A single word from one of Cambodia’s traditional healers can turn a whole community against outsiders in their ranks – often with fatal results
This article was published in the July edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.
Last May, as 79-year-old Men Sorn was warming up fish left over from a neighbour’s wedding in his house in remote central Cambodia, an unknown attacker crept up behind him, pulled the old man’s krama tight around his face and gutted him with a knife. By the time his widow, 70-year-old Sours Kouern, had stumbled down the bent wooden stairs of her house, her husband’s life had leaked into the grey dirt.
“I heard him struggling to breathe and came downstairs asking what had happened,” she told Southeast Asia Globe through twisted teeth at her home in Kampong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district last month. “But he was already dead.”
Standing in the ruins of what used to be her kitchen – torn down to avoid bringing back memories of that night – Kouern pointed to a long, narrow bow strung through the cracked rafters. This, she told us, was all she had left to remind her of her husband’s prized handiwork – brightly coloured khleng ek, traditional Cambodian kites that sang as they flew. Sorn’s creations had drawn reporters to his home from as far away as the US.
But in the minds of many of the residents of Tbong Bei village, the elderly kite-maker also practised a far more lethal trade.
A middle-aged woman in central Kong Pisei said it had long been feared that Sorn was a thmob – a black magician, or sorcerer.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, she said that four years earlier her father had been gripped by severe stomach pain. When he was taken to the local hospital, an x-ray allegedly revealed a sharp metal object buried in his gut. But when the doctors opened his belly on the operating table, she said, they found nothing. Despairing, she took her father to a group of monks living at the base of a nearby mountain known for trafficking with spirits and practising traditional Khmer healing arts.
The monks’ diagnosis was swift. “They told me it was too late,” the woman said. “Somebody was practising sorcery on him.”
Although Kouern maintained that her husband knew nothing of sorcery, the rumour that Sorn was preying upon the old and vulnerable spread through the village. After four years of the unexplained deaths that are all too common in rural Cambodia, someone decided to take matters into their own hands. There were no witnesses.
“All the lights were on in the whole village, but no one saw anything,” Kouern spat.
With the country’s feeble healthcare system struggling to keep up with the undiagnosed death and disease plaguing rural Cambodians, kru khmer or lou kru – wide-reaching terms describing traditional healers ranging from fortune tellers to spirit mediums – continue to play a central role across the country. Men and women, monks and laity, these healers call spirits into their bodies, ink protection spells onto their patients’ skin and root out black magic within the community – sometimes to devastating effect. In Kong Pisei alone, which has a population of just under 113,000 as of the 2008 census, two other alleged sorcerers have been beheaded in the past two years. Others accused of witchcraft have barely managed to escape with their lives.
On the second day of Khmer New Year in April, Prak Kong and his wife were forced to flee their home in Kong Pisei’s Prey Vihear commune just hours before a mob of villagers tore their house apart with hammers and rocks. As the crowd swelled to more than 600, the most violent attackers splintered the family’s spirit house and splashed petrol around the inside of the house, hoping to set it ablaze. According to Kong’s brother-in-law, who now lives there, the violence was unleashed by a local kru khmer who had accused the man of using sorcery to murder his newborn nephew-in-law.
“The problem started before the water festival [last year],” he said. “[His relative’s] child died after surgery. They wanted to find out why their child died so they went to see a lou kru. The lou kru gave him Kong’s name. They said he was responsible for the child’s death.”
Fabienne Luco, a social anthropologist in Cambodia who has done extensive research on the killing of people accused of being sorcerers, said that kru khmer often used accusations of witchcraft to provide a scapegoat for suffering or chronic disease within the community.
People need to find an answer – and the answer is, we have a scapegoat, and if we kill him we’ll feel better”
“Some traditional kru khmer, they cannot say: ‘I cannot cure you,’ because it means they are not so good,” she said. “So they say the problem comes from somebody else – a witch’s spell. They might describe the person, saying they’re tall, or dark, or living south or east of your house – and they have very great power. And sometimes they will give the precise name of the person.”
While Kong’s alleged accuser could not be reached for comment, a man at his house who said he was a relative but refused to give his name was adamant that the exiled man was guilty as charged. “If he had been doing good things, he would not have run away,” he said. “He would have died here instead.”
Cambodia’s healers and spirit mediums trace their lineage back to pre-Buddhist Brahmanic and animist practice. But shadowing this faith in the protective powers of kru khmer is a fairly widespread belief in black magic – witches who can conjure up evil spirits, spread disease and magically imbed nails, razor blades and coarse buffalo skin within the bodies of their victims.
