Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Chăm

In 2010, diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill wrote the following in-depth historical and photographic essay about the persecutions of the Cambodian Chăm under the Khmer Rouge rule of Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979. The first essay of its kind, this essay quickly became one of the most-visited pages on diaCRITICS, as it begins to fill an informational vacuum about the Chăm presence in Southeast Asia.

Young girl walks by the community center in Svay Khleang, Cambodia

The Chăm are descendants of Champa, a longstanding kingdom that that once occupied most of today’s central Việt Nam—roughly from Quảng Bình to Đồng Nai provinces. Beginning in the late fifteenth century, the Chăm fled Vietnamese incursions into northern Champa, finding refuge in southern Champa and in the successive Buddhist kingdoms that emerged after the fall of Angkor. Some Chăm territory in Việt Nam remained intact, in gradually eroding parcels, until 1832. The Chăm in Cambodia lived in relative peace until the 1970s, when they were targeted by the Khmer Rouge. For five hundred years now, in both Việt Nam and Cambodia, only some Chăm have survived the most perilous conditions. However, international attention has never settled upon any Chăm community until now, in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, more casually known as the Khmer Rouge tribunal. In Phnom Penh, the tribunal currently considers whether the well- documented persecutions of the Chăm in Cambodia do indeed provide sufficient evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s intent to destroy them, in whole or in part.

To many observers and survivors, there is no doubt that this ethnic and religious minority was targeted with more exacting brutality, with kill rates at double or triple the average population. Some historians claim that the Chăm had a higher rate of loss than any other ethnic group. Khmer Rouge documents from that era demand that this distinct group be “broken up” because “their lives are not so difficult.” However, the Khmer Rouge disguised their own genocidal intent in their only official statement on the Chăm, when they announced, “The Cham race was exterminated by the Vietnamese.” The Khmer Rouge claim that no Chăm had survived the conquest of Champa was certainly convenient, as noted by historian and genocide scholar Ben Kiernan. Because in the Khmer Rouge’s plan for the Chăm, “they were to ‘disappear’ as a people,” Kiernan remarked in The Pol Pot Regime. Hence the regime set out to completethe disappearance of their Chăm “enemies”—through deportation and extermination, and by forbidding their Islamic worship, their use of Chăm language, and their retention of all distinctive cultural practices.

Women prepare food for Friday prayers in O Russei village in Kampong Chhnang

Although all Cambodians suffered terribly during the Khmer Rouge, the killing of one’s own ethnic and religious group cannot be prosecuted under genocide law, which was drafted in the wake of the Jewish Holocaust during World War Two. So for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the Chăm case may provide the most legible evidence of genocide, alongside the persecutions suffered by a smaller minority of ethnic Vietnamese. Four former high-ranking Khmer Rouge cadre have now been individually and collectively indicted for crimes of war, for crimes against humanity, and for genocide against the Chăm and the Vietnamese in Cambodia—and these former cadre are currently on trial in Phnom Penh. Genocide was the most recent addition to the expected charges, representing the long-held notion but unproven conviction that the Khmer Rouge committed the crime of crimes. However, we can’t dismiss that genocide also occurred during egregious war crimes against everyone—extermination, murder, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, disappearance, and other breaches of the Geneva Conventions. We cannot underestimate the brutality of the regime led by Saloth Sar, more commonly known as Pol Pot.

Chăm testimonies have long attested to their specific discrimination suffered under Pol Pot, as early as the Renakse Petitions to the United Nations. From 1980 to 1983, Chăm claimants added their signatures and thumbprints to what became a 1,250-document petition submitted by 1,166,307 survivors of the Khmer Rouge. Collectively the signatories petitioned to oust the Khmer Rouge from their seat at the UN General Assembly, while requesting that the UN try Pol Pot and other cadre for their fresh crimes. In Koh Kong province in 1983, the survivors recalled these incidents of brutality—

starvation; blindfolding and beating to death; tying legs with rope and dragging; tying up both hands and legs and confining to a crucifix; tying people together and ordering them to walk in lines and shooting them to death from behind and then throwing them into the sea; throwing young children into the sea to drown; hitting young children against trees; and raping women before taking them to be killed.

Despite such horrifying evidence of the widespread inhumanity of the Khmer Rouge regime, these signing survivors were unsuccessful in their request. For various political reasons, the petition failed to move the UN or to remove the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly. And it would be nearly another thirtyyears before the very crimes detailed in those early petitions would surface as evidence in court, as they are now. As the Documentation Center of Cambodia attests, “All of these documents offer profound evidence of the crimes committed, including that of genocide, during Democratic Kampuchea.”

