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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Yath Sal and Choeung Ek's Red-Neck Guardian

Yath Sal and Choeung Ek's Red-Neck Guardian

Yath Sal and Choeung Ek's Red-Neck Guardian

It's not the recommended remedy you'd get from doctors at Calmette Hospital. But

48-year-old Yath Sal says she recovered from her disease when she allowed a

neakta, or guardian spirit, to possess her.

There are two ways in Khmer

to describe this possession: both Cholroob and Neakta Kan mean that a guardian

spirit is living within a person and using that person's body to communicate

with people.

Sal is a medium through whom a guardian spirit and

believers can communicate. Believers say that through Sal they can receive a

special magic formula for resolving all their problems and

unhappiness.

Sal lives in Preak Panak village, Choeung Ek commune, on the

outskirts of Phnom Penh, where animism is widespread, as it is in much of

Cambodia.

Every year after the villagers have finished harvesting their

rice, animists organize a harvest thanksgiving celebration known as Bon Darlean,

to give thanks to the powerful Neakta Krahom Kor or Red-Neck

Guardian.

Sal said she was sick for several years, and almost every day

she dreamed that the Red-Neck Guardian wanted to possess her in exchange for

curing her disease.

Then something happened to her a few weeks ago in

December during the Bon Darlean celebration at the spirit house of Neakta Krahom

Kor, which is about a kilometer from her house.

"I was working in the

rice field while the ceremony was taking place and I had a feeling of gooseflesh

on my head three times; then for several minutes I didn't know what was going

on," Sal said.

Sal's 73-year-old father, Ma Yath, said his daughter

immediately picked up a stick and ran toward the small hill the guardian

spirit's house stands on and knelt in front of the guardian.

"At first I

didn't know what was going on with my daughter, but when I ran after her and saw

her at the house of the guardian, where the villagers were paying homage to

Neakta Krahom Kor, then I knew that Neakta cholroob [had entered] my daughter,"

Yath said.

He said Neakta Krahom Kor has lived on the little hill

overseeing the ricefields since the time of Khmer Issarak, the anti-French

rebels in the 1950s, and his magic is still powerful.

Yath said that in

the 1950s people in the villages really believed and respected the magic of

Neakta Krahom Kor.

"I remember that back then, Neakta Krahom Kor would

possess someone and [through that person] would write a magic formula on a piece

of clothing, and the person whose clothing it was had an influence like the

neakta and the neakta's magic made that person safe from the enemy."

But

Yath said that the influence of Neakta Krahom Kor declined during the Lon Nol

regime, especially in 1972 when many soldiers took prostitutes into the area and

created anarchy, without respect for the local tradition.

"In Khmer

society there is the belief that a neakta would not live in an area where there

is a bad environment," Yath said.

Sal said she plans to establish a small

sanctuary space in her house to pray to the guardian spirit. This space is known

as baysey, and contains a section of banana tree trunk with legs to which three,

five, seven, or nine layers of banana leaves are used in certain traditional

ceremonies.

Sal said she now has to save about 200,000 riel to set up the

baysey and then she will conduct meditation in the evening.

Sing Kea, a

member of the Catudhisa Sangha of the Japanese Buddhist temple Shionsan Houonji,

spent about $100,000 to build a Buddhist center next to the spirit house of

Neakta Krahom Kor, which is two kilometers south of the Choeung Ek Killing

Field.

Kea said both cooked and live chickens as well as bananas are

brought to the guardian house almost every day as offerings. The live chickens

are freed before the shrine.

"Even though I don't really believe in the

guardian spirit 100 percent, I do respect [the belief that] the guardian spirit

can help to take care of the community, and I will keep the environment around

the guardian house clean for the village," Kea said.

Miech Ponn, 74, an

adviser for the Council of Khmer Culture at the Buddhist Institute, told the

Post that belief in neakta is a very old animist tradition within Khmer society

and those who believe do so ardently.

He said there were many different

kinds of neakta, ranging from local guardians all the way up to Preah Ang

Dangker on the riverfront in front of the Royal Palace, who is the highest

neakta in Cambodia and responsible for the care of the entire

country.

Ponn said a neakta is the soul of a well-known person who in

life used to take care of their community or tribe and received strong support

from their community.

He said belief in neakta is an animist tradition

common across Cambodia, but strongest in areas where there are big trees, caves

or stones.

"Animism and nature always coexsit within a community or

tribe," Ponn said.

"When believers are sick or worry about something,

they pray to the neakta, then the neakta enters someone to let people know that

his or her soul is still living in the community and taking care of people,"

Ponn said. "Neakta have a role both to take care of and to punish people in a

community."

He said neakta like to live in big trees, caves, and big

stones, so when the natural environment is damaged the animist tradition in that

area tends to decline.

Ponn said that to maintain the animist tradition

Buddhist monks have established a house for neakta in each pagoda across the

country. When people come to the pagoda they can pray both the Buddha and to

neakta.

He said each neakta has his or her own history. The Neakta Krahom

Kor was the soul of Dechor Meas, the commander of the armed forces and the

master of Kampong Thom province during the reign of a former king in the 17th

century.

Dechor Meas was famous in his day and strongly supported by the

people under his rule. When he died he was concerned for his people and so his

soul has continued to live in the community to look after them.

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