity could be constructed and even manipulated to adhere to the specific agendas of groups. The Chains, in such a context, would therefore have an agenda and indeed, there may be some examples to corroborate this view. There are essentially two groups of Chain people, the Muslim Chains and the Hindu Chams. The Muslim Chams have greater economic and social stature. However, this is because of the economic links they have with other Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and some countries in the Middle East. According to Bjorn Blengsli in an article entitled "Trends in the Islamic community" (Blengsli 2003), pointed to the existence of Arab charities such as the Om A1 Qura Charity Organization and the Islamic Heritage Society that have set up schools and mosques around Cambodia. The article added that overseas funds open opportunities to study abroad or perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

However what is more significant is that the Muslim Chams ride on linguistic, cultural, and historical affinities with peoples of the "Malay world". Seizing on the perception of the Malaysia government that the Chams are "cousins" of the Malays, the Muslim Chams garnered a greater degree of economic opportunities in such countries than they could have if they were Hindu Chams. Therefore the Chams, following the logic of the Instrumentalists, used their ethnicity in the furtherance of their interests, socio-economic survival being one of them. At this point, I would like to add that I consider religion as a part of Cham ethnicity and this notion will be expanded upon later in this article.

I had the chance to interview in Kompong Cham in Cambodia a fifty-seven years old Muslim Cham by the name of Yusuf. Owing to the nature of his work, he had to travel between Phnom Penh and Kelantan frequently. I asked him whether he had any difficulties dealing with the Malays and Cambodians. He replied in Malay, "Saya banyak berdagang dengan orang Melayu dan orang Kambuja. Orang Kambuja sama seperti orang Melayu bila tawar-menawar. Mereka tidak suka paksa memaksa. Kalau kita tetapkan harga mereka tidak akan mencari masalah. Tetapi orang Yun suka berunding kadang kala saya terpaksa menurun harga dengan banyak tetapi itulah cara mereka". (Translation: I have traded many times with the Malays and Cambodians. The Cambodians are like the Malays when bargaining prices. They do not like to be insistent. If we set the price they will not make trouble but the Vietnamese like to bargain hard and sometimes I have to bring down my price a lot but that is their way). He learned Malay while studying the Koran in his village. Malay was the language that was used by the Imam in teaching the Koran. I asked him whether he would like his children or even his grandchildren, for that matter, to learn Malay. He said "Belajar bahasa Melayu sangat bagus untuk masa depan mereka. Anak dan cucu-cucu saya boleh mendapat kerja yang bagus dengan gaji besar di Malaysia. Malaysia tempat kaya. Dua anak cucu perempuan saya sudah berumah tangga dengan orang Malaysia. Saya kerap mengunjungi mereka" (9) (Translation: Studying the Malay language is very good for their future. My children and grandchildren will be able to get high-paying jobs in Malaysia. Malaysia is a rich place. Two of my grand daughters have married Malaysian men and are staying there. I visit them often). I asked him if his grand daughters encountered any problems living in Malaysia, he said, "No problems, the Malaysians accept us as Malays. We are Muslims ... same religion and race".

This dovetailed with the reality that the Malaysians actually supported such a notion that the Chams are "Malay". One important event that marked the beginning of such sentiments was the extermination of the Cham people during Pol Pot's reign. (10) That Communist regime targeted the Chams for several reasons: their history of involvement in the activities of the Cambodian royal court, the perception of their martial potential, and most importantly the fact that they were Muslims.

Many of them fled to Malaysia where they were given refugee status. The fact that being Muslims meant a greater chance of being given free housing, medical care, employment, and education by the Malaysian government. According to Dato' Nik Mohamed Nik Mohd Solleh (11) in a paper called "The arrival and presence of the Cham people in Malaysia" (12) presented at a Champa Conference in 2004, held in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia:
   From June 1975 to 1988 about 10,722 refugees of Malay Cham
   ancestry have entered Malaysia and were placed in refugee camps
   in Kemumin, Pengkalan Chepa, Kota Bahru, Kelantan. The camp
   was later renamed Taman Putra, Kemumin ... The refugee camp in
   Kemumin was administered by PERKIM. The refugees were placed in
   the camps for 2 years and during that time they were given classes
   on Islamic education, the Malay language and culture and the
   Malaysian way of life. Their health was also tended to.

