“Maybe the dead were starving…”

Excellent two-part documentary from Al Jazeera on the ongoing Cambodian tribunal of the Khmer Rouge. There’s little discussion (but some) on the extremely limited number of leaders in the dock, but some great discussion. The talented Nic Dunlop, author of The Lost Executioner, takes lead on this report.

In the clip above, starting at about 10:43, note the following quote, which is characteristic of the way in which people have talked to me about ghosts and the dead during the Khmer Rouge period (Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979). Seng Yao, 81 year old survivor of prison camp M-99, says

At least ten prisoners died each morning and we would take the bodies away. We kept moving the corpses. I was not afraid of ghosts at that time. I would sometimes sleep on graves but ghosts did not haunt me. Maybe the ghosts did not have the energy left to haunt us because they died of starvation.

[Note that the speech in Khmer is actually somewhat less conditional about the reasoning]

I only interviewed a few survivors of Khmer Rouge prisons during my fieldwork. But such expressions and reasoning about ghosts were common among many survivors, not just former prisoners.  I was frequently told that “there were no ghosts during the Pol Pot time,” because “they had nothing to eat.” I had a hard time understanding this at first, because it was my assumption that whenever there was mass death there would necessarily be more ghosts, not fewer.

But the explanations I received were consistent with what Seng Yao expresses in the documentary clip above. In January 2005, an 85 year old man in rural Kompong Cham province expressed it this way:

When the country is rich, there are lots of ghosts. When there is nothing to eat, what will the ghosts eat? Nowadays, there are lots more ghosts than during the Pol Pot time.

Note that the reciprocity between humans and the dead is assumed to be the basis of the ‘health’ of the dead, and that the basis of this reciprocity is food. This point underlies almost all my work thus far on death and deathpower in Cambodia.


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