the writing on the wall

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.



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