Some much-needed rain during a drought, in O Russei village in Kampong Chhnang

The 1980 to 1983 Renakse petitions and documents represent the first time that Chăm testimonies of genocidal acts—specifically targeting their ethnic and religious minority—surfaced in a political-legal protest against the Khmer Rouge. According to attorney William J. Schulte, the Cham signatories in Siem Riep “described how the Muslims were forced to eat pork and would be killed if they refused, how their mosques were converted into either animal pens or waste storage facilities, and how Khmer Rouge cadres used pages of the Koran for toilet paper and cigarette paper.” Similarly, Kiernan’s collected interviews from the early 1980s and his analysis of Chăm ethnic cleansing detail the “racist repression and forced dispersal of the Chams.” Kiernan evaluates, “In legal terms, this constituted destruction of an ethnic group ‘as such’—genocide.” Since Kiernan also founded the Yale Genocide Project, I’ve wondered if his early Chăm research supplemented Yale’s archive, which was eventually absorbed into the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Today, this center provides much evidence to the tribunal. In 2007, this center also assisted 200 Chăm religious leaders—tuan, mei tuan, and hakem from 369 mosques across Cambodia—file complaints to the tribunal’s office of co-prosecutors. Numerous other Cham survivors have also filed paperwork through the center’s victim participation unit. Reading some of this evidence, amassed over thirty years, I suspected that a genocide charge would benefit from the range and depth of testimonies provided by the Chăm.

Before that very charge was announced in late 2009, I had long anticipated the indictment and possible verdict of Khmer Rouge genocide against the Chăm. Then in the wake of the indictment, in spring 2010, I was invited by the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang, to travel to Cambodia to learn more about the forthcoming genocide charge and the Chăm response. It was actually a joint invitation for me and my close friend Asiroh Cham, another Chăm-American living in California. In June and July, we met with the director, staff, and interns at the Documentation Center of Cambodia—and they offered incredible insight into Chăm history and memory in Cambodia, into genocide awareness educational campaigns, and into the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge. We also interviewed Andrew Cayley, international co-prosecutor for the tribunal, to discuss the legal contours of the second case and the evidence of Chăm genocide. And we visited two Chăm villages whose members have filed testimonies for the tribunal, to learn about Chăm historical memory and perceptions of justice. On the eve of the announcement of Duch’s verdict, our conversations anticipated the second and most important trial, widely considered the genocide case. And although all Cambodian Chăm are Muslim, these two communities also represent differing ways that the Cambodian Chăm practice Islam—the unorthodox Chăm Jahed and the more orthodox Sunni. No matter the nuances of their worship, however, all Chăm were persecuted by the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders intended to wipe out “the Islamic race” in Democratic Kampuchea.

Ceremony evicting unwanted spirits from a house, Chăm Jahed community in O Russei
Chăm Jahed copy of original kitab (holy book) brought from Champa, dated 1385
Chăm Jahed Imam Ly, the worship leader of the mosque, in O Russei

Asiroh and I first met with the Imam San, or Chăm Jahed, in O Russei village in Kampong Chhnang province. By maintaining the ancient language, script, and culture, the Chăm Jahed are widely considered the bearers of Champa customs and traditions. Sometimes referred to as “pure Chăm,” this minority of 38,000 still follows older Hinduised Islamic rites, preserved from their 1697 exodus from Champa, after the Vietnamese kingdom of Dang Trong took over the last Chăm port. Much of the Chăm royalty joined the five thousand refugees who fled to Cambodia. Today, their descendants’ unorthodox form of Islam still features syncretic influences of Hindu cosmology and Sufi tradition, to some extent resembling the Chăm Bani in central Việt Nam. The Cham Jahed also honor the spirits of their royal ancestors in Champa, and celebrate old Champa ceremonies alongside modern ones. They chant ancient Chăm poetry, they recite Chăm language during their once-weekly prayers, and they use original Chăm script for their religious literature. From the Cambodian royal family and the government, they receive non-monetary support to preserve Chăm history, yet still suffer from deep poverty and a sense of isolation, to some extent. The Chăm Jahed fear the loss of their unique culture, due to various domestic and international pressures.

As proud descendants of Champa, the Chăm Jahed in O Russei even hold a Chăm holy book of literature from the 14th century, a kitab hand-copied through subsequent generations. Written in 1385, it describes an old Chăm myth about a centaur. This precious volume even survived underground burial during the village’s destruction by the Khmer Rouge. Chăm holy books—not to mention villages—were pursued and destroyed during those years. Somehow the man who had buried the kitab for safekeeping also survived the Khmer Rouge, exhuming the precious document after returning to his razed village. He died in 1989, as an old man, and the kitab got passed onward to a new custodian. We held it with awe. I’ve never heard of any Chăm document dating this far back, if even in replica. According to Hindu Chăm religious leaders in Việt Nam, many of those early manuscripts were destroyed by enemy armies during incursions into Champa’s capitals. Yet apparently, some of these sacred texts migrated to Cambodia in the late 1600s, with the royal refugees from Champa. Quite miraculously, at least one of those early texts somehow survived the Khmer Rouge’s relentless campaign to wipe out all traces of the Chăm.

As I expressed my amazement to the imam and other holy men who’d brought out the book, we discussed through translation how the Chăm Jahed had most likely migrated from old Panduranga, the southernmost Chăm principality which maintained some degree of sovereignty until 1832. I then shared my 1999 photographs and 2006 video footage of my Chăm family in that same region, now called Phan Rang. “I never thought I would be able to understand Chăm people there,” explained Husen, the school teacher, after listening to my family speak conversationally. “Now if I go to Việt Nam, I can find people to talk with, and I won’t feel lonely.” We smiled at one another. His observation was so full of joyful hope, I didn’t dare tell him how few of us remain in Việt Nam, and that the difficulty might not be in speaking with but in finding the Chăm. Instead I told him how excited I was to share these documents of my family village with him, amidst our conversations about the Khmer Rouge. I silently reflected upon the powers of representation and border-crossing, because even within contiguous diasporas, there may be centuries of scarce awareness or nonexistent contact.

