We Curse Them to Die for Seven Generations!

We Curse Them to Die for Seven Generations!

Figure 1: Spirit medium possessed by a neak taFigure 1: Spirit medium possessed by a neak ta. Creator: Jonas Kramp. All rights reserved.

Figure 1: Spirit medium possessed by a neak ta. Creator: Jonas Kramp. All rights reserved.

In the course of my internship with the Heinrich Böll Foundation my colleague Chey Vathana and I conducted a two-week research on a land conflict caused by a state-granted Economic Land Concession (ELC)1 for the cultivation of sugarcane in three districts in Preah Vihear province. In the last decade, the Cambodian sugar industry experienced a boom and has grown into a multimillion dollar enterprise that has consumed large parts of Cambodia’s ar-able land. This land rush – also motivated by the European Union’s (EU’s) Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential trade scheme which provides tariff-free access for least developed countries to the EU’s market – has led to evictions and human rights violations not only in Preah Vihear but also in other provinces like Oddar Meanchey, Koh Kong and Kampong Speu. Because many studies have already focused on human rights abuses and on the aspect of force in land grabs (‘violent grabs’)2 , our main focus of the research was thus to gather information on how, besides brute force, people are excluded from land. Connected to this objective we asked questions about the role spirits play in the contestation of land3 and in which ways they might be part of exclusionary practices, to bring into focus an often-omitted aspect that is an integral part of life for many rural Cambodians.

The following article is an extract of our research project that presents some of our findings related to spirits and how they are part of the conflict in Preah Vihear. Thus, the main aspects of the research project will only be touched upon (e.g. the current situation of regulations governing land) but will be further discussed in a forthcoming thesis. It is moreover not the aim of this article, to romanticize the practices and customs surrounding spirits of the ethnic Kui people we encountered, but to give an insight to better understand the dynamics brought about by land concessions in a domain that is often ignored. Put bluntly, spirits from a Eurocentric enlightened perspective are often dismissed as nothing more than superstition. Hence, to subvert this dominant argument – which entails to see the human as the sole political actor – it is crucial to look closer for example at the performances of actors (e.g. in ceremonies) that weave the non-human and human world into one another. However, my aim in this article is not to argue for or against the existence of spirits but to shed light on the behavior of human actors responding to non-human actors and ultimately, the role spirits play in regard to exclusions from land.

The Conflict – Setting the Stage

Nearly five years ago, the conflict between ethnic Kui villagers and five Chinese sister companies, all subsidiaries of the Hengfu Group Sugar Industry Co., Ltd., exacerbated in the northern province of Preah Vihear, when the concessionaires started to demarcate their admitted acreage. Since time immemorial Kui villagers have lived and farmed on this now privatized land following an ancient principle of usufruct rights that entitles everyone to claim and clear unclaimed forest land upon consent of the local community. This custom granted members of the village the right to land, whereupon – for example after marriage – they would build their homestead and prepare the land for farming. Notionally, this practice builds upon the understanding that the forest is a common-pool resource governed by the spirit owner of the land – the local neak ta4 who is asked for permission.

“Ang suggests that the neak ta is the main point of an energy force or phenomenon that links a specific group, like a village community, with the soil. The neak ta is fused to the soil and in local terms is the master of the soil, maja tuk maja day; it is also fused with the local human inhabitants as an honored grandparent, and with the king as a guardian of his kingdom, and with the Buddha as boromey.”5

Still today, many rural Cambodians stick to this as informal regarded customary governance system which is connected to the idea that they may farm the amount of land that they are capable of. However, in the context of large-scale land concessions (ELCs) in Cambodia claims over land are only heard when based on formal land titles – which are largely absent in Preah Vihear. Claims based on the customary system are not able to secure peoples land – leaving large parts of the rural population in an environment of insecure tenure. Since 2005, with a spike in 2010-2011, the broad majority of state-granted land concessions have been issued. These large-scale land transfers (e.g. for rubber and sugar plantations) and the ab-sence of formal land titles have aggravated the private enclosure of land in Cambodia, sparked conflict and have led to a disjuncture of land from its social fabric. Even though claims over land of people on the grounds of the customary tenure system do not secure their tenure, many Cambodians continue to manage their land in an as informal regarded customary way because of a national land management system which has failed to formalize their local tenure system.

At the present moment, due to the absence of hard land titles, there are two attempts to register land. That is, with a sporadic approach, dating back to the 1992 Land Law under which farmers could apply for a title, and a systematic approach, implemented after the 2001 Land Law under the formalization scheme LMAP which provided titles in a designated area. Both endeavors however have been critiqued, to either be prohibitively expensive, overly bureaucratic and to have failed to provide enough information for land registration (sporadic) or to prioritize areas without land disputes (systematic) 6.

