Few Cham people know how to read and write in their language, and even fewer are interested in learning about the legacy of their ancestors. But Leb Ke is different.
One of the leading Cham language and culture specialists in Cambodia, Mr Ke is working hard to preserve the Cham identity.
Faced with the challenge of encouraging young people to explore their heritage, Mr Ke has created Cham fonts for Android smartphone keyboards, hoping it will inspire a change in the way they communicate.
By the end of this year, he plans to publish a 2,500-word Cham to Khmer language glossary.
Mr Ke fears the value of the Cham identity is declining in communities, since Cham people do not understand their heritage and fail to educate themselves about it.
“Cham people should place more value on their own language and should carry out research regarding their alphabet, literature and culture,” Mr Ke said.
The 37-year-old has written six books on Cham literature for the Cultural Heritage of Cham Language organisation.
His team spent two years producing just one Cham language book, since there are few documents remaining on Cham culture.
Mr Ke admits that Cham people lack access to resources to carry out research, since most educated Cham people were killed during the Khmer Rouge era, while piles of important documents were destroyed.
He said elderly people at the time packed up and buried some documents in the ground to keep them safe, but most were damaged.
Mr Ke’s books have helped teach more than 3,000 young students in Cham communities to read and write, while about 20,000 people across the country are familiar with his work.
Cham people represent the core of Muslim communities in Cambodia, with more than 200,000 members of the ethnic group nationwide.
Mr Ke and his team have also introduced Cham language learning programmes to almost 20 communities, supported by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“We want people to be able to read the Cham language and recognise the alphabet,” said Mr Ke, who hopes a young generation of Cham people will continue his work.
Mr Ke, who was born in a Cham community in Kampong Chhnang province, said there were no formal school classes for teaching Cham literature, but he learned to read and write the language with elderly people in his village when he was a boy.
“When I was young I went to listen to the older people in my village telling stories about Cham culture and history, and reciting beautiful poems about education and life. It made me more curious to know about my identity as a Cham person,” Mr Ke said.
That curiosity encouraged him to start collecting Cham books and materials.
He said the elders in his village always told him he must work hard if he wanted to preserve the identity of the Cham people.
He borrowed books about Cham culture and history from older people in his village to read and copy.
“I copied the books by hand, page by page, because I could not borrow them for long,” said Mr Ke, who has been able to read and write in Cham since the age of 12.
He noted the majority of Cham communities where people can still read and write are in Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Kratie provinces, with about 10 percent of Cham people in Cambodia being able to read the language.
“Some Cham people have abandoned their language now,” said Mr Ke, who one day hopes there will be a Cham language newspaper, warning the culture will fade away without strong action to preserve it.
“Literature helps make religions and cultures more beautiful,” added Mr Ke, who has travelled to several countries to give lectures about Cham identity.
He said many Cham people feel that being identified by their ethnic group is disrespectful, now preferring to be known as Khmer Muslims.
However Mr Ke argued that being Cham is separate to being Muslim.
Cham is an ethnicity not a religion, but people are confused when they hear the word Cham and think all Chams are Muslim, he said.
“It is nonsense when you call Cham people Khmer Muslims. Cham is Cham,” he said.
“If we embrace Islam, we should ask ourselves which ethnicity we are – Cham, Javan or Khmer.”
He argued that some Cham people unknowingly rid themselves of their identities by the way they dress and live their lives.
Mr Ke, whose name is not traditionally Cham, said Cham parents prefer to name their children in Malay or Arabic. Few Cham language names remain, other than nicknames.
“When the minority of parents do give their children a Cham name, others criticise and say the names are not beautiful. It shows that Cham language has been devalued,” he said.
He added he regrets the fact his parents called him an Arabic name as opposed to Cham.
Speaking at a lecture organised by the Buddhist Institute last month, Mr Ke said Cham families, particularly in cities, were often embarrassed to speak their language outside the home.
He called on Cham people to band together to save the language, vowing he would fight to save the culture until last breath.