   In early 1977, nearly 4/5ths of the refugees were allowed out of
   the camps to work in plantations and to engage in businesses. They
   were given visitor passes which was a temporary document enabling
   them to look for work and live temporarily in Malaysia.

   Many of the refugees, after they have left the refugee camp, lived
   and worked in Kelantan especially in Kota Bahru. Many of them
   also looked for work and opportunities in other states in Malaysia
   such as Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, Melaka and Johor. Their
   children are allowed to study in schools; colleges and many of them
   are studying in higher institutions of learning. The Malay Cham
   refugees have integrated well with Malaysia and most Malaysians
   regard them as Malays. After 25 years of living in Malaysia, many
   of them have become citizens of Malaysia. Today, there are about
   25,000 Malay Chams in Malaysia including those who are born here.

The Malaysian government views the Chams as not just Chains but "Malay Chams". The Malay Muslim identity of the Chams of Cambodia guaranteed their entry into Malaysia and assisted their integration into Malaysian society. The Muslim identity of the Chams has reaped the following advantages for their community:

1. Preservation of Muslim Cham Identity

2. Sponsorship of the building of mosques by Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian contributors

3. Connection to the Malay world and the international world of Islam.

Islam "re-energized" Cham identity/ethnicity by inspiring the Chams to establish associations to facilitate the continuity of Cham community and their way of life. This can be seen in the establishment of associations such as the Cambodian Muslim Students Association that provided support for Cambodian Muslim students and madrasahs or religious boarding schools in Cambodia that gave Cambodian Muslim students their Islamic foundation. However I find that the Cham's most potent form of affirmation of their Muslim identity was through the establishment of mosques. I spoke to a Muslim Cham when I visited one of the biggest mosques in Cambodia, I asked him to explain the grandeur of many mosques in Cambodia. He replied that a mosque was more than just a mosque to the Urang Cham (Cham people). It reflects the strength of the Cham community and is a source of great pride, and more significantly, he said that the Chams had lost much in their history and that by building such wonderful mosques the Chams in Cambodia will be able show others that they are progressive people. Thus Islam is a source of ethnic empowerment for the Cham in Cambodia.

Therefore the Chams are indeed what the Instrumentalist school advocates; that is, they take advantage of perceived ethnic affiliations to achieve specific agendas namely, socio-economic, and ethnic self-preservation. Alternatively, it must be noted that the Cham can also be seen as merely "deploying" not "manipulating" their identity, especially in the socio-economic sphere. However, I must say that in my observations of the Muslim Chams of Vietnam and Cambodia, they were very much aware of the benefits of being seen as Malays.

Barth's "Interaction" Theory

What qualities do the Chams possess that allowed them to successfully participate in the cultural and social dynamics in societies other than their own? In the approach used by Fredrik Barth, he maintains that a change of emphasis is needed in looking at ethnicity. He posits that "... Ethnic groups are categories of ascription and identification by the actors themselves and thus have the characteristic of organizing interaction between people" (Barth 1996, pp. 75-82). This is different from the Primordialists and Instrumentalists, as this approach does not totally essentialize Chain motivations. Barth's approach is useful as a means of understanding the issue of Chain ethnicity because following its logic, Cham ethnicity is fluid and is somewhat a product of interactions with other groups. This is a believable notion that takes into consideration the thousands of years the Chams have been interacting with other ethnic groups. The Cham language has seen many borrowings from Mon Khmer and Austroasiatic language systems (Diffloth 2004). If their language can be influenced by other groups, the culture of the Chains would also be similarly affected.

Barth's argument may be useful in terms of understanding ethnic groups, in terms of ethnic or cultural boundaries but this explanation is somewhat inadequate when trying to understand present-day Chain relations with the Vietnamese. Barth's assumption that ethnic groups are culture bearing units, having interactions with other groups may be useful but it fails to take into account a situation when a particular ethnic group as a powerful majority tries to shape the culture of a minority. In this kind of hegemonic situation, which is the case of the Chams in Vietnam, ethnicity is not a product of equitable and free interaction.

Though these theories are useful in understanding ethnicity, on their own they do not explain the Cham situation adequately. In order to understand the qualities that the Chams possess that allowed them to successfully participate in the cultural and social dynamics in societies that are predominantly Malay Muslim, this article will look at the Chams through the layers of history, religion, and perceptions of oppression.

