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Burying the past


Despite protestations to the contrary, the indigenous tradition of burying babies alive lives on in Ratanakiri. 7Days meets a mother who believes she saved a newborn from this fate

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CHUM Kirivath’s walkie-talkie crackled into life and delivered the news she was dreading. The baby had survived, but her mother, who had been bleeding heavily during childbirth, had died. The unsealed roads of Ratanakiri province, in the far northeast of Cambodia, promised a gruelling drive but Chum Kirivath instructed the driver to speed up anyway; for she believed that with every passing minute, the newborn baby girl was getting closer to being buried alive.

Twelve years on and Chum Kirivath is sitting on a comfortable brown sofa at her home on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Every now and then, a young girl bursts from
a bedroom, filling the family home with energy and chatter. Her name is Chum Panha Vichet, she attends Wat Bo primary school and enjoys painting. She is also the girl that Chum Kirivath rescued, and subsequently adopted, from Ratanakiri over a decade ago. Occasionally, the youngster is ushered back into her bedroom while Chum Kirivath explains her incredible story.

Malik village, of Malik commune in Andong Meas district, Ratanakiri province, is populated by an ethnic minority known as the Tampuon, an animist group who Chum Kirivath had reason to believe observed the practice of burying newborn children alive when their mothers had died in childbirth.

Ian Baird, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on Cambodia’s northeast, says Chum Kirivath had reason to worry.

“This practice is common amongst all of the ethnic groups up in Ratanakiri. If a mother dies in childbirth, it is quite common to bury the baby with the mother. This is what they do, this is what they have historically done and this is likely to continue to happen,” he says, adding that, to the best of his knowledge, it is a practice that still takes place today.

“It’s not like it happens all the time but … when the mother dies they will put the baby right on the chest of the mother and then bury them together. They will bury the baby alive,” he said.

Twelve years ago, Chum Kirivath was working for Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), a small, Ratanakiri-based NGO which helps indigenous people secure rights to their land and natural resources and preserve their cultural heritage. It had been a day like any other when she received the call on her walkie-talkie that would result in her saving the newborn baby’s life.

Arriving at the village, Chum Kirivath rushed straight to the house where the dead mother still lay on the floor, accompanied only by a sobbing husband and a shrieking newborn whose umbilical cord had not yet been tied.

“I asked the baby’s father what he was going to do with his daughter,” recalls Chum Kirivath. “He said he could not make that decision. The villagers would decide on the baby. He said the baby killed her mother, so the villagers would not keep her alive.”

Outside, a group of villagers sat around a fire keeping themselves warm as a cool evening began to settle in.

“The villagers told me not to care about the baby,” says Chum Kirivath. “They would offer the baby to the corpse [of the dead mother] so that ghosts would not look for the baby later on … They said they used to bury the baby together with the mother if the mother died during childbirth, even though the father was still alive. They told me to talk to the baby’s grandfather, who was also the tribe leader, to decide on the baby.”

With her worst fears confirmed, Chum Kirivath sought out the tribe leader. She remembers hugging him and offering condolences, for it was his daughter who had just died giving birth. This served to make
an already delicate situation even trickier but Chum Kirivath told him straight: “I would like to adopt the baby.” She recalls the ensuing negotiations in great detail.

The main sticking point was that the Tampuon chief “said his villagers believed that ghosts would return [for the] baby if I took the baby away. When the ghosts could not find the baby, they would make people sick, so there would be a big problem”.

Furthermore, the Tampuon believed that the only way to sate these aggrieved spirits was by sacrificing a buffalo. “I thought, ‘a buffalo is so expensive,’” says Chum Kirivath. “[The tribe leader] told me not to care about the baby because it would cost me much money if something happened. Sometimes they had to offer more than one buffalo if the ghosts didn’t agree.”

It would have taken Chum Kirivath “more than five months” to save enough money for a buffalo but, as she says: “I had to take a risk.” She told the tribe leader that she didn’t believe any ghosts would appear looking for the baby and, wary of being extorted for the money even if no ghosts materialised, struck a deal whereby she would pay for a buffalo if she “saw ghosts by my own eyes”.

It was a risky strategy because Chum Kirivath also believes in ghosts. She recalls “speaking aloud” in front of the villagers, invoking the ghosts to leave the village alone and come to her instead. “I made an oath: ‘Now I am taking the baby, please Areak Neakta [the indigenous name for spirits] come to me. I live in Banlung, whatever you want.’ The villagers told me to remember my words.”

After giving assurances to the Tampuon, Chum Kirivath was allowed to take the baby girl who would grow up to be Chum Panha Vichet away from Malik village.

“I told them that I would raise the baby in a good way and offer a good education. And I [would] also let her know her own identity, tradition and story,” says Chum Kirivath.

Despite having fled the area in peril 12 years before, Chum Panha Vichet and her mother now return to Malik village every year.

Chum Kirivath no longer works for NTFP but she still spends the vast majority of her time in Ratanakiri, splitting it between volunteering and her own fair-trade enterprise purchasing handicrafts from indigenous people and then selling them in Siem Reap.

