At an hour-long ceremony on May 12, spiritual medium Prum Phally summoned the spirit of Lokta Dambang Daek into the statue outside the Khmer Rouge tribunal premises in Kandal province.
As the ceremony drew to an end, Prum Phally was sure that the spirit, known in English as Grandfather of the Iron Rod, had agreed to remain inside the 2-meter-tall concrete statue, with its pointed finger and club brandished behind his head, ready to strike.
“I invited him through my magic, and he said he would come if his spirit house is clean,” Prum Phally, a Takeo province resident, recalled in a recent interview.
At the end of the ceremony, the medium said he witnessed the spirit writing a motif on the statue’s back, reading: “People who do good deeds will receive good things. People who do bad deeds will receive bad things.”
Khmer Rouge tribunal officials hope that the statue—in front of which witnesses are expected to swear to tell the truth—will help ensure the integrity of the proceedings.
But Lokta Dambang Daek has already attracted criticism, with some observers saying the rod-wielding statue is not an appropriate symbol of justice for an international-standard, UN-backed genocide trial.
Chuch Phoeung, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said he believed the Hindu deity Yama, commonly known as the god of death, would have been a more appropriate choice. Yama is supposed to conduct a final tribunal where the good are rewarded and evildoers punished.
“Yama is the god of death. He should be placed at the court,” Chuch Phoeung said, though he added that it is ultimately the court’s decision.
With Lokta Dambang Daek’s imposing size, arched eyebrows, angry eyes and raised club, the statue looks little different from a Khmer Rouge cadre, legal analyst Lao Mong Hay wrote in an e-mail.
“He reflects on the one [hand] the practices of torture, of course very much on the decline, and on the other hand the reliance on confessions, in the Cambodian criminal process,” Lao Mong Hay wrote.
Lao Mong Hay said a blindfolded statue of the Greek goddess of justice Themis, carrying scales in one hand and a sword in the other, should be used instead, calling the installation of Lokta Dambang Daek and its symbolic connotations a shame for both Cambodia and the UN.
Srieng Y, the Royal University of Fine Arts professor who built the statue, said he had been told that the legend of Lokta Dambang Daek dated to pre-Angkorian times, and that he was originally a secular figure.
Lokta Dambang Daek was a kickboxing coach and military commander in Battambang province who ousted Thai occupiers from Cambodia, Srieng Y said.
“He tried his best to protect the country, so we respect him in order to pay our gratitude,” said Srieng Y, who built the statue over a 45-day period and was paid $300 for his services.
Srieng Y said he did not want the statue to be seated, as traditionally depicted, as he wanted the spirit to look more assertive.
“A standing Lokta Dambang Daek statue means he wants to advise people to do good things,” he said, adding that although the rod the statue is brandishing might alarm people, it is intended to represent justice.
Witnesses may still lie in court even if they swear in front of the statue, he said, but warned that their lives could be cut unexpectedly short if they do so.
“Those who lie will live a shorter life,” he said.
Miech Ponn, an assistant at the Buddhist Institute’s customs commission, agreed that swearing in front of the statue would have the desired effect on witnesses.
“No one knows whether people who swear speak the truth, but those who swear think there are spirits who watch them,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang questioned whether witnesses alone would be required to swear before the statue, or whether judges and prosecutors would have to do so as well. “If the judges and prosecutors don’t swear, people will be suspicious that they are biased,” he said.
Reach Sambath, tribunal spokesman, said that Lokta Dambang Daek is not intending to hit anyone. Rather, he is warning witnesses to be honest, and is sincere rather than cruel.
Lao Mong Hay’s reservations about the spirit would evaporate if he visited the tribunal premises rather than just looking at photographs of the statue on the Internet, Reach Sambath said.
“If he sees it directly, he will love the statue,” he said.