The "Historical" Layer

The Chams are conscious of their historical role and presence in Southeast Asia and are aware that other nations perceive them to be descendents of a "great kingdom". This sentiment formed one of the first layers, a historical justification for the Cham to engage with other historical consciousness of other nations and other ethnic communities. The Khmers (Cambodians) see the Cham as a people who have lost their country to the Vietnamese. This is an opinion shared by many Khmer Cambodians whom I have met during my fieldwork. In a conversation with a waiter (an ethnic Khmer) in a restaurant, I asked him whether he knows about the Cham people in Cambodia. He said that "they (the Chain) are a people who have been here (Cambodia) for a long time. They came to Cambodia because the Yun (Vietnamese) took away their land and they once had their own country in Vietnam". (13) Fascinated by his answer I asked other ethnic Khmer Cambodians the same question and I got rather similar perspectives. It seemed to me that the Khmer historical consciousness of the Cham was based on the awareness that the Cham were a historically displaced (14) group. Interestingly enough, the Cham too had similar perspectives about their historical origins in Cambodia. In the many conversations I had with young Chams in Cambodia, most of them (at least those who had some historical consciousness) believe that their ancestors came to Cambodian lands to seek refuge and Khmer protection. The Chams were able to use the "historical layer" of the Khmers seeing them as "descendents of Champa who sought safety and protection in Cambodia". They are accepted into Khmer society because to some degree, the Khmers felt for the Chams. (15) Such sentiments were made more potent with the view, held by both Khmer and Cham people, that they had a similar historical enemy i.e., the Vietnamese. (16) Thus continuing to accept the Cham within Khmer society could be seen as a means by the Khmers to spite the Vietnamese.

Another example of the Chams engaging the "historical layer" can be seen in how they engage the historical consciousness of Malaysian Malays, which is dominated by a perspective called the "Malay world". Proponents of this perspective view the Chams as a Malay people, based on linguistic and cultural affinities, living in Indochina.

Malaysian academic interest in the Chams and Champa is a recent development, sparked off by the arrival of Muslim Cham refugees from Cambodia in 1975. These refugees fascinated the Malaysians as the Chams were found to have a language, culture, and religion that were very similar to those of the Malay. The period from 1980 to the late 1990s saw many Malaysian academics probing deeper into the history, culture, and language of the Cham. It must be said that academic perspectives on the Chams were influenced by the "Malay world" perspective. This perspective draws from the notion that Malay speaking peoples can be found as far as Hawaii and Madagascar, forming a "linguistic space" that was understood as a geographical reality. Simply, if one could speak a variant of the Austronesian language then one must be part of the "Malay world". This was articulated most succinctly by Dr S. Husin Ali in his definition of "Malay", "the term refers not only to those who are settled in the Peninsula, but also includes those in the larger area of the Malay Archipelago, embracing the Malay Peninsula and thousands of islands which today form the Republics of Indonesia and the Philippines. Although they are divided into many subgroups, and perhaps as many dialects, linguistic and cultural experts always consider them as belonging to the same stock, known as the Malays or Malayo-Indonesians. Indeed the Malay world covers a wide area, and its people constitute one of the major racial groups of the world. (S. Husin Ali 1981, p. 1) Thus, in such a context, the Chams were seen largely as part of the Malay world because they can speak a variant of the Malay language. The Chams (especially the Muslim Chams) have a more intense and comprehensive relationship with the Malays because of the similarities they share with the Malays in terms of culture and religion. More importantly, the Malays continue to be fascinated by their understanding of the Chams' historical experience. An ethnic Malay student in Malaysia whom I interviewed rather recently, (17) told me "Orang Cham adalah antara tamadun yang tertua di Asia tenggara, mereka menunjukan bahawa orang melayu mempunyai sifat-sifat yang membolehkan mereka membina tamadun yang sangat unik dan istimewa dari segi pembinaan candi dan unsur-unsur budaya mereka. Tetapi kejayaan mereka tidak kekal kerana mereka selalu berperang dengan orang Vietnam. Akhirnya, mereka hilang Negara dan tamadun Champa hilang sama sekali ... inilah pelajaran kepada orang Melayu ... yang kita mesti menjadi bangsa yang kuat supaya kami tidak akan hilang daripada dunia ..." (The Chains are one of the oldest civilizations in the region; they have shown that Malays have the characteristics that enabled them to establish a great civilization. However their civilization did not last as they are always fighting the Vietnamese. In the end, they have even lost their country. This is the lesson that the Malays learn from the Chains, that the Malay people must be strong ... in order that we will not disappear from this world). The interview is interesting as it encapsulated the views that the Malays had of the Chams. The Chain are proof that the Malays are capable of greatness and they are useful in establishing greater historical justification of "Malay greatness". With such favourable sentiments, the Chams were able to use the "historical layer" or the historical consciousness that the Malays of Malaysia had of them, to gain, among many other things, an affirmation of themselves as an important and unique people.

