The Cham Community in Cambodia from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century

Historical development of its resettlement and its role in Cambodian political life

Mak Phoen 

Proceedings of the Seminar on Champa


The military disaster which led to the destruction of Vijaya, the capital of the Cham kingdom, in 1471 by L‘ Thænh Ton’s (1460–1497) Vietnamese troops was echoed in the Khmer Royal Chronicles which noted that the victorious Vietnamese king divided Champa into large and small provinces, some of which were incorporated into the Vietnamese territory while some others were placed under Cham Kings’ authority who exerted their power under the vigilant control of Vietnamese officials sent by the Court of [‰ng-[‰ (Hø-NÈi). The Khmer Annals also noted that at that time many Cham common people as well as princes of the royal family were forced to leave their ancestral land and took refuge in the Khmer kingdom. The term Cham is used here according to the data gathered from the Khmer Royal Chronicles and may denote not only the Cham ethnic groups who lived in the lowlands but also a number of other ethnic groups in Champa who lived in the highlands of the TrıÏng-SÍn range and who played a full sociopolitical role in this multiethnic kingdom. Many other inhabitants of Champa withdrew into the mountainous regions of the country to live with the montagnards (Stiengs, Rhades etc.).

That first wave of refugees from Champa who had chosen to settle in Cambodia was followed by others in the course of history for the southward march of the Vietnamese, the famous “Nam-ti’n,” was to cause regularly the exodus of Cham population to Cambodia. According to the Khmer Royal Chronicles, the second great migration of Cham people took place in 1692, after a a victory of the Vietnamese who once again cut off the northern part of Champa. Let’s remember that the previous year the same Vietnamese took by force the Khmer territories of Barea, Daung Nay and Prei Nokor (Børfia, Bi‘n-H‡a and Saigon in Vietnamese). According to the Khmer Royal Chronicles, this new wave of refugees from Champa, who fled their country because they refused to accept the yoke of the Court of Hu’, consisted of about five thousand families led by the members of the royal family. They asked for protection from the Khmer king Jayajettha III (1677–1709) who at once accorded it to them. The Khmer king allowed those refugees to settle in different places in Cambodia, namely in Oudong, the Khmer capital of the time, in the provinces of Thbaung Khmum and Stung Trang, places called Chroy Changvar, Prek Pra etc. It was recorded that later other waves of Cham refugees came to Cambodia. Thus the Chronicles mentioned that about 1835 many Cham families who had been accused of rebelling against the Court of Hu’, had to take exile in Cambodia reigned by Queen Ang-Mi (1835–1841) who, herself, was under the guardianship of Vietnamese officials sent by the Court of Hu’ of King Minh-MŸnh (1820–1840). This new emigration of Cham people was to leave recollections in the memory of the Khmers who later told the first French people who came to their country that they “had seen at that time many hundreds of Chams, among whom there were two young princesses who had great beauty and who were, they assured, entirely white.” We know that Cambodia was not the only country to receive refugees from Champa. But these refugees came to Cambodia first because partly of the proximity of the two countries, but also and foremost, because of the historical ties between the two peoples who, naturally, confront militarily in the course of their histories, but who were bound by various ties: cultural, human, matrimonial etc. and also by the common trials which made Cham people consider the Khmer kingdom a country of potential friends.

In Cambodia the Chams met the Malays (Jva), the descendants of immigrants coming from the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay peninsula from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They felt close to each other because of the language as well as a number of cultural traits they had in common. They mixed with one another and many a Cham were converted into Islam by the Malays. The result was the formation of a Muslim community with customs and manners which distinguished them from the Khmer people who entirely adhered to Theravada Buddhism.

As a matter of fact, except in rare cases of initiates, the Khmers did not distinguish these two ethnic groups which constitute the Muslim conmmunity in Cambodia. This is so true that the Khmer texts classified them under the generic term Cam Jva (literally, Cham and Malays). Doubtless, because of Islam these two groups lived very close to each other and easily married each other, which explains why the histories of Malays and Chams living in Cambodia are closely associated

The Khmer kings have always welcome the natives of Champa who sought asylum in Khmer territory. As the latter showed discipline, cohesion, and courage, they sought their attachment and military support by granting them titles and land. The Cham (and Malays), on their side, know how to take  advantage of the situation to distinguish themselves by worthy services, and in return, they could obtain in many cases, high and even very high functions in the service of the king, for some of them could have access to ministerial positions or even that of Prime Minister.

Beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, Cambodia entered a period of great instability, in an almost gradual manner in spite of periods of respite more or less long, due on the one hand to external pressures from neighboring countries on the other from internal dissensions. Naturally the Muslim community in Cambodia bore the consequences of this instability. At several times, they had to choose between the opposing factions, as did the Khmers themselves, which made them become the object of solicitude of some but also the object of suspicion of the others. And on some occasions, very rare of course, Cham and Malays were tempted to take advantage of the situation and get rid of the sponsorship of the authority of  their country of adoption, which gave rise to retaliatory measures from the latter.

The Khmer Royal Chronicles mentioned the first important action of the Muslim community in the Cambodian political life towards the end of the sixteenth century, under king Paramaraja V (Cau Bana Tan), who reigned from 1597 to 1599. Without providing very precise causes of their rebellion, these texts related that members of this community who settled in the province of Thbaung Khmum, took arms against the Khmer authorities under the leadership of their two leaders, known under the name or title Po Rat and Laksmana. Setting up a domain in that eastern part of Cambodia, the Cham and Malays proclaimed Po Rat king, who was generally thought of as a Cham, and Laksmana uparaj that is the second position in the kingdom, who was generally thought of as a Malay and appointed some of their coreligionists province chiefs and district chiefs. When King Paramaraja V (Cau Bana Tari) came from the capital Srei Santhor to ask for their surrender, the Chams and Malays attacked and killed him. It was only some time later that the Khmer authorities could defeat the rebels whose leaders Po Rat and Laksmana disappeared

From those scanty data from the Royal Chronicles, European sources talked about two “Malay” chiefs, the most important and the most well-known of whom would be Laksmana, who, for having offered to the Khmer king Ram de Joen Brai (considered usurper, although he succeeded in getting rid of Siamese invaders from Cambodia) several pieces of artillery brought from Champa, was granted by the king high positions and land on which they lived. The two chiefs also succeeded in convincing the Khmer king to invade Champa. The king sent the two Malay chiefs and their soldiers, placed under the command of a high dignitary from the Court of Srei Santhor.

While the troops went to war against Champa, King Ram de Joen Brai was murdered in his palace by the Portuguese and Spaniards in May 1596. A fight for power was engaged between the son of the murdered king and the heir of the former royal family, the future Paramaraja V, aided by two Europeans, Diogo Veloso and Blas Ruiz. The two Muslim chiefs first chose to side with king Ram de Joen Brai’s son, but then later supported his rival, who suceeded to come to the throne of Srei Santhor. Nevertheless, rivalry occured very soon between the Europeans who attempted to place Cambodia under Spanish protectorship and certain Khmer dignitaries, including the Malay chief Laksmana (the title Laksmana seems to show that he exercised the function of Minister of the Navy). Following a dispute between some Europeans and members of the Muslim community, the Malay Laksmana had put to death many Portuguese and Spaniards, then finally King Paramaraja V himself (end of 1599). But those acts unlatched the retaliation of the Khmer authorities to push Laksmana back to Champa where he was to die The Muslim community in Cambodia also made itself talked about under King Ramadhipati I (Cau Bana Cand) who reigned from 1642 to 1658. Having given support to this king when he took power, the Chams and Malays received from the latter many favors and privileges, even succeeded in converting the king to their faith and had him marry a woman from their community. It is difficult to understand the deep conviction of King Ramadhipati I (Cau Ban Cand), called King Ibrahim in Dutch texts, nicknamed Ram Cul Sas or “Ram the Apostle” by some Khmer texts, who abandoned the religion of their ancestors to embrace Islam, but it seems more than certain that this king, cut off from his own people because of his cruelty and facing the opposition, more or less overt from his cousins, tried to rally the Chams and Malays to have a supplementary military support. With a considerable role granted them in the Court, members of the Muslim community took advantage of it to build mosques in many places in the kingdom and to reform the ceremonial in the royal Court where Khmer dignitaries, who had been invited themselves to adopt Muslim faith, had to wear a long tunic as well as a Malay kris to attend solemn audiences.

