Soothsayers Offer Gloom on Jobs and Growth

At first glance, Sa Vannak doesn’t look like the bearer of bad tidings.

Seated quietly in a worn out lawn chair amid a group of flower stalls off Sisowath Quay in Phnom Penh, the 53-year-old fortune teller says he’s been reading palms and divining the meaning of scattered cards for 40 years.

And with his demure expression and flower-embroidered shirt, he looks like a safe enough bet for a spot of good news.

However, Mr Vannak, along with others in his profession, has little good news to give these days.

Asked yesterday to predict Cam­bodia’s fortunes in 2010, he foretold a wave of sickness and floods.

“It is not so good,” said Mr Van­nak. “This year there will be floods and people will get eye disease.”

Mr Vannak still gets the usual customers of expectant mothers hoping for good news about their pending deliveries and suspicious wives desperate for an excuse to stop worrying about wayward husbands. But more and more, he said, his customers ask about jobs and loans and business ventures.

Though financial predictions vary from person to person, Mr Vannak said that the nation’s finances are another matter. While the government and international bodies expect Cambodia’s GDP to grow modestly in 2010, Mr Vannak sees more storm clouds ahead. And he’s not just predicting stagnation or a modest recession. Mr Vannak said the country’s economy would contract a full five percent in 2010.

The doom and gloom predictions were part of a common theme among fortunetellers, who often hold more sway over what people believe will come about in times ahead than major financial institutions.

A bowl of burning incense by her feat and a crisp deck of cards stacked up on a knee-high table outside recently closed Sereipheap market in Prampi Makara district, Cham Nari, 48, has been predicting fortunes for three years.

“Mostly they’re concerned about their jobs,” she said. “When people open their business and they cannot make good money, they want to know if they did something wrong to their ancestors.”

And when they ask about their financial futures, Ms Nari said recently she has had to pass on some bad news.

“It’s very unusual,” she said. “The economy will not be good this year.”

“People are more worried,” said Mak Keo, a fortuneteller at Tuol Sangke market who declined to giver her real name. “Last year they thought the economy was going to get better, but this year it’s still not good.”

And Ms Keo said she doesn’t have much good news to cheer them up.

“I think this year, 2010, I think it won’t get better,” she said.

Business hasn’t exactly been booming for Ms Keo either, she added.

“While the number of customers has decreased, the number of fortune tellers has increased,” she said, making for tougher competition.

Ms Keo said she’s even had to downsize recently from a full stall that used to cost her $30 a month to a half-stall that costs her only $20. A few spots away, another pair of fortunetellers squatted by their own untroubled deck of cards.

Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, had little patience for such negative forecasts about the economy. Both the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank predicted last year that Cambodia’s economy would contract by 1.5 percent to 2 percent in 2009. But he said that like most of the country’s economic experts, he’s expecting better things for the economy in 2010.

“The garment sector is still unclear if it will recover,” he said.

But thanks to a rebound in construction, investment and tourism, he added, and a more production-oriented agriculture sector especially, “everyone is expecting a recovery, but a gradual one.”

Still, Mr Sophal appreciates the influence Cambodia’s soothsayers have over some members of the public and worries that their gloomy forecasts can turn into self-fulfilling prophesies if they encourage people to hold back in an economy otherwise primed for recovery.

“It can happen when people don’t have the confidence to consume or invest,” he said.

But the habit may prove hard to break.

“People still believe in spirits,” said Chhorn Lem, secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, “and it is hard to eliminate their belief since they have believed in this for so long.”


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