Last week I featured a piece on the Phnom Penh post by anthropologist David Lempert about the Cham and statelessness, which suggest how archaeology can help the Cham reconnect with their lost heritage. Three scholars working in Cambodia (one of which is Alison in Cambodia) reply with their disagreements to the archaeological examples in Lempert’s argument.
[22 October update: You can find the full-length article (as the Phnom Penh Post article was cut for space) in Alison’s site here.]
Identity beyond origin: The Cham
Phnom Penh Post, 17 October 2008
Firstly, the Cham are discussed as if they were a uniform group, possessed of a single history. Even when Champa existed, it consisted of different city-states with a sphere of influence that included a coastal area as well as upland peoples related to today’s Jarai and Rhade. Today the Cham continue to be a diverse group. And while there is a tendency to adopt intellectual currents originating in the wider Muslim world, there are still Cham that maintain a sense of connection to Champa. The recent festival this week honoring Imam San, who established the Muslim community in Udong, and the wealth of folk histories throughout the country that name Champa as a homeland, demonstrate that the Cham are not suffering from historical amnesia.
Secondly, there is the question of the archaeological record. Lempert proposes Cambodia as a place for a Cham homeland by drawing on archaeological evidence, but with his tenuous examples Lempert appears to instead be co-opting Khmer history so that it may be given to the Cham. It goes without saying that no Southeast Asian community existed in a vacuum; there was always interaction between different civilisations. However, Lempert’s broad statements, such as that the Cham “taught” Khmers goldworking based purely on similarities in vocabulary, is deeply problematic.
For archaeologists who study pre-Angkorian Cambodia and Funan, there is no strong evidence that the Cham “jointly gave birth to the Oc Eo – Phu Nan [sic] civilisation” as Lempert states. The first self-identifying reference to Champa civilization does not appear until the late sixth century AD on an inscription in My Son, Vietnam. Lempert proposes archaeological sites, such as Sambor Prei Kuk, as the centre for a Khmer-Cham reconciliation site – ideal because it “may have had Cham influence”. While there was most likely interaction between the two regions, there is insufficient evidence to declare Sambor Prei Kuk a joint Khmer-Cham site. What is certain is that the Cham have a strong archaeological history, whose study is underdeveloped. Rather than proposing to adopt Khmer history, Lempert should call for more research on Champa civilisation while training a new generation of Cham archaeologists.
Thirdly, Lempert ignores what reaction the Khmer public would likely have if his suggestions were to be implemented. Even talking of a Cham homeland would strengthen fears that the Cham are not loyal citizens. Attributing joint Khmer-Cham authorship to the architectural legacy upon which much of Cambodia’s sense of nationhood is constructed would also be poorly received. We need only recall the firestorm of criticism unleashed when last year it was suggested that king Jayavarman VII might have been half-Cham to predict what the probable reaction will be. Khmers already feel embattled enough holding off the Thais at the border. They are unlikely to appreciate yet another rival making claims to their cultural patrimony.
– Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta: Place and Mobility in the Cosmopolitan Periphery (Southeast Asia Publications Series)
– Temples of Champa in Vietnam =: Thap Cham Viet Nam
– Cham Sculpture of the Tourane Museum Danang Vietnam
– Cham ruins: Journey in search of an ancient civilization
– Indian Sculpture Masterpieces of Indian, Khmer and Cham Art
– Cham Art
– From Ancient Cham to Modern Dialects: Two Thousand Years of Language Contact and Change : With an Appendix of Chamic Reconstructions and Loanwords (Oceanic Linguistics Special Publications)
– The Art of Champa (Temporis)
– The Champa Kingdom; The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture
– Proceedings of the Seminar on Champa
– Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia
– Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia (Archaeology of Southeast Asia)