New ethnographic research published in the Journal of Asian Studies sheds light on the unique way Cambodian Buddhists engage with the remnants of Khmer Rouge victims, choosing to leave the bones of the unknown dead untouched, despite a belief that doing so will trouble the victim’s soul.
For many Khmer Buddhists, the fate of the corpse is closely linked with the afterlife. Improper burial or cremation leaves the souls of the dead in limbo, doomed to wander the site of their death or torment its living inhabitants, the study noted.
Traditional cremation rituals were prohibited under the Khmer Rouge, and many survivors expressed disgust and preoccupation with the fact that bodies were left to rot in the open or be consumed by wild animals.
In the Battambang village of Reaksmei Songha, previously the site of a Khmer Rouge labour camp, human remains were unearthed frequently after the town was resettled in the late 1990s. Family ties, however, played a large role in how these remains were treated.
Settlers refused to dig up or cremate bones that did not belong to relatives, opting instead to cover the bones back up or leave them undisturbed. Meanwhile, some people would visit the village from other parts of the country to locate and bury their relatives’ remains.
Bones from mass graves are often unidentifiable, a fact that caused emotional distress for survivors hoping to locate the bones of their relatives and put their souls to rest.
“The inability to locate and tend to the bones of their dead comprised an ongoing source of sorrow for many area residents. Instead of finding their kin, various residents encountered the bones of strangers,” wrote the study’s author, Lisa Arensan.
“Although respecting them as human substances and recognizing their pitiful condition as deteriorating objects, those who found human bones could do little more than leave them undisturbed.”
A belief in ghosts was also prevalent in the Battambang settlement. Before building a new home, community members would leave offerings for the ghosts, entreating them to leave and go to a place “of happiness and peace”.
Many community members said the ghosts of people who starved to death under the Khmer Rouge still wandered the land looking for food. “Ghosts walked in the night, searching for food. They had died starving, and they were still starving.”
Ministry of Culture official and archaeologist Vuthy Voeun agreed that a strong belief that the fate of bones impacts the afterlife is pervasive in Cambodian society. Voeun requested permission to have bones exhumed near the Choeung Ek killing field for research, but his proposal was shot down.
“The government would not allow anyone to dig up the bodies,” he said. “In Khmer culture, when the body dies, you should not disturb it.”