The Cham: Descendants of Ancient Rulers of South China Sea Watch Maritime Dispute From Sidelines


Tensions in the South China Sea reignited last month, when China deployed a government-owned oil drilling rig in an area also claimed by Vietnam just south of the Paracel Islands.

Anti-China protesters broke into and torched Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean factories in southern Vietnam. According to media reports, as many as 21 people died in the chaos, and more than a hundred were injured. Thousands of Chinese workers fled the country.

Under dispute are the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, which are mostly uninhabited, and a central region of the South China Sea, which is home to overlapping claims by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

But the dispute between Vietnam and China is grabbing the most attention. Both have referred to historical ties with the islands, in China’s case dating to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), to support their claims in the region.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam the roughly 160,000 members of the Cham ethnic minority, whose forebears dominated the South China Sea for more than a millennium, are quietly on the sidelines of the escalating conflict.

Two centuries after their then-diminished dominion ended violently at the hands of Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang, the Cham remain wary of engaging in such disputes, the current version of which is a reminder of the symbolic and economic importance of the South China Sea and of the Cham culture that once was enriched by trade across it.

Read more: