In early 1969, with Cambodia already embroiled in the US war in Vietnam and discontent against then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government growing in some quarters, the prince decided to set up a casino on Phnom Penh’s riverbank.
Shortly after, Phnom Penh was filled with talk of an old prophecy written on palm leaves, wrote Charles Meyer in his 1971 book “Behind the Khmer Smile.”
The prophecy foresaw that after the construction of “gold and silver towers” where the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers meet, the kingdom would plunge into disaster, blood would flow in the rivers and a prince would go into exile.
In the following months, every incident—the 80 people killed or injured in a train derailment during the inauguration ceremonies of Sihanoukville’s train station; the worker crushed under a tree he was cutting at Prince Sihanouk’s request; the red circle around the moon while Prince Sihanouk was on a health visit to a hospital—was seen by Cambodians as reinforcing the prediction that Prince Sihanouk’s leadership would soon end and that Cambodia would face ruin, wrote Meyer.
But a comet that crossed the Phnom Penh sky was, for many people, the most frightening sign of all.
“When Cambodians see a comet, they usually believe that a calamity such as war will take place,” said Sou Chamroeun, a member of the central committee of the Khmer Writers Association who still remembers that comet.
After seizing power, General Lon Nol referred to the comet and to the ancient prophecy in a radio broadcast on May 11, 1970, adding that, as predicted, peace would reign after the war, wrote Meyer.
The fact that millions of Cambodians died in the civil war and during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, as stated in the palm-leaf text, has given credence to the prophecy.
Sou Chamroeun compiled a version of the prophecy in 1970.
He had heard about a woman living at a pagoda in Anlong Chin commune, Kandal province. Keo Sorn, who was in her 70s, was preaching in village ceremonies. Sou Chamroeun went to meet her and learned that she had memorized the prophesy known as the Ein Tumneay.
Keo Sorn had worked for Sothann Prei Chea Ein, a renowned Cambodian writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Keo Sorn could not read or write, but she had been able to retain the poetic text, in verses attributed to Indra, when the writer recited them, Sou Chamroeun said.
The Puth Tumneay, which is said to have come from Buddha, is basically the same prediction worded differently, said Miech Ponn, adviser to the Mores and Customs Commission at the Buddhist Institute.
There is no known author for the Puth Tumneay, Miech Ponn said, adding that the author may have preferred to remain anonymous since a person could lose his life if one of his predictions displeased a powerful patron.
In 1959, Dap Chhuon, the governor of Siem Reap province, put his astrologer to death for having predicted what took place a few months later—Dap Chhuon’s death.
Dap Chhuon was assassinated in March 1959 after his failure to topple then-Prince Sihanouk, wrote Meyer.
Prom Virak, a former secretary-general of the Khmer Writers Association, also known as Choy Siphat, had compiled the Puth Tumneay around 1970, Sou Chamroeun said.
The oldest remaining version of the prophecy, written on palm leaves, dates from the 19th century, said Olivier de Bernon, a researcher with the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, which has published two essays on the prophecy.
The document seems to have been written in connection with social and political conflicts of the time at which they were written, and which have long been forgotten, de Bernon said.
While excerpts may refer to princes fighting over the succession to the throne of King Ang Duong in the 1860s, others might describe historical events, such as the Thais seizing Lovek in the 1590s, he said.
In the 1800s, Cambodia was caught between two powerful kingdoms in Vietnam and Thailand and the country was threatened, as it would be in the 1960s and 1970s.
Miech Ponn and Sou Chamroeun interpret “the thunder in the East is getting louder” in the prophecy as referring to the US war in Vietnam that spilled into Cambodian territory in the late 1960s. Sou Chamroeun also sees it as describing the strength of the Communist Bloc at the time.
But in the 1800s, it could easily have meant the powerful Vietnamese kingdom trying to control Cambodia from Hue.
In “white egrets hide in a bush of reed” both Sou Chamroeun and Miech Ponn interpret the Western countries who abandoned Cambodians to the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.
In desperate times, the prophecy serves as a psychological defense mechanism for people to come to terms with unfathomable events, said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist who teaches historical anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
In periods of peace, the prophecy is all but forgotten; but, come a crisis, it suddenly resurfaces, he said.
“Whenever the country faces problems seemingly insurmountable, or calamities that are beyond comprehension, people turn to this prophecy to try to make sense of the events,” he said.
Contemporary politicians have not failed to notice the power of the prophecy.
When Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh became co-prime ministers after the 1993 national elections, some people quoted the conclusion of the prophecy, de Bernon said.
The prophecy stated that, after the calamities, two kings would share power, and peace and prosperity would descend on the kingdom, he said.
But the power sharing of the two prime ministers did not go without difficulties, and the prophecy was once again resurrected.
On July 7, 1997, Prime Minister Hun Sen directly quoted the prophecy to explain the CPP’s armed ousting of Prince Ranariddh, de Bernon said.
Hun Sen said the ousting of the prince was meant to avoid “blood flowing so high in Phnom Penh that it would wet the belly of an elephant.”
Regardless of the differing opinions, one cannot deny that events unfolded in the 1970s just as those described in the prophecy, Sou Chamroeun said
Whether today’s young people, whose minds are turned toward science, believe in the prophecy as their parents did remains to be seen, Sou Chamroeun added.