The Cham people in Cambodia descend from refugees of the kingdom of Champa, which once ruled much of Vietnam between Cao Ha in the north and Bien Hoa in the south. In 1471 Champa was conquered by the Vietnamese, and many Cham fled to Cambodia. Cham scholar Po Dharma points out that the Cham have lived in Cambodia since at least 1456. They settled along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers and in Batdambang, Pouthisat, Takev, Kampot, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thum, and Kampong Chhnang provinces. At some time before the seventeenth century, the Cambodian Cham and some of those in adjacent Vietnam converted to Islam, probably as a result of contacts with their Malay kin who had embraced that religion centuries earlier.
Friendly relations prevailed between the Cham and the Khmer for centuries even though, because of the Cham religion, little intermarriage occurred. Under the Khmer Republic of 1970 to 1975, one of the elite military units was made up of members of the Cham and other ethnic minorities. The Khmer Rouge tried, without much success, to recruit the Cham during the struggle with the Khmer Republic. The Cham were singled out for particularly brutal repression under the Khmer Rouge regime, and large numbers were killed. The PRK actively courted the Cham, and in 1987 a Cham was a member of the party Central Committee and minister of agriculture. Cham sources estimate that in the 1980, in addition to the Cham in Cambodia and in Vietnam, there were 3,000 Cham in Malaysia, 2,000 in the United States, 1,000 in Western Europe, 500 in Canada, and several hundred in Indonesia.
Po Dharma divides the Cambodian Cham into two groups--the orthodox and the traditional--based on their religious practices. The orthodox group, which makes up about one-third of the total number of Cham in the country, were located mainly in the Phnom Penh-Odongk area and in the provinces of Takev and Kampot. The traditional Cham were scattered throughout the midsection of the country in the provinces of Batdambang, Kampong Thum, Kampong Cham, and Pouthisat.
The Cham of both groups typically live in villages inhabited only by other Cham; the villages may be along the shores of water courses, or they may be inland. The Cham refer to the former as play krong (river villages) and to the latter as play ngok (upper villages). The inhabitants of the river villages engage in fishing, in raising rice, and in growing vegetables, especially onions. They trade fish to local Khmer for rice. The women in these villages earn money by weaving. The Cham who live inland support themselves by various means, depending on the village. Some villages specialize in metal working; others raise fruit trees or vegetables. The Cham also often serve as butchers of cattle for their Khmer Buddhist neighbors and are, in some areas, regarded as skillful water buffalo breeders.
Cham dress is distinctive. The main item of clothing for both sexes is a sarong-like garment called a batik, which is worn knotted at the waist. Men wear shirts over the batik, and women wear close-fitting blouses that are open at the throat and have tight sleeves. The characteristic headdress is a turban or scarf.
Cham society is matriarchal with matrilineal descent. There is some trace of an earlier clan system. Parents permit their daughters a considerable amount of freedom of choice in marriage. The parents of the girl usually make the marriage overtures to the boy. A Cham marriage involves little ceremony. Among the Muslim Cham, the girl's parents ask the groom if he accepts their daughter in marriage, and he is expected to answer yes. The imam acts as a witness. This simple ceremony is followed by a feast. Residence is matrilocal; the young man goes to live with his wife's family. Females inherit the family property.
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