The latest attempt for land registration, to tackle land insecurity by providing land titles, was personally financed by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen in a 2012 nationwide initiative, namely Directive 01BB: Measures Reinforcing and Increasing the Efficiency of the Management of Economic Land Concessions (Order 01). The two aims of Order 01 were firstly, to temporarily postpone, reclassify and downsize ELCs to provide land for people in areas at risk of dispossession and secondly, to send briefly trained volunteer university students to certain areas to demarcate and measure land in order to issue land titles7 . However, this top down approach had many shortcomings such as no granting of Community Land Titles (CLTs) for indigenous groups that aim to protect collective ownership – which is central to their identity. Instead, Order 01 provided individual land titles to smallholders – in Preah Vihear for example by threatening them with the loss of land if they would not apply – making them no more eligible to register for a collective title with their community8 .

As a result of the five ELCs granted to the Hengfu Ltd. subsidiaries and the absence of formal titles in the visited three districts in Preah Vihear, extensive parts of former forest land and villager’s farmlands have been razed to the ground to cultivate sugarcane, leaving farmers and the future generations without land, forcing villagers to migrate for work and destroying cultural and spiritual places such as ancient temples. Because of repressions by the local authorities, that curtail villagers’ rights of assembly and freedom of expression, activists gather in smaller groups in secrecy to better resist their loss of farmland and to protect their livelihoods, culture and environment.

In Tbeng Meanchey district’s Prame village the protest movement has evolved the most, according to local protest leader Sam Song this is partly because of a perceived deeper solidarity between villagers who had to hide out in the forest during the Khmer Rouge period. Besides this argument of social cohesion, it is also the charismatic figure of herself, who greatly contributed to forming up a protest movement, that tries to interfere with attempts of the Chinese companies to seize more land.

Figure 2: Destroyed temple near Preus Ka Oh village, Tbeng Meanchey district. Creator: Jonas Kramp. All rights reserved.

To better control their farmlands and to better resist dispossessions, villagers have set up two protest camps in the forest wherein around five to ten people constantly reside. Not far from one of the camps the villagers have recently build a new spirit house to worship the neak ta of the area, whose grace is won upon donations in order to protect a certain kind of land use. Neak ta spirits can be physically represented in many ways, for example in shrines, stones, trees, lakes or other features of the landscape. Ever since the company has arrived the locals have questioned the ability of the spirit to protect their land and have thus held consultations in which a medium was possessed by the spirit enabling the community to ask questions and to voice their concerns. The villagers conceptualize spirits as social actors who are very much part of the conflict. Again, the point here is not to make a judgement whether spirits truly exist or not but to explore the behavior of human actors responding to non-human actors. To better illuminate how the spirit world is entangled with the physical world, as demonstrated by the material expression of human behavior, it may be helpful to draw on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus.

Habitus can be described as a psychosomatic memory, it refers to all former incorporated social experiences – a set of dispositions (coherent perceptual, cognitive and action schemata) underpinning everyday practice – of an individual, that are triggered in similar situations.9

“For Bourdieu the concept of habitus is intricately linked with the social structures within a specific field and essential to sociological analysis of society. Reality according to Bourdieu is a social concept, to exist is to exist socially and what is real is relational to those around us.”10

The double function of habitus is, that it represents on one hand the external structures internalized in a set of dispositions by an individual (opus operatum) and on the other hand, that it also organizes practice and the perception of practice, as an itself structured structure (modus operandi).11 Therefore, the daily interactions with them are part of the Kui people’s dispositions (opus operatum), which are translated into the everyday organization of practice through behavior and actions (modus operandi). In the field, our interlocutors thus conceptualized spirits as social actors which are part of a relational network – making them in the sense of Bourdieu “real”.

The Behavior of Humans and Spirits

Ever since the Chinese companies arrived many of the villagers have lost farm land, thus living in a constant fear of landlessness and the loss of their livelihoods, leaving them in a world without protection. One observation in the field was for example the expression of disappointment by some of our informants who had hoped for protection by the local neak ta but had lost their land to one of the companies. It is assumed that the feeling of abandonment – by the government “their parents” – is complemented and reinforced by the perceived powerlessness of spirits against the companies’ heavy machinery. In one village meeting, some of the men who were heavily intoxicated spoke their mind and called one of the neak ta a coward because he told them that he would run away from the excavators in fear of being grabbed and flung away by an excavator shovel.

