In Cambodia, a Spiritual Army Battles an Earthly Pandemic

With little faith in the government’s coronavirus response, many rural Cambodians are turning to the divine.

A scarecrow army has quietly amassed in Cambodia. Some soldiers smile from coarse burlap faces, while others bare fangs—with many bearing plastic guns tied to their wooden arms. Their enemy haunts the streets at night, unbound to a physical dimension, intending to possess humans and spread disease. If these maleficent spirits see a scarecrow holding vigil in front of a home, they will not be able to enter, or so goes the belief.

The scarecrows are known as ting mong, and while they’re regularly seen across Cambodia, they haven’t been as omnipresent since the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. That year, according to the recollections of older Cambodians, people made effigies of Khmer Rouge soldiers, trapping their spirits inside scarecrows that were then burned in mass bonfires. In alternative tellings of this story, a disease spread throughout the provinces that year, associated with the dead cadres, and scarecrows were erected to banish it. The tradition has carried through generations, remerging in full force in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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