A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

In Kampong Cham, a near-fatal ordeal for accused sorcerer

Traditional healer Yoeung Yet stands next to a festering pool of liquid used in healing ceremonies at his residence in Kampong Cham’s Batheay district.
Traditional healer Yoeung Yet stands next to a festering pool of liquid used in healing ceremonies at his residence in Kampong Cham’s Batheay district. Hong Menea

Wed, 25 May 2016 ppp
Phak Seangly and Jack Davies

Kampong Cham province

Take the urine of a young boy, a black buffalo and a cow. Mix in the leaves of a plant and vines renowned for their noxious odour. Lastly, add the penis of a black dog and leave the mixture to stagnate in an outdoor pool. Now take a bath in it.

This pungent concoction is the prescription given by Yoeung Yet, a Kru Khmer – or traditional healer – for those who have fallen victim to sorcery.

“It smells bad, that’s why sorcery is afraid of it,” Yet said this week.

And while this is primarily meant as a way of dispelling curses, it is also sometimes seen as a method for identifying the person who cast the hex in the first place – and in at least one case, consigning them to a life of looking over their shoulder.

Standing by the pool, a concrete pit behind his house in Kampong Cham’s Batheay district, Yet explained that many people issue pained cries when taking their prescription bath – which can last up to 30 minutes for the seriously hexed. Some even cry out names, which are frequently taken to be that of their spiritual assailant.

“A person that is not a victim of sorcery will not yell while in the pool.”

Near the start of this year, a man from the nearby village of Purusey in Troap commune, Khorn Torn, paid Yet a visit. Suffering a fever and aches and pains, Torn was diagnosed by Yet as being a victim of sorcery.

Yet said that Torn spent two months in his care. During that time, Torn took a half-hour bath in the healing pool, screaming as he did. According to Yet, when family members who were present asked him why he was screaming he replied: “I am Mr Sath.”

Torn died one month later, shortly after Khmer New Year. An hour later, his son, Torn Te, rained axe blows down on fellow villager Sun Sath as he watched a dance performance at the local pagoda.

Sitting on Sunday morning with his family underneath their stilt house in Purusey, Sath showed the freshest scars first. The stripe across his forehead, the slight bald patch on the back of his head, and the stitches on his neck sealing the wound where he said the axe tore his artery so severely the doctors had to tie it off to stop the bleeding.

Te fled immediately after the attack. According to his wife, Im Ly, he is currently in Thailand, working at an ice factory to pay off loans taken out by his family to provide the 5 million riel (about $1,230) in compensation it was agreed through police mediation he would give to Sath in order to avoid jail time. Before he fled though, he affixed his thumbprint to a petition naming Sath as a dark sorcerer and calling for his expulsion from the village.

As of Sunday, the petition had garnered 188 thumbprints, representing roughly 50 families. Beyond the accusations called out in the healing pool by the deceased Torn – and according to healer Yet, two other family members – no one interviewed in village was able to provide evidence of Sath’s witchcraft.

“Everybody knows about that,” said one of Sath’s neighbours, an 84-year-old woman who would not give her name for fear of magical vengeance, peering over her shoulder at Sath’s house as she spoke. She did say, however, that three separate fortune tellers had blamed her grandson’s failed marriage on Sath, despite having never met him.

Another villager – a 51-year-old who also asked not to be named but said Sath’s attacker was his nephew by marriage – said that while he bore Sath no ill will, he suspected him nonetheless.

Yoeung Yet in his home in Kampong Cham, where he offers traditional healing to those purportedly victimised by sorcerers.
Yoeung Yet in his home in Kampong Cham, where he offers traditional healing to those purportedly victimised by sorcerers. Hong Menea

“A thief never tells you he’s a thief,” the man said. “My family members aren’t sick, so I don’t hate Mr Sath.”

Another villager, an elderly woman, said that she gave her thumbprint but insisted she did not know what it was for.

“On my honour as a nun, I don’t know for sure if he’s a sorcerer,” she said.

* * *

At Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum, the Venerable Chhoung Seak Sat has been healing sorcerers’ purported victims for 10 years. He said victims reveal the names of the sorcerer that attacked them while taking holy water as part of their treatment. However, he never gave the names uttered to their victim’s families for fear of inflaming their anger.

“Sorcery is derived from anger and it is used to separate, mistreat and kill or endanger others,” Seak Sat said.

His treatment of victims straddles the line between Buddhism and more ancient beliefs, combining holy water with traditional medicines such as tree roots – no urine-filled pools.

“We treat them 50 per cent with Buddhist Dharma [the teachings of Buddha] and 50 per cent with tree roots,” he said. “The branches of sorcery are adversaries and we use the Dharma to confound adversaries.”

According to Battambang-based anthropologist Matthew Trew, while the Cambodian national religion is nominally Buddhism, in practice it is a combination of Buddhism and Brahmanism, which combines Hinduism with older Cambodian beliefs.

