When Ratanakkiri province villagers found the body of 22-year-old Chhorm Pan of the Kavet ethnic minority on Saturday night, it was pale, “like a person who had been sucked by a ghost,” said Phan Ten, deputy chief of Ro Meuy village in Voeun Sai district.
Mr Pan is the sixth member of an ethnic minority to die this month in the remote northeastern province under what villagers consider mysterious circumstances. They believe angry spirits have killed the six men in revenge for rapacious mining and logging of the forests by outsiders.
“My people are pretty scared because the spirits and the ghosts are more terrifying than wild animals,” Ms Ten said.
“Deforestation for logs as well as the arrival of companies to operate for minerals in my area have made the forest spirits and ghosts become angry and kill us,” she said, adding that she has appealed to local authorities to put an end to the work of mining companies and loggers in the area.
Villagers in Kuk Lak commune, as well as in two nearby communes, have reacted to the recent deaths by ordering that no one enter or leave their villages, part of traditional hilltribe practices to appease the forest spirits.
“We don’t allow outsiders to come into our village,” Ms Ten said. “We will discuss more with the commune authorities to have a ceremony.”
Ms Ten said that Mr Pan, the 22-year-old who passed away, was “physically and emotionally strong” when he died in his sleep. There were also “traces of nails on his neck” and that his body was “too pale,” she said.
Other villagers echoed Ms Ten’s comments yesterday.
“Continuous deforestation and mining exploration are the main reasons the spirits have grown angry and killed villagers,” said Ty Phally, the uncle of Mr Pan and the first deputy chief of Kuk Lak commune.
Around the same time as Mr Pan’s death, three elderly Tampuon ethnic minority men fell down and died in their homes in a village in neighboring Pong commune, according to villagers and officials. That village has also been closed off from the world, if only temporarily.
Voeun Sai district police chief Peou Nouthang said authorities have been unable to look at the bodies in the two communes because of the village closures.
“It’s hard to make conclusions because we have not been able to examine the dead bodies,” he said.
At the beginning of the month, Kavet ethnic minority villagers in nearby Voeun Sai commune also blocked off their village after two 30-year-old men collapsed in their rice fields and died. The village has since been re-opened after it held a ceremony in which buffalo were slaughtered to appease the angry forest spirits, Mr Nouthang said.
He said authorities have examined the bodies of the two 30-year-olds but have not determined a cause of death, though the two men are not suspected of being murdered.
Thorng Tai Chhen, administration chief for Kachoun Health Center, said that the rash of unexplained deaths is likely related to a communicable disease of some sort and not malevolent spirits of the forest.
“It’s quite hard to officially claim what virus or disease is linked to those deaths,” he said, “because we weren’t allowed to go into the villages for these latest reports of mysterious deaths in the two communes.”
He added that he had not had the chance to examine the bodies of the two men who died in the beginning of the month.
Voeun Sai district governor Chhum Ngil also dismissed the belief that men in his district were dying for supernatural reasons, saying that two of the three Tampuon men who died were his relatives, and that he knew the causes of their deaths.
“My father-in-law died because of old age, while my uncle fell on the ground and died immediately as a result of high blood pressure,” he said. “There are no spirits or ghosts that come and kill people.”
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the human rights group Adhoc, said ethnic minority villagers prohibit cutting down parts of the forest believed to be the home of spirits or ancestors.
He said any new disease might be tied to the natural, rather than supernatural, effects of deforestation. He also said an ongoing drought could be due to deforestation.
“We have noticed that the drought and the disease could come from deforestation,” he said.