And in a belief system in which the material and spirit world intermingle, a single word from a kru khmer blaming natural sickness on human malice can be all the more lethal. Ryun Patterson, the author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic, said that kru khmer are trusted implicitly.
“I think it’s a very intimate connection that I think these people have with their communities,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “They hear people’s problems, they give people the feeling that they’ve got a little bit of agency in their lives – a little bit of power and control over their own destinies. And it’s scary, because if one of these counsellors or healers does make a diagnosis of black magic, then it’s completely trusted.”
Luco, the anthropologist, said that unlike monks or achar – lay priests responsible for rituals and ceremonies – kru khmer were not given any special respect in their communities beyond their relationships with their patients, making them prone to the same human drives and desires as everyone else.
“It’s difficult to know the specific motives behind it – it might be an act of revenge, it might be a long-standing story between the two families, there might be something hidden behind it,” she said. “But… people need to find an answer – and the answer is, we have a scapegoat, and if we kill him we’ll feel better. It’s like a sacrifice.”
In a chamber at Wat Botum pagoda in the heart of Phnom Penh, Chhoung Seaksat is waging war on witches. Two men hold an old woman down by her wrists as Seaksat, plump and cherubic in a crisp orange monk’s robe, thrashes her gaunt wrist with a wooden wand, chanting and cajoling the spirit inside her. The woman writhes and shakes against the rattan mat, a low moan forcing its way from her lips. A bruised purple bulge blooms beneath her skin like a mark of the plague, quivering with each lash of the stick. He prods it, and it distorts, distends. This, he explains, is the evil buried within her flesh.
Although ordained as a monk, Seaksat’s story is a familiar one to those who have studied Cambodia’s spirit healers. As a child, he was ravaged by an illness that left him feeling as though he was drowning in deep water. Another monk managed to cure him with incense and the intercession of the spirits. Since then, Seaksat said, it has been his duty to fight against the forces of darkness.
Seated on his throne in front of an elaborate shrine studded with motley gods and Buddhas, Seaksat talked of how he once compelled evil spirits possessing Phnom Penh’s unfortunates to give up the names of their masters.
“First, I took the incense to beat on them,” he said. “And they told me who did it and where they were living, how many children they had, who hired them, and what their names were. The patient will scream out without knowing what they are doing. When we beat them, they scream: ‘Oh, please! Stop it. I will stop it!’ And when I asked who did it – were they possessed by themselves or did someone hire them? – they told us their names – and why.”
Seaksat said that he stopped forcing confessions six years ago after a woman he cured of sorcery had confronted a person matching the description he had given her of her attacker. Although the altercation did not turn violent, the family of the alleged sorcerer came to see him at his chamber to protest. Since then, Seaksat has ceased revealing the names of the accused for fear of violent reprisal – against himself. Still, he maintained, black magic remains a dire threat to every Cambodian.
“Sometimes there are cases in which mothers hire black magicians against their children,” he said. “Sometimes their children want to get revenge and they hire against their mother, or their family in-laws, their own siblings, too.”
Patterson said that despite Western scepticism, kru khmer mostly acted out of genuine belief in their own powers of divination. “I read about one recently in Kampong Cham where the sorcerer just pointed to a guy and said: ‘That’s the guy.’ I think it’s genuine, for the most part. I don’t think that the majority of these people intend to be charlatans. It comes from a place of genuine belief,” he said.
It was this sincere belief, along with a lack of awareness of the potential consequences of what they were doing, Luco said, that could all too easily make the words of a kru khmer become the spark that ignites an inferno of violence.
“They accept that getting rid of somebody that is toxic will cure the community. And the people even believe it. When it’s a whole village willing to kill somebody, they don’t consider it a murder,” she said.
For many of those with blood on their hands, the justification lay in the status of the victim themselves. Luco said that the accused was invariably someone who stood apart from the community – whether a literal outsider who married into the village or a person who did not fit with conventional Cambodian beliefs about morality or acceptable actions.
“So when you look for the cause of your suffering, an explanation for why people die, OK, he is poor, he is drinking, maybe he has some problems, infirmities, he has strange behaviour or a disability – it’s never rich people,” she said.
But for Kouern, sitting in the ruins of the kitchen where her husband died, the knowledge that his craftsmanship and fame may have heralded his death provides neither relief nor enmity.
“People ask me if I worry, because my husband was killed,” she said. “I say oh, please, come and kill me. I will pray to the angels, to the Lord, that karma will pay you back. Good or evil, the Lord will see it. What you do is what you will get.”