The Religious Layer

The Muslim Chams of Vietnam: Islamic Identity and the Cham

The "religious layer" attempts to show how the Chams are able to engage the perceptions of other Malay-Muslims of their "Muslimness" in order to participate in the social networks, establish webs of personal relationships, and engage in certain processes within pre-dominantly Malay Muslim countries such as Malaysia.

Cham Muslims in Vietnam and Cambodia are identifiable through their Muslim names, and when they engage in activities such as praying, fasting, and celebrating Islamic religious events. Attire is also an important indicator of a Muslim Cham in both countries. They are easily recognized when they wear the "sarong" and skullcap for prayers. However these behavioural features identify a Muslim Cham only superficially. They do not actually explain how the Chams are able to engage the perceptions of other Malay-Muslims of their "Muslimness" to their advantage. This aspect can be seen when the Chams participate in two important social institutions i.e., marriage and education.

Cham Muslims, Marriage

It was in Cambodia that I met Madam Zulaiha, (18) a Cambodian Cham Muslim woman who married a Malaysian. She is the owner of a Malaysian food stall in Phnom Penh. I asked her in Malay "Pandangan Cik Zulaiha tentang orang Malaysia berkahwin dengan orang Charn bagaimana." (What are her views on Malaysian men marrying Cham Muslim women?) She answered rather amicably "banyak perernpuan Cham mengawini lelaki Melayu Malaysia. Suami saya, dia dari Kuala Lumpur, pernah berkahwin dengan wanita Malaysia tetapi perkahwinan itu sebentar sahaja. Suarni saya bercerai dengan perempuan itu kerana dia kurang ajar denganya dan juga tidak berugama ... saya tak tahulah ... saya tak tanya banyak. Dia pilih saya kerana dia mengatakan yang dia suka pada sifat lembut saya dan saya sangat berugama". (There are many Cham women who marry Malaysian Malay men. My husband who is from Kuala Lumpur, used to be married to a Malaysian woman however the marriage did not last. He divorced her because she was rude and not very religious ... I don't know ... I didn't ask a lot about the matter. He chose me because according to him he liked my gentle nature and I am very religious). When I asked about her experiences in Malaysia, she said "Selepas saya berkahwin, saya tinggal di Malaysia dan membuat banyak kawan di masjid. Mereka menganggap saya sebagai orang Melayu. Tapi saya selalu mengatakan yang saya orang Chain dari Kampuchea dan saya bukan orang Melayu Malaysia tetapi dari pandangan mereka orang Chain adalah orang Melayu. Saya setuju sahaja kerana susah saya mahu terangkan perbezaan antara orang Chain dan orang Melayu. Lagipun mereka sangat kagum dengan saya bila saya bercakap dalam bahasa Cham kerana ia sama dengan bahasa melayu. Mungkin sebab itu mereka suka saya dan pada Hari Raya saya dijemput ke rumah mereka dan ini membuat saya sangat gembira". (After my marriage, I lived in Malaysia and made a lot of friends at the mosque. They saw me as Malay. But I always said that I am a Chain from Cambodia and not a Malay Malaysian but their view was that the Cham people are Malay people. I had to agree because it is difficult to explain the differences between the Malays and Chams. Furthermore, they were fascinated with me when I spoke in Cham language because it is similar to Malay language. Maybe they liked me so much that on Hari Raya they invited me to their house and I was very happy).

The conversation revealed fascinating aspects about the nature of Cham interactions in Malaysia. Zulaiha's marriage to a Malaysian allowed her levels of social interaction and cultural access that would not be easily attained if she did not have the "religious layer". For Zulaiha, the "religious layer" allowed her to effectively engage the cultural and social boundaries in Malaysia because religion and ethnicity are intertwined i.e., Malay identity equates Muslim identity in Malaysia. The Muslim Cham is able to fit into such a conceptualization because the Chams are regarded as Malay by the Malaysians and coupled with the fact that they are Muslim, enhances the fluidity of interaction of the Cham individual within Malaysia. This aspect, together with the perception of Malaysian Malay men (19) that Cham Muslim Cambodian women have better religious values compared to Malaysian women, formed the "religious layer" of the Cham.