According to the Khmer Royal Chronicles, Ramadhipati I had married a woman from the Muslim community before he was converted to Islam. He would have embraced this religion only some time later (towards the first years of his reign) in Khleang Sbek village, when he visited this village. The Royal Chronicles noted that in his wedding ceremony, the main Muslim religious chief offered him an antique kris , which was later kept, until his last year, in the Pancasksetr Building of the Royal Palace where were deposited all the Khmer royal attributes.

The revolt of the king’s cousins and the Vietnamese intervention which followed in 1658 put an end to the reign of Ramadhipati I and also the privileged position of the Chams and Malays in the capital Oudong and elsewhere in the kingdom. The Chams and Malays attempted to oppose King Pramaraja VIII (1659–1672), the successor and adversary of their benefactor, first in Thbaung Khmum province, then in Nokor Vat (Siemreap), but the new Cambodian king defeated them and forced them to leave the country to seek asylum in the country of the Siamese king. It should be known that among those who left the country there were not only members of the Muslim community but also Khmers, princes of the royal family, civil and religious dignitaries, common people, relatives or followers of the former king. In fact, among the title of dignitaries who emigrated, there were those which were Khmer proper, but also others beginning with Po and Duon (tuan) which indicate Cham (and Malay) descent. Among those emigrated, one notices, in particular, the Muslim wife of the former king, designated in the Royal Chronicles by the title Anak Mnan Kapah Pau or under that of Nan Kam Pau If the Chams and Malays were forced to seek for a new asylum country in the kingdom of Ayudhya, other members of the same community continued to stay in Cambodia to play a role in the royal service and entertain relations with the Khmer royal family. In 1672, Prince Sri Jayajetth had his father-in-law and king assassinated, took power in Oudong and took the title Padumaraja II. The new king, after those crimes, doubtless thought of legitimizing his accession to the throne and gathering other followers around him, elevated to the position of queen the wife of his uncle Ubhayoraj Ramadhipati, who had  fled to the border province of the lowland and who had overtly opposed him. The worse came to him for the princess to whom he had conferred the title of queen, accepted that title only to take revenge for her king and brother in-law, and chiefly to render the throne to the man who was entitled to it, namely the eldest son of the assassinated king. To carry out her project, the new queen addressed to the Chams and Malays who, by night, entered the royal palace and killed King Padumaraja II, who had been on the throne for five months only Despite the arrival of new Cham refugees in 1692, already mentioned, nothing was said about the Muslim community in the Khmer documents during the whole eighteenth century. Except at the end of the century, at the height of the turmoil in the kingdom, when the only heir to the Khmer throne, Prince Ang En, was still an infant, and when the main Khmer dignitaries fought one another for power in bloody fights and in turn proclaimed themselves Santec Cau Hva, that is Prime Minister. While one of those, the Sammtec Cau Hva Paen, took power in Oudong, forces coming from the eastern provinces of Cambodia, in particular the Thbaung Khmum province, and consisting in a substantial number of Chams and Malays, attacked and forced him to leave the capital in 1782. At that time, a Muslim chief, known as Duon Set, became ambitious, according to the Khmer Chronicles. With the help of other Chams and Malays, he set up an army and pursued Samtec Cau Hva Paen, who fled toward the direction of Bangkok and taking with him the young prince Ang En and his sisters. The Muslim chief Don Set then entered the capital Oudong, acted as the chief administrator and proceeded to apppoint his co-religionists to various positions. He decided to settle Cham and Malay families in Phnom Penh and Chroy Chang-var. Then the Khmer governor of the large province of Kampong Svay, called Daen, took the title of Cau Hva, with the consent of other Khmer dignitaries, put Duon Set to death and subdued Cham and Malay troops Another Cham and Malay action occured in 1858, under the reign of King Hariraka Rama (Ang Tuon). Once again, the Muslim community of Thbaung Khmum province, revolted against Khmer authorities at the instigation of four brothers who blamed the Cambodian governor of Thbaung Khmum of cruelties and exaction. The griefs of the Muslim chiefs may be well-founded but they were themselves not above reproach. They had taken in this province an authority they should not have, because they aimed only at subtracting the members of the Cham and Malay communities from the Khmer authorities, while they themselves exerted on this community a sort of sovereignty after they had created a kind of a small state in the province. To placate the agitation, the King of Ou-Dong sent, with a small escort, the Udkana Yodhasangram, who knew well the Muslim chiefs, so as to exhort them to surrender. He was killed by the rebels, not having had time to explain anything. King Hariraks Rama (Ang Tuon) raised a small army and went himself to Thbaung Khmum where several battles took place which finally brought about the dispersion of the Muslim forces. One of the main Muslim chiefs was killed during the battle and the others fled to Moat Chrouk (Ch…u-[Âc), a Khmer territory which had just been occupied by the Vietnamese. The Cambodian King rounded up all the Chams and Malays who could not escape and transferred them to Pursat, Lovek, Kampong, Tralach and Kampong Luong. But in 1859 their coreligionists, who had taken refuge in Moat Chrouk, went up the Mekong River and took them to Moat Chrouk. King Hariraks Rama (Ang Tuon) then ordered the Khmer governor of Treang province to go after them. The Vietnamese troops sent to help the Chams and Malays could not prevent the Cambodians from advancing deeply into Treang Troey Thbaunag (Vietnamese: Tfinh Bi‘n) and to settle there. King Hariraks Rama died in the following year, in 1860. The designated successor, King Narottam (Norodom in French texts) was contested by his younger brother Si Vattha whose supporters took arms, sowed trouble in the kingdom and threatened Oudong, the capital. In 1861 when the designated king felt discouraged in Battambang, the Cham and Malay refugees in Moat Chrouk (Ch…u-[Âc), returned promptly to Cambodia where they gathered their relatives and co-religionists and offered their services to the king and chiefly to Narottam’s grandmother, a most venerated and respected old queen. Regaining their former dignities and positions, or receiving new ones, the Chams and Malays contributed to the victory of Narottam.

