Daily Archives: 26 September 2004

Ethnicity in Cambodia

Cambodia is the country in Southeast Asia with the smallest ethnic minority population, both relatively and in absolute numbers. Among about 10 million inhabitants almost 90 per cent are ethnic Khmer. Khmer dominance is ancient: for the Khmer, the kingdom of Angkor (ninth to fifteenth centuries) still remains very much the exemplary origin both of Khmer civilization and the Cambodian nation.

The ways in which governments, officials and elites in post-colonial Cambodia have perceived and treated the country’s non-Khmer ethnic groups reflect an attitude of Khmer supremacy. This attitude is not so much directed against other ethnic groups (except for the Vietnamese), as manifesting a profound ethnocentrism, a conviction that Khmer culture is superior to others. This ethnocentrism puts the Khmer in line with the constructivist view, as opposed to the essentialist …. Already at independence (1953) it was officially recognized that one could ‘become Khmer’ (coul kmae) by adopting the Khmer language and customs.

The Khmer see themselves as fundamentally agrarian, their primary crop, paddy rice, being not only the mainstay for all but an important symbol of the human condition in general. Consequently, the ideal society is one of rice-farming peasants. It was the Khmer Rouge that most explicitly pursued this ideal, but cities generally do not figure positively in the Khmer imagination. There is an implicit association between urban life and foreign, non-Khmer customs. From a Khmer perspective, the capital Phnom Penh is a place in some sense outside Khmer cultural space and inhabited mainly by ‘foreigners’. The traditional ‘foreigners’ in Cambodia are the Chinese and the Vietnamese, and these have always to a large extent been urban populations. The rural-urban dichotomy is thus a significant dimension of ethnic relations.

Historically Cambodia has felt politically and territorially pressed between its two more powerful neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Annam (Vietnam). Siamese armies contributed to the fall of Angkor in the late fifteenth century, and Cambodia was effectively under Siamese suzerainty for much of the period after this until becoming a French protectorate in 1863. Thailand temporarily annexed the northwestern provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap (where Angkor is located) during the Second World War; the name Siem Reap means ‘Siam conquered’, perhaps implying conquered both by and from Siam.

Nevertheless, since independence, the Cambodian governments and the Khmer educated elite have always regarded Vietnam and the Vietnamese as the big threat to Cambodian political, economic and territorial sovereignty, not Thailand and the Thais. Thus, the Khmer consider the Mekong Delta as kampuchea krom, a Cambodian territory unlawfully annexed by Vietnam. The Cambodian border provinces of Prey Veng and Svay Rieng have a significant Vietnamese rice-farming population who have settled (‘encroached’) in search of land. Vietnamese expansionism is a recurrent theme in Khmer propaganda.

The main cultural divide running through Indochina is that which divides mainland Southeast Asia between the ‘Indianized’ states of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and the ‘Sinicized’ Vietnam. This cultural divide may explain why the attitude of the Khmer towards the Vietnamese is significandy different from that towards the Thai. So, also culturally speaking, both Vietnamese and Chinese are perceived as foreign. But in contrast to the Chinese, the Vietnamese in Cambodia are regarded by the majority of the Khmer as intruders, whose presence in the country many perceive as a threat to the Khmer-ness of the nation. Although the Vietnamese do not form one coherent ethnic community, the Khmer nationalist elite, who have pursued anti-Vietnamese propaganda since independence, have tended to ignore this fact, and little allowance has been made for the diversity of Vietnamese communities within the ethnic category ‘Vietnamese’. Consequently, all members of this category have been victims of violent persecutions in recent Cambodian history.

SOURCE: “Cambodia,” by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 194-195

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Cambodia’s Cham Minorities

The name Cham indicates a purported origin in the ‘Hinduized’ kingdom of Champa that occupied the coast of present-day Vietnam until the Vietnamese destroyed its capital in 1471, reducing it to its southernmost principalities. At this time the Cham underwent a gradual and partial conversion to Islam through the influence of the coastal trade of Arab, Persian and Indian merchants.

The ethnic label Cham in Cambodia covers virtually all the country’s Muslims. They number about 230,000, many of them traders. The Khmer view the Cham with apprehension because of a reputation for possessing strong magic. At the same time, both Khmer and Cham believe the latter belong firmly in Cambodian society, and as a well established Cambodian minority they are ‘good to think with’, as their land was once conquered by the Vietnamese and they thus exemplify a fate that many Khmer fear may one day become Cambodia’s.

Three separate groups may be distinguished within the Cham ethnic category. The Cham proper trace their ancestry to the Champa kingdom, but emphasize their religion (Islam) rather than their historical origins as their main defining feature. Most still speak the Cham language, which belongs to the Austronesian family [and appears most closely related the language of Aceh, Indonesia], but all are bilingual in Khmer. They are found mainly in Kampong Cham, Kampot and north of Phnom Penh.

A second group is referred to as ‘Chvea’, which is the Khmer word for ‘Java’, suggesting a penultimate origin in the Malay-Indonesian area. Today they speak Khmer. They prefer to call themselves not ‘Chvea’ but ‘Khmer Islam’ – stressing both their linguistic and national belonging and their separate religion, rather than their ‘foreign’ origin.

Both these groups are recipients of various forms of Islamic aid from the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Arab Emirates) as well as from Malaysia. The aid consists of schoolbooks and religious literature in Arabic, and contributions to building schools, mosques and wells. It also involves annual travel funds for some prominent members of local communities to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Cham and Chvea welcome this attention from the world Islamic community, feeling it gives international recognition to their importance as Cambodian Muslims.

The third group of Cham are the Jahed. Although Muslims, they identify themselves primarily in terms of their historical origins in the Champa kingdom. Their ancestors formed part of an exodus from a Champa principality after its ruler’s defeat by the Vietnamese in 1692. Today they number about 23,000 people, all speaking Cham, but most being bilingual in Khmer. In terms of religion, the Jahed belong to a minority within the Muslim population. Their somewhat unorthodox version of Islam (superimposed on a basically Hindu type of cosmology and influenced by Sufi traditions) sets them apart from the other Muslims groups in Cambodia, the Chvea and the Cham. Their possession cult featuring the spirits of their royal ancestors in Champa still flourishes, another sign of their unorthodox approach to Islam.

The Jahed are adamant in following the Muslim customs they have preserved from Champa. Central among these are the weekly prayer meetings at the mosque (instead of the five daily prayers of orthodox Muslims), the use of the Cham language (rather than Arabic) for prayers, and the preservation of their religious literature in the Cham script. In the long run it is doubtful that these traditions will survive, as orthodox Islamic missionaries exert pressure through promises of financial support for mosque-building and distribution of cheaply printed prayer books in Arabic.

SOURCE: “Cambodia,” by Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), pp. 204-206

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