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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Keeping the New Year ghosts happy

Keeping the New Year ghosts happy

GHOSTLY PRAYERS: Monks hold a New Year ceremony at Tuol Sleng Museum to appease the ghosts of KR victims. At the request of the museum staff, who say they've had problems with the ghosts, the ceremony is held twice a year.

Photo by Heng Sinith

A Buddhist monk stands before the famous 'skull map' of Tuol Sleng museum. Then,

as a few early morning visitors begin to arrive, he starts to chant, breaking the

eerie silence of the former prison. Other monks join in, spraying water and lighting

incense. These monks are on a special mission - to appease the ghosts of the genocide

museum over Khmer New Year.

"Let you be in paradise or born in a peaceful country in your next lives. Stop

disturbing people," wishes one of the monks.

Twice a year, at September's Pchum Ben festival and again at Khmer New Year, the

museum staff invite monks to perform a special ceremony for the dead, to avoid being

haunted by their ghosts.

The monks bless the rooms where the prisoners were chained and tortured by the KR,

and try to drive their souls away from disturbing the guards. Holy water is sprayed

around the rooms in areas where it is believed that the ghosts hide.

Museum Director Chey Sopheara, who participated in the ceremony along with the other

museum staff, said he believed in the ghosts. He said the celebration was not just

to drive the ghosts away but to give them good luck for their next life.

He said that the ceremony has now become a custom at the museum.

"All of us have been haunted by ghosts, even I myself," he claimed.

Certainly one prominent visitor would agree. According to museum guards, last year

the wife of a prominent Asian ambassador was haunted all night in her home after

she paid a visit to the museum at twilight - not a good time to be in Tuol Sleng,

said the guards.

Monks rest during a ceremony to rid Tuol Sleng of its ghosts.

Photo by Heng Sinith

After a sleepless night, she went back very early the next day with her bodyguards,

and knocked on the door of the museum to wake the guards up so she could offer food

to the Tuol Sleng ghost.

"She told us that she could not sleep for the whole night because the ghost

from Tuol Sleng disturbed her," said one of the guards.

The guards said that the Ambassador's wife believed very strongly in ghosts, and

that she organized a proper ceremony to offer food to the ghost.

Before she lit incense and candles, she asked the guards to switch off the electricity

in the room saying the ghosts would not come if there was too much light - electric

or daylight - which is why she had returned before sunrise.

The issue of unhappy souls unable to depart to the next life is one that has hovered

over Tuol Sleng for some time. Cambodians believe that the body has to be cremated

to let the soul escape to be reborn. If the soul cannot escape, then it cannot be

reborn.

Early in 1995, King Sihanouk suggested the bones at Tuol Sleng should be cremated

to let their souls free, but the government rejected the idea, saying that the bones

were vital evidence should there be a KR trial.

In the past, the strong feelings aroused by the museum and all it represents were

vented in the annual 'Day of Hate', held during the People's Republic of Kampuchea

and during the State of Cambodia between 1979 and 1993.

Ministers, officials and museum staff and NGO workers would all gather at the museum

to hold a ceremony for the dead. It was cancelled later for political reasons.

Sopheara appealed to the international community to help take care of the bones,

photos and various artifacts of the prisoners, which are now falling into decay.

"All the killing sites in the provinces have now disappeared. Only this one

remains. We should keep it at an international standard for museums to teach the

young generation."

Few people visit the museum, which receives only about $150-$300 per month in door

takings.

Lim Sokheng, 18, a student from Boeng Kengkang junior high school who visited the

center with some of his classmates, suggested that the KR issue should be introduced

into the state school syllabus.

"I feel so curious to know more details about the KR regime after my first visit

to the museum. I would like to know why they killed people," Sokheng said.

He said he had been briefly told by his parents about the lives of people during

KR time, but was not given much detail.

"When my parents get angry with me, they always compare their days in the KR

time with today.

"They say I would not survive if I were in the KR time as I am lazy nowadays."

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