The world’s largest UFO cult has reached Cambodia.
“People are not [ready] yet, but we will keep trying to spread the message,” said Am Vichet, the head of the Cambodian chapter of the Raelian Movement, which believes a group of scientists created life 25,000 years ago in a laboratory.
The 41-year old, who works at reproductive health NGO Marie Stopes, said he became a Raelian in 2007 after attending a lecture where the cult’s philosophy was explained. “I want to learn new things. Then, at that time, I joined a lecture and they showed me a video and I thought it was interesting. But it was not enough just to go one time; I wanted to learn more,” Vichet said.
His next step was to read a book penned by the group’s leader, Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, now known by his acolytes only as Rael and who founded the cult in 1974. He claims to be a reincarnation of Buddha.
Vorilhon, then a journalist for an automobile magazine and racing car test driver, says that, on December 13, 1973, he took a detour on his way to work and wandered around an inactive volcano near Auvergne in France. There, he met an extraterrestrial called Yahweh Elohim, who explained “the message”.
The message was simple: life on Earth is the scientifically engineered creation of an advanced alien civilisation, and Vorilhon’s mission on this planet is to prepare humankind for their eventual return.
One of the main goals of Raelism is to build a $20 million embassy for the Elohim, preferably in Israel. Perhaps due to Raelism’s symbol – a swastika enveloped in a Star of David – the movement is banned in the birthplace of Judaism.
So Raelians are looking eastward and, last January, applied to the Council of Ministers in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The project, which the letter states will generate “several billion euros of revenue, as well as additional spinoff ventures”, will make Cambodians “the first [people] to benefit from the Elohim’s highly advanced technologies”.
But more than a year after the application was submitted, Rael has yet to receive a response from Phnom Penh.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that although he was not aware of the application, he would welcome an extraterrestrial movement in Cambodia.
“I myself have researched UFOs and extraterrestrial life for the last two years,” he said.
“To me, this would be great if we can start an alien movement or institution in Cambodia. We are not alone, my friend. When I tell my friends at work, nobody believes me.”
But any attempt to build the embassy may come up against practical obstacles, according to Dan Thibault, a French-Canadian who travels across Asia spreading Rael’s teachings and was in Phnom Penh last week to hold a public lecture.
“The problem is political . . . the problem is the extra-territoriality, the airspace. We need a protected airspace, like a no-fly zone over the embassy,” Thibault said. “The country that will organise the embassy will be the spiritual and cultural centre of the union to come. It’s a really big thing.”
Vichet explained how he began to accept the Raelians’ ideas after he read Vorilhon’s first book, The Book Which Tells the Truth, which Vichet recently translated into Khmer.
“I started thinking what our natural state was, and one day you can see these things in the sky, and then I thought, oh, it’s true. And then that night I saw the lights again and after that I start to become a Raelian,” Vichet said.
“After that, my life changed. I learn and I read the books and I changed a lot of what I used to think, like negative thinking, and I changed myself.”
The movement claims to be expanding in Asia, boosted by growing followings in China and Japan. Three Cambodians turned up to the meeting last week, at which Thibault delved further into Raelian philosophy.
“Life has been created 25,000 years ago. The Elohim came here, they were a group of scientists who had mastered DNA, and they created all forms of life on this planet,” he said. “They sent all the gods – Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses – all the prophets sent throughout history. We live in the scientific era and at this time we can create life significantly in laboratories, which means we are equal to gods.”
To appeal to Asia’s Buddhist masses, Raelians have tailored their teachings to the students of the Buddha.
Rael now claims to be the Maitreya, the reincarnation of the Buddha. He said the date of his meeting with Yahweh Elohim corresponds with the Buddhist calendar year 3000, when the sutras state the Buddha shall reappear. The new Buddha, the sutras continue, “will come from the west” in “the land of the cock”, which is a national symbol of France.
But controversies over attempts at human cloning in Europe have led to Vorilhon’s exile from France, where there is a warrant out for his arrest.
“We want to live forever. [Human cloning] is the first step towards eternal life,” Thibault said. “It sounds, perhaps, crazy, but some scientists are working right now on downloading your personality. We’ll be able to download our personality from our brain to a computer.
“The next step is you upload your personality into a new body. We’re going to do that, it’s just a matter of time.”
Despite the movement’s expressed alignment with Buddhist values, since its first seminar in 2006, it has only managed to attract 10 adherents in Cambodia.
“We just have a very small number in Cambodia,” said Vichet, adding that he hopes more people will hear the message now that he has translated one of Vorilhon’s books into Khmer. “Most of the Cambodian people, they don’t want to read, especially big books. They don’t want to read a whole story.”
Raelism, which now claims to have close to 85,000 members in more than 100 countries, has courted controversy in an attempt to gain notoriety and support, including campaigns for public nudity, LGBT rights and setting up a clinic in Burkina Faso to reconstruct women’s genitals after they have suffered female genital mutilation.
They also hope to attract celebrity support, much like Scientology.
“We met Michael Jackson; Rael met Russell Brand in the past year. But the fear, they don’t want to identify themselves publicly,” Thibault said, shortly after playing an animated video showing the four-foot-tall Elohim, who look remarkably similar to Jackson, meeting Vorilhon.
Mike Kropveld, executive director of the Montreal-based InfoCult, which has documented Raelism for about 30 years, said that the group is attempting a two-pronged approach to move into Asia.
“They have been trying for years to move into other countries. They have been raising money endlessly [to do this],” he said. “At the same time, they’ve been trying to get Israel to form an embassy. I don’t know why they want an embassy in Cambodia.
“They also often move into the shock area, or something that’s titillating, like the topless campaign. A more accurate [membership] figure would be 5,000, of people who would consider themselves members.”
Kropveld said that Raelism appeals to disillusioned followers of many religions.
“It has had an appeal here, some of the messages the group subscribes to, it’s like a church in terms of the treatment of women, going to heaven, going to where the creators are,” he said. “It’s not really so far off from what [new members] believed before. They kind of have a global religious perspective.”
While Raelian leaders say Buddhism is compatible with their beliefs, Vichet stopped practising around the time he became a Raelin “guide” through a baptism ceremony in 2007. Through the ceremony, Vichet believes his “cellular plan” was transmitted to a computer in preparation for judgment when the Elohim return in 2035.
“We do a baptism to get the plan transmitted and become a Raelian. The baptism actually is physical . . . everybody has vibrations, you transmit these vibrations.”