The oldest man in Svay Khleang lost children to the Khmer Rouge
In Svay Khleang, survivors recall the Khmer Rouge search and kill program
Minaret built in the 19th century, in Svay Khleang, on the Mekong River

Next Asiroh and I met with the Cham in Svay Khleang, in Krauch Chhmar district, who are among 500,000 Cham adherents to a more orthodox form of Shafi‘i Sunni Islam. Influenced by Arabic and Malaysian practices, most Cham in Cambodia follow this ‘modern’ version of Islam, praying five times a day, with Arabic script for their sacred literature. Today the oldest seun (minaret) extant in Cambodia, built in the late 19th century, still stands on the shore of the Mekong River in Svay Khleang. In its shadow, during the escalation of arrests of the Cham in 1973, the Khmer Rouge had forbidden communal prayer and closed the mosques of this very pious population. Against tradition, the Khmer Rouge had forced Cham women to uncover and cut their hair. They also collected and burned copies of the Qur’an, and made the Cham raise pigs and eat pork. In some villages, to protest, religious elders beat their drums at night. Yet in 1975 after the mass arrest of worshippers during the end of Ramadan—when they’d all sought and received permission to pray—the Cham in Svay Khleang rebelled against these rising religious repressions. However one elderly woman reflected, in 2006, that the villagers would have been exterminated simply for being Cham, regardless the rebellion—it was only a matter of time.

However, to retaliate against this insurrection, the Khmer Rouge systematically killed nearly eighty percent of the villagers in Svay Khleang, and massacred the neighboring Cham village of Koh Phal, who’d resisted eating pork. We learned more about this history from Sos Pinyamin, a key member of the Svay Khleang rebellion in 1975. Today he is the hakem of the village, responsible for education and proper religious observances in the community. He revealed deep wisdom and critical observation about Svay Khleang’s history. We spoke for several hours about the rebellion’s context, and the subsequent losses and repressions in Svay Khleang, including the annihilation of nearly a thousand families. That afternoon, Sos Pinyamin also organized a discussion at the mosque after his afternoon prayers, where numerous community members each told a story about surviving Pol Pot time. Due to the enormity of their losses, their memories were very painful and their reflections profound. One man who’d lost all his family said softly, “Every time I sit down to eat a bowl of rice, I ask, why isn’t my mother eating here with me?” Others echoed his sentiment, nodding and looking down. “Tonight we will have nightmares,” another man confirmed, “even as it is important to get some release, to tell the story, to those to care to listen.”

That evening, I left the village wondering if victim testimonies for the tribunal created a similar effect, the reopening and salting of wounds, no matter the intention. Even as I knew that the guilty verdict—once issued—would honor the the Cham in Cambodia, I wondered if this form of visibility and recognition would truly heal their memories and losses. Granted, to deny the verdict of guilt for these four senior Khmer Rouge leaders would add unimaginable insult to injury, just as Duch’s remarkably paltry verdict has done, for all the people of Cambodia. But can juridical justice, even when fully realized, ever be enough? Because the Svay Khleang man eating his bowls of rice without his mother, wondering why he must go another meal without her, reminds us how no such sentence, reparation, memorial, or campaign could compensate even a fraction for these abruptly ended and deeply shattered lives. The man had gently confessed, “Sometimes I no longer wish to be alive, since everyone else in my family is gone.” For those facing such a rupture in the aftermath of genocide, justice may remain elusive, if only because their losses are incommensurable and irreparable.

Woman in Svay Khleang, during conversation about the village’s history

I find it particularly troubling and heartbreaking that the Cham who sought refuge in Cambodia during the conquest of their kingdom were then targeted for extermination hundreds of years later, in such high proportions, during the Khmer Rouge. For their ethnic and religious peculiarity, between fifty to eighty percent of the Cambodian Cham population perished, with 130 mosques destroyed, in less than four years. Of more than one thousand hajji who’d undertaken the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, only thirty remained in 1979. The rest were brutally murdered, alongside Cham religious leaders—hung upside down and smothered in buckets of boiling water, for example. The number of Cham killed in the 1970s alone exceeds, by hundreds of thousands, the Cham still alive today beyond Cambodia’s borders, in their original homeland in present-day Việt Nam, and in their small diasporas in the United States, Malaysia, Australia, Hainan Island, France, and other countries. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Champa had an estimated one to two million population. How many would be alive today, had we been allowed to flourish, rather than perish?

The Cham we met in Cambodia resemble, in important ways, my family in Việt Nam. And that’s fitting, as I perceive the deaths of the Cham in Cambodia as the loss of extended family. Although my maternal family is Balamon (Hindu) Cham, I feel connected to all descendants of Champa, regardless of religion or region. Our shared history and culture extend so far into the past. As Austronesian-speaking relatives of the Malays, our seafaring ancestors arrived by ship to mainland Southeast Asia well over two thousand years ago. We established a prosperous kingdom through maritime trade. Champa had the earliest written languages in Southeast Asia, a third-century Sanskrit inscription and a fourth-century Cham inscription. Although our art and architecture were influenced by India, we added stylistic innovations and content unseen in the works of all other Indianized cultures. As a matrilineal people, we honored our mother goddess, Po Nagar, whose temple still stands today in Nha Trang. After the 16th century, many Cham converted to Islam, a religion brought by merchants and missionaries, as Hinduism had come before. Yet Islam was adapted while retaining many Cham beliefs and practices, as demonstrated by the Cham Jahed in Cambodia and the Cham Bani in Việt Nam.