Cham Muslims; Education

I was drinking coffee at a roadside stall just beside a mosque in Ho Chi Minh City when I heard the loud rumbling of a motorcycle. A large motorcycle emerged from an alley and it stopped near where I was sitting. A man climbed down the vehicle and sat down at one of the chairs. He appeared to be a regular at the place as the Cham woman served him coffee instantly. They then conversed in Cham. I managed to hear and make out some of it. The Cham man was saying something about "sa drei manuk harei hi ... brei ke Imom masjid ni ..." or "a chicken today ... gave it to the Imam of the mosque ...". I then assumed from the words that he had some relationship or dealings with the Imam or religious head of the mosque. The Cham woman left and it would seem that the only people around was the two of us. I could see that he was obviously curious about me, as I do not look like a local Cham or ethnic Vietnamese. Being familiar with such reactions, I looked at him and smiled. Then I offered him a clove "Gudang Garam" cigarette. He smiled in appreciation and muttered to himself "Thuoc la Indonesia ... Surya nikmat, Gurih, enak ..." (Indonesian cigarettes ... Surya, enjoyment, heavenly, delicious) I suddenly realized that he was saying something from clove cigarette advertisements on Indonesian television. Then it dawned on me that apart from the influence of satellite television, he could have actually been in Indonesia and have been exposed to such media content. I asked in Vietnamese "Anh la nguoi Cham a?" (Are you a Cham?) I could tell that he was surprised but he did not show it. He lit up his cigarette, inhaled and said "Dung, toi la nguoi Cham, anh la nguoi nuoc nao? Sao anh noi tieng Viet duoc?" (Yes. I am a Cham. Which country are you from? How come you can speak Vietnamese?) Thus began the conversation. His name is Haron. (20) He was in his mid-twenties and had just returned from Indonesia where he had graduated from one of Indonesia's Islamic universities. He was supported financially by certain Islamic institutions in Indonesia and Malaysia and had lived in Indonesia for several years. He is currently unemployed and planned to find work in Malaysia or Indonesia if he could not find work in Vietnam. He said to me, "Saya bahagia sekali jika saya temui pekerjaan yang sesuai. Saya pulang ke Negara Vietnam kerana ia tempat kelahiran saya, malah ibu bapa saya juga tinggal di sini Tetapi suasana di sini tidak sesuai ... susah saya mendapat pekerjaan ... saya pasti akan mendapat pekerjaan di Negara orang Islam seperti Malaysia dan Indonesia ... saya ada ramai kawan di sana ... senang juga untuk mendapatkan makanan halal ... saya rindu makanan seperti mee bakso, opor ayam ... Di sana saya tidak berperasaan aneh ... seperti orang luar ... ganjil ya? Saya merasakan bahawa saya orang luar di dalam Negara saya sendiri!" (I am happy if I can find some suitable employment. I returned to Vietnam because I was born here, moreover my parents also live here. However, the situation is not very good ... it is hard for me to find jobs ... I am sure I can find jobs in Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia ... I have friends there ... it is easier to find halal food ... I missed mee bakso and fried chicken ... There I do not feel strange ... like here, I feel like an outsider ... strange isn't it? I feel like an outsider in my own country?) However the most interesting part of the conversation was his response to my question "What do you think? Muslims in Vietnam integrate well in Vietnamese society?" He looked at me contemplatively and said "the Muslim Chams, especially, the young Muslim Chams in Vietnam do not believe that living in this country would be good for their future. Day by day, more Cham people go to countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. There, wages are better, society, culture, and life in general is very suitable for the Muslim Chams. Moreover, religion is a way of life".

The conversation with Haron was useful in highlighting several aspects. Firstly, the existence of a sense of alienation felt by Muslim Chains in Vietnam and this was due to the Chain's inability to integrate fully into the society of the Vietnamese majority. More importantly, the conversation reveals the perception that Muslim Chams would be better off in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and that there was a movement of Cham Muslims to such countries. In Haron's case the "religious layer" is manifested by religious education. It allowed him to gain access to Indonesia and to participate in Indonesian society.

