"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
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.