Throughout two thousand years, Cham conceptions of the world have been deeply shaped by our indigenous traditions, our trade relations, and our cultural adaptations. Our approach to spirituality has been rather syncretic, like other kingdoms of mainland and island Southeast Asia. In my family’s region of Phan Rang, the Cham still practice what Rie Nakamura describes as cosmological dualism, which allows us to maintain separate and complementary religious beliefs while perceiving our differences as integral to the whole. As a Hindu Cham dignitary in Việt Nam described to me, in 2006, this dualism is a way of keeping peace between the faiths. In Cambodia, the differing practices of Islam represent another cosmological dualism. Yet no matter how we align ourselves spiritually—as Balamon, Bani, Jahed, Sunni Islam, or something else—we are still sometimes erroneously regarded as extinct since the fifteenth century. I first found that grim description in an elementary school encyclopedia in Texas, in the early 1980s. Afterwards I just couldn’t break the news of our extinction to my mother, whose family back home could barely survive in postwar Việt Nam. And even today, as the Cham communities around the world have scarce knowledge of one another, this geographical and conceptual isolation can obscure not only our mutual struggles but also the deep historical and cultural continuities between the Cham in Việt Nam, in Cambodia, and in the diaspora.

Husen teaching English class in O Russei village, Kampong Chhnang province
High school student with his mother, O Russei village, Kampong Chhnang province
During a devastating drought, the rain prayer ceremony has special significance this year, in O Russei, Kampong Chhnang

– Essay and photographs by Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor of diaCRITICS and artist, photographer, filmmaker, writer, and historian. She is currently a doctoral candidate at University of California Berkeley in the department of ethnic studies, where she specializes in Cham studies, diasporic studies, Asian American film/video, Asian American history, and transnational feminisms.

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  1. Miss/Ms Thi Underhill,

    I came across this article whilst doing some reading on the Cham people. I am from the northernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia (Kedah) and have been reading and researching (as a layman) on the history of the same. Suffice to say this has eventually led me the the history of Srivijaya, Funan and Champa. I am particularly aggrieved and driven to this research because of the casual and southern-centric narrative of the official sanctioned version of Malaysian history ie it all began with Malaccan Sultanate.

    I suspect the history of the Malays (especially in the organising of governance) began somewhere in Indochina. The Champa Kingdom certainly did attest to that, being one of the earliest kingdoms and longest in existence. If any Malay from Malaysia comes across the Đông Yên Châu inscription, he/she will be surprised by the words use because most words can be understood (especially if certain sounds are shifted to the modern pronunciations) and remain in usage still.

    The cultural and trading ties between Champa as a polity and the Malay kingdoms must have continued up to the fall of the Kingdom itself. In William Dampier’s (1651-1715) account, there was a mention of Chams still going to Malacca to trade. If you were to look at maps of Indochina (and Siam) during the colonial period, the sea was littered with islands with Malay place-names. Such places can only be named by the Malay seafarers or the Chams.

    All of these were lost once the Malays stopped trading via the sea and after a while they were forgotten, particularly when the islands were renamed in Thai/Vietnamese. Only certain places continued to remember the Chams/Champa Kingdom because of historic longstanding ties. Such places were Pattani, Kelantan and Terengganu; one reason being the Chams fleeing the Vietnamese fled there when the Vietnamese finally conquered the Kingdom. I suppose that was why the Chams fled there, again, during the Khmer Rouge. But, by then, the reasoning was already almost lost to history and us Malaysians.

    I am particularly interested in one angle of your question in the comments ie how to Malaysians (particularly Malays) view the Chams in Malaysia. The short answer: our (Muslim) brethren. That is however a very simplistic/simplified answer. Honestly that question had never been answered and cannot be fully answered without knowing the history of Champa Kingdom beforehand. That is unfortunately severely lacking here today.

    However judging by the name of your Cham commentators BTL, it safe to say the names alone will invoke at the very least some feeling of long-lost kinship. I definitely know they must be Malay of sorts. And I sincerely hope that this long forgotten ties will eventually be renewed.

    Another reason that compelled me to write here is to tell you that they are Chams in very near to my home town. However they are colloquially known as “orang Kemboja” (ie Cambodians). They are a small but highly successful business people. They have come to dominate certain segments of business here. Outwardly they are your average Malays but I have personally heard them communicate in Cham (or Cambodian [I can’t distinguish them]) in private. I had also spoken to a businesswoman (while shopping in her shop) who confirmed that she fled Cambodia in 1970s. I will be sending an email listed at your contact page if you wish to pursue this further.

    Lastly, thank you for writing. Every bit of information is important. Who knows where it will lead.


  2. Hi Julie,
    Excellent article. I am from India . I have been working on Cham/Champa history for the past few years. Happy to see a well written article like this. Wonder how I missed it for all these years. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Hi Vinod,

      I’m grateful you enjoyed this article. This work remains so important to me, nearly ten years later. I seem to remember some of your own research findings potentially linking the Champa kingdom to a specific region in India, something about the name of the kings. Is that correct?

