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!

Sounding Cambodia for June 17, 2011

Limited engagement here, as my energies are being absorbed elsewhere. Here are some links regarding Cambodia that you should read.

  • Ang Choulean awarded Fukuoka Prize!
  • Mass Faintings at Factories
  • Primitive accumulation and National Forest Reserve given to Rubber Plantation company
  • Violent Land Evictions in Kompong Speu
  • Angelina Jolie photo
  • Bamboo Trains! Continue reading

Cambodia Sounding for August 16, 2010

Some stories I’ve been following lately, or that just caught my eye:

Lower Mekong Archaeology Project (LoMAP) gets some more much-deserved attention from Bora Touch, whose original article, “The Mekong Delta Before Angkor: origins, landscapes and emergent complexity,” was retitled in their classically nationalistic style here. Very much worth a read.

The Mirror, a Cambodian Newspaper translation blog online, run by Norbert Klein, has been doing its important work more frequently, and with more precision, sometimes lining of a sort of “We Said/They Said” set of quotes to attempt to set stories straight, among other crucial issues.  Go check them out and subscribe to the feed. Some stories from the Mirror recently:

And just for fun, some local Christian group in California has received its 15 minutes of fame and made lots of self-aggrandizing comments about their work.  Check it out here, in “Christians Fight Evils For Kids In Cambodia.”  Since I just accidentally ran across some particularly awful manuals for missionization of Sino-Khmer in Cambodia, this struck me as just dumb and rude, but perhaps I’m over-reacting.

Sounding on Cambodia, March 19, 2010

Funded by the US State Department and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, Undercover UXO is designed to run on the “One Laptop Per Child XO laptop.” The game will provide a consequence-free learning environment that teaches kids how to identify UXOs and report them to inspectors.

  • A lay nun burned herself inside the confines of Watt Ounalom in Phnom Penh.  If you click through, beware that the photo is pretty horrific. The reasons for this tragic action remain unclear, though there is a lot of speculation; the woman, whose current status has not been reported to my knowledge, was taken to Calmette Hospital.
  • Anne Elizabeth Moore has another excellent article on Cambodian Garment Workers. Moore has a relatively privileged perspective here, having lived as a dorm supervisor for a few months in Cambodia for the Harpswell Foundation.  The article, a followup to the last one written by Moore at Truthout, focuses on the Messenger Band, a band composed of current and former garment workers.  There’s audio on the site as well – go check it out! I cried at my computer when I read this part:

Members of the Messenger Band

Members of the Messenger Band

As garment factories close, more and more women enter the sex industry by working at the karaoke bars. You have a song about this.

Vun Em: When the factories close down, some girls will go to become entertainment workers, and HIV will spread out around. But why don’t [the NGOs] care about their living life? Why they don’t care about their family? Why they don’t care about the security of those people? Why they care only about HIV? [She starts to cry.] I don’t know, I don’t understand.

We also care about HIV, but you have to think about the lives of the people, not only HIV. If the people don’t have enough food to eat, if they don’t have enough education, if they don’t have good health, how can they prevent themselves from the HIV? They don’t have time to think about HIV, they only have time to think, I need food, I need food. All the time.

  • Land grabs continue – possibly the most important issue for Cambodians living in Cambodia – especially those whose ability to directly feed themselves is dependent upon their land.  In Kompong Speu (Starfruit Province), approximately 1,000 farmers rallied to protest the grabs.  Some farmers burned the fields that were being taken, and a video (embedded below – cautious, it’s difficult to watch) has begun making the rounds of the police violently – not to say brutally – destroying tables, buildings, and attacking people.  This needs to stop.
    Continue reading

SOUNDING on Water, Poverty, Commons in Southeast Asia

A great review of a new book on Water Wars in Southeast Asia over at New Mandala came across the wires, serendipitously enough, at the same time as this tidbit:

The Phnom Penh Post – The grand theft of Dey Krahorm

David Pred, of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, sets the record straight on the legality of the evictions in Dey Krahom in today’s Phnom Penh Post. Today’s Must-Read.

Let’s set the record straight. The land that was grabbed on Saturday morning rightfully belongs to more than 150 poor families who have refused to sell their homes to 7NG for the pittance that was offered to them. Most of these families have the documentation to prove their possession rights under the 2001 Land Law. Moreover, these families were beneficiaries of the Social Land Concession granted to the entire community by the Council of Ministers in 2003, and the Development Plan, which called for a land-sharing arrangement with a private company in exchange for onsite upgrading.

To justify their claims over the land, the 7NG company relies on a dubious agreement signed with former community representatives to exchange the villagers’ homes for flats at the Damnak Treyoeng site outside Phnom Penh. This agreement was immediately rejected by most Dey Krahorm families, who dismissed their former “representatives” and filed a civil complaint against them for breach of trust, along with a separate complaint to cancel the contract.

Law on their side

Article 66 of the 2001 Land Law states:

“A person with Khmer nationality and with capacity to enter into a contract may sell or purchase immovable property.” Yet, the following persons may not sell: “A person who is not the owner of the property offered for sale.”

The so-called former representatives had no legal capacity to sell the villagers’ land. 7NG’s agreement is, therefore, null and void under the law.

An unbiased investigation into the facts will reveal that the Dey Krahorm families have legal rights that have been consistently denied by the competent authorities. The families are under no legal obligation to accept the company’s compensation offer. They have every right to reject it and remain on their land and in their homes. This is not a case of expropriation of land for public interest purposes. It is a case of a private company using armed force to acquire other people’s private property for their personal profit. Company representatives are on record stating that they do not even know how they intend to develop the site. Therefore, if they want this land, they need to offer the residents a price that they are willing to accept.

However, instead of offering a mutually agreed price for the land, the company and the authorities forcibly removed the families and demolished their homes and property. This action was illegal.

More via The Phnom Penh Post – The grand theft of Dey Krahorm.