Though diplomats will presumably be the ones deciding which territory falls to whom in the newly demarcated vicinity of Preah Vihear temple, many Cambodians in Preah Vihear province and beyond will be looking to someone else to prevent the loss of their homeland – Ta Di.
As legend has it, Ta Di was a post-Angkorian Khmer military commander tasked with defending Preah Vihear from an invading force from neighbouring Thailand – then the kingdom of Siam.
Unable to halt the onslaught, and faced with the distasteful prospect of surrender, Ta Di is said to have thrown himself from the cliff at the end of the very promontory that the International Court of Justice awarded to Cambodia last week, ascending to the status of folk hero and protecting spirit in the process.
“It is the popular legend among the population of Preah Vihear,” said Ros Chantrabot, vice president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
“He couldn’t stop the advance of the Siamese.… He had no other options to defend Cambodia – the fatherland – so he jumped,” he continued, noting that Ta Di’s death was only the beginning. “He went into the invisible world, the world of ghosts. He raised an army of phantoms to defend Cambodia.”
“The belief of the people of Cambodia is that the ghost of Ta Di will protect [them],” Chantrabot concluded.
Though Ta Di was purported to have lived and fought in the 14th or 15th century, Chantrabot says he is likely “a figure of fiction … created in the imagination”.
Even so, his legend is still strong, as evidenced by the multiple shrines to him in Preah Vihear province – including one on the peak he purportedly leapt from. Even today, locals – not to mention soldiers – pray to Ta Di to protect Cambodia from Thai encroachment.
“We always have people come to respect this statue, especially on full moon days,” said Seng Kunchan, who spends her days tending to a statue of Ta Di on the plain below the mountain – also named for Ta Di – where Preah Vihear rests.
Unlike the small shrine on the mountaintop, Kunchan’s shrine contains a three-metre-tall bronze statue of the ancient warlord, with pots filled with burned incense sticks and the butts of offered cigarettes at his feet.
“The reason that many people believe in his status is that in 2008, he came to people in dreams to say that there will be a war, and [the Thais] will shoot at us,” Kunchan said, adding that an old man she assumed to be Ta Di had come to her in a dream as well. “I dreamed that the market would be on fire, but no one would be hurt. So I told my husband to move our property. The next day, the market was on fire.”
Kunchan’s goods were lost that day, but her husband – a border guard – became a firm believer. Even Dy Phen, one-time chief of the Cambodian-Thai border relations office, believed in her visions, Kunchan said. Phen could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Soldier Deng Hab visited the shrine before the ICJ’s ruling in hopes that such clashes would be a thing of the past.
“I just came to pray because I want peace,” he said on a return visit to the shrine, two days after the decision. “I come to pray every time when pass this place. Today, I just came to thank his spirit, because we won the ICJ, but I still pray to ask that there is no war.”
Hab isn’t the only border soldier to venerate Ta Di. According to fellow soldier Prang Chhorn, who has been stationed at Preah Vihear since 2008, “all the soldiers here believe in Ta Di’s spirit”.
“If I go fighting, and I pray to his spirit to keep me safe, no one gets hurt,” he said, adding that “maybe Ta Di’s spirit went to lobby the court”, clinching Cambodia’s victory at the ICJ.
According to Chhorn, even Thais pray to Ta Di for peace, “even though Ta Di doesn’t like Thai people”.
Even two-star General Srey Doek, who commands the division in charge of Preah Vihear, said yesterday that he too prays to Ta Di.
“It is normal that we pray to the spirit,” he said. “Since I am Cambodian, I have to believe in the spirit at the place I am living in, so in Preah Vihear, people believe in Ta Di’s spirit, so I have to believe in him too.”
However, the veneration only extends up to a point, he said: when he goes to negotiate with his Thai counterparts, it’s only government policy that he follows.