Home > Asia Pacific, Local News > Cambodia: where fear, magic and murder intertwine

Cambodia: where fear, magic and murder intertwine

BOMNOK, Cambodia — In the midday swelter of early hot season, Pah
Eang shivered and walked into a mountainous forest she’d once visited
every day. She said she was scared. She hadn’t been to this place, open
and silent, in five months. Not since the killings and whispers of
Pah Eang, 22 (left), and Nith Pov, 29 (right), sit underneath their new
house, which has become a gathering place for the remaining family
members of two accused “sorcerers” who were killed in this remote
village six months ago. (Terry McCoy/GlobalPost)
Pulling at her red sweatshirt, Pah dissolved into the Cardamom
Mountains that ripple through western Cambodia, and began her search
for a place that keeps this 22-year-old awake at night and plagues
what’s left of her family. Her path wound deeper until everything was
quiet and the only mark of humanity was a bamboo-thatched hut in a
clearing so idyllic the savagery of what had occurred there was
difficult to imagine.
Last September, Pah’s father and younger brother were killed around
1 a.m. in this hut. The father, Pheng Pah, 46, was stabbed to death
while his son, Pah Broh, 15, had his throat slit. 
When the bodies were
discovered the next morning, some villagers in this deeply rural
community 25 miles from a paved road rejoiced. They said the father and
son were “sorcerers” and had deserved to die.
The killings reflect a disturbing trend in rural Cambodia, where
magic is a very real thing and the only way to silence it is through
violence, and sometimes, death. An average of three Khmer are accused
of sorcery and killed every year, and such witch hunts illustrate the
growing chasm between increasingly urban cities and countryside mired
in poverty, while showing how deep belief in the occult runs in this
Since 2006, 17 accused sorcerers have been killed in provincial
Cambodia, usually following a sickness in the community that villagers
found suspicious, according to local non-governmental organizations.
This is a far lower rate, however, than in the past. In 2001 alone,
eight people were killed for suspected sorcery, a 2002 United Nations
human rights report shows.

“They think the sorcerers are without morality. That they are evil.”~Ek Sothea, a researcher for rights group Licahdo

And always behind these killings, there’s the victim’s family, left
to struggle against discrimination and question why such a thing had
happened — and whether they may be killed too.
“We don’t have any way to make money now,” said Pheng Pah’s wife,
Nith Oun who moved her family to a relative’s house following her
husband’s death. “I don’t have my husband. I don’t have my son. Because
of [my neighbors’] superstitions. Because of magic. I’ll never forgive
them for this.”
What’s more, roughly two-thirds of homicides involving sorcery
don’t make it to criminal court. Of the 15 different cases involving
sorcery accusations and homicide since 2006, only six have led to
prosecution, Licahdo, a human rights group in Cambodia, recently
It’s as though such cases fall somewhere between the tangible
world where laws and evidence are trusted — and the metaphysical, where
vigilante justice warrants more faith.

After all, how can you prove magic?

The farther out you go into Cambodia’s countryside, however, down
cracked dirt roads and into under-policed areas, the less proof
matters. Belief does. Nearly everyone wraps talismans around their
waists to protect against sorcery and evil spirits, and soldiers flex Sanskrit tattoos
that they believe will fend off bullets in battle. Such practices and
beliefs create an alternate geography that most rural Khmer inhabit
where culture, fear, and magic coalesce.
“Most Cambodians live in a magical worldview,” said Jan Ovesen, a
professor of anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden who is
researching magic in Cambodia’s countryside. “And accusations of
sorcery are a function of this magical world view. You have to
attribute misfortune to someone or something. Misfortune is not by
chance. They think, ‘Someone must be wishing us evil.’ ”
According to NGO reports and more than a dozen additional
interviews with villagers and local officials, a chilling story of
revenge and delusion has emerged that describes what happened to Pheng
Pah and his family. By all accounts, the accusations of witchcraft
began as murmurs.
It was last August, one month before Pheng’s death, as planting
season swept through this agrarian village called Bomnok at the base of
the Cardamoms. A 23-year-old neighbor, recently-engaged Mao Chanly, had
become devastatingly ill following an attack by a family dog her
parents swore wasn’t rabid. No one in the village knew what was
happening. People were panicked and confused. The murmurs grew louder
and louder.
Mao’s family gave her an IV and mountain herbs, but nothing worked.
Weeks passed. The sickness came at night; Mao described it to her
parents as invisible hands grabbing and ripping her. Growths surfaced.
Her parents grew desperate and they took her to the community pagoda.
What the monks said there confirmed the rumors: There was a sorcerer in the community. And Mao would die because of it.
The scene seems surreal, but it closely echoes what can often
happen in rural Cambodia, according to Licadho and Adhoc, another human
rights group in Cambodia. In places far removed from substantive
education, superstition can quickly supplant rational explanation.
“After the sicknesses, the villagers create a plan to kill the
[accused] sorcerer — by secret,” said Ek Sothea, a Licadho researcher,
describing a typical homicide of an accused sorcerer. 
“They don’t tell
the police. They think the police won’t believe them; the law protects
sorcerers. They don’t have any evidence, but they believe that there
are sorcerers. So everyone plans to kill by secret.
“They think the sorcerers are without morality. That they are evil.”
Soon, Mao was dead. And for a week afterward, the threats against
Pheng and his family intensified, finally hitting a crescendo on a late
September night when an unknown number of assailants descended on his
forested hut where Pheng and his son slept guarding their rice fields.
No arrests were made after the killings. Commune police say all
related suspects have fled, and there’s no way of knowing where to.
“The monks were certain — very certain — that there was someone who
performed magic on my daughter,” Mao’s mother, Sian Sok Van said. “But
I’m not mad at anyone. I’m not mad at anyone. We don’t know anything
about the killings. I only have feelings of sadness and regret for the
death of my daughter.”
In rural Cambodia, such occurrences, especially when there aren’t
any arrests, usually end like this, without firm closure. The effects
linger. And no one forgets.
Categories: Asia Pacific, Local News
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