voeun sai commune, Ratanakkiri province – The air is thick with fear in Kang Nak village, a Kavet ethnic minority community located on the high sandy banks of the Voeun Sai River in northern Ratanakkiri. Evil spirits are on the loose in the three Kavet communities here, according to Kang Nak’s deputy village chief Sy Souk, who said local families had been dreading the night time ever since several young men died mysteriously last month.
“Ten nights we stayed up to talk about [the spirits] after the deaths,” Ms Souk, 50, said. “If we talk, the spirits cannot do anything to us. If we sleep, the spirits can come and suffocate us…. We just sleep during the day.”
“After three people died, we realized there was a Preay coming to kill the people,” she said, adding, “We can see the Preay when it walks at night on the bridge; the bridge moves as if a dog walks on it.”
Preay is a Khmer word that means bad spirit.
Reportedly, seven deaths occurred in the three Kavet villages in Voeun Sai commune late last month, and villagers reported finding mysterious marks made by nails on the victims’ necks. In Kang Nak village three young, healthy men died suddenly and about a dozen villagers caught a high fever in the span of a week, local villagers said.
The events may sound inexplicable, but village elder Plong Ngos, 78, said he knows exactly what has been happening: The spirits in Sa Paing Vak Mountain—the local Kavet people’s most sacred mountain—have been disturbed by a mining company conducting prospecting drills in search of gold.
“They drill in a sacred area…. The spirits are angry at the villagers because they think we allow the company to drill there,” Mr Plong said.
The recent arrival of Australian mining company Indochine Research at the mountain, situated about 20 kilometers east of the village, is part of the company’s ongoing exploration in Viracheay National Park covering parts of Voeun Sai and Ta Veng district, where the Ministry of Mining, Energy and Industry granted the company a 180 square kilometer license mine in the area in 2008.
Indochine Research said on its website that exploration programs in its licensed areas in Kratie and Ratanakkiri province had so far “been successful in identifying and prioritizing specific targets requiring additional exploration” for gold and other valuable deposits such as copper.
The arrival of modern extractive industries in the hills of Ratanakkiri has clashed with the indigenous communities’ ancient animistic beliefs that sacred forests, burial grounds, rivers, and in particular mountains, house powerful spirits that control the well-being of their villages.
Mr Plong said many people among the roughly 400 villagers had seen the arrival of two evil spirits, when they came down from the mountain to wreak havoc in Kang Nak.
“We know because we see them in our dreams before the deaths, they are tall and with long hair, one is a man and one is woman… Their faces are human but their eyes are red,” Mr Plong said, “I have never seen this before.” “I also dreamt about them…but they don’t dare to take me because it’s not my time to die,” he said with a wry smile.
Mr Plong, who is in charge of organizing spiritual ceremonies at the village, said several events had been held to appease the spirits and another one was planned for Friday. “We will close the village for five days and we will sacrifice a buffalo…. Previously we sacrificed two pigs, but we promised the Preay a buffalo,” he said.
Regardless of the spiritual measures the community is taking, Ms Souk, the deputy village chief, said villagers were preparing to file a complaint with the authorities over the drilling on their sacred mountain. “We are really angry with the company, we want them to move. We are preparing a complaint that the village chief will take to district authorities,” she said, adding the communities had never been consulted about exploration operations in Voeun Sai commune.
Hun Bunthan, deputy director of Ratanakkiri Provincial department for mining, industry and energy, said Indochine Research had been exploring in the area since 2005.
Mr Bunthan said the company had no obligation to hold prior consultation with local communities over exploration and it was up to local officials to inform communities. “There is no need for the villagers to respond, the villagers are under the government and the government gave the license already,” he said, adding however, companies would need a new license to open a mine, for which they also would have to consult local communities.
Indochine Research officials at its office in Phnom Penh said yesterday that company directors were unavailable to comment on mining exploration in Voeun Sai commune. On its website, the company said its “company policy is to contribute to the local communities in which it operates through grass roots programs including employment and training of local people.”
Sao Vansey, director of NGO Indigenous Communities Support Organization, said the fact that mining companies are not obliged to consult local communities about exploration operations leads to conflict with indigenous communities.
“In a lot of forests and mountains minorities believe there are spirits that can make villagers fall sick or cause deaths. So the companies should consult with communities,” he said.
NGO Forum said in its recent Position Paper on Cambodian Development 2009-2010 that in at least one other case in Ratanakkiri’s Kuon Mum district, exploration drilling had disturbed Yanang Mountain, sacred to local Kreung and Tompuon people.
Mr Vansey said around 40 NGOs, unified in the Development and Partnership in Action and the Extractive Industry Social and the Environmental Impacts Network, are calling for improved safeguards and regulations for the mining industry, including requirements for prior consultation with local communities before exploration activities commence.
Hoy Vannara, chief of the provincial health department’s office of communicable disease control, said on Friday he had visited Kang Nak village and medical examinations indicated the three men, despite their youth and apparent health, were killed by a stroke. “The villagers do not understand medical conditions,” he said.
Mr Vannara said the villagers had tried to massage and hold the men when they fell to the ground convulsing, which explains the nail marks on the victims’ bodies. “[B]ecause of these marks they assume spirits killed them,” he said.