A new pattern of superstition has emerged as a last resort for victims of land grabs, as government inaction sends people to new levels of desperation
Land dispute victims in Siem Reap during a traditional ceremony put a curse on the person who stole their land.
Local rights group Adhoc, in their 2008 year-end review, reported a more than threefold jump over the previous year, from 40 to 125, in land disputes in which members of the armed forces were implicated in illegal conduct.
HUNDREDS of villagers from Lor Peang village in Banteay Meanchey province gathered together last week to perform a traditional ceremony in which they put a curse on the people who stole their land.
"We prayed and burned incense and cursed whoever stole our land to perish," villager Sgnuon Nhoeun told the Post Sunday. She said that using old-fashioned superstitious techniques had been the last choice for the villagers, who felt betrayed by the inaction of government and legal officials.
"The reason that we have this ceremony is because we feel helpless in the face of local authorities and the judicial system," she said.
"One person who stole our land died in a traffic accident last year after we made a similar curse," she said, adding that villagers had also planted small trees on the stolen land.
"Those who stole our land will fade like the leaves we plant on it," she said.
According to Sgnuon Nhoeun, Lor Peang villagers had sold around half of their land to development group KDC. Instead of taking half of the land, however, the company had taken the lot. The dispute resulted in the imprisonment last Novemeber of two of the village's representatives who had protested against the company.
"The villagers have conducted ceremonies like this because they believe it is their last choice. They have no hope in the local authorities or court officials to find justice for them," Sam Chankea, a coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, told the Post Sunday.
Old-fashioned curses reborn
Miech Ponn, a researcher at the Buddhist Institute and an adviser to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that villagers had not conducted superstitious ceremonies like this in a long time.
"People feel no hope and have no belief in the judicial system, so they have decided to mark the occasion by cursing corrupt court officials to comfort their feelings," the 75-year-old said.
"It is not part of Buddhism, but there is nothing wrong with it. People have the right to their beliefs according to constitutional and penal law," he added.
Those who stole our land will fade like the leaves we plant on IT.
Chan Soveth, another Adhoc monitor, said Sunday that superstition ceremonies have also been practised in Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Siem Reap, Mondolkiri, Ratanakkiri, Kratie and Kampot as a last vessel of hope for victims of land disputes.
"For the last few months, people have been very angry and anxious with the justice system for arresting protesters of land disputes. The law is to protect people's interests, but the court has wrongly put these people in custody to protect business interests in recent months," Chan Soveth said.
He said villagers felt the justice system only helps the rich.
"That's why people are now turning to superstition as their last choice because they have no hope in the justice system. They have a strong belief that the spirits will judge people and harm anyone who violates their land," he said.
"The court should consider providing justice for all people before arresting protesters, so as to guarantee the court's independence and neutrality. If protesters are arrested as they have been over the last two months, it severely impacts the court's reputation and shows the weakness of the judicial system to corruption," he added.
But the Buddhist Institute's Miech Ponn said it was a sad indictment of today's society
"Not only does it impact the judicial system, but it shows the weakness of this age to let rich and powerful men always win in the case over weak people."
Banteay Meanchey's Ta Ches commune chief Dy Doeun said he was still unable to help the villagers, despite their desperate plea to the heavens.
"I cannot solve the land dispute because it is in the hands of the court, but I don't mind the villagers celebrating a superstition ceremony - it is their right of belief."