The situation in Syria today is breaking many hearts. It’s also deeply distressing to those of us whose faith in the future relies on humanity’s ability to learn from its past mistakes.

There are people on the Left who are openly supporting Assad, Putin, and even Trump – and frankly, cackling over what appears to be the death throes – often quite literal ones – of all organized resistance to the murderous regime of Assad, ranging from resistance groups most of us would be horrified at, to those we might consider critically supporting.

I am confused as to why some on the left, who are very well-educated and often have decades of experiences on which to reflect, continue to pretend that the horrors of authoritarian left regimes are illusory, exaggerated, or acceptable in the face of US Imperialism.

I’ve met folks holding positions like these before. It’s not company you want to keep, or be classified among:

DSC00818 Erik and Nuon Chea

This is where history seems important. You’d think people who talk about historical materialism would agree. That’s a picture of a sullen-looking, much younger looking me, and Nuon Chea. Nuon Chea was “Brother Number Two” after Pol Pot, and the man considered most responsible for the estimated 1.7 million deaths of the period of Democratic Kampuchea (“Khmer Rouge”). People supported the Khmer Rouge for the same reason that many authoritarian leftists today are supporting Assad.

I think that the reason the ‘marxist-leninsts’ (Stalinists, mostly), maoists, and some trostkyist groups, find themselves supporting genocidal and mass-murderous regimes, is that  give is that they see these people acting against the imperialist actions of the United States. So, by the traditional binary logic that identifies one’s friends among the enemies of one’s enemies, authoritarian anti-imperial leftists around the world have thrown their support to this bizarre and bloodthirsty set of leaders, who now stand in for the Syrian people themselves.

When this strategy of substituting political leaders for actual human beings at the level of political discussion succeeds, perhaps it becomes hard to see that one is justifying horror.

I won’t tell you what should happen in Syria. I’m not so arrogant as to expect that my opinions are worth basing an entire country’s population’s lives on them. I also won’t keep my mouth shut about the horrors that are happening.

I am on the anti-authoritarian left, so perhaps my appeal will still come off as predictable and unserious to those on the left who are applauding the destruction of Eastern Aleppo and hailing the new alliance between Assad, Putin, and Trump, as a victory for Anti-Imperialism.

I do not mean to be predictable. I do mean to be consistent. So I respectfully ask that if you are one of those people who honestly embraces the idea that a victory for Assad is a defeat for United States imperialism, that you consider these thoughts on your own time.
One can oppose US Imperialism without supporting mass murder.

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A Cambodianist’s Note on Syria

A brief note from a student of Cambodia on the authoritarian left, and why people might want to be more careful about the company they keep, and support.

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Buddha Relics Stolen, Recovered. Implications?

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Then-King NORODOM Sihanouk holding the koṭṭha (urn) containing the Buddha’s relics

Back on December 9-10, 2013, in the midst of ongoing conflicts between the CNRP and the CPP over the disputed elections, and separate but connected mass garment worker strikes, physical relics of the Buddha, supposed to contain hair, bone, and ashes of the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, were stolen. Yesterday, February 6, 2014, police claimed to have recovered these relics in Takeo province. Before proceeding to links and discussion, it might be useful to discuss the concept of relics in general. More after the jump:

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2013 Elections and Social Change

So the elections are finally over. The CPP retained enough seats to form a majority government on its own, though it lost so much ground to the CNRP that some are calling the results a “wake up call” for the CPP [Phnom Penh Post, 2].

All in all, given the (different types of) threats of violence, this may be the best possible outcome. The next 5 years will provide evidence one way or the other. Meanwhile, I expect the nastiness from folks who do literally nothing but complain in private, but scream nastily at everyone they know (and lots of strangers) during election season, to drop off.

Which is part of the problem, actually. Not the absence of nastiness, which is rarely useful, but the absence of real engagement. More than anything else, representational politics encourage disengagement, punctuated by shrieking madness around every election. When political parties seem like the only possible route for change, more substantial and positive ways of improving the world are ignored. I’ve heard that Facebook is ‘the’ place to be for the Cambodian election, but I left Facebook during the last American election, when people who hadn’t done a lick of organizing or work to improve society in four years suddenly started accusing all their friends of being on the wrong side of history. Then, a week afterwards, they were back to watching sitcoms and guzzling diet soda. This version of politics is entertainment. Distraction. Not change. Continue reading

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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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John Burgess’ ‘A Woman of Angkor’

I’ve just received a copy of John Burgess’ new novel, A Woman of Angkor, published by River Books. This book intends to be a historical novel that takes the regular people of the ancient Khmer kingdoms as seriously as most take the rulers.

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It also comes highly recommended by folks with reputations, at least judging this particular book by the blurbs on its cover, including lauds from archaeologist Michael Coe, and art historian and Angkor tour guide author Dawn Rooney.

Most promising in terms of its writing style, however, is the lovely quote from John le Carre:

Burgess has done something that I believe is unique in modern writing: set a credible and seemingly authentic tale in the courts and temples of ancient Angkor to stir the imagination and excite our historical interest.

I’m looking forward to reading it in my spare free moments, and would love to hear from readers in the comments if they have read it, or might read it along with me.

The chapters are generally quite short, so I’m going to set very modest pace of 1-2 chapters a day. I’ll write up my comments below, as well.

edit: I’ve decided against summarizing in the comments below, both to preserve against spoilers, and to allow for a more summary writeup at the end.

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Go Check out the ChamAttic

My friend and colleague Emiko Stock is one of the rising generation of serious scholars of Cham culture and society. She has a blog and is a visual anthropologist, which means her blog is not only fascinating and important, but nice to look at.

Here’s a link to a recent, visual-heavy post, in which she documents an exhibit she put on of photos of the Cham community she studies from the 1960s, for that same community today. It’s worth a whole read.

 

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