Originating from the kingdom of Champa, which formerly extended from Hue to Phan Thiet on the coast of present-day Vietnam, the Cham are the largest minority ethnic group in Cambodia, numbering in the region of 250,000 (estimates vary) and accounting for about a third of the country’s non-Khmer population. They also represent Cambodia’s largest minority religion, being Sunni Muslims who converted from Hinduism some time after the fourteenth century.
Historically, the Cham were frequently at war both with the Khmer, who bordered their kingdom to the west and south, and the Vietnamese, who occupied the territory to the north. In 1177, the Cham successfully raided Angkor, only to be defeated by the intervention of Jayavarman VII in a ferocious battle on the Tonle Sap – an event depicted in the bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the gradual whittling away of its territory by the Vietnamese meant that Champa had effectively ceased to exist, and many Cham fled to Cambodia. The traditional Cham – who retain many of the old beliefs and rituals, but acknowledge non-Islamic gods – make up about two-thirds of Cambodia’s Cham population. They settled around the Tonle Sap, along the central rivers, and in what is now Kompong Cham province. The orthodox Cham, who are more similar to Muslims in other Islamic countries, settled around Oudong, Kampot and Takeo. Establishing their own villages, they took up fishing, breeding water buffalo, silver-working and weaving, activities that the vast majority still practise today. Their villages can easily be identified by the presence of a mosque and Islamic school, and by the absence of pigs.
The Cham have generally coexisted peacefully alongside the Khmer throughout their history, despite speaking their own language (Cham) and maintaining separate traditions. Only under the Khmer Rouge did they suffer significant persecution: easily picked out thanks to their Islamic dress and distinctive features (they seldom marry outsiders), many Cham were either massacred or persecuted – often by being forced to eat pork – and their mosques destroyed.