      Please keep researching Cham/Champa history. These connective tissues are crucial.

      Best wishes,

  3. I am Cham Cambodian. Your written piece is interesting and beautiful. My parents were part of the first group of wave that came to the US. My mother whom was pregnant with my older sister during the war made it to Thailand border and had my sister there. That same sister of mine, grew up to be an amazing lawyer who had the opportunity to be part of the legal team to put Pol Pot’s family and follower to trial in 2008 (I think that was the year). It was devastated for what my family went through and to hear their stories of lost relatives to the khmer rouge; however, it is great to know that one of our family member gave us justice to put them on trial. Our family have history to pass on to future generations. Thank you for this written piece.

    • Hi Maryna,

      Thanks for telling me your powerful family history. Is your sister named Rohany? If so, I invited her to be a panelist at the Champa conference at UC Davis in 2015. If not, perhaps I can be in touch with your sister. I’d love to hear her story.

      The genocide conviction didn’t occur until 2018, three years after your message, but many people worked hard for many years to make it happen. It’s not commensurate to the losses, but it’s better than no formal or legal recognition for this enormous crime against the Cham people.

      Best wishes,

    • Hi Nara,

      Thank you for your compliments. I’m so grateful you appreciate it. Sorry it’s taken me nearly five years to tell you so.

      My mother is Cham Phan Rang. I first learned about Champa through her, and she instilled my curiosity to always learn more about the Cham.


  4. Hmm the Muslim part makes me think that probably Khmer Rouge were smart.
    Islam is a horrible religion. Khmer Rouge would be nothing compared to Islam persecution and law

    • Hi Bob,

      At the dinner party of your dreams, who’d you clamor to sit next to? Pol Pot, Hitler, or Milošević? You’d be in like-minded company, except they once possessed political power, whereas you probably do/did not. Yet since you’re also drawing upon your own murderous hatred (based upon negative preconceptions and stereotypes) to justify the extermination of a specific group (based upon their ethnic and/or religious identity), it’s fortunate that you probably lack the political power to carry out your wildest ambitions, since genocide remains one of the worst moral and legal crimes known to humankind.

      You also speak of Islam as if it is undifferentiated throughout the world and throughout a given population, when Islamic beliefs and practices differ greatly from country to country and person to person. Some Islamic-majority countries also have secular governments, with no Sharia law as part of legislation. While it is true that some Muslim-majority countries with Islamic state governments are known to be extremely repressive, even Christian and atheist state leaders commit atrocities against their internal and external others, meaning that there is no “cornering the market” on acts of persecution, even those justified by the “rule of law” designed to benefit the rulers, rather than the people.

      As it stands, your xenophobia is myopic and dangerous. It also exposes the hypocrisy of considering Islamic practices as worse than the Khmer Rouge, given that you are praising the unprovoked slaughter of tens of thousands of people who’d coexisted peacefully with their Khmer neighbors for centuries.

      As MLK Jr wrote, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

      Best wishes,

  5. Insightful and beautifully written! I welcome you to learn more about the Cham Muslims in Chau Doc Vietnam! Our culture is very similar to the Chams in Cambodia, after all only the Mekong separates us. I look forward in reading more of your work.

    • Hi Hasanah,

      Thank you for your comment! Glad to hear you like the essay–that means a lot. I am more familiar with the Cham from the Phan Rang area of Viet Nam, yet I have learned a lot from Philip Taylor of Australia, who wrote “Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery.” It is a very interesting book, and for sale in Asia, Australia, and New Zealand by NUS Press (Singapore). I haven’t conducted any interviews yet with the Cham of Chau Doc, but I hope to someday.

      Best wishes,

    • Hi Hasanah,

      Ironically we met after you left me this message, if you are the same Hasanah Ahmad. I spent time with your sister at the UN, and later your family, surrounding the Cham conference at UC Davis. I learned more about Cham Chau Doc by knowing your family, but there’s still more to learn, for me. Thanks for your compliment on the article and I’m grateful we crossed paths in real time.


  6. I just read this wonderful piece. Question – is this the same Rie Nakamura that socialized with the Cham Community in Seattle? I remembered this name when I was very young and recalled she was learning about the Chams. If so great to see her efforts manifesting to such valuable work!

    • Hi! Thanks for reading this piece. Yes, indeed. The very same anthropologist Rie Nakamura wrote a dissertation (while at the University of Washington) about Cham ethnicity in Viet Nam. She was kind enough to send a hard copy to me, years ago, when she was living in Thailand. She’s a wonderful and attentive scholar who humbly downplays her contribution to our understanding of Cham ethnicity and religion. I am very grateful for her work, especially for her conceptualization of the syncretic dualism between Cham Balamon and Cham Bani religions.

      Best wishes,

  7. I am Cham/Khmer and I live in the US but most of my family live in Kelantan Malaysia. If you need help in doing research please let me know. Thank you for all your hard work and sharing your journey. I have been trying to do my own and put pieces of a lost heritage together. Please let me know if you need anything. Love to hear about your current work.

