Boeng Kak lake residents facing eviction mark their last New Year in their homes
All the people of Cambodia had one woman on their minds yesterday: Ke Ri Nai Devi, a New Year devada—or angel—with a penchant for eating beans and sesame seeds. When she arrived at precisely 1:12 pm yesterday holding a bow in her left hand and riding an elephant, the entire country was waiting to welcome her.
Although Phnom Penh has largely emptied out as revelers returned to their hometowns for the three-day holiday, the city’s pagodas were packed with worshippers yesterday morning, just a few hours before Ke Ri Nai Devi was set to arrive.
Soem Khoeun, 49, and her two daughters were waiting at Wat Ounalom to perform a New Year’s ritual: placing incense sticks and riel notes on mounds of sand representing holy mountains.
“I’m not really sure why we do this, but it’s a tradition from our ancestors,” she said. “We’ve already prepared an altar at home with beans, sesame and corn for the arrival of the devada at around 1:15. Then when she arrives, we light an incense stick and that’s it.”
The devada tradition is based on a legend about a wise god with seven daughters. The god decapitated himself after losing a riddle competition with a clever boy, and each year one of the daughters makes an orbit of the earth bearing her father’s head. The Ministry of Cults and Religions publishes an almanac informing the public about the special attributes of each year’s angel.
As the devada’s arrival grew closer yesterday, throngs of teenagers crowded into the park below Wat Phnom to play traditional New Year games. In the hilltop pagoda, an elaborate municipal New Year ceremony took place, with a pinpeat orchestra bursting into song at precisely 1:12 pm.
Municipal governor Kep Chuktema, clad in a pink silk jacket, spritzed the crowd lavishly with French perfume before releasing hundreds of caged sparrows.
But celebrations were muted for the roughly 1,000 families still living along the shores of Boeng Kak lake, who were likely marking the last Khmer New Year they would spend in their homes. They are set to be evicted to make way for a development spearheaded by Shukaku Inc, a CPP-linked firm.
Although the government has presented them with various compensation deals, the villagers have rejected the offers as too low.
Nearly all the remaining Boeng Kak villagers stayed in Phnom Penh for the holiday, with many saying they were scared to leave their homes unattended for fear of arson. Others had lost their businesses and simply could not afford to leave.
Duong Kear, who owns a small mobile telephone shop where business is fast dwindling, hosted a party for his neighbors that featured thumping dance music and a rotation of traditional games: choal chhoung (hurling a stuffed ball) and veay k’orm (breaking a pinata-like clay pot).
Despite the revelry, he knew it would be his last Khmer New Year in his lakeside home.
“It’s very difficult, not just a tiny bit difficult, because they are evicting people and we don’t know where to go,” he said.
Ly Mom, a villager representative, spent yesterday relaxing quietly at her large house in Village 24. She had set up a massive, perfumed altar to welcome the devada, with flashing electric lights and offerings of Fanta and lots of beans.
Ms Mom said villagers had refused to leave home for Khmer New Year because they had noticed that disputed land often fell prey to arson.
“We have a very scared feeling because this is our last year, and we have to be careful and cannot go anywhere very far from our home,” she said. “Instead, we all celebrate the dancing and traditional games in our village here rather than in our homeland.”
“We hope the New Year angel will lure our government’s heart to pay our compensation,” added her friend Tul Sreypeou.
“Because it’s a new year, maybe they’ll be thinking about the passage of time and about their lives, and maybe they will do something good.”