Sorcery and black magic are alive and well in Cambodia, and they're worth killing over

A Cambodian fortune-teller in Phnom Penh.
PHOTO: AP

Phnom Penh seems to have all the trappings of a modern cosmopolitan city: towering skyscrapers, world-class restaurants and painfully air-conditioned shopping malls. But venture a few hours outside the capital and things become different very quickly.

There is, particularly in rural provinces, a pervasive belief in the supernatural in Cambodia. Near the end of November, a couple was attacked in Pursat Province - about 200km northwest of Phnom Penh - by a small mob accusing them of killing someone's daughter with sorcery. The accused husband, 83, was beaten to death while his wife, 72, was shot in the leg with a home-made rifle.

Alleged sorcerers are often blamed for unexplained deaths, a rash of illnesses or other small-town misfortunes, leading to a beheading in November 2017 and a deadly stabbing in 2016 - just two examples.

Ryun Patterson, a former journalist with The Cambodia Daily and author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia's World of Magic, said there is a large economic element to sorcery incidents.

Cambodian women pour water from a magic turtle they believe has special powers near Prek Kdam village, 50km north of Phnom Penh. Hundreds of people flock to the small village each day to get some of the water in which the turtle has been immersed, in the belief it has special healing powers.Photo: Reuters
The poor and disenfranchised often find their belief in magic and witchcraft can explain factors outside their control.

"They look to these people [fortune-tellers and spirit mediums] to give them any sort of sense that things could possibly be better for them," he said. "They're in a kind of hopeless situation."

Bringing up the topic of sorcery in provincial towns is likely to be met with hushed voices and averted glances. Cambodians - even in the capital - are generally religious and hold firm beliefs in the supernatural. Ghost stories and fortune telling are part of life, with many believing a trip to a temple or pagoda, can bring them and their loved ones good luck.

An elderly Cambodian woman hopes to be licked by a cow believed to possess magical healing powers, according to an ancient Khmer legend in Kampong Som, 180km south of Phnom Penh.Photo: Reuters

However, some take their belief in the supernatural in a diabolical direction. Those in rural towns who are generally disliked by other locals can find themselves the scapegoat when a group of people fall ill or during a spate of bad luck. The alleged sorcerers are said to spread disease, summon ghostly spirits and put foreign objects like nails and razor blades into their victims' stomachs.

Som Sokuntheary, the 35-year-old owner of a small restaurant in the Bakan District of Pursat, where the November attack occurred, said whispers of sorcery in her small town are common. But most people do not say much about it for fear of bringing bad luck upon themselves.

"For the black magic, it's kind of secret," she explained. "Because the more the people know, the more problems they will make for themselves, as you don't know who is going to come back and make problems. They even can kill [those involved in sorcery] because they are doing bad things to people."

When asked about the recent attack, local police said a kru Khmer - or spirit medium - told the suspects their daughter was killed through black magic.

But district police chief Neang Vuth said the force had been trying to weed out the town's belief in sorcery.

"We always advertised that black magic doesn't exist," he said. "[The locals] just heard about it from one to another."

Neang Vuth said he tried to stop the suspects from resorting to violence to settle their dispute.

"I never believe in black magic," he said. "The suspect said I was on the [accused] old guy's side, and I told him not to do anything stupid."

Additional Reporting by Peou Sophoan

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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