Kim Hak, photographer

Kim Hak is a young Cambodian photographer who has achieved international recognition. His website is here. These images are from his project Unity – each is a memory of the Pol Pot years. There’s an interview in the excellent Banyan Blog, here, which explains. Some are obvious – the rubber sandals, for example, are the footwear of the KR, next to a bare footprint and a branch of thorns for the workers. Some are less so – the chicken in a teakettle (last image) is from Kim Hak’s mother, who remembers stealing a chicken and boiling it in a kettle for her husband when he was very ill, an act that could have led to death for both of them.

I have a sort of moral/aesthetic problem – how can such images come from such horror? Never mind, they are undeniably beautiful to look at.

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Sunny Cambodia, the Tasmania of Asia

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The Guardian explains Australia’s Cambodia option. (Click on the image for a bigger version)

Cambodia as dictatorship, violent crime and grinding poverty is the stuff of tourist cliches. And it’s highly unlikely that the cartoon is right when it says people will end up living in houses with dirt floors and no plumbing – in my time in Phnom Penh I’ve seen a steady upgrading of the housing stock, including in the slums. Which is not to deny that the “fact”-sheet being handed out to the refugees on Nauru is anything other than fantasy.  Anyway, the first planeload is supposed to arrive Monday.

Smoked babies, part 3

Screen Shot 2015-04-18 at 1.40.12 PMIllustration from a classic Thai tale of a man who kills his wife to obtain a smoked baby amulet

Journalist Nate Thayer was in a guest-house in Aranyaprathet (Thailand) on his way to interview Pol Pot in 1997:

There was a knock on my door, and … [Ghung], a young boy of 17, entered. … He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets. “I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence. Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”

The kuman thing is, of course, the Thai version of the Khmer koan krak. Quite possibly it’s found all over Southeast Asia – I’m told there’s a Philippines version, although that involves using the afterbirth rather than a fetus taken from a pregnant woman’s womb (a slightly more civilised approach, though not much). Here’s an interesting ghost story by a foreigner who bought a kuman thong in Bangkok without realising what it was – I don’t know what in this is fiction and what’s fact, but the gist is that his Thai girlfriend was horrified (yes – I gather most Cambodians find koan krak pretty horrifying) and warned him that he’d taken a responsibility – he had to feed the kuman thong and take care of it like a normal child. Which, naturally, he failed to do. Read on.

Nate Thayer’s story also underlines that the fetus is entirely protective – it can’t be used to harm others. In that sense it isn’t black magic at all, but since it involves the almost certain death of the mother it might as well be.

This brings up the question of where the fetus comes from. In theory it’s either taken from a woman who died in childbirth, or, and preferably (more powerful amulet), from a woman who voluntarily agrees to give her unborn fetus to the man (who is, presumably, the biological father). This website suggests that in Thailand they come from abortions and morgues, but that would violate one of the rules of making a koan krak: the fetus must be willingly gifted by the mother to the father. Quite possibly, in modern urban conditions, this is being lost, and the simple possession of a mummified fetus over which magic spells have been chanted is seen as enough. This is highly disturbing, given the potential for all sorts of shenanigans. This is from a 2006 article by Bronwyn Sloane:

Recently a smalltime young criminal was arrested after trying to cut his pregnant girlfriend’s fetus out of her womb. She struggled and escaped, probably saving both her own and her unborn child’s life. To local police investigating the crime afterwards, his motive was obvious. The man had not wanted a child. He wanted a talisman to help him improve his criminal skills, and he had deliberately impregnated a young woman claiming he loved her to achieve that.

An academic study of Cambodian refugees on the Thai border in the 1980s tells how some refugee women induced abortions in order to provide their husbands or lovers with a koan kroh. This account is interesting because it suggests that the death of the mother is not essential to the creation of the koan krak (or koan kroh, or whatever – the variations are endless).