The example mentioned compares two different segments of the Muslim Cham community. Haron, a representative of a Muslim Cham community of Viemam, was able to engage his religious layer in order to attain higher levels of educational and economic actualization. This is enhanced by the social networks of personal relations that he had developed in Indonesia (he retained connections with his alma mater) and Malaysia. These resources gave him greater chances of getting employment in these countries. Madam Zulaiha on the other hand engaged her "religious layer" by playing on the preconceived notions that Malay Malaysian men harboured of the supposed "pious and virtuous qualities" of Muslim Cham Cambodian women. The fascination of Zulaiha's Malay Malaysian friends of her "Cham-ness" such as her ability to speak Cham language also allowed her to negotiate boundaries (cultural, social, and religious boundaries).

The "Oppressed Minority Layer"

The Chams are one of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam and the "oppressed minority layer" will attempt to understand the dynamics of the Cham being perceived as minorities and how the Cham react to such perceptions. It will be argued that the perception of the Chams themselves as minorities and the emotive dynamics resulting from such a perception led to the Cham adopting elements from other cultures especially Malay culture and tradition which they see as more powerful.

The Chams have always regarded themselves as the true inhabitants or original people of the Champa Kingdom. Today's South Vietnam was regarded as their homeland or "tanah riya" where remains of the former Champa kingdom such as the Cham towers "bimong Cham", are to be protected and preserved as ancestral legacy. For the Chams, the Cham identity is largely manifested by the ownership of several attributes such as the ability to speak the Cham language "Dalah Chain" and the practice of Cham customs. However the Cham have been exposed to many attempts to assimilate them within Vietnamese society since 1471 A.D. and such efforts are still continuing today with varying degrees of success. It must be mentioned that the Vietnamese nation state, like other nation states throughout Southeast Asia, is largely based on ethno-nationalist orientations with political hegemony being the sole premise of a majority ethnic group who are the "kinh" (ethnic Vietnamese). The Chams were relegated the status of a minority or "dan toc thieu so". A book titled "Vietnam: Hinh Anh Cong Dong 54 Dan Toc" or "Vietnam: Image of the Community of 54 Ethnic groups" (Thong Tan Xa 1996) highlights this aspect succinctly. The book reflects the overt attempt of the Vietnamese state to showcase its power, through the categorization of the country's ethnic minorities into fifty-four essential groups along specific linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic lines. The Vietnamese state asserts its hegemony through such categorizations in the attempt to portray the ethnic minorities as an integral part of the Vietnamese nation.

The book's main agenda, which was to showcase a Vietnam that is progressing and successful under Communism, was largely manifested through the compartmentalization of ethnic minorities along linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural differences. The Ba Na peoples "language belongs to the Mon Khmer group", "live in houses on stilts" "venerate spirits ..." (Thong Tan Xa 1996, p. 24) etc. The Brau, a Mon Khmer group in Kontum province "led a nomadic life for a long time", "... practice slash and burn agriculture ... and they always obtain low productivity", and "due to backward situation and habits of a nomadic life ... the Brau group are under developed" It would not be possible to reproduce the characteristics listed for all the fifty-four ethnic groups but it was obvious that the book's authors adhered to a fixed formula when describing an ethnic group. The description invariably includes the criticism of the "primitiveness" of the economic life and cultural traditions, such as animal sacrifice, of the ethnic group.

If the book had wanted to seem objective about the country's ethnic minorities, it should not have described them in a belittling way. For example, this is what is written about the Chams: "The Vietnamese Party and State pay great concern to restoring and preserving the traditional culture of the Chams. However, the life of the Cham, especially the Cham in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan, is facing many difficulties and the backwardness still exists among them" (Thong Tan Xa 1996, p. 25). The statement clearly depicts the Cham as a people on the decline and necessitated state intervention to prevent such an occurrence and only by guiding the Chams and the other minorities on the "socialist path", could their fortunes be reversed. Thus the compartmentalization of ethnic minorities along linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural differences is necessary as it allows for the highlighting of the "backwardness" of ethnic minorities. This then gives the State a legitimate excuse to impose its version of morality and progress. In so doing, the Vietnamese regime also canvass the omnipotence of the Communist ideology in the "emancipation" of the ethnic groups from their primitiveness. Though the intentions to assist ethnic minorities may constitute a real desire on the part of the State, there are contradictions between policy and practice.

