Home > Local News > After Hundreds Killed in Stampede, Cambodia Finds Solace in Spirituality

After Hundreds Killed in Stampede, Cambodia Finds Solace in Spirituality

Dec 5 2010, 8:40 AM ET
In the week after a stampede on a crowded Phnom Penh bridge killed 353
revelers celebrating the annual water festival, both the people of
Cambodia and the country’s government have been struggling to put hundreds of
troubled ghosts to rest.

According to Khmer custom, the deceased
believe they are merely asleep until the seventh day after their hearts
stop. When they realize the truth–that they are dead forever, that they
will never go home again–they grow terrified and angry.

The
solution is the “seven-day ceremony,” an hours-long funerary ritual to
soothe the souls of the dead and placate them with offerings, speeding
them on their way to the next life. On the seventh day after the
stampede, the country was awash in these ceremonies, with mourners
offering their dead everything from pigs’ heads to fake bars of gold.

Although Buddhism is the state religion here, ancient animistic beliefs
are just as important. Spirits lurk everywhere, predictable in their
habits but terrifying once their anger is aroused. The ghosts of those
who died in violent accidents are said to be especially restive.

The country’s superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, has already staged
several traditional ceremonies designed to appease the stampede’s
unmoored dead. But he has been less proactive in the physical realm,
presiding over an open-and-shut investigation that yielded no
significant findings and refusing to concede any wrongdoing by anyone.

While Hun Sen’s government has acted fast to compensate the families of
victims with over $12,000, gathered from government funds and other
donors, for each person killed, more than 15 times Cambodia’s average
per capita income, it has not even gestured toward addressing the deeper
public safety concerns raised by the stampede.

The committee
established to investigate the disaster was packed with government,
police, and military police officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s
Party. One of the only exceptions was Pung Kheav Se, the wealthy and
well-connected director of the company that owns both the bridge and the
lavish new entertainment district it leads to, Diamond Island.

The government has a long history of closing ranks during a scandal,
and an even longer history of favoring business interests over ordinary
citizens. When developer OCIC pursued a 99-year lease to Diamond Island
several years ago, the military summarily evicted all of the island’s
residents.

In a marathon two-and-a-half-hour speech on Monday,
the prime minister called upon the ghosts of Diamond Island to haunt his
political opposition and anyone who criticized his handling of the
disaster.

“They will get back their bad deeds from the souls of
the victims who died, who will do something to them,” he said. “I do not
know what they will do, but I pray that [the spirits] will give them
backaches.”

When the chief of the government’s National
Committee on Organizing National and International Festivals tendered
his resignation, Sen refused to accept it. He said nobody would be held
accountable for the stampede, which he portrayed as a freak event that
could not have been anticipated, despite the frenzied crowds that pack
Phnom Penh every year for the festival.

“We did not expect that people could collide with each other like motorbikes and cars,” he said.

Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, made the rounds of seven-day ceremonies over the
weekend, delivering donations from the Cambodian Red Cross (which she
leads) and pushing the party line.

“She told us that [Sen] was
just trying to construct the country and make it develop but this was an
accident that was impossible to predict,” one mourner said.

The man was helping to memorialize his sister, 20-year-old Tay Sibuoy,
at a seven-day ceremony outside a photocopy shop. A priest dumped sack
after sack of fake gold bars onto a fire dedicated to her.

“She was very gentle and quiet,” her brother-in-law Lao Kimchan said. “She hardly ever went out, but she went out that night.”

As Kimchan spoke, he and several other men held tight to a thin white
string that formed a perimeter around the family’s burnt offerings.

“We make this holy line to make sure no other spirits can come to get
this stuff, only her. We’ve burned everything–a house, a car, a box of
gold. What we burn, she will receive.”

When the fire had quieted into a heap of ash, they broke the thread.

“It’s all over,” he said.

A similar ceremony took place in an alley in central Phnom Penh, where
Cheam Yoeun offered a large paper mansion to the ghost of his youngest
son, Yen, who had been 19.

A chauffeur-driven gold Lexus SUV
made of paper was parked in the paper garage. Two stern-faced servants
flanked the front door. The mansion was accompanied by a deed and title
handwritten by Yen’s brother and sister.

“We’re afraid that his
soul doesn’t have any house to stay in,” Cheam Yoeun explained. “The
deed and title are to make sure the home belongs to him.”

With
funeralgoers looking on, a holy man blessed the paper mansion, and
touched a match to it. Flaming ash and fake $100 bills swirled around
the alley.

“We’re feeling better and more peaceful after we did the ceremony,” said Cheam Yoeun.

But although he was grateful for the government’s money, which made the
elaborate ceremony possible, he was still searching for answers.

“I have no idea who was responsible for the death of my child, but I
really want to know who should be responsible. I want the government to
tell me.”

Nearly two weeks afterward, the stampede is still a matter of
near-unprecedented public fascination in a country where media
penetration is so low–and so many people have personal tragedies of
their own to deal with–that few news stories make much of a mark.

In the days after the stampede, homemade memorials–a bunch of bananas, a glass of water, a
burning stick of incense–dotted driveways across Phnom Penh. The street
price of bananas doubled. Telethons to raise money for the dead and
injured brought in over a million dollars, a massive sum here.

The
banks of the Bassac River near Diamond Bridge were covered with
everything a dead soul might conceivably need: ramen noodles, lotus
flowers, fake $100 bills, cups of coffee, tangerines, rice porridge,
sugarcane stalks, spoons and forks, and take-out containers of pork and
rice accompanied by tiny bags of chili-flecked sauce.

Doh Soeun,
who had set up on the banks to sell incense sticks and lotus flowers,
said 20 raw chickens were still being offered to the dead every day as
mourners and curiosity-seekers continued to visit the riverside in
droves.

“Some are crying,” he said, “and some just come to see
and some come to pray and some parents come to call their children’s
souls back home, performing ceremonies and then calling them back home:
‘Oh, my beloved child, come home!’

Neou Vannarin contributed reporting from Phnom Penh.

Image: Offerings and incense sticks are placed for prayers for the victims of
the stampede near the Diamond Gate bridge. By Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty.

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