“Magical beliefs are part of that,” Trew said. “Powerful spirits that can influence people’s lives for good and bad, and people who can harness that, which turns into good magic and bad magic.”

Speaking of healers such as Yet and Seak Sat, Trew said it was important not to dismiss such people as “charlatans” out of hand.

Yet said on Sunday that he possessed no special wisdom or knowledge. He merely spent six months meditating in a forest and returned able to let his body be possessed by spirits, which then deliver his patients’ prescriptions in Sanskrit to be translated by his wife, Say Hong.

Comparing such healers to evangelical Americans speaking in tongues, who he said undergo a change in their psychology, Trew said their belief in their supernatural abilities is likely to be sincerely held.

“It might be a religious calling, it might be a sense of wanting to do something for their community that manifests itself, it might be a spiritual calling, it might be a comment on politics,” he said.

* * *

Sincerely held or not, belief in sorcery often has deadly consequences.

Last month, 62-year-old Sao Siv was beheaded in Kampong Speu’s Phnom Sruoch district by his daughter-in-law and her aunt following accusations of sorcery, according to local police and rights group Adhoc, who said his head’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Two weeks later, 79-year-old Men Sorn was stabbed to death in Kong Pisei district and his attackers are yet to be found.

“We could not find suspects yet because the villagers are not cooperating with the police. It is a sorcery case and even his wife did not want to talk to us,” said Sam Sak, provincial penal police chief.

Ryun Patterson, author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic, compared the situation in Kampong Speu to a mental health crisis.

“I’ve heard a lot about Kampong Speu . . . [It’s] like an epidemic, like a mental disease crawling around that place,” Patterson said. “Whether or not the spirits are real, the killings are real and if we find the cause we could find a vaccine because this is a public health crisis.”

Meanwhile in Ratanakkiri, 49-year-old Rocham Kin along with his wife and six children have been holed up in Bakeo district police station for over a year now. He was banished from his village in April 2015 on suspicion of having killed several neighbours through the use of a supposedly magical plant, brateal.

Sun Sath sits at his house in Purusey village on Sunday, as he gestures to where he was hit with an axe during an attack earlier this year.
Sun Sath sits at his house in Purusey village on Sunday, as he gestures to where he was hit with an axe during an attack earlier this year. Hong Menea

Unwilling to leave the police station out of fear of reprisals, Kin and his family have been surviving off 20 kilograms of rice a week provided by local authorities.

“I dare not visit the village at all since I was made to leave,” Kin said earlier this week, adding that with the local authority’s help he has recently landed a job as a security guard at a nearby microfinance institution.

* * *

Remorse is scarce in Purusey. Im Ly, wife of Sun Sath’s attacker, is eight months pregnant. She does not believe her husband will return from his self-imposed exile in time for the birth of their child, but insists she has “no regrets” over his actions.

“My husband is a gentleman, he never had problems with anyone in the village,” Ly said, adding that the attack took her by surprise. “He didn’t tell me about it, he got angry.”

Six men initiated the petition calling for Sath’s expulsion. Last Thursday, four of them were summoned by district police to the commune police station to recant their accusation. The remaining two, Te one of them, are currently in Thailand.

Pending the return of the two in Thailand, commune police officer Ly Pork considers the matter put to bed.

“The four signed the pledge,” he said, adding that they apologised after being educated at the meeting not to believe in sorcery.

“They said sorry to me,” said Sath. “But I could not accept that, they collected thumbprints to have me expelled from the village.”

According to Pork, “Most of the villagers are not well educated, so they believe in fortune tellers and rumours.”

However, belief in sorcery is not restricted to country folk. Traditional healer Yet draws his clientele from across Cambodia’s south-eastern provinces. On Sunday, Phnom Penh resident Suong Vanny had travelled up to visit his wife Le Thity, a noodle vendor who was receiving treatment from Yet.

Vanny explained that his wife started having trouble breathing shortly after Khmer New Year. Ten days at a conventional medical clinic failed to identify an ailment and the couple decided a rival vendor cast a spell on her and turned to Yet.

However, for his part, Sath remains perplexed. As police officer Pork pointed out, “He has been attacked before.”

Besides the scars on his head and neck, Sath has nine older wounds on his back and arms, the result of a surprise 2008 axe attack.

His attacker believed he was a sorcerer responsible for his 10-year-old son’s death. Sath cannot understand where this belief stems from. He insisted he never saw or experienced anything magical and pointed out that the only magical object in his family’s spartan home is a simple incense shrine to the house spirits.

He never fought with any of his neighbours, he helps the community when ponds need to be dug, but nothing seems to be enough, he said.

“In their eyes I’m a bad person,” he said. “Whenever a villager gets a stomachache or a pain in their hand, they blame me.”

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