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The Cham people ( , Cham: ) are an ethnic group in Southeast Asia. They are concentrated between the Kampong Cham Provincemarker in Cambodiamarker and central Vietnam'smarker Phan Rang-Thap Chammarker, Phan Thietmarker, Ho Chi Minh Citymarker and An Giangmarker areas. Approximately 4,000 Chams also live in Thailandmarker; many of whom have moved south to the Pattanimarker, Narathiwatmarker, Yalamarker, and Songkhlamarker Provinces for work. Cham form the core of the Muslim communities in both Cambodiamarker and Vietnammarker.

Cham are remnants of the Kingdom of Champa (7th to 15th centuries). They are closely related to other Austronesian peoples and speak Cham, a Malayo-Polynesian language of the Austronesian language family (Aceh-Chamic subgroup).


Historical extent of the Kingdom of Champa (in green) around 1100 CE
The ancestors of the Cham probably migrated from the island of Borneomarker. Records of the Champa kingdom go as far back as 2nd century AD China. At its height in the 9th century, the kingdom controlled the lands between Hue, in central Annam, to the Mekong Delta in Cochinchina. Its prosperity came from maritime trade in sandalwood and slaves and probably included piracy.

In the 12th century AD, the Cham fought a series of wars with the Angkorian Khmer to the west. In 1177, the Cham and their allies launched an attack from the lake Tonle Sap and managed to sack the Khmer capital. In 1181, however, they were defeated by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII.

Between the rise of the Khmer Empire around 800 and Vietnam's territorial push to the south, the Champa kingdom began to diminish. In 1471 it suffered a massive defeat by the Vietnamese, in which 120,000 people were either captured or killed, and the kingdom was reduced to a small enclave near Nha Trangmarker. Between 1607 and 1676 the Champa king converted to Islam, and during this period Islam became a dominant feature of Cham society.

Further expansion by the Vietnamese in 1720 resulted in the annexation of the Champa kingdom and its persecution by the Vietnamese king, Minh Mang. As a consequence, the last Champa Muslim king, Pô Chien, decided to gather his people (those on the mainland) and migrate south to Cambodiamarker, while those along the coastline migrated to Trengganumarker (Malaysiamarker). A tiny group fled northward to the Chinese island of Hainanmarker where they are known today as the Utsuls. The area of Cambodia where the king and the mainlanders settled is still known as Kompong Chammarker, where they scattered in communities across the Mekong River. Not all the Champa Muslims migrated with the king. A few groups stayed behind in the Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Phan Rí, and Phan Thiếtmarker provinces of central Vietnam.

In the 1960s there were various movements of uprising to free the Cham people and create their own state. The movements were the Liberation Front of Champa (FLC - Le Front pour la Libération de Cham) and the Front de Libération des Hauts plateaux. The latter sought cooperation with other hilltribes. The initial name of the movement was called "Front des Petits Peuples" from 1946 to 1960. In 1960 the name was changed to "Front de Libération des Hauts plateaux" and joined, with the FLC, the "Front unifié pour la Libération des Races opprimées" (FULRO) at some point in the 1960s. Today there is no serious secessionist movement or political activity.


The Cham experienced genocide under the Khmer rouge. During the massacres by the government, a disproportionate number of Chams were killed compared with ethnic Khmers. Ysa Osman, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia concludes,"Perhaps as many as 500,000 died. They were considered, along with the Vietnamesemarker, the Khmer Rouge's No. 1 enemy. The plan was to exterminate them all" because "they stood out. They worshiped their own god. Their diet was different. Their names and language were different. They lived by different rules. The Khmer Rouge wanted everyone to be equal, and when the Chams practiced Islam they did not appear to be equal. So they were punished."


Cham dance performance at one of their temples in south Vietnam
The Vietnamese Chams live mainly in coastal and Mekong Delta provinces. They have two distinct religious communities, Muslim or Cham Bani constitute about 80%–85% of the Cham, and Hindu or Balamon (deriving from the word "Brāhman" and used both in Cham and in Vietnamese), who constitute about 15%–20% of the Cham. While they share a common language and history, there is no intermarriage between the groups. A small number of the Cham also follow Mahayana Buddhism. Many emigrated to France in the late 1960s after the civil war broke out in Saigon city.

In Cambodia, the Chams are 90% Muslim, as are the Utsuls of Hainanmarker. The isolation of Cham Muslims in central Vietnam resulted in an increased syncretism with Buddhism until recent restoration of contacts with other global Muslim communities in Vietnamese cities, but Islam is now seeing a renaissance, with new mosques being built. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Chams of that country suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.

Malaysia has some Cham immigrants and the link between the Chams and the Malaysian state of Kelantanmarker is an old one. The Malaysian constitution recognizes the Cham rights to Malaysian citizenship and their Bumiputra status, and the Cham communities in Malaysia and along the Mekong River in Vietnam continue to have strong interactions.


The temples at Mỹ Sơn are one of the holiest of Cham sites
The first religion of the Champa was a form of Shaivite Hinduism, brought by sea from India. As Arab merchants stopped along the Vietnam coast en route to China, Islam began to influence the civilization.

The exact date that Islam came to Champa is unknown, but grave markers dating to the 11th century have been found. It is generally assumed that Islam came to Indochina much after its arrival in Chinamarker during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), and that Arab traders in the region came into direct contact only with the Chams, and not others. This might explain why only the Chams have been traditionally identified with Islam in Indochina. Although the Chams follow a localised adaptation of Islamic theology, they consider themselves Muslims. However, they pray only on Fridays and celebrate Ramadan for only three days. Circumcision is performed not physically, but symbolically, whith a religious leader making the gestures of circumcision with a wooden toy knife.

Most of the Cham Hindus belong to the Nagavamshi Kshatriya caste , but a considerable minority are Brahmins.

Notable Chams

  • Chế Bồng Nga, the last strong king of Champa
  • Che Linh, singer
  • Ahmad Tony, Extreme Scooter Rider
  • Seany Chamy, Singaporean Youth actor

See also


  1. Anne-Valérie Schweyer Le Viêtnam ancien (Les Belles Lettres, 2005) p.6
  2. weakness in numbers
  3. The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam, 8th Edition 1991, 2005, pp. 47-48.


  • Taylor, Philip (2007) Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery, Singapore: University of Singapore Press.
  • Dổ Hải Minh (1965) "Dân Tộc Chàm Lược sử" Saigon.
  • Hourani, George F. (1979) "Arab Seafaring" Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  • Tarling, Nicholas (1992) "The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia" vol.1 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Salim, Maryam. (2005) "The Laws of Kedah, 220 Hijrah" A text translation from jawi script to rumi script Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Malaysia.

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