Warrior Spirit

For centuries, the lives of villagers in a central pocket of Pursat province have been filled with the presence of an all-powerful spirit named Khleang Moeung.

In school, students learn that he was a military commander who fought and defeated the Siamese army toward the 16th century. Cambodian soldiers have long viewed him as a hero who sacrificed his life to save the country and continues to offer protection in the afterlife.

A statue of Khleang Moeung in Pursat province. (Anne Guillou)
A statue of Khleang Moeung in Pursat province. (Anne Guillou)

And provincial authorities are looking to spread the legend. They have recently expanded the hero’s sanctuary in Bakan district’s Snam Preah commune and are holding ceremonies there this weekend.

From midday Saturday through midday Sunday, provincial governor Mao Thonin will preside over a ceremony with about 100 Buddhist monks to give blessings and 12 soldiers to salute the legendary soldier, said Mao Sorphorn, who manages the site.

“The purpose is also to attract visitors to this site of worship and to inspire Cambodia’s young generations to recognize the heroism of Cambodians of previous generations,” Mr. Sorphorn said.

Formerly director of the provincial culture department, Mr. Sorphorn has overseen the redesign of the site, which authorities intend to turn into a major draw for Cambodian visitors, he said. Their efforts are paying off as the sanctuary’s popularity has increased over the last five years, he said.

Some people of Snam Preah commune take a dim view of all this new attention, however, having always considered Khleang Moeung their own, said French anthropologist Anne Guillou, who is based in Phnom Penh as part of the French government’s Research Institute on Contemporary  Southeast Asia.

A local “neak ta”—a powerful spirit guardian—has for centuries served as their link to the land and to their ancestors, she said. But at one point, they blended this neak ta with the half-myth, half-historical figure of Khleang Moeung.

“Khleang Moeung belongs to them so to speak: It is a local power that structures their territory…to whom they ask for things and make offerings,” she said.

Before 1975, Khleang Moeung was mainly a neak ta for people of the region, and a formidable one at that, Ms. Guillou said.

“All powerful spirits in Cambodia are inevitably ambivalent,” she said. “Therefore Khleang Moeung is a rather dangerous spirit. He also draws power from the fact that he committed suicide: It’s a person who died of violent death.”

Many versions of Khleang Moeung’s story exist, she said. “He is a mythical-historical figure about whom we get all details in the Royal Chronicles of the 19th century,” which were written three centuries after the fact, she noted. “All this is a legend built on historical facts.”

A close-up of the statue. (Anne Guillou)
A close-up of the statue. (Anne Guillou)

His name is at times given as Ta Pech. “Ta Pech was in the region of Pursat at a time when Ang Chan was battling the Siamese,” she said, referring to fighting between the Khmer king and what is now Thailand. “Ang Chan was systematically losing battles against the Siamese and was trying to find a solution. He then met Ta Pech.

“He retained Ta Pech as his war leader in charge of his armies. But the Khmer kept losing. So Ta Pech eventually told Ang Chan, ‘Well, I will kill myself, throw myself on spears’—in some versions it’s with his wife and children—‘and I will ascend to the kingdom of the dead to raise an army of ghosts.’ And this is what he did.”

That army of ghosts defeated the Siamese, and Ang Chan acceded to the throne, Ms. Guillou said.

“I believe that it is during the Sangkum government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk [in the 1960s] that this figure took on a greater importance, that he became some sort of national hero, a protector at a time when Cambodia was again threatened,” she said. During that period of the Vietnam War, the U.S. was bombarding Vietnamese communist military camps along the Cambodian border.

Then, in the early 1970s, as civil war raged in Cambodia, Sos Math—one of the country’s most popular singers—had a song entitled “Khleang Moeung’s Advice” in which a husband says goodbye to his beloved wife and children as he is about to go to war. “You may perish but your nation survives: Your name will be known everywhere,” the song goes.

Since then, soldiers have been especially fond of this powerful, masculine figure, Ms. Guillou said. During the factional fighting between the CPP and Funcinpec in the streets of Phnom Penh in July 1997, Funcinpec military commander Nhiek Bun Chhay stopped at  Khleang Moeung’s shrine as he was fleeing the country to avoid being arrested by the CPP.

In his book “A Luck in Thousands Dangers” published in 1998, Mr. Bun Chhay writes: “I put my palms together and prayed, saying that if am a patriot and loyal to the country, please, Lok Ta, help me reach my destination—the Cambodian-Thai border, a resistance base.”

His wish was granted. As Mr. Bun Chhay was leaving the sanctuary on a motorcycle driven by one of his soldiers, he writes, “about 30 soldiers and policemen are stationed at the intersection. My motorbike drives past them…and then takes me on National Road 5.”

In a Facebook post last December, opposition leader Sam Rainsy brought up the tale of Khleang Moeung, using the version of the story reported by French researcher Adhemar Leclere in 1914. Mr. Rainsy wrote of a military leader who “sacrificed his life to help eliminate a usurper, thus allowing the legitimate heir to accede to the throne under the name of Ang Chan Reachea.” The usurper he was referring to was King Kan, whom Prime Minister Hun Sen is known to admire and who, according to some versions of history, was not of royal blood.

“It’s those current political twitches that show to what extent Khleang Moeung is a figure who speaks to everyone,” Ms. Guillou said. “A proof of this is the fact that it is Khleang Moeung who is used again to say things, to reflect political clashes.”

As his spirit remains very much present, the physical representation of Khleang Moeung has evolved, Ms. Guillou noted. In the 2000s, his statue was that of a man of previous era with square shoulders and a bushy moustache—his representation maybe denoting a trace of Siamese influence, she said. But the more recent statue portrays him as a modern-looking man. 

Although the Khleang Moeung site is now managed by the province and visited by admirers from around the country, villagers try to honor their neak ta as they have done for generations, Ms. Guillou said. “Khleang Moeung is very present in the imagination…and in the subconscious of local people,” she said. “What fascinates me is what it tells us about history as it is perceived by Cambodians—the way Cambodians perceive history, time and space.”

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