Her main base is Ratanakiri’s provincial capital Banlung, just 40km from Malik village. During her often extended stays in the northeast, Chum Panha Vichet is left in Siem Reap, in the care of Chum Kirivath’s 30-year-old biological daughter from an arranged marriage during the Khmer Rouge years.

Considering the difficulty in striking a balance for her daughter between life in Siem Reap and her ancestral heritage, Chum Kirivath is even considering moving to Ratanakiri permanently.

“I’m still hesitant to bring my daughter back to Banlung. I think in Siem Reap my daughter can get a good education. She can study whatever she wants. But [by living] in Ratanakiri, she also has [the] chance to learn her own language, own identity, and gets an opportunity for free scholarships provided to the indigenous descendants.”   

Given the reception her daughter now receives in the village, the trauma of her birth seems a distant memory. “I bring my daughter to her village every year, and her relatives like her so much,” says Chum Kirivath. “Every time I bring her to the village, they always host a big party for her.”

Malik village is not quite as one would expect: the houses seem remarkably new and well-made, the villagers themselves wear relatively westernised clothing. At 80 years of age, Kvass Thorn, Malik village’s tribe leader, is a little more traditional, wearing nothing more than a burgundy and white krama around his waist until it is time for photos, at which point he dons a green T-shirt.

He claims that he is not familiar with the tradition of burying children alive.

“We believe that raising a baby whose mother died in childbirth can cause us to die too when we deliver our baby. For Tampuon, when the mother dies, we never bury the child alive. We raise the baby until he or she pauses for breath [stops breathing]. Normally, the orphan baby always dies after three months or half a year.”

Un Sreng, 56, director of the Department of Culture and Fine Art in Ratanakiri province, admits that the practice was widespread in the past but claims that the government has taken steps to eradicate it.

“In the past, people did bury the live baby and dead mother together. It is their tradition. All indigenous people had [observed this practice],” says Un Sreng. “The government has made a serious effort regarding [indigenous peoples] because the baby is also a human being, so such cases do not happen any more.”

Ian Baird, however, says it is likely that the government’s efforts have been unsuccessful.

“There probably are a few haphazard attempts to do it, but this is part and parcel of the [indigenous] people’s core belief system. Even if the government came up and told them [to stop burying children alive], it would be like somebody telling a committed Christian not to believe in God. How seriously would they take that? Indigenous people believe that the whole village is threatened by this; it is a matter of life and death. Burying the children is not something they rejoice in – it is something that they feel is necessary.”

Ratanakiri residents agree that it has not died out at all, though they are reluctant to take responsibility themselves. It begins with Kvass Thorn, who admits the practice had happened, but not in his village.

“[Another Ratanakiri] indigenous group, the Jarai, bury the child alive together with his or her dead mother. They think the ghosts will kill them too if they raise that child,” he says.

But Sorl Dork, a 27-year-old Jarai man, says he is horrified by the idea that such a thing would take place in his village, Kechong, in Malik commune. However, he cannot say the same for the nearby village of Leutouch.

“We have never buried a child alive with his or her dead mother in our village, but I saw [it with] my own eyes at Leutouch … They are also Jarai people, [they] put the baby together with the dead mother. I could still hear the baby crying when they brought the coffin to bury [it].

It really shocked me. I wouldn’t do that. I feel so much pity for the baby.”

Despite this testimony, Ian Baird says it is important for people not to use these instances of infanticide as leverage for the further marginalisation of ethnic minorities.

“A lot of people are going to hear this story and think: ‘These people are so cruel and uncivilised, they’re savages’. The problem is that this will reinforce stereotypes which are not entirely fair, or even reality … A lot of Khmer people think that these [indigenous] people are stuck in time and they’re not changing at all. But there are changes.

“I think it is important to realise that these people believe fundamentally that most illnesses are caused by spirits. This doesn’t mean they won’t use modern medicine. They’re actually quite pragmatic in that way. The problem is, if they believe that keeping that baby alive will cause somebody else to die or cause people to get sick in their village they would automatically blame the baby for those illnesses and deaths. It puts them in a very difficult position.

“It’s not that they want the baby to die. They’re happy for the baby to survive. It just can’t stick around there where it might cause problems with the spirits.”

Chum Kirivath herself has been on the front line of the battle to stamp out this practice. She says that, at times, she has felt “like the Red Cross”, making promises for the provision of milk, fresh water and other essentials to indigenous people if they opted to raise a baby whose mother had died in childbirth. “I keep encouraging the indigenous people not to [mistreat the babies] … I have seen people change their behaviour [for the better].”

However, the threat remains. “Last month I got a phone call from a very close friend [who told me] that the villagers in the remote jungle of O’Yadav district buried a child alive together with the dead mother,” adds Chum Kirivath.

While the battle continues for Chum Kirivath in the wilds of Ratanakiri, closer to home she has another big question to contend with. It remains undecided where Chum Panha Vichet, the 12-year-old girl at the centre of this story, will spend some of her most important formative years.

With Chum Kirivath spending

a large proportion of her time in Ratanakiri province, when Chum Panha Vichet was pressed on her preference, the answer was unsurprising: she just wants to be with her mum.

“I want to go back to Banlung, Ratanakiri because my mother is always working there. I miss her so much when she is not here. If I move to live there, I can stay close to her.”

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