This Vietnamese perception that the Chains needed to be "saved" produces a reaction against the internalization of such beliefs thus giving rise to an opposing set of beliefs that intensifies the Chains' sense of themselves. This was done through a synthesis of Chain traditions with those of the Malays. Aspects of this can be seen in the growing use of the Malay language in certain chants in ancient ceremonies of the Cham such as Rija, a ceremony to celebrate spirits of the ancient Kings of Champa. By doing so, the Chains believe they would also acquire the semangat (loosely translated as power or spirit) of the Malays. This phenomena was remarked upon by Ing-Britt Trankell in her analysis of the Chain people's activities in cults of possession, "The tremendous energy and expenditure spent nowadays on the possession cult may be seen as a way in which people direct their agency towards overcoming the guilt attached to their perceived and real complicity in historical events, as well as towards the ambition of restoring the dignity, pride and socio-political status of their community, to change it from that of estranged royal subjects to that of a proud, prosperous and sovereign ethnic group" (Trankell 2003, pp. 15-16). The Chains are trying to compensate for their "feelings of guilt" by an intensification of certain cultural activities. However one would like to argue that this points to another important perspective in understanding the Chams. The emotive dynamics of rejecting minority categorizations and resisting the assimilative tendencies of the State generate a receptiveness to elements from cultures, which the Chams perceive to be more powerful. This would explain the Chains' ability to participate successfully in the cultural and social dynamics of Malaysian society because the Chains willingly internalize certain facets of Malay culture. Thus the "oppressed minority layer" provides an impetus to seek solidarity with foreign communities that are similar and in the course of which strengthens Chain ethnic identity.


Some theories of ethnicity go some way to explain Cham ethnicity but in reality, there is a need to find other perspectives to understand better the situation faced by the Chams today. They are a dispossessed people in their native land which is today's South Vietnam but a confluence of forces in neighbouring countries have provided the Chams with opportunities to resist the erosion of their identity. This article examines this phenomenon by asking the question why and how the Chams are able to do better in these foreign lands. In the course of the analysis, the article suggests various other approaches to looking at ethnicity. In summary, these approaches involve looking at Cham ethnicity through the perspective of layers: "historical", "religious", and "oppressed minority".


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(1.) "Kinh" means ethnic Vietnamese. Vietnamese refer to themselves as "nguoi Kinh" or a "Kinh" person.

(2.) This can be seen in the role ethnic minorities play in Cham celebrations such as Kate. Jarai tribesmen would participate in the Kate ceremonies by cleaning the top of Cham temples and the presentation of Cham royal regalia which was, according to the Jarai and Chru, entrusted to them by Cham rulers for safe keeping.

(3.) I am studying these Cham manuscripts and my conclusions are still tentative. At a future date, they will be presented in greater detail. These manuscripts can be found in microform and several have been published in Malaysia, e.g., "Nang Nai Mang Makah" (The Princess that came from Kelantan), "Akayet Inra Patra", and " Akayet Dowa Mano". I am studying several Cham manuscripts which have been digitized, such as " Ariya Tuen Phaow", (a document that tells the story of a Cham hero named Tuen Phaow who tried to liberate Champa from Vietnamese control), "Ariya Gleng Anak" (a documentation of the Chams' reflections on the effects of Vietnamese occupation of their lands), and "Hatai Paran" (a manuscript that tells the story of the difficulties that the Chams faced under the Vietnamese). These Cham manuscripts are problematic because information of the authorship and date of writing is often inadequately recorded. Many of the original Cham manuscripts can be found in Cham villages in Cambodia and Vietnam but most are in very poor condition. This makes translation very difficult. Furthermore, according to Mr Abdul Karim, a Muslim Cham researcher working on the Cham manuscripts, the authors mostly did not dare to put their names to the documents for fear of arrest by the Vietnamese.

(4.) Mention of the Chams can be found in Shellabear's version of Sejarah Melayu as well as certain Hikayats such as Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hikayat Raja Jeumpa and Syair Siti Zubaidah Perang China. The Sejarah Melayu tells about the divine origins of Pau Gelang (one of the Kings of Champa), Champa's relationship with Majapahit, the destruction of Champa, and the escape of two Cham princes to Acheh and Melaka. Champa was also mentioned in the Negarakertagama as one of the polities that was acknowledged by Majapahit. In the Hikayat Hang Tuah there is a story about the attack by swordfish on Inderapura. This story was thought to be a euphemism for an attack by the Vietnamese on the Cham capital Inderapura. The Hikayat Raja Jeumpa told of a story of Raja Jeumpa who went to the kingdom called Indra to look for a bride and along the way met an old lady named Po Ni who gave him advice. The story also told of wars between the Raja of Indra and Raja Cina. This story seemed to be referring to Champa. In the story of Syair Siti Zubaidah Perang China there were several references to a Kingdom named Kembayat Negara who had altercations with Raja Cina. Kembayat Negara is Champa. In the Babad Tanah Jawa there is mention of a marriage of a princess of Champa to Prabu Brawijaya, king of Majapahit, and the conversion of Champa to Islam. In the Hikayat Bandjar, Champa was mentioned as one of the kingdoms acknowledging the rule of Majapahit. Thus Champa existed in the historical consciousness of the Malay world and was frequently mentioned in Malay language sources.