    • Hi Kinara,

      At some point I would love to come to Malaysia to meet Cham living there. I know there is a population there that live there, but I have many questions about it. Is the whole population of Cham in Malaysia recently arrived (since the 1970s), or have some been there for centuries? Did all come from Cambodia, or did any come from Champa (during its conquest)? I know there is a deep history of Cham relationship with Malays, due to trade, ethnic, and linguistic ties that stretch back, oh, in terms of our peoples, forever. So I have wondered if the Cham-Malays have more of a ‘place’ in Malaysia because of these common linkages and the deep history of involvement over thousands of years of Austronesian seafaring.

      I would love to see your own work if you ever write anything from a Cham-Malaysian perspective. My humble advice is to keep piecing the story together. Ask questions of elders. Record. Remember. Write. Find new ways of telling the story. Tell it again.

      Best wishes,

      • Hi Kinara,

        I wanted to make a correction to that last paragraph–I know you are Cham-Khmer. But I meant, if you write about anything from the perspective of having family ties to Malaysia, too. I’m guessing this is from your extended families being relocated to different places after leaving Cambodia. But if you happen to know anything about the Cham in Malaysia, since your family lives there, feel free to share it.

        The rest of the advice fits, no matter who we are. 🙂

        Best wishes,

    • Hi Kinara,

      Thanks for reaching out. It’s been nearly 7 years since you left the message, but I’m replying anyway in case you might read this. Have you had any luck in researching your family history?

      I’m so grateful that justice has since been partially served when Cham suffering under Pol Pot was declared a genocide in 2018. Overdue recognition.


  8. Hi! I’m Cham and am also a UC Berkeley student. Obligatory ~GO BEARS~ here.

    I shared this article on Facebook and within maybe two hours people from my local Cham community started to share it as well. It’s really amazing what has happened to our people and I have so much respect for all of our elders who have been through so much. We also cannot forget those who tragically lost their lives to genocide. I’m going to forgo the traditional get-a-degree-and-make-money route in order to study Cham diaspora and Cham culture and articles like this just reaffirm my passion for it.

    Also, I hope you don’t find this odd for me to mention but as a Cal student my professors mentioned you once they found that I’m Cham. I like to think of us as unicorns in the sense that since there are so few of us (not that unicorns are real, I just can’t think of any other suitable metaphor.) It’s kind of nice knowing that there’s someone who understands your history and is similar to you in a way. I’m from SoCal and I was really surprised to find out that there was another Cham person attending Berkeley as well. The only other Cham person I know who went to UC Berkeley is a relative who graduated, so I was pretty sure that I’d be the only Cham person going to school here.

    • we’d like more Cham readers and writers, so please spread the word that we’re open to submissions from the Cham community.

    • Hi Rofiah,

      Many apologies for taking so long to reply to your wonderful comment. The last few months have been very busy.

      I am happy to know that your professors mentioned me to you. Which ones? I had no idea this was happening, except for maybe Thầy Bắc. My unsung hero who sings. 🙂

      Knowing Cham history and understanding our conditions of disapora from SE Asia (as being a minority within a minority within a minority, wherever we ended up) is very important for our people. The more of us investigating history and diaspora, the more we can figure out what has happened in the past and how it affects the present. As William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past.’ I think writing and film are both good means of talking about our history (either deep history–centuries ago–or recent history–becoming diasporic beyond Asia). For me, as you can see, there is also photography, which I’ve practiced seriously for 20 years.

      But I know there are other interesting ways of considering the past, of making culture, and I am especially looking forward to seeing a Cham art revival–in all forms–in the US. I get very excited when I hear about other Cham artists and creative writers in the US. It would be awesome if the Cham American community could build a network of artists and creative writers and historians and scholars, don’t you think?

      Best wishes,

  9. Growing up in America was a challenge as I faced an identity crisis as being a Cham American Muslim. As I became older, I was curious of my own culture and seek the history of my people. Thank you for writing a beautiful and informative article on our people. It is a reminder to us all how grateful we should be of our elders who encountered such trials and tribulations and to retain the history of our people. United we stand, together we prosper…

    • Hi Munir Abdol,

      I also had a bit of an identity crisis in my youth, as it was hard to understand exactly who we were as a people when I grew up far away from Viet Nam, and quite isolated from the larger Cham American community. I am also mixed race, which added some complexity to my sense of identity. I also grew curious to understand the Cham culture and history as I grew older, especially as I reached my early 20s.

      We should respect our elders for having survived the unimaginable, both in Cambodia and Viet Nam. I believe it helps the 1.5 and 2nd generation to know the history of our families and our people, even if it can be difficult to bear the weight of that history, at times.

      Thank you for your reply!

  10. If you ever go to Vietnam you should check out my Cham village in Chau doc, most of the cham there speak Cham, Khmer, French, and Vietnamese and many of them including my grandparents had to flee to thailand because Chams there.

    • Hi Saplohklau,

      My Cham friend’s father is originally from Chau Doc, and he was really affected by both the war in Viet Nam and the genocide in Cambodia. He fled to Thailand after living in Cambodia, where he met and married his Cambodian Cham wife. I wonder how many Cham went through the camps in Thailand, including those fleeing the Khmer Rouge?

      After your grandparents fled to Thailand did they stay, or go somewhere else?

      Thanks for your reply!

