Misusing archaeological history for nationalist ends
By Bjorn Atle Blengsli, Alison Carter
and Alberto Perez-Pereiro
Photo by: BRENDAN BRADY
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.