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!


Link Dump for October 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post anything here; on the other hand, my book writing is going well. Here are some things that I wanted to post here, with very little commentary.  Just getting caught up:

General Academic, and Religious Studies, Links

Ever curious about what the Religious Studies Book Review is really for? What it’s supposed to accomplish? Or, how to write one? Here’s the first third of a good essay on the topic! The Nature and Function of the Religious Studies Book Review (Part 1 of 3): Writing the Book Review

This excellent visualization of the relative isolation of various academic departments. Hint: anthro is very isolated!

As the financing and operation of the higher education industry becomes an increasingly heated topic, expect more radical discussions, or even (as here, pretty conservative discussions of radical topics) like this – “Do Faculty Strikes Work?” – in places like Inside Higher Ed.

Here’s a nice piece on “New Religious Movements” as an interpretive category. Good to read, for those interested in religion and innovation.

Good advice for the adoption of a ‘Five Year Plan’ strategy (with important distancing rhetoric from the USSR and the PRC!) for academic careers, from Kerim Friedman over at Savage Minds.

This brutal quote about Gender and Success in the Academy, from Kate Clancy’s excellent “The three things I learned at the Purdue Conference for Pre-Tenure Women: on being a radical scholar”:

To be clear, it’s not that academia weeds out the weak. The research on attrition for women and people of color indicates it’s not that women who leave are not confident, or are weak, but that they know their self-worth and have decided they’d rather take their toys to another sandbox where they’ll actually be appreciated.
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.

Buddhism Links

Those following the fascinating development of Ven. Luon Savath, Khmer Buddhist monk currently promoting “Engaged Buddhism” in Cambodia and receiving a lot of negative pressure from authorities as a result, will be interested to know that Ven. Savath has his own page, and hosts live and recorded lectures there.

Prof. Bryan Cuevas, whose work on death and the afterlife in Buddhism is the subject of a new book by him, is interviewed in an hour-long interview on the great site, New Books in Buddhist Studies!

General Funereal Studies

A good critique of the interminably stupid iGrief masquerading as compassion in the world, with the passing of Steve Jobs. I certainly wish the man no ill, and do not begrudge him compassion, but am more than a little disturbed at the hagiographical saint-making going on here, when videos like this one, below, are almost completely ignored.

A gorgeous HDR photo of a Japanese cemetery should be seen by all (from the astonishingly wonderful “Stuck in Customs“)

A small burial site found in Northern Vietnam, changing the way we think about pre-history.

Arch West, the inventor of Doritos, passed. Doritos were sprinkled on his grave. Rest in Powdery Flavor, Arch.

The great Khmer language scholar Khin Sok, also recently passed. The world of Khmer studies is considerably poorer for his passing. Rest In Peace, Lokkru.

Some Random Stuff

For my upcoming “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class, a book I’d like to read: “The Inquisitor’s Apprentice.”

And, a lovely piece from on “love, duty, and marriage in a Thai novel,” on the novelist Siburapha’s “Behind the Painting,” originally published in 1938, and translated into English by David Smyth.


Sounding Cambodia on August 2, 2011

  • 8-year-old dies after explosion at cremation in Cambodia
  • Alison In Cambodia blogs summer fieldwork
  • Baphuon Reconstruction Completed!
  • Pansukula for Chea Vichea in France
  • Professor Sorpong Peou discovers his father is alive, ater 35 years.
more after the jump…

Sounding Cambodia for June 6 2011

The end of the semester got away from me folks, which means that today’s Sounding Cambodia will consist of a lot of links, videos, and topics, with minimal commentary. Lots of important stuff in there, though.  Go read!

  • Sand mountains during Khmer New Year (Video)
  • Cash pledges from politicians – exactly what is going on?
  • Violence against Cambodian Labor by the government
  • Interviews with Rich Garella of Who Killed Chea Vichea?
  • Nuon Chea and Cases 002 and 003 in the Extraordinary Chambers/Khmer Rouge Tribunal
  • Would you like some Borax with your Cambodian food?  Formalin? You’re welcome.
  • Tiny Toones NGO – “Hey Babe” video.
  • Cambodian Rice Exports to the Philippines
  • Judy Ledgerwood’s awesome Summer ethnography school in Cambodia
  • Damned Dams and their impacts on damned-near everything; an article in Critical Asian Studies by Ian Baird
  • Book Review of Constance Wilson’s edited volume on the Middle Mekong River Basin
  • Thai Politics – an election primer from Duncan McCargo
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Sounding on Religion, April 15, 2011

Welcome to Tax Day, if you’re in the United States. They say that only two things in this world are certain: death and taxes. I concentrate on death, of course, and at any rate, there are lots of people who get away without paying taxes at all. I am not among them, more’s the pity.

So, while some of us are working towards one of life’s supposed ubiquities (taxes), here are a few stories that have to do with religion.

  • Star Trek Hypothesis
  • Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President argues that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Marxism are demonstrations of Satanic Power.
  • “America’s Top Exorcist,” a rather lurid CNN video piece in which the Vatican’s chief American exorcist, and inspiration for new movie “The Rite,” is given the mini-biopic treatment. This would be uninteresting and just another case of lurid religion-movie tie-ins in the media (especially around horror-genre films), except that I’ve recently become interested in the immense rise in the number of officially credentialed exorcists in the Catholic Church in the last few years, and the scary rise in exorcisms generally.
  • Mayan Corn God/Jester God images discovered
  • Prehistoric Burial Sites in PNG
  • Robert Fisk on Secular Popular Revolts Not Backed By Secret Islamists
  • “A Taxonomy of Gods”
  • The Trot Dance Ritual in Khmer New Year celebrations (Khmer language video)
  • Mike Huckabee interview with Jon Stewart
  • 7 Best Unintentionally Sexual Church Signs
Actual links and comments after the jump

Sounding on Cambodia, April 11, 2011

I’ve started a new practice here on Imagining the Real World.  I’ve always used the “Sounding” tag to indicate a group of links to other internet-materials that are associated with each other by a particular subject matter: Cambodia, Buddhism, The Academy, Religious Studies, etc., etc.

However, starting today, I’m going to assign specific days of the week to specific topics.  While some will come and go for the current period, Mondays will be my chance to Sound Off on links related to Cambodian Topics, Wednesday will look at Buddhism, and Friday will look at Religious Studies.

So, what’s on tap for the first thusly-organized Sounding on Cambodia?: Khmer Martial Arts (Bradal Serey), Expats and Global Apartheid, the online publication of sections of the Astrological Yearbook for the Khmer New Year (comin’ up, comin’ up!), a new website on Khmer Manuscripts (huzzah!), Border conflict with Thailand, Draft Laws on NGOs and Unions, and the implosion of the Sam Rainsy Party.

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TEACH: Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia

I’m very pleased that I have been awarded a grant from the Presidential Initiative on Curricular Renewal (PICR) here at Macalester College. The topic of this year’s PICR grants was ‘sustainability,’ and the class for which I received the grant is titled Ritual and Ecology in Southeast Asia.

Here’s the description of the class from the grant proposal (after the jump):

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