      • My family thankfully made it safely to the US Andy grandfather established the “Cham Refugee Community of Seattle” which is basically the first Cham Mosque in Seattle. I read through some of your replies and you mentioned you are Cham Balamon? Are your family from Phan Rang or another part of old Panduranga?

        • Hi! Long time no reply! I’m glad your family made it to the US safely. I follow your brother’s Facebook group now and I appreciate the work it does for the community in Seattle, where I have family. My family is originally Cham Phan Rang.

  11. Cham Malays are the same as the Cham people stated above. Today the Cham no longer live in Malaysia and back in the ’80s they came to Kelantan (a state in the northeastern corner of Malaysia) from neighbouring Thailand to study the Koran.
    In 1987 a Cham, name unknown, became a member of the Central Committee of the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (now renamed the Cambodian People’s Party) and also a minister of agriculture.
    After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, the Cham who survived by that time found themselves grateful not just to Allah but also to the Cambodian and Vietnamese troops for rescuing them from Khmer Rouge brutality.

    • Hi Shahril,

      I have heard there are Cham in Malaysia, with estimates around 10,000 people. Do you know where I could get more information about the Cham in Malaysia, either in the past or present? I am interested in all the Cham diaspora.

      I am grateful for all protective spirits and peoples who helped the Cham in Cambodia survive under Democratic Kampuchea. Everything I have learned about that time and place has been very difficult to bear, the experience of the Cham being no exception.

      Thanks for your reply!


  12. Great analysis and photos, all this time we have been talking about the Cham I didn’t have a clue they were of the Islamic traditions, and with the mix of Hindu and Buddhism, Very important work. Thank you for bringing this to light and for helping preserve your culture.

    • Hi Dan,

      Thank you for caring about understanding the religious beliefs of the Cham. I have spent a lot of time studying the history of Cham religions, and since my grandmother was a religious leader in her Cham Balamon community, our religions have always been important for me to understand.

      I am very interested in the ‘cosmological dualism’ (as Rie Nakamura puts it) between Hindu Cham and Islamic Cham, and how some underlying cultural practices have been maintained. Those elements are generally considered aspects of the indigenization of each of those religions. And the shared/attended religious ceremonies are the result of leaders of two ‘opposing’ religions sitting down together and deliberately created a strategy whereby each religion was conceived of as being integral to a whole, literally like yin and yang, in order for each group to stay alive together. I was fascinated to learn this in 2006. They maintain distinct practices of worship and taboo, yet send their religious leaders to participate in each others’ ceremonies.

      My family is Hindu (Balamon), and we have also intermarried with both Cham Bani and more orthodox Islamic Cham, although there is some taboo against doing so. We see up close how the discrete borders within the religions is blurred, in ritual and in practice.

      Although I do not actively practice my family’s Hinduism, I have probably taken on aspects of the indigenous beliefs of the Cham, through my mother’s influence and through what has felt right to me. And I definitely believe that some form of cosmological dualism (or awareness and respect for multiplicities, not just dualities) is sorely lacking, in today’s day and age, on a global scale. So I appreciate this idea that we all can maintain both traditions and adaptations, while living in deliberately-created community with those of differing faiths. It’s profound, if you ask me.

      Thanks for your reply!

  13. I believe there is another Cham etnic called malay-cham and some of this etnic people has moved and lived in Malaysia since few decades ago.

    • Hi Abdeen,

      I have heard of this group of Cham. I am very interested in the diasporas of Cham people, all over the world. Do you know how many Cham live in Malaysia, and if they live in a particular area of Malaysia?

      Thanks for replying.

  14. Thanks Julie for enlightening me on the Cham history and culture. Sadly it reminds me of my visit to Cambodia three years ago, seeing the photos of those killed in the prison museum, and the tree where children were murdered by having their heads smashed at the killing fields. It also brings to mind the Gypsies during the Holocaust; brutally exterminated by the Nazis, but their story overshadowed by the larger history of the Jewish genocide.
    Thanks again and keep in touch, Matt

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for reading and appreciating the history and culture of the Cham.

      You have made an apt analogy to the other genocidal acts committed by the Nazis. Sometimes the experiences of ethnic minorities are forgotten within the larger atrocities–widespread crimes against humanity, crimes of war, and other acts of genocide.

      I also visited Choeung Ek in Cambodia, and saw that now-memorialized tree where the babies were murdered through smashing. Then late last month a Cambodian-American student of mine wrote me the same night she learned of this practice, for the first time, as she read about the Khmer Rouge regime. I was honest about my own incomprehension.

      It seems like such understatement to write ANYTHING about the brutality of this era–this was my struggle while writing my article, on behalf of not only the Cham but also the ethnic Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, and many others who died under Pol Pot’s rule.

      Best wishes,

  15. Hi! I’m Khmer and the article you wrote really sent a powerful message to the world! I was told that the Cham Muslims suffered the most and as a Khmer I felt sad that this happened! Cham Muslims are one of the most important race in Cambodia! They are not a minority but a majority like us Khmers! As of 2010, the population is between 1 million to 1.5 million. Heck! Even the Khmer King in the 17th century was Muslim and married a Malaysian Princess! Islam is part of the Cambodian culture and it must be embrace! The Cham race will live on!!!!

    • Hi Tee!

