Originating from Champa, a kingdom which extended from Hue to Phan Thiet on the coast of present-day Vietnam, the Cham are the largest minority ethnic group in Cambodia, numbering around 700,000, and thus accounting for about a third of the non-Khmer population. They also represent the largest minority religion, being Sunni Muslims who converted from Hinduism some time after the fourteenth century.

Historically, the Cham were frequently at war both with the Khmer, who bordered their kingdom to the west and south, and the Vietnamese, who occupied the territory to the north. In 1177, the Cham successfully raided Angkor, only to be defeated by the intervention of Jayavarman VII in a ferocious battle on the Tonle Sap – an event depicted in the bas-reliefs at the Bayon temple. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Champa had effectively ceased to exist, due to the gradual whittling away of their territory by the Vietnamese, and many Cham fled to Cambodia. The traditional Cham – who retain many of the old beliefs and rituals, but acknowledge non-Islamic gods – make up about two-thirds of Cambodia’s Cham population. They settled around the Tonle Sap, along the central rivers, and in what is now Kompong Cham province. The orthodox Cham, who are more similar to Muslims in other Islamic countries, settled around Oudong, Kampot and Takeo. Establishing their own villages, they took up fishing, breeding water buffalo, silver-smithery and weaving, activities that the vast majority still practise today. Their villages can easily be identified by the presence of a mosque and Islamic school, and by the absence of pigs.

The Cham were not spared by the Khmer Rouge: easily picked out because of their Islamic dress and distinctive features (they seldom married outsiders) they were either massacred or persecuted – often by being forced to eat pork – and their mosques were destroyed. However, this has been the only ill-treatment they have experienced in Cambodia, where in spite of speaking their own language (Cham) and maintaining separate traditions, there are no racial tensions – even after a raid in 2003 on an Islamic school to the north of Phnom Penh resulted in three foreign teachers being expelled from the country for their links to the Saudi-backed terrorist group Jemah Islamiyah.

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