Kong Pisei district, Kompong Speu province – An angry mob of villagers began to gather at about 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon outside Prak Kong’s home in Prey Vihear commune late last month. The villagers, some brandishing machetes or large sticks, wanted him to leave the village and never come back.
Hundreds of residents threw rocks and shouted from the road, telling him to pack his things and get out. The village of Trapaing Svay, where Mr. Kong has lived with his wife for 20 years, is home to about 200 people, but they called for assistance from two neighboring villages. The mob had swelled to about 600 people by the time local authorities arrived.
The problem, according to villagers, was that the 70-year-old Mr. Kong was a well-known sorcerer, and his black magic had been plaguing the village recently, causing disasters and deaths.
Interviews with more than a dozen residents of Trapaing Svay revealed shared, deep distrust of Mr. Kong. Residents of the quiet rural village ascribed disease and lightning strikes to the workings of their neighbor, and were willing to resort to violence to rid themselves of him. They acknowledged that suspicions of sorcery seemed to be more common here, but none of them knew why, and they expressed no remorse for carrying out mob justice against Mr. Kong.
Trapaing Svay, a patchwork of criss-crossing dirt roads and wooden houses tucked away between rice fields about 2 km west of National Road 3, has had a difficult year. Seven people have died, of illness or unknown causes, and lightning has struck nearby coconut trees.
The villagers agreed that Mr. Kong was to blame.
“He comes and goes, and when he goes, people die,” said Som Sum, a 75-year-old woman who went to the alleged sorcerer’s house on the afternoon of March 31 to urge him to leave.
“He never stayed in the village when we had funerals or religious ceremonies,” said Nhim Nort, the village chief.
The final affront that pushed the men, women and children of Trapaing Svay to the brink of violence was Mr. Kong’s perceived disregard for a ritual that villagers had organized to rid the village of its bad luck. They called in nine monks who surrounded the village, laying sticks and string around its perimeter and along the road as part of a religious ceremony to dispel evil spirits.
Villagers were asked to stay off the roads, but Mr. Kong refused. He walked on top of the string, according to Mr. Nort and other villagers. Then he appeared to move a stick from its position, rotating it on the road so that it faced in the opposite direction.
Residents said they had suspected Mr. Kong of sorcery for many years. His wife, Nou Ang, would often get into arguments and threaten people with her husband’s black magic, they said, and sometimes people she argued with fell ill.
Mr. Kong worked as a healer, but in interviews residents said no one was brave enough to use his services.
“We were afraid to go buy medicine from him,” Ms. Sum said. Mr. Kong lived on the edge of the village, his house bordering the rice fields that surround the town. “No one wanted to go near that house,” she said.
Mr. Kong could not be reached, and residents of Trapaing Svay said no one in the village had his telephone number.
The case is not isolated. The district—home to a population of about 130,000—has witnessed murder in the name of dispelling black magic from its villages, and Kompong Speu province appears to be a hotbed of anti-magic vigilantism.
“It’s an old reason, from a long time ago,” suggested Mr. Nort, the village chief, but he could not explain what the reason was.
In May, 79-year-old Mean Sean, a rice farmer and resident of Kong Pisei district’s Veal commune, was stabbed eight times in the stomach and killed, following a string of official reports from residents complaining of his alleged sorcery.
After his murder, deputy district police chief Keo Saroeun said he had inspected the man’s house, “but there were no decorations or suspicious objects that would show that he was a sorcerer and knew black magic.”
In July 2015, a suspected sorcerer was beaten and beheaded in the province’s Thpong district after a sudden death in his hometown raised suspicions about his magical practices.
And last April, a suspected sorcerer in the province’s Phnom Sruoch district was beheaded. Two women later confessed, blaming the victim for the death of a relative and informing police where they buried the man’s head—although the district’s police chief said excavating the head would be impossible without inciting violence against his officers from local residents.
Ryun Patterson, the author of a book on Cambodian magic who interviewed dozens of magical practitioners, said he had never met someone who practiced black magic, only fortune-tellers and spirit mediums who served a role akin to mental health counselors.
“You hear a lot of people talking about black magic…. It’s a lot harder to actually find someone,” he said. “It’s more on the level of urban legend.”
Mr. Patterson said that while much of the attention paid to magic practitioners focuses on Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, Kompong Speu—and Kong Pisei district in particular—are hotspots as well, although he did not know why. He suggested that rapid economic changes, social instability and small-town dynamics, more than superstitions, often spurred the accusations.
“This is a human issue. It’s not a Cambodian issue, it’s not a civilized versus uncivilized issue,” he said. “But because [Cambodia] has a breakdown of basic rule of law…. It’s a nasty stew.”
In the case of Trapaing Svay, Ms. Sum said she had become convinced of Mr. Kong’s sorcery when her husband got sick. She consulted several fortune-tellers in multiple provinces, and they all told her that her husband had been a victim of black magic.
“My husband died because of the sorcerer,” she said, as villagers around her nodded in agreement.
Mr. Nort would not say whether he believed Mr. Kong was a sorcerer, but he was sure he didn’t want blood spilled in his town. After the crowd began to gather at Mr. Kong’s house, the village chief called for backup, alerting the Prey Vihear commune chief, Doung Soy.
Mr. Soy arrived at a chaotic scene. Villagers were throwing rocks at Mr. Kong’s house and some were armed with sticks and blades. Mr. Kong was holed up in his home with his wife and several grandchildren, holding a machete with which he often walked around the village, according to the commune chief.
“I wanted to avoid violence against [Mr. Kong],” Mr. Soy said. He called commune and district police officers, and then tried to calm the villagers.
“I raised my hands, asking them to be calm, but they pointed at my face,” Mr. Soy said. “They did not want to talk. They wanted him to leave.”
About 30 officials and 10 police officers surrounded Mr. Kong’s home and front yard, standing between the villagers and the alleged sorcerer. At about 7 p.m., district police arrived with a pickup truck to escort Mr. Kong out of his home and away from the village.
They took him to the district government’s headquarters for the night, according to district governor Chem Phoeunvuth, who said Mr. Kong left the next morning and did not say where he was going.
“I told [the villagers] not to do this, not to do the illegal things,” Mr. Soy said, shaking his head. “There is no law about sorcery. What those villagers did was against the law.”
For residents of Trapaing Svay, however, the mob’s actions meant that their village was now safe, and many of the villagers say they have already seen a marked improvement in their luck.
“Nobody is sick. No one has died,” Ms. Sum said, echoing the statements of Mr. Nort and several other villagers. “We are happy now.”