Employees Say the Building is Inhabited by Spirits, National Assembly Members Half-Heartedly Acknowledge Them

Keo Tha stood just inside the ornate door to the National Assembly. His cell phone rang. “I am at the vihear,” he told the caller, using a Khmer word for a temple in a Bud­dhist pagoda.

Some people believe Buddhist temples are protected by spirits, and 48-year-old Keo Tha, because of encounters he claims to have had at the Assembly, treats the secular structure with the reverence one might show a specter-inhabited holy site.

Keo Tha says he has been visited by spirits several times while on duty as an Assembly security guard. His most recent encounter occurred in late April. He was stretched out on a long hardwood table in the parliamentarians’ break room, drifting into a waking dream, when a black man slapped his feet off the table. “Find another place to sleep,” a voice said.

“I heard a man tell me, ‘Don’t sleep in such a disorderly way. This is place for work.’ When I woke up abruptly and looked around, I found nobody nearby. So I thought, it must be the spirit,” Keo Tha said.

Now before reclining for his afternoon nap, Keo Tha prays to the spirits, asking their permission. “Some people would laugh at me, but I sleep undisturbed…after I pray to the spirits.”

The building’s history stokes Keo Tha’s belief in ghosts. It was initially inaugurated under the reign of King Sisowath on Dec 23, 1920, as the Bud­dhist Institute, which included a school and extensive library. Then it received the blessings of monks that would invite protective spirits to dwell in its rafters.

Lay Rayong is Keo Tha’s younger colleague. He is 28, strong-looking and claims to have dismissed ghost stories as old people’s superstitions until he came to work at the Assembly.

“There is something special protecting the old National Assembly building,” said Lay Rayong. “I saw something black, like a human, come over me to scare me from sleeping in the hallway where [the spirits] go to work.”

Lay Rayong said he jerked upright from his doze and examined himself to see if he was well. He could find no cause for the odd sensation and as­cribed it to the supernatural.

The Assembly has half-heartedly acknowledged the presence of spirits in its building. A small Tevada house, or spirit house, is discreetly located between the main building and the lawmakers’ offices, tucked in the roots of a large fig tree. Assembly employees offer food, burn joss sticks and pray there regularly.

Another Tevada house, seemingly discarded, sits under a shed surrounded by employees’ motorbikes.

Soy Sopheap, author of “Khmer Prophecy” and a reporter for the Kyodo news service, toured the Assembly and its grounds early this year. He said the compound is “not spiritually well organized.”

“So that is why [the Assembly] meets one problem after another,” Soy Sopheap said. Then he reeled off a list of fallouts and tragedies that have befallen those with contacts to the building: The slaying of Funcinpec adviser Om Radsady, tensions between Funcinpec lawmaker Prin­cess Norodom Vach­eara and Prime Minister Hun Sen, party defections and more.

The fortune teller quickly added that spirits cannot be wholly blamed for misfortune. The earthly agents of unjust fate should be held accountable, he said.

To improve the country’s luck, a Tevada house should be placed directly in front of the Assembly, Soy So­pheap said.

San Kim Sean, chief fortune teller at the Assembly and director of its security department, agreed. But he said that many lawmakers are ashamed of old beliefs they consider outdated superstitions.

“This is the culture of Khmer belief. Believing it or not depends on you,” said San Kim Sean, who is also an accomplished Hapkido martial artist.

For those who do hold to the old beliefs, Cambodia’s political realm might get a chance to improve its luck. Construction of a new multi-million-dollar Assembly building is underway, scheduled for completion in 2005.

Three large marble columns have been installed inside the entrance to the new site. Cheam Yeap, the CPP lawmaker chairing the New National Assembly Construction Com­mission, said the columns were erected to appease spirits at the behest of Minister of the Royal Palace Kong Sam Ol.

The columns are made to appear decorative so as not to embarrass parliamentarians sensitive about their forebears’ beliefs, he said.

“It’s not a big deal…but traditionally we have to organize something worshipping the spirits so we will meet with good luck,” Cheam Yeap said, standing on the Assembly’s future site, in the shadow of the towering new casino building being constructed nextdoor.

He also said King Norodom Si­hanouk had been scheduled to preside over a blessing ceremony earlier this year, but it was canceled because of the anti-Thai riots in late January.

Once the present Assembly is vacated by parliamentarians, the 86-year-old building will be turned back into a library—this time storing legal documents—and a museum, Cheam Yeap said.

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