Some more factoids:

  • The question of ownership is uppermost: the father – in reality already the biological father – must ask the biological mother to give him the fetus, as if in some fashion it isn’t actually his already. This implies that the father desires the biological role of the mother.
  • Relationships are inverted – the father of the koan krak is less powerful than the kun krak, and is actually dependant on it. He constructs an altar for it and makes offerings, as to a superior spiritual being.
  • The mother of the fetus also becomes a spirit- she’s now a bray, the earth-bound spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, the most powerful and malevolent of all spirits. (Recall that in the alternative route to procuring a fetus, from a woman who dies in childbirth, the dead woman’s spirit must be summonsed by magic, and she appears as a bray; the bray, incidentally, is the spirit that inhabits the racing canoes at the Water Festival).
  • By making an altar to the koun krak, the man makes the koan krak an ancestor in the maternal line. “From being a member of a conjugal couple, he becomes a descendant of his wife’s lineage”.
  • How is the amulet carried? Some say in a bag around the neck or waist, others in a wooden ball made of two halves. No doubt both could be true.

Smoked babies, part 2.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 10.14.44 PMA Thai kaun krak – on sale for $199.99, being offered by a “so-called monk”.

Part 2 of Steven Prigent’s paper on the Cambodian “smoked baby” talisman (in Khmer, “kaun krak” or “kaon kroh” or “kaon kraouch”) . Part 1 was on how to obtain the fetus (it has to be freely offered by the mother, who dies), part 2 describes how the man turns it into a talisman:

  • The man who is to become the talisman’s “father” must first mummify it over a fire, while making offerings.
  • He then presents it to a monk who is skilled in magic. The monk will “awaken” the  fetus through magic words. (Prigent notes that an earlier ethnologist, the famous Etienne Aymonier, makes no mention of monks).
  • Finally the mummified and awakened fetus is sewn into the pouch which will be its final home. This is done within an enclosure of magic sima stones. The koan krak becomes the sole charge of its “father”, who must “feed” it with offerings at its altar in his house. The father should never reveal to outsiders that he possesses a koan krak. It will give its father advice, protect him from bullets (the father is usually a soldier), and even has the ability to make him invisible to his enemies. When he needs its help he asks it: “My child, help your father!” The link is one of father and son, and for this reason a koan krak cannot change hands.
  • Most importantly, a koan krak can be used only to protect its father. It is a moral being, superior to its father in both wisdom and power, and will not allow itself to be used for harm.

Erik W. Davis adds that a koan krak can be naughty and refuse to help its father, in which case the father can discipline it. One man who owns a koan krak told Davis he did this by jabbing it with a needle.

Prigent found the illustration at the top of this article on a Thai website called billionmore.com. It seems to be a sort of e-bay for amulet-seekers. The add is still there, but with a note that this item is “out of stock.” This is most disturbing – the temptation for a black market in fetuses is obvious, and considering the rules for ensuring potency (the most powerful come from cutting open a living woman) the consequences would be horrific. Apparently Cambodian expertise is highly thought of in Thailand – the vendor of this thing boats that he “learned further from Khmer ancient magic book.”

Smoked babies, part 1.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 4.18.16 PMCover illustration from Trude Jacobsen’s “The Lost Goddesses”

Steven Prigent’s paper UN FŒŒTUS HUMAIN POUR AMULETTE (in French, obviously), is divided into three parts, preceded by an introduction. This is a summary of Part I, “La rumeur de l’enfant fume”:

LA RUMEUR DE « L’’ENFANT FUMÉ » (KUN KRAK)