Not only are the spirits afraid and powerless in the face of company machines, they are also susceptible to bribes and greed. Our informants in the field thus described spirits and humans as essentially the same in terms of behavior. To illustrate this point villagers told us about the neak ta’s reprehensible behavior, who had “changed sides” and helped the Chinese companies. Only during a spirit ceremony, the villagers found out about this when they asked the neak ta why he had not helped them, for example by preventing the company from taking their land. The answer the villagers received left them puzzled, apparently, the Chinese companies had also made offerings far greater than the villagers had done. Ms. Song compared the spirit’s behavior to her nephew’s, who sold his land to the company and now works for them. The relationship here described renders the spirit as an anthropomorphic entity with similar characteristics to humans such as being venal, greedy and to have the ability to commit the act of treason. The moral underpinning thus applies in relationships with humans and non-humans alike, infusing their relationships.

Figure 3: Burning straw figures representing the Chinese companies, local authorities and traitors during a cursing ceremony in Tbeng Meanchey district. Creator: Jonas Kramp. All rights reserved.

In order to regain the support of the spirits, to find out about their future and to curse the five companies in all three districts, villagers gathered on the 23rd of February. In this procedure, the three stages of the Lorng Neak Ta ceremony were carried out in Tbeng Meanchey where four different spirits possessed one female medium. To win back the support of the neak ta – to exclude the company from their land – the villagers offered a pig’s head, a whole piglet, fruit, money, and many other things. During the ceremony, the villagers received from all spirits the same answer, that the conflict would not be over soon and that they would have to stay strong. After the ceremony, the answer to our question, whether the spirits’ words provided hope to her, Ms. Song clearly answered with a “no”. However, the cursing ceremony can be seen as an outlet for the villagers’ anger to publicly condemn what normally is only talked about in private. Here, the spirits were asked to curse the Chinese companies, local authorities and people who showed the companies their land. The villagers cursed them for example to face thunder and lightning, to become homeless ghosts and to die for seven generations.

Neak ta spirits also play an important role in the stakeholder’s justifications of the present and aspired circumstances, especially the villagers base their claims over land on spirits, for example to protect potent spiritual places such as lakes or spirit forests. These places mobilize a far greater resistance than the loss of farmland or “ordinary” forest. Near Samraong village many villagers camped out over a few nights when the communities spirit forest was threatened to be cleared by bulldozers. Even though villagers protest peacefully, incidents have been recorded in which employees of the companies threatened to use violence, one particular case was videotaped and circulated on Facebook showing employees holding big wooden clubs. This direct threat to use force and the subtler undercurrent of future menace produce a climate of fear for many villagers. Our informants reported that they were afraid to go to jail or even die for protecting their farmlands and have thus sold their land or have not participated in the protests.

Nevertheless, about eighty villagers gathered last February to curse the Chinese companies and to pray to the neak ta. One of the protest leaders of Prame village Mr. Thong Soot gave the following speech:

“Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, we are here today to celebrate our Lorng Neak Ta (ceremony for the neak ta spirits). Some of the local authorities have accused us of organizing this celebration as an event that is aimed against them. It is ridiculous! We are not against anyone. We are the indigenous people and this is our tradition and culture as Kui people. This ceremony has been celebrated since our ancestors and it has been passed on to us, as the new generation of Kui indigenous people.

Moreover, this area, the spirit forest, has been recognized by the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts […] He (Mr. Soyara, representative of the government) announced to the provincial governor and the company not to raze this area because Toul Kan Seng is an ancient village where a temple complex and farmland are located. Mr. Soyara, also talked to me and told me to watch over this area, to take care of our land. He also informed the provincial governor, company, and the local authorities such as Mr. Dee and Mr. Chan about this protected area. So, what we are doing right now is in accordance with the law and our tradition, it is not against the law or local authorities. That is all, thank you brothers and sisters.”

Apparent in this speech is the legitimization of the spiritual frame of the protest – the justification of the ceremony itself – showing that the right to traditions and spiritual claims is a central part of their struggle for land.

1 An ELC is a long-term lease agreement between the government and a concessionaire that allows the beneficiary to clear land in order to develop industrial agriculture

2 Beban et al. (2017)

3 Following a relational political ecology approach (see Münster & Poerting (2016))

4 Work & Beban (2016); Guillou (2006)

5 Work (no date)

6 Sekiguchi & Hatsukano (2013); Grimsditch et al. (2012)

7 Work & Beban (2016)

8 See Vize & Hornung (2013); CCHR (2016); Milne (2013)

9 Boike (2016: 87); Blasius & Schmitz (2013: 201)

10 Hawthorn (2017)

11 Lenger et al. (2013: 19f)


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