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How serious are Cambodia's land rights protesters about their curses?

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Tep Vanny (left) and fellow activists hold a ceremony during a land rights protest at Boeung Kak in February last year. Hong Menea

How serious are Cambodia's land rights protesters about their curses?

So-called cursing rituals have become a common component of land rights protests. But how much of these rites are serious and how much just for show?

Last Sunday, a group of some 100 residents of Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang gathered to lay a curse on KDC International – the company they say stole their land nearly 10 years ago. At about 8am, they wrapped nooses around the necks of six effigies made of clothes stuffed with straw, which they then dragged for a kilometer to a nearby temple to be ritually burned.

“It was like a funeral procession, but different,” said community representative Om Sophy. “Normally at funerals, we throw money, candy and flowers for the corpses. This time we threw chilli, salt, dust and water.”

The villagers and KDC have been embroiled in the dispute since 2007, when the company bulldozed 145 hectares of farmland without compensating residents. The authorities and courts have routinely come down in KDC’s favour.

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Boeung Kak protesters drag effigies during a cursing ritual. Pha Lina

“We want their life to be hot like chili and melt like when the salt meets the water,” Sophy said. “We curse them that when they drive, their cars will be overturned. That when they catch a boat, the boat will capsize. That they will meet an accident, any kind of accident.”

In recent years, curse rituals have become an almost routine part of protests by those involved in land disputes at Boeung Kak, Borei Keila and Lor Peang, among others. But how much of it is supernatural intimidation and how much is attention-grabbing theatre?

Tep Vanny, one of the leaders of the Boeung Kak protesters – who are the most prolific with their curses – said they had performed more than 20 public rituals since her community first came into conflict with local developer Shukaku and the government in 2008.

“The reasons we do this are firstly to relieve our anger and pain, and secondly to let the government know about their evil action and stop it,” she said. “Since our country believes in those dark rituals, we’re sure that those bad people also believe in it, thus we hope that they will be scared of it and stop doing it anymore. With these curses, it will maybe help them to wake up.”

“I do believe in those mysterious things, and I believe the others do as well,” she added. “I used to see ghosts – that’s why I believe in it. When I was young, I once saw my grandpa, even though he was already dead.”

Vanny described the rituals as “Brahminist”.

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Lor Peang residents conduct a cursing ritual last Sunday. Photo suppliied

“When we do Buddhist rituals, we don’t curse, we only sit still and do meditation, we wish in peaceful way,” she said. “But when we follow the Brahminist way, we curse them and do different kinds of activity as I have told you. We do it when we are angry with them instead of doing physical violence.”

According to US academic Erik W Davis – who this week finished a month-long research trip for an as-yet-untitled book he’s writing about the use of “ritual creativity and imagination” in social and political actions – “Brahminism” has little to do with the ancient Indian religion from which it derives its name.

Instead, he said, it acted as a catch-all word that Cambodians were increasingly using to describe any mystical practices that were not Buddhist.

While Buddhism was about “morality”, Davis said, Brahminism was for “anger and combat”.

“And they’re OK with having both of these things in their lives,” he said.

Protester Vanny said that the rituals were similar to ones practiced by her ancestors. “When I was young in Kampot province, I used to see the old people doing these rituals when they were angry at someone, and we followed them,” she said. “I’m sure that people living in other villages in the countryside know how to do this as well.”

She added that it was important to mix up their rituals so that the novelty for the public would not wear off.

The protests have so far incorporated crucified chickens, pictures of the guardians of hell (“to let them know hell is welcome for them”), scarecrows dragged along the ground, burned and carried in coffins, and grains thrown at offending institutions.

“We have many ways to curse them,” she said. “We’re not going to keep doing the same thing. If we do, the public won’t pay attention to us.”

During his research trip, Davis – who has more than 20 years’ involvement in union activism – interviewed a range of Cambodians including protesters, monks and union leaders about the use of rituals in social activism.

He said that one should be careful when describing the curses as “stunts” or “theatre”.

“I think those elements are all there, but I think they’re bound together in a way that separating them does violence to a proper understanding ... of what the participants are doing,” he said. “I think they’re doing stunts, but they’re genuine stunts.”

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US academic Erik W Davis is researching a book about the use of rituals in protests. Pha Lina

Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dimanche laughed when asked if he believed in curses.

“This question is like a joke,” he said.

He said that he had no qualms about allowing such protests to take place.

“They can do whatever they want – it’s their right – but make sure that they’re not going to harm anyone physically,” he said.

For Um Sophy – who helped prepare the effigies representing KDC owner Chea Kheng, her husband, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem, investors, and government authorities – the curses were deadly serious and only used as a last resort.

“I have more faith in a superstitious ritual than I do in the judicial system,” she said, adding that three officials and a surveyor had died since the villagers’ first curse.

“We asked them to help us, but they didn’t, that’s why they died,” she said.

Sophy said the villagers would be willing to reverse their curses. “If they give us our land back, they’re going to be OK.”

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