Cham statue from Cham Museum in Danang, Vietnam
The Cham people are descendants of the kingdom of Champa. Their population of approximately 100,000 is centered around the cities of Phan Rang and Phan Thiet in central Vietnam. Neighbouring Cambodia has the largest concentration of Chams where their numbers ranges from as low as half a million to perhaps as high as a million.
The Chams are considered Malays and the language they speak is understood by the Malays. In both Cambodia and Vietnam, they form the core of the Muslim communities of these countries.
Records of the Champa go as far back as 2nd century China. At its height in the 9th Century, the kingdom controlled the lands between Hue, in central Annam to the Mekong Delta in Cochinchina. Its prosperity came from maritime trade in sandalwood and slaves and probably included piracy.
The first religion of the Champa was a form of Shaivite Hinduism, brought over the sea from India. But as Arab merchants stopped along the Vietnamese coast enroute to China, Islam began to infiltrate the civilization, and Hinduism became associated with the upper-classes.
Between the rise of the Khmer Empire around 800 and Vietnam's territorial push to the south, the Champa kingdom began to diminish. In 1471 it suffered a massive defeat to the Vietnamese, where 120,000 were either captured or killed, and was reduced to a small enclave near Nha Trang. Further expansion by the Vietnamese in 1720 resulted in the Champa king and many of his followers fleeing to Cambodia. A tiny group fled northwards to the Chinese island of Hainan where they are known today as the Utsuls.
During the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Chams of that country suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated.
The Vietnamese Chams live mainly in coastal and Mekong Delta provinces. They have two distinct religious communities, Hindu or Balamon, which constitutes about 15-20% of the Cham, and Muslim or Cham Bani, constitute about 80-85% of the Cham, and, while they share a common language and history, intermarriage between the two is taboo. A small number of the Cham also follow Mahayana Buddhism. In Cambodia, the Chams are 90% Muslim and so are the Utsuls.
Malaysia has some Cham immigrants and the link between the Chams and the Malaysian state of Kelantan is an old one. The Malaysian constitution recognises the Cham rights to Malaysian citizenship and their Bumiputra status.
- The Survivors of a Lost Civilisation (http://www.cpamedia.com/articles/20010703_01/)