      I really appreciate your compassionate comments and especially your historical memory of longstanding Khmer-Cham relations. There were intermarriages and alliances, as well as tensions and battles, as Champa and the Khmer Empire shared a border. Yet after the refugees arrives from Champa, the Cham and the Khmer lived in peace, for the most part, until the Khmer Rouge came to rule.

      Thank you for your response to the article. It is very meaningful to me.

      Best wishes,

  16. I feel grateful to know you and to witness your work of holding up the bodies and stories of the Cham. It’s insanely powerful and ridiculously inspiring to realize what could be possible. Thank you.

  17. Thank you for sharing such a personal and powerful narrative of memories and loss, and bringing into question whether justice can ever be achieved for victims of wars and genocides whose “losses are incommensurable and irreparable.” I believe that your work– your own rewounding– will help in this process of healing.

    • Hi Tiffany,

      It’s so perceptive of you to be aware of my own rewounding, in the process of writing this. It is also ironic that at the close of the trip, while visiting Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, I cut my foot open on an iron bar sticking up from the floor, and I bled for a while. As I bled, I thought to myself, and told Asiroh, how fitting to also lose blood in the very site where so many (including Cham) were brutally tortured and murdered. This is also how I feel, on an emotional and spiritual level, about the rewounding necessary to approach and portray such “incommensurable and irreparable” losses experienced by others.

      Thank you for your very kind words and deep insights.

      Best wishes and much appreciation,

  18. I want to start out by saying, that I am Cham and have spent an ample amount of time during my college years researching my ancestral heritage–nothing to the degree of what you laid out though…wow. This is by far, one of the most concise and comprehensive pieces of Cham articles. You did a remarkable job documenting, tracing and explaining the roots of the Cham people and culture. I also appreciate your honesty in writing this essay, descriptions are brutal at times, but only then, can we clearly visualize the after effects and the cultural trauma the Chams faced as a group of people. I am also impressed by the beautiful photographs you used to document and incorporate into your essay. Again, thank you for a well written and bold essay!

    • Hi Tina,

      I am so grateful to hear from Cham people. I know that it can be painful to consider the things which have happened to our own extended family, as I consider it, so it is important for me that other Cham feel that I have handled the task with the right degree of honesty and compassion. My mother describes that it was impossible to know our history, in Việt Nam, when ‘we had to struggle to survive during war.’ And before that, I am not sure many of our old documents survived various destructions of our capital cities, as I mention in the article. Yet now that the wars are over, we must create a comprehensive history of our people, where one does not currently exist except in fragments. If my article came closer to alleviating the fragmentary nature of Cham history and culture, I am grateful.

      Please share this essay with others in our extended community, who might be interested.

      Best wishes and many thanks,

  19. Julie, This story you told was very bold , and brutally honest. Including your journeys, photos, and commentary tied it all together nicely. I am so proud of your work, but most proud that you’re
    my daughter. Love Dad

    • Hi Dad,

      I’m glad that you felt that the photos and commentaries worked well together. I tried to be honest and bold, yet graceful and compassionate. I’m happy that it came across well, and that you are able to enjoy the end result.

      Thank you so much for reading and appreciating the article, and for appreciating me. That means a lot to me.


  20. Thank you for this thorough analysis of the genocide of Cham Muslims in Democratic Kampuchea. In 1986 and 1987, Ben Kiernan and I collected over 60 hours of eyewitness testimony to this genocide, available on videotape from the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University and on videotape and DVD from the Cambodian Genocide Project, a division of Genocide Watch, Inc.

    Dr. Gregory H. Stanton
    Director, The Cambodian Genocide Project, Inc.

    • Hi Dr. Stanton,

      Thanks very much for your positive feedback. I would love to have a look at that footage sometime, as it sounds quite important and useful to me.

      I appreciate all that you and Ben Kiernan have done to make explicit the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. It really has been a collective effort, tireless and compassionate. I honor those who compiled testimonies in the 1980s–I am sure these testimonies are in circulation today, as evidence in the tribunal.

      I do hope the four senior leaders are indeed brought to justice. Many consecutive life sentences for each of them, this is my personal wish, which would be far more satisfying than Duch’s rather light punishment for directing S-21 prison.

      Best wishes and many thanks,

      • Dear Julie,
        Many thanks for your remarquable and moving work.
        I remember with emotion, in the company of my wife Florence, we occasionnaly sailed on the Mekong River and had contact with these discreet, peaceful Khmer Chams populations. Cambodia was paradise. Before becoming hell.

        Hubert Laforge
        (In 1962-64, I was a young professor at the INP de l’Université royale in Phnom-Penh)
        Professor and university president (retired) in Québec City

        • Hi Hubert,

          Thank you for your comment and for your paradise/hell analogy. My heart continues to weigh heavily for the people(s) of Cambodia and for those who remember life before the KR came to power.

          Gratefully the Cham (and Vietnamese) received some justice recently when the genocide verdict was announced in the KR tribunal, as I said should happen when I wrote this article eight years ago. But a guilty verdict will never be enough.

          Apologies for not replying to your comment for 3.5 years. Thanks again.


      • Thanks for reading and commenting! It makes me so happy to see this getting around in the Cham community. We need historians, and those interested in history, among us. We also need the non-Cham historians who are interested in our history, to help us gain insight into the past, and how it affects our present, in Cambodia, in Viet Nam, and in our diasporic communities around the world.


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