cambodia, fragment

Cambodian Curses – Black Magic and Protest

I currently intend my next book-length work to be an investigation of ritual creativity and imagination in Cambodia, especially those involved with political action or social issues (this is in many ways the flipside of my current manuscript in revision, with the working title “Deathpower”).  As a result, I’m fascinated by the sudden and persistent “Black Magic” actions taken by urban land protesters (most of these cases seem associated with the Boeung Kak protesters).

Here’s a video from the Phnom Penh Post which includes a bit of video, though it doesn’t describe the ritual much more.

John Vink (his excellent photography tumblr is here) has a new set of pictures on his page relating to this. Here’s one of them.

John Vink photo of the Boeung Kak protesters’ ‘Cursing Ceremony.’

Vink has a full description on his page, and I encourage you to go check out the rest of his page: there are tons of pictures of his excellent coverage of land protests (and other issues), and he has an extremely good ipad app for sale on the itunes store called “Quest for Land” at a reasonable price.

Sahrika has a copy of an article from the Cambodia Daily newspaper which tells a similar story of another curse on June 12. Karen Coates briefly mentions a similar protest by the same group in mid-May of this year here (in one paragraph: search on the page for ‘chicken’ and you’ll find it buried in a piece on a much broader topic).

In all three cases, the material requirements resemble each other: salt, red chillies, effigies of the people to be cursed, hell money, and in two of the three cases (not Vink’s), chickens, described either as ‘rotting,’ or ‘splayed.’

A few intriguing elements, none of which I fully understand.

  • “Crucified Chickens” are the preferred gift/sacrifice to Yeay Deb (Grandmother Goddess), usually associated with Umā/Pārvatī (Shiva’s lover), occasionally (less often) with Durgā. Yeay Deb is considered by most to be a anak tā (a.w. neak ta, អ្នក​តា), or regional spirit. However, in the video above, the interviewed man (0’20 forward) says that the ritual is to ‘pray to the ārukkha-ārakkha-devatā (non-Buddhist spirits thought to be those that care for the forest) for justice. 
  • Anak Tā spirits can be involved in curses, like other ‘brahmanist’ (or simply, non-Buddhist) spirits.
  • Burning effigies is used in many rituals, including non-‘cursing’ ones, but especially in Chinese rituals, such as in many Chinese funerals, when a paper house is built and then burned in effigy after a waiting period, or in the burning of Hell Money on numerous religious holidays, etc.
  • The use of Hell Money in these cases seems to be for symbolic or visual consumption, rather than spiritual consumption: it’s stuffed into the pockets of the politician/businessmen effigies, indicating their corruption. Not the usual use of Hell Money (though there’s a really good argument about how Hell Money indicates fundamental ambivalence toward the dead).

Perhaps most interestingly is the fact that these curses are being done in public and on the side of moral right. This is extremely rare in my experience. Note that in John Vink’s pictures, some of the participants are holding up images of the Buddha, which is a very normal way of protecting oneself from the proximity of nasty, non-Buddhist spirits. You could think of it in this case like people wearing rubber gloves to handle something stinky, I suppose. The Buddha’s presence protects the protesters from the work they are doing (probably dangerous work!) with powerful but dubiously moral spirits. One spirit medium I know who is regularly possessed by Yeay Deb does in fact were full-arm rubber gloves to handle the ritual implements of her work.

I would really like to know what Khmer words these protesters are using to describe these rituals, and to interview them about how they came up with this configuration of elements. Were I able to get deeper interviews, I would want to know how many of these people regularly attend Buddhist temples, see fortunetellers or spirit mediums, whether they themselves consider these rituals as ‘street theater,’ ‘real, effective’ rituals, some combination, etc. Would they laugh nervously if I brought up Yeay Deb? If political theater, it would be interesting to compare to this ritual I wrote about a few years back – The Krung Palī ritual performed by Hun Sen’s wife and head of the Red Cross in Cambodia, Bun Rany, at Preah Vihear (Braḥ Vihāra) temple. This ritual was pretty explicitly not a curse, but was immediately seized upon by the Thai nationalist press as if it were one.

Have ideas? Please leave them in comments below!

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