Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Cooking a shrimp is past'...what next?

'Cooking a shrimp is past'...what next?

'Cooking a shrimp is past'...what next?

"THERE will be a very short battle that will end with some leaders withdrawing

in the time it takes for a man to cook a shrimp." One might imagine that this

was a June 1997 analysis by a savvy observer of Cambodian politics with a penchant

for colorful speech. In fact, it is one of several eighth-century Khmer predictions,

collectively called the Puth Tumneay, that have - yet again - proven eerily accurate.

Even Hun Sen is convinced. In an Aug 22 television speech, he declared: "Cooking

a shrimp is already past. I now strongly believe in Puth Tumneay."

The forecasts, or 'Buddha's predictions', were not actually promulgated by Buddha.

They are a collection of prophecies, rendered in easily-remembered rhymes, passed

down verbally from monks and educated men to later generations.

Those who told the tales used the name of Buddha "to make the predictions more

convincing," says Miech Pomm, a Buddhist Institute scholar who has studied the

Tumneay for several years.

The convincingly exact predictions include a King who is first the father, then the

grandson of the people; buffalo who go to the forest to hide and sharpen their horns,

and afterwards invade the towns; houses with no people living inside, a road with

no people passing along it; and white crows leaving to hide in the reeds and having

to build their nests in secret. Analogies to King Sihanouk's accession and abdication,

the Khmer Rouge coming to power and evacuating the cities, and the border resistance

are hard to ignore.

Perhaps most striking is the prophecy of a white elephant with blue tusks and silver

eyes which comes during fighting to bring peace. Most Khmers will unhesitatingly

declare this to represent UNTAC, complete with UN colors, Land Cruisers and foreigners

with light-colored eyes.

The elephant helps bring peace but it lasts only "seven days" before the

short but decisive battle. For over a year now, many Khmers, their eyes on Phnom

Penh politics, have been waiting for the shrimp to be cooked.

But if this is the past - and Prince Norodom Ranariddh the shrimp - what can the

Puth Tumneay tell us about the future? Many Khmers are now talking about the well-known

prediction that Phnom Penh and other cities will crumble and Angkor will become a

city of happiness.

"Prey Nokor rolum, Phnom Penh roleay,

Battambang khchatkhchay, Sabay Angkor Wat." (Saigon falls down, Phnom Penh melts

away, Battambang is smashed into pieces, There is happiness at Angkor Wat.)

Recent news that the King plans to move back to Cambodia and establish his residence

in Siem Reap, far from the politicians of Phnom Penh, lends the old rhyme extra credence.

Hun Sen even quoted this verse on television, saying that Angkor is "really

happy" and will soon have many tourists - but making no mention of the capital's

imminent "melting".

Another prediction says that there will be a terrible war, so that blood flows as

high as an elephant's stomach where the four rivers meet (usually thought to be the

confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac at Phnom Penh). The combatants

will come in from all directions, but one side will win a decisive victory - the

side that supports Buddhist principles.

Many people do believe that Cambodia has one more terrible ordeal to endure. A common

Khmer prayer is to be able to pass through the veal bpay, or three fields, safely.

The "fields" are generally agreed to be a metaphor for trials, or difficult

periods. Many Khmers say that Pol Pot's killing fields were the first, the Vietnamese

occupation was the second, and that the third is still to come.

Yet another prediction is that Cambodia will never have peace until a young king

comes to power and controls the entire country. King Sihanouk's successor? Or, as

some Khmers are wondering, Hun Sen?

But the last prediction foresees more troubles. Due to some disaster, perhaps a flood

or perhaps a war between Vietnam and Cambodia, almost everyone on earth is killed.

The only people left are one small boatload of Vietnamese and a handful of Khmers,

who end up stuck together sheltering under a bodhi tree forevermore. Could this mean

that Cambodia's and Vietnam's destinies will be eternally intertwined?

As the scholar Miech Pomm cautions, "It is up to individuals, the interpretation

of events. It's not an exact science!" But given the tumultuous nature of recent

history, the Puth Tumneay - whatever way you care to interpret them - may be as good

a guide as any to Cambodia's future.

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