Killing Highlights ‘Sorcerers’ as Rural Scapegoats

rolea ba’ier district, Kompong Chhnang province – Having risen from the dead once before, Som Moeun was rumored to be possessed of strange powers.

He was far from popular in the remote village of Chunleang where he had been living for the last five years, and where his body was found the morning of Dec 8. Hav­ing been badly beaten the night be­fore, his feet were bound and tied to a bridge, the rest of his body submerged in the river below.

According to friends and neighbors of the six young men who have confessed to killing 45-year-old Som Moeun, it was necessary to bind the dead man’s feet and im­merse him in water to ensure that he would not come back to life a second time.

Som Moeun, they said, was a sorcerer.

“They were afraid he would not die, that’s why they put him in the river,” neighbor Chhum Chantha, 25, said recently, sitting shirtless atop a pile of freshly cut wood in the yard next to Som Moeun’s.

“He was beaten to death once al­ready in Toek Phos district, five years ago, and he came alive again,” he said.

“He rose out of the morning dew,” chimed an old lady excitedly, making her way across the yard to join the slowly amassing crowd.

“When he smoked cigarettes, and someone walked by—if they got covered in a cloud of smoke they would get sick,” she said, waving her arms.

“Nobody liked him here. He knew how to do black magic,” said Chea Sao, 29, another neighbor, who wears a string around her waist to ward off evil spirits.

The thatch-roofed wooden houses in Chunleang are spaced far apart, and it is possible when looking in any one direction not to see anything except dirt paths snaking through vast expanses of paddy.

Sorcery has deep roots here, and has intermingled with the villagers’ Buddhist beliefs for as long as anyone can remember.

Som Moeun himself was a traditional healer, or kru Khmer, and former monk, who used to see pa­tients at the pagoda where he formerly lived in Toek Phos. It was there that he met his future wife Khuy Puthy, now 23, when she came seeking medical advice sev­en years ago.

Som Moeun cured her of what Khuy Puthy called a “female disease,” and then won her heart. About a year later, they were married and began their life in Chunleang.

It didn’t take long for villagers in Bra Snoeb commune to start complaining. Som Moeun hogg­ed the water meant for their rice paddies, they said. He would get drunk and start spouting off about black magic and how strong he was. He would become violent, they said, and of­ten beat his wife.

According to Fabienne Luco, an anthropologist who specializes in Khmer culture, a sorcerer in Cam­bodia will often rear his terrible head conveniently—when you most expect it.

“When they need a scapegoat,” she said.

In Cambodia, sorcery mainly provides a means of ostracizing someone the community has re­jected, and claims of sorcery roughly correlate to village conflict, she said.

“Nobody practices sorcery,” she said. “People accuse someone of being a sorcerer who is different from the others—specifically in cases where there are problems in the village, like when there has been a lot of sickness,” she said.

This seems to have, at least, been partially the case with Som Moeun.

There wasn’t one event that precipitated his brutal murder-—tragically witnessed by his 4-year-old son who was accidentally struck over the head during the attack—but there had been a lot of sickness in the community in recent years.

Villagers said a handful of people died last year—which in a tiny village like Chunleang is an absence long felt.

“They got skinnier and skinnier, until they were only skin and bones. They could not eat or drink. They could not be cured,” Chea Sao said.

Villagers brought in a fortune­teller who told them the sickness had been brought on by a curse. The fortuneteller was also able to describe the appearance of the sorcerer who had cast the spell—right down to his size and skin color, she said.

Chhum Chantha said it was more than obvious who was to blame for their bad luck.

“In the whole village, there was only him,” he said, adding that while he didn’t know his acquaintances had been preparing to kill Som Moeun, he supported their ef­forts. Villagers have even started a fund, trying to collect between 20,000 to 50,000 riel in the hopes of bailing the six suspects out of jail, he said.

“We’re not sure it will work, but it is our idea,” he said. “I feel safe now that he is gone. My body is light and happy.”

Sickness aside, in the case of Som Moeun, it seems that five years of bad blood, mounting ru­mors and festering aggression finally found an outlet earlier this month, with the rice harvest half over and people generally left with some time to kill.

Sem Tho, the victim’s mother-in-law, said Som Moeun and her grandson had been missing since midday on Dec 7, though she didn’t think anything of it at first.

“He used to drink, sometimes a lot,” she said, but he usually found his way home at a reasonable hour.

It wasn’t until the next morning that she and her daughter learned the awful truth. Som Moeun was torn from his motorbike, beaten to

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