(5.) This ancient territory is now known as Phan Rang in today's Vietnam.

(6.) A history of Champa could be found in the work of G. Maspero & W.E.J. Tips, The Champa Kingdom: The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture, Bangkok, Thailand, White Lotus Press, 2002. The book offers an interesting version of Champa's history. Based largely on Chinese historical sources, Maspero reconstructed a version of Champa's history that ended with the Vietnamese invasion of Champa in 1471 A.D. However new research findings (based on Cham sources) has argued that Maspero's version of the end of Champa is inadequate because the Kingdom of Panduranga, the last kingdom of the Chains existed till the 1830s before it was destroyed by Vietnam's Emperor Minh Mang.

(7.) The Cham people in Vietnam face problems integrating into Vietnamese society. The problems include high levels of poverty, limited political representation, and the young losing touch with Cham culture and traditions.

(8.) The Chams also have great affinity with the people of Indonesia and this will be explained later on in the article. For the most part, the article will focus on the Cham experience in Malaysia.

(9.)Interviews with Mr Yusuf, Cambodia, Kompong Cham province, 2003. I would like to add that I have changed some names of the individuals who have willingly talked to me. This is because most of them prefer to be anonymous. However, the interviews that I have used in this article are transcriptions of oral recordings (whenever permitted) that I have made in the course of the conversation with them.

(10.) Cambodia was ruled by its Communist Party led by Pol Pot from 1975-1979. That regime imposed a reign of terror that killed millions of people. For an account, see Hinton, A.L. Why did they kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide. Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 206-207.

(11.) Dato' Nik Mohamed Nik Mohd Solleh is one of the officials who was responsible for the Cham refugees. Among the roles that he assumed was ascertaining the "Muslimness" of the Chains who had just arrived in Malaysia by asking them to recite a particular verse from the Koran.

(12.) Translated from Malay abstract of the article.

(13.) Interviews during fieldwork, 2006.

(14.) With this I mean that the ordinary Khmer people perceive the Chams as a "non-indigenous" people living in Cambodia whose existence had been tolerated by ethnic Khmer people for centuries. More significantly, the Khmer whom I have met seem to regard the Cham as refugees despite the fact that they have lived in Cambodia for centuries.

(15.) It is my opinion that the Khmer people I interviewed genuinely feel pity for the Chams primarily because, according to them, the Chams are a "rootless" people.

(16.) The Vietnamese and Khmers have a long history of discord and it has created an unstable relationship between them. The Khmers believe that the Vietnamese have tried for centuries to exert greater control over Khmer politics, economy, and territory. I have personally witnessed the tension created when I spoke in the Vietnamese language while changing money at a financial establishment. The staff thought I was a Vietnamese and made the exchange a very unpleasant experience.

(17.) Though I was mostly focusing my fieldwork in Vietnam and Cambodia, I made several trips to Malaysia especially Kuala Lumpur in 2006 to consult with several Cham academics because of my research into Cham manuscripts. I met the student at Museum Negara in Kuala Lumpur and he wished to be anonymous. Nevertheless he has kindly permitted me to use his words for this article.

(18.) Interviews during fieldwork, Phnom Penh, 2006.

(19.) I have met several Malaysian men during my fieldwork in Cambodia 2006. They were in Cambodia to visit the families of their Cambodian Cham wives. However they did not allow me to reproduce any of the conversations in any written work of mine. I suspect that most of them married "on the sly" and would prefer to be anonymous.

(20.) Interviews during fieldwork, Ho Chi Minh City, 2006.

Mohamed Effendy Bin Abdul Hamid is a postgraduate student of the Southeast Asian Studies Programme, at the National University of Singapore.
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Author:Abdul Hamid, Mohamed Effendy Bin
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Geographic Code:9VIET
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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