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A homeland for the Chams

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by David Lempert
Find creative ways to connect young Chams with their history

Following the first genocide trials at Nuremberg in the 1940s, the calls for punishment were linked to plans to re-create the homeland for one of the stateless victimised groups in Europe. Today museums continue to be built to promote the cultures of genocide victims at the sites of the destruction and in the diaspora. With so much talk in Cambodia about genocide - the destruction of a race or culture - one might expect some discussion about the victims and their cultures beyond the simple fix of feeding bellies and the projected spending of US$60 million on punishment of a small group of accused. But when it comes to helping restore the culture of the most clearly identifiable of victimised cultures in the country, the Cham, the only international body offering support seems to be the Muslim world, even though their assistance may be contributing to taking the Cham even further away from their history and the civilisation they built in Southeast Asia.

In Phnom Penh you can visit the National Museum, where the French and now the Cambodians warehouse some of the best pieces of the country's art that still remain public. You can also visit sites of mass murder and torture and hear about the horrors of destruction of the country's cultural groups. But you won't exactly be sure from the Genocide Museum which groups were the victims and what they were like before the genocide, or what they need to have their cultures restored. In fact, you might not hear anything about the Cham, or about two other ethnic groups that may have become extinct in Cambodia during the civil war era, according to Ben Kiernan (the Kola in Battambang and the Sa'sek in Kampong Speu) and it doesn't seem like anyone is really researching the specific impact on ethnic groups or how best to restore and promote their survival.

History of the culture

If you are looking for images of the country's ethnic groups in Cambodian history, the place to actually find them is on the friezes of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, and those of Banteay Chhmar. But these depictions are largely of imperial supremacy of the Khmer, with groups like the Cham being defeated by the Khmer. When it comes to the Cham, these protected ancient friezes reinforce the victimisation of the Cham rather than offer a solution to protect them.

Why do the Cham deserve better? Though the Cham are now a stateless people in Asia, mostly converted to Islam - following the religion of the one group that offered them any resources and dignity as they were forced to flee the Vietnamese for their lives over the past centuries - their civilisation may once have been the most important and extensive in Southeast Asia and was at least as important as that of the Vietnamese (Kinh) and the Khmer.

It was the Cham who taught the Vietnamese improved rice-farming and silk-production techniques. It was the Cham who may have taught the Khmer gold work, given the Cham-influenced words in Khmer related to gold work. It was the Cham who designed many of the boats of the region and who developed the most significant ports.  Though still not clear in Khmer history, archaeologists speculate that it may have been the Cham who jointly gave birth to the Oc Eo - Phu Nan civilisation, who may have supported and even partly founded the Angkorian Empire of Jayavarman II in the ninth century, and who may have played a significant role in the ruling classes of Angkor. Yet, while the Vietnamese are thriving and the Khmer have a state, it is the Cham who are losing their history and their numbers.

Back in the 15th century when Angkor (and Khmer culture) came under attack, the destruction of Cham culture and of Cham populations and the taking of their ancestral lands had already been under way for centuries. Nevertheless, even then, there are estimates that the Cham population may have numbered about five million, and have roughly equaled the populations of the Kinh Vietnamese and the Khmer. The territorial size of the three empires was also roughly the same. One need only start some 200km from Hanoi and head practically the length of the country, to close to Saigon, to find the extent of citadels, brick towers, waterworks and artwork of the Cham; much of it unrecognised and endangered in Vietnam without the Cham on the land to protect it and with little support from the international community.

Today, there are about 70 million Kinh Vietnamese, about 12 million Khmer, and only roughly 300,000 Cham, with the Kinh having taken all of the Cham territory and a large portion of the territory of the Khmer. At least half of the world's Cham now live in Cambodia, where they fled the earlier genocides from the Vietnamese and sought to create a republic with the help of Malayan Muslims; ultimately concentrating in Kampong Cham and along the country's rivers. Estimates of the suffering of the Cham under the Khmer Rouge differ, with Ben Kiernan suggesting that up to 100,000 of 300,000 in Cambodia were killed. Michael Vickery estimates less. Whatever the numbers, the Cham remain without a homeland and vulnerable.

The situation today

The irony of the Cham's situation today is that the uncoordinated efforts from the international community to protect or recognise the Cham seem to disconnect young Cham from their histories and prevent them from having the choice of shaping their destinies and owning their past.

The international community says it is protecting the Cham by turning their religious site of My Son, in Vietnam, into a Unesco World Heritage Site, and by supporting the Cham art museum in Da Nang, built originally by the French, as well as through preservations/excavations of a few of the pretty Cham tower sites and excavations of some earlier pre-Cham (Sa Huynh) cultural sites. But what they restore is selective and they choose what is of interest to foreigners, to the economics of tourism, and to the Vietnamese government.  There are some 25 citadels and regional capitals of the Cham and their precursors in Vietnam, dating back 2,500 years, but Unesco isn't aware of half of them and Vietnam does not compile its own list.

Connect Chams with their history

The Muslims say they are protecting the Cham by offering them scholarships to the Arab world and by rebuilding mosques. They say that the decision of dressing like Muslims and studying Middle Eastern texts is the preference of most Cham and consistent with their more recent history.

The international development community and the Khmer say they are protecting the Cham by kneading them into the economic fabric of urbanising Cambodia (and many Cham communities today hug the banks of towns and cities) even though they offer them no political autonomy or special representation.

What is lost in this picture is the connection of young Cham with their heritage. Cham in Cambodia don't study the history of Champa (the Cham in Vietnam) and of the Sa Huynh. They don't seem to study the architecture or the art or the ancient crafts and pride of the Cham in Muslim or public schools or their homes. They don't visit their ancestral temples in Vietnam.

They are not involved in international preservation efforts for their history. They know their Muslim family names but not their ancestral lineages. Even here in Cambodia, most cannot recount the history of their Cham king who ruled the country in the 17th century and where he is buried.

It may not be feasible or possible to "buy" a homeland for the Cham on their ancestral lands or to establish an autonomous region for the Cham in an area between Cambodia and Vietnam, such as Kampong Cham, but the idea at least deserves to be on the table.

So does the idea of a special investment in school books and an open corridor of internationally funded exchanges for young Cham to go visit their ancestral temples and to have exchanges with Cham in Vietnam.

Last year I designed a proposal for a Vietnamese-Cham reconciliation site - a joint heritage and culture museum, to be run with the Cham. I'm happy to share that proposal with others and to offer it as a basis for a similar site in Cambodia.

There are four different sites in Cambodia where such a Khmer-Cham reconciliation site and heritage and culture museum would make sense because of the shared history and shared Hindu-Buddhist cultural past: Banteay Preah Nokor and sites around the Kulen mountains (in both sites there are ninth century towers that suggest Cham influence), and Sambour Prei Kuk as the earlier site, that may have Cham influence. The fourth one is the area around Udong, the old Khmer capital.

Of the sites, I would suggest Sambour Prei Kuk first and Banteay Preah Nokor second. Sambour Prei Kuk, the pre-Angkorian capital in Kampong Thom province, deserves to be a World Heritage site. Banteay Preah Nokor, in Kampong Cham province, is closer to Cham communities and to the Vietnamese border, though less likely to attract visitors, which is the real purpose of a museum. The site has one of the best preserved dirt citadel wall enclosures in Southeast Asia, as well as large moats and artificial lake systems that are key in the development of the Khmer baray system. Hun Sen has already announced it as a site for protection and perhaps some kind of reconstructions. Those reconstructions could include Cham and Khmer architecture, with exhibitions.

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David Lempert, Ph.D.,  is an  anthropologist whose

research on the Cham is supported by the Luce Foundation

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