PHNOM PENH — Growing up as a child in an ethnic Cham community in Kampong Chhnang province, Leb Ke was raised with Cham as his mother tongue, while traditional Cham songs were often sung by the people of his home village.
As he grew older, however, he began to realize that fewer and fewer of his fellow villagers continued to speak and read Cham.
This decline brought on a deep concern for his native culture and motivated Leb Ke to study and preserve the Cham language and script.
“Most of the community only still uses the traditional Cham script for religious purposes,” he told VOA Khmer, adding that fewer than 10 percent could still read the ancient Indic Cham script, also called Kha Kha, that is used in the local Islamic manuscript tradition.
Leb Ke, 39, is now a linguist student and Cham language researcher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. He has published several books on Cham literature and has been involved in projects to preserve the language and old texts.
Leb Ke also designed a Cham-font keyboard for both smartphone and computer usage in an effort to support the continued daily use of the language.
A major reason for the decline of the native tongue of Cambodia’s main Muslim minority is its tragic history. The increasing dominance of modern Khmer and a lack of Cham language classes in state or religious schools cause many youths to lose their language, according to community members.
“Less than 10 percent of the children in class can speak the language, despite coming from Cham-descendant families,” said Ly Fatel, vice-principal of an Islamic religious school located in Kilometre 8 Commune in Phnom Penh.
“Most study materials [at Islamic schools] are translated into Khmer from Arabic or Malay,” said Ly Fatel, while ancient Cham texts are often excluded from the curriculum.
A Tragic History
The Cham in Cambodia number around 220,000, according to Jean-Michel Filippi, a linguistics professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and have been recognized by the government as a minority in recent decades.
In Cambodia, many Cham traditionally live near rivers where they make living from subsistence fishing, which has rendered them poor and vulnerable.
The Cham have one of the oldest histories and languages in mainland Southeast Asia.
The medieval Hindu Champa Kingdom, based in present-day southern Vietnam, was a major rival to Angkor. As the Vietnamese marched south in over the centuries, the kingdom was eventually annexed by 1832.
Nowadays, the Cham only remain in small pockets in Vietnam, where they still practice their old Hindu and Brahmanic religions, while many others converted to Islam and fled to Cambodia and Malaysia.
During the late King Sihanouk's rule from 1955 to 1970, the Cham were termed “Khmer Islam” to set them apart as a religious minority within the Cambodian nation, according to Filippi.
The Khmer Rouge regime targeted the Cham during its 1970s reign of terror and more than a third of the population was killed, an even higher share than the 25-percent death rate among the Buddhist Khmer majority, said So Farina, a Cham history researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
The Khmer Rouge also tried to wipe out Cham culture by destroying religious schools, mosques, Qurans, and ancient texts about Champa, and by prohibiting Cham names and language.
“In addition to the mass killings, the Cham people were forced out of their identity, as they could not speak the language or follow their traditions like [Islamic] diet and praying,” So Farina said.
In 2018, the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia declared that the Khmer Rouge regime had committed genocide against the Cham, as well as the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia.
The Cham in Cambodia comprise two communities with different Cham dialects and religious practices.
About 30,000, who live in villages in Kompong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang provinces, belong to the Imam Sann Cham, also called the Cham Sot (Pure Cham), who follow a mix of ancient Champa traditions and Islamic practices in which they pray only once a week, according to Filippi.
The group maintains a rich Islamic manuscript tradition that includes religious texts and poetry in the Kha Kha script.
The majority of Cham follow mainstream Islamic practice that is heavily influenced by Malaysian customs. They have switched to writing in the Arabic Jawi script used in Malaysia and pray five times per day.
This group - unlike the more heterodox Imam Sann Cham - also received funding from Muslim countries in recent years.
This Cham majority, who live mostly in Kampong Cham and scattered around the country, have become more removed from the Cham language and Champa traditions after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, according to Filippi.
“In religion, they don’t use Cham language, they speak Arabic or Malay. And for everyday life they use Khmer. That does not leave much space for the Cham language,” he told VOA Khmer.
So Farina, from DC-Cam, said the growing influence of international mainstream Muslim practices among the Cham “could overpower the community traditions. Sometimes due to [mainstream] religious restrictions, people might stop traditional practices they used to do.”
Leb Ke, whose family adheres to Cham Sot customs, said the two different traditions among the Cham also causes confusion among the Khmer, who sometimes think that the Muslim group’s culture comes from overseas.
“In Cambodia, whenever people hear about the Cham language, they think of Malay or Arabic language instead,” he told a conference on “Language and Identity” held at the Institut Français Du Cambodge in April this year. “Even worse, people confuse the authentic Cham script with the Arabic letters.”
‘Unknown to the Younger Generation’
A few years ago, Leb Ke and his team, with support from the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, introduced a Cham-language teaching program to teach it to students at schools in communities in Phnom Penh and several provinces, including Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Cham, and Tboung Khmom.
Since the project concluded in 2017, Leb Ke said he has been working to revive old Cham manuscripts that were spared from the destruction by the Khmer Rouge. His team also plans to publish a 1000-word glossary in Cham language.
“We still carry on the preservation words, but as of now, we lack financial support and human resources,” said Leb Ke. “We want to do the works as best as possible, not just to get it over with,” he added.
Some young Cham are aware of the dire situation of their language and culture, and they would like to have more opportunities for studying their traditions.
Peat Pulla, 23, a fourth-year student in tourism and hospitality management at Norton University in Phnom Penh, said, “The traditional Cham letter has vanished from the Khmer-Muslim community for a while now, though lately there has been some effort to restore, it is still is not available in Phnom Penh.”
He comes from Imam Sann Cham community in Kratie Province, where he said the Cham language is still in daily use, though the literacy in and preservation of local Islamic manuscripts in Kha Kha is declining.
“I am worried that the traditional Cham script will be neglected and remain unknown to the younger generation. Sometimes, even if youths want to learn more about it, it is hard to find an institution where we can study it properly,” Peat Pulla said.
Learning the script, he said, “is a responsibility that I have to fulfill. It is our identity from the former Champa Kingdom. Even though we have lost our territory, we still have to protect our identity as much as we could.”