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Identity beyond origin: The Cham

Identity beyond origin: The Cham

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Misusing archaeological history for nationalist ends


By Bjorn Atle Blengsli, Alison Carter

     and  Alberto Perez-Pereiro


Imam San Muslims at Udong on Sunday.

The recent article by David Lempert

that appeared on October 10 raises many issues concerning the Cham

people and their history.  However, it strikes us that many of his

assertions about how the Cham should reconnect to their history are

based on a very shaky understanding of Cham history and contemporary


Firstly, the Cham are discussed as if they were a uniform group,

possessed of a single history.  Even when Champa existed, it consisted

of different city-states with a sphere of influence that included a

coastal area as well as upland peoples related to today's Jarai and

Rhade.  Today the Cham continue to be a diverse group.  And while there

is a tendency to adopt intellectual currents originating in the wider

Muslim world, there are still Cham that maintain a sense of connection

to Champa.  The recent festival this week honoring Imam San, who

established the Muslim community in Udong, and the wealth of folk

histories throughout the country that name Champa as a homeland,

demonstrate that the Cham are not suffering from historical amnesia.  

Instead, what we encounter today is the realignment of history, culture

and religion in ways that may be more appropriate to current needs. 

The adoption of foreign forms of Islam cannot be regarded as simply an

erasure of Cham history; rather it needs to be seen as an integration

into a worldwide community of Islamic faithful, the umma, which

provides them with a certain cultural coherence and legitimacy in a

country where they are still often regarded as outsiders.

The history of a people is always a product of their present

circumstances.  We pick and choose events and figures of the past which

resonate with our own conceptions of self in the present and transform

this into our "history".  How many Americans who celebrate the 4th of

July actually had ancestors on the continent when the revolutionary war

took place?  Very few, but immigrants to the country eventually adopted

this and other holidays as a way of being part of American society.  In

effect, choosing a different past was fundamental to belonging in the


For many Cham, the architectural ruins of yesteryear are not relevant

to their sense of identity today.  As anthropologists, we are prone to

lament declining interest in what we ourselves find fascinating, but

ultimately it is for people themselves to decide how they should forge

their identities.  If the Cham decide that Champa is not worth

remembering, we may feel a sense of loss, but the world will get over

it - when was the last time anyone shed a tear because there are no

good Sumerian restaurants anymore, or that not enough people still

celebrate their birthdays according to the Mayan calendar?

Secondly, there is the question of the archaeological record.  Lempert

proposes Cambodia as a place for a Cham homeland by drawing on

archaeological evidence, but with his tenuous examples Lempert appears

to instead be co-opting Khmer history so that it may be given to the

Cham. It goes without saying that no Southeast Asian community existed

in a vacuum; there was always interaction between different

civilisations.  However, Lempert's broad statements, such as that the

Cham "taught" Khmers goldworking based purely on similarities in

vocabulary, is deeply problematic.

For archaeologists who study pre-Angkorian Cambodia and Funan, there is

no strong evidence that the Cham "jointly gave birth to the Oc Eo - Phu

Nan [sic] civilisation" as Lempert states.   The first self-identifying

reference to Champa civilization does not appear until the late sixth

century AD on an inscription in My Son, Vietnam. Lempert proposes

archaeological sites, such as Sambor Prei Kuk, as the centre for a

Khmer-Cham reconciliation site - ideal because it "may have had Cham

influence".  While there was most likely interaction between the two

regions, there is insufficient evidence to declare Sambor Prei Kuk a

joint Khmer-Cham site.  What is certain is that the Cham have a strong

archaeological history, whose study is underdeveloped.  Rather than

proposing to adopt Khmer history, Lempert should call for more research

on Champa civilisation while training a new generation of Cham


Thirdly, Lempert ignores what reaction the Khmer public would likely

have if his suggestions were to be implemented.  Even talking of a Cham

homeland would strengthen fears that the Cham are not loyal citizens.

Attributing joint Khmer-Cham authorship to the architectural legacy

upon which much of Cambodia's sense of nationhood is constructed would

also be poorly received.  We need only recall the firestorm of

criticism unleashed when last year it was suggested that king

Jayavarman VII might have been half-Cham to predict what the probable

reaction will be.  Khmers already feel embattled enough holding off the

Thais at the border. They are unlikely to appreciate yet another rival

making claims to their cultural patrimony.

We recognise that Lempert truly has the interests of Cham people at

heart and so appreciate his opening of a discussion on these issues. 

Nonetheless, we worry that his assumptions concerning Cham identity

rest on foundations that are not altogether sound and that the

implementation of any cultural program that accepts them as the primary

point of departure from which to move policy forward will ultimately

lead to serious consequences for Khmer-Cham relations, where the Cham

community that Lempert seeks to champion will be the likely loser.

Anthropologist Bjorn Atle Blengsli has studied Chams in

Cambodia for seven years, conducting field work for

embassies and research institutes, including the

National Bureau of Asian Research.

Alberto Perez-Pereiro is an anthropology PhD candidate

at Arizona State University, studying historical memory

and identity among the Cham of Cambodia.

Alison Carter is an archaeology PhD candidate at

the University of Wisconsin, studying pre-Angkorian

trade networks in the lower Mekong.


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