Such is, succinctly, the history of the Cham community in Cambodia which by five times, played a very active part in the political life of Cambodia, sometimes siding with the governing Khmer authorities, but also sometimes, trying to get rid of their guardianship. The history of this community, however, is marked not only by saliant facts. Although the Khmer Royal Chronicles pay little attention to them, there were other forms of relations more peaceful and more productive between the Cham–Malay community and the Khmer people. This explains why, as has been seen, the Khmer kings had always helped the Cham people, and welcome them with the greatest tolerance, and at all times gave the Muslim community access to important positions in the kingdom. One may even say that from the political point of view, the Chams as well the Malays, enjoyed the same rights as the Cambodians themselves. And for this, they have never been asked to change their religion or adopt customs contrary to their faith. The Cambodians only asked them to respect the religion and customs of their country of adoption.

On their part, the Chams and Malays who settled in Cambodia also proved their allegiance to the Khmer kings. An example of this is that in 1817 a descendant of the Cham royal family was appointed governor of Thbaung Khmum province. When Cambodia was occupied by the Vietnamese troops of Emperor Minh-MŸnh in 1834, a descendant of that governor received from the general of the army a Vietnamese title which made him a local auxiliary of the troop of the Court of Hu’. Nevertheless, in 1841, when the Vietnamese deported the Khmer Queen Ang Mi and her sisters to Vietnamese territory, that Cham high official followed them in captivity and died in exile the same year.

Since their implantation in Khmer territory, the Cham have participated in all the events that marked the history of Cambodia. If they have sometimes taken advantage of some of the events for their profit, they have not lived a better life than the Khmers themselves. And if we examine closely the five centuries of Cham presence in Cambodia, it is obvious that in general, Cham-Malays and Khmers have endured, hand in hand, the great jolts that have shaken the country since the fifteenth century. The last event in time, but not the least important, was Pol Pot’s genocide, which, between 1975 and 1979, led to the death of about two million Khmers and almost half of the Cham people in Cambodia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *