Members of the Kavet ethnic minority in Ratanakkiri province’s Voeun Sai district have ordered that no one leave or enter their villages until they appease “female ghost spirits” believed responsible for the mysterious deaths of two local men, officials and villagers said yesterday.
District Police Chief Poeu Nouthang said the Kavet villagers have sacrificed cattle in ceremonies to “appeal for ghosts and spirits to calm down and to pray for them to stop killing villagers.”
“Even police are not allowed to go into their villages,” he added.
Two 30-year-old men, Thoem and Bunthoek, died without apparent reason early last week while farming in Kang Nak village in Voeun Sai commune, Mr Nouthang said. As is the tradition with highland minorities during their most sacred ceremonies, the Kavet have blocked movement in and out of Voeun Sai commune and the adjacent Kuk Lak commune since Saturday, he said.
Voeun Sai commune resident La Bun Peng explained yesterday that locals believe that illegal logging and deforestation have angered the female spirits of the forest, leading to the deaths of the two young men.
“There are a lot of powerful individuals that have cleared the forest for land, especially logging very old luxury trees. Our ancestral forest was also cleared, which is why those spirits are very angry with us,” Mr Bun Peng said. “So we pray for the end of deforestation for land and logging,” he said.
Mr Bun Peng also said that multiple villager elders reported seeing a malevolent female ghost in dreams before the two men died.
“In our belief, the two were killed by ghosts because the old villagers dreamed of a female ghost coming to kill all the men,” Mr Bun Peng said.
Another villager, 50-year-old Ta Dier, reported being attacked by spirits on Sunday, but villagers chased the specter away by yelling and hitting pots and pans, according to Ty Phally, deputy chief for Kuk Lak commune.
Mr Phally said the fear of forest spirits has disrupted life in his commune, where there are 400 Kavet families.
“My people have stopped going to farm and to bring back the cattle since last week, fearing to be killed by angry spirits,” he said. “We are all just staying inside the commune and dare not be isolated [from each other], otherwise the spirits will kill.”
Mr Phally blamed the recent arrival of a mining company and deforestation for provoking the spirit world to revenge.
“The arrival of a mining company and deforestation are the main causes of making spirits turn angry and kill local residents,” he said, adding that he did not know the name of the mining company that arrived in the area two months ago.
Mr Nouthang, the district police chief, said authorities had examined the bodies of the two men who died last week and failed to find any evidence that they died of anything but natural causes.
“Indigenous villagers’ beliefs are sometimes true,” the police chief said. “But I think there must be something else, which is why I told them to bring the survivors for a blood test and health check at the hospital, but they rejected this,” he added.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said both ethnic minorities and Khmers “believe that big trees and forests have special spirits that take good care of the forest.”
Deforestation and illegal logging has been widespread in the last three years, Mr Bonnar said, but added that the deaths of the two men were more likely from the bite of a deadly insect than supernatural retribution.