  • Koan kroh can be obtained either from a woman who has died in childbirth, or from a living pregnant woman. The woman in the second case will end up as dead as the woman in the first.
  • In the first case, the man “awakens” the corpse of the woman (who has been buried with the fetus) by magic. He must then ask and receive the dead woman’s permission to take the fetus. This will be difficult for him, because the awakened corpse will cause great fear. (See the material from Trude Jacobsen below).
  • According to Ang Choulean (says Prigent – I haven’t found Ang’s paper on the subject), a fetus obtained from a woman who is already dead in childbirth is less powerful than one obtained from a living mother. Prigent believes that the preferred course is to obtain a living fetus, which is to say, a fetus from a living mother.
  • The word krak (which is how Prigent gives it – others have “kroh” or “kroach” or other variants) has been explained by Ang Choulean as “to grill, smoke, dessicate.” Prigent says that the word “kun” should be translated not just as “child” but as “child of….” There seems to be no exact parallel in English. The point is that the term implies the forging of a filial link between the fetus and the man who takes it. (Takes, that is, from the mother). The man becomes not merely its father, but its sole family, since the mother dies.
  • The kun krak is thus not just the possession of the man who possesses it as an amulet, but also his son. (The amulet is regarded as masculine, and indeed most often is).
  • The man (owner of the amulet) is usually a soldier; the woman (mother) may be his mistress or wife; the fetus must be a first child (and as the mother is either dead or, more often, about to die, also an only child).
  • If taken from a living mother (wife or girlfriend), the man spends “an intimate moment” with her (presumably Prigent means they have sex); he then asks jokingly if she will give him the child in her belly; the woman, believing this is a game, says yes. The man immediately cuts her open and takes the fetus. The willing and verbal donation of the child by the mother is essential to the power of the amulet.
  • The fetus itself is between two worlds, a soul caught “crossing the river” from unborn to born; this presumably accounts for its psychic potency. (Consider how ghosts also come at late evening or early morning rather than midnight or midday).

Trude Jacobsen in “The Lost Goddesses” has a little on the procedure and dangers if the fetus is obtained from a woman who has died in childbirth:

Women who died in the third trimester of pregnancy or in labour without having given birth were said to have been killed by brai (a kind of witch-spirit) and could become brai themselves if, three days following the burial, a man “sufficiently audacious and resolved” carried out a certain ceremony. After establishing a sima (boundary of holy stones) around the corpse, he was to place an image of an eight-headed brai in the centre of the room and recite magical incantations. The woman would rise from the dead as a brai after the third repetition … making horrible faces, lolling an enormous tongue, rolling her eyes, and taking on the forms of a serpent, tiger and elephant. If the man showed any fear he would be consumed…

…but if he didn’t the woman would give up her unborn child. Elsewhere Jacobsen mentions that the KR obtained koan kroh in order to guard against enemy bullets etc, and a rumour that Hun Sen possesses a number of them. This is not to say that Hun Sen really has these things, but the existence of the rumour illustrates that the belief in their power still continues.

Australia sends refugees from Nauru to Cambodia

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 8.24.32 PMDeputy prime minister of Cambodia Sar Kheng and Australia’s minister for immigration Peter Dutton signed a memorandum of understanding on migration in March. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

The Guardian has just reported that a plane is standing by to send the first refugees from Nauru to Cambodia, and they could arrive within days. It says  the refugees who opt for resettlement (these are all voluntary) will be housed “in the style of serviced apartments.” What does that mean – they’ll have someone to do the cleaning and make the beds? Still, I do expect that their life in Cambodia will be pretty good, since the aim will be to entice those still on Nauru to sign up.

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This is the letter being handed out to refugees on Nauru:

“The opportunity to settle in Cambodia is now available to you. The first flight from Nauru to Cambodia for refugees will be as soon as 20 April 2015. Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future.”

“Cambodia is a diverse country with multiple nationalities, cultures and religions. They enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

Errrr … multiple nationalities, cultures and religions? Almost one hundred percent Cambodian, Khmer and Buddhist would be closer to the truth. Quite a lot of the refugees are Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Rohingya from Burma, and Sri Lankans (the last group are at least Buddhist) And all the freedoms of a democratic society? Someone’s stretching the truth a little.

It goes on: “Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.” Stray dogs? But, yes, I’ve never been bothered by stray dogs.

File under “Society”, also under “Watch”.

Easy on the fertiliser…

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Photo by James Wheeler on Flickr

This famous tree at Ta Prohm, one of the temples at Angkor, gets its photo taken thousands of times each year, but this is one of the best. Saw it on an article called 21 Reasons You Should Drop Everything and Move to Cambodia. Sure, but first, make sure about the job.

cambodia_apartment-600x400Typical expat apartment in Phnom Penh – photo by Emily Lodish, weekend editor for GlobalPost magazine – I suspect it might be her apartment.