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The International Federation of Champa

By Antonio Graceffo

Mosque in Kompong Cham

An international organization, based in Cambodia, hopes to preserve the language and culture of Cambodia's ethnic Muslim minority.


The Kingdom of Champa, originating in the second century AD was one of the most powerful empires in Indochina, covering much of what is today, Vietnam, and parts of Cambodia. At the peak of its power, Champa toppled the Khmer capital, but was later defeated by King Jayavarman VII, in 1181. Although originally Hindu, the Cham converted to Islam, making them one of the only Islamic Kingdoms in the region. The kingdom eventually broke up, and the survivors were scattered throughout Asia. Today, Cham can be found in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States and Australia.

"It is a long time that the Cham have lost their culture." Laments Mat Mot, a principle officer of the The International Federation of Champa. "Nearly everything disappeared 480 years ago. The language, education, and most of the religion were lost."

Mat Mot, a Phnom Penh based Cham, has been working to organize the Cham in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the USA to form a single organization, dedicated to the revival of their cultural legacy. "Eighty percent of Cham in Phnom Penh don't speak our language." Complains Mat Mot. He goes on to say that in Phnom Penh there is not a single school dedicated to teaching the Cham language. The Cham are a unique racial group, of Indic/Malayic stock. The Cham language is of Malay origin. Centuries ago, the Cham had their own writing system, a Pali based alphabet, similar to modern Khmer, Thai, Burmese, and Shan.

The destruction and scattering of the kingdom was just the first major blow in a long series of struggles which would threaten the continued existence of the Cham culture. The first encroachments on the language came after the conversion to Islam, as devout Cham worshipers had to adopt Arabic script, in order to read the Koran. Later, religious teachers from Malaysia introduced their own alphabet and language as a mode of instruction. The separation of Kampuchea Krom combined with the bad political blood between Vietnam and Cambodia, created barriers, separating Cambodian Cham from their brethren. The Khmer Rouge years were particularly hard on the Cham community, as Cham were often singled out and killed, and many mosques were burned. After the war, Cham refugees of the Pol Pot regime were resettled in the USA and Australia, thousands of miles away from their community.

According to Mat Mot, 80% of the Cham population lives in poverty. A large percentage of those living on the river boats have never attended school. Lack of education and nutrition are further obstacles which may stand in the way reviving the Cham culture.

More of the Cham identity was lost in 1985, when the Cambodian government decided the politically correct name for Cham people would be Khmer Islam.

"Cham is a race. Our religion is Islam, but we are not Arabs and we are not the same as the Khmer. We have our own culture which we are losing." aid Mat Mot, in reaction to the new name for his people.

Today, it is estimated that there are between 500 thousand and one million Cham in Cambodia. They are centered in: Kompong Chhnang, Battambamg, and in Phnom Penh. They are divided into two distinct groups, Cham Chweia and Cham Champa. The Cham Champa are the city dwellers, who are in the greatest danger of losing their language and culture. They have regular access to Khmer schools and Khmer society and consequently find themselves becoming "Khmerized."

The Cham Chweia typically live on house boats, making a living from fishing the Tonle Sap and the Mekong. They speak the Cham language fluently and have less opportunity to integrate into larger Khmer society. Although most are illiterate, and cannot read the Koran, they follow a more traditional form of Islam, in which they pray five times a day. According to Mat Mot, most of the Cham Champa only pray on Fridays.

The culture of the Cham Champa seems to differ dramatically from village to village. "Some write Arabic, some write Malay, some write ancient Cham script." Said Mat Mot, with a gesture of resignation.

Mat Mot hopes that through his organization, the Cham in the various regions of the world can communicate with each other and work to standardize their religion and language.

"We held a three country conference in 2006 (USA, Cambodia, and Vietnam). We are planning the next conference."

One of the most concrete steps taken toward the goal of preserving Cham culture was the formation of the Cham Ethno Cultural Center, located in Kampong Chhnang Province. The center was funded by UNESCO, through the work of Dr. Thanh Dai.

"UNESCO gave us the money. Now we have a school to teach Cham language and culture to Cham as well as non-Cham people."

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