Lifestyle & Belief

Cambodians are increasingly being executed for sorcery


Cambodian children walk through a flooded rice paddy in Svay Rieng province, southeast of Phnom Penh.



PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — It was like a scene from a medieval witch hunt: a victim, accused of a crime that has never been committed, is surrounded by a mob. Terror ensues, before an inevitable death.

On a balmy afternoon, Pov Sovann was sitting outside his house in a tiny town in rural Cambodia, chatting with his relative. Like on most days, there wasn't much to do besides occasionally tending livestock and watching villagers pass by.

Then, without warning, a group of about 200 people approached him. Armed with wooden sticks and stones, they yelled at him, accusing the 36-year-old of black magic.

With sorcery, the increasingly agitated mob shouted, Sovann had brought death upon six families in the village — each of which had relatives pass away without prior history of disease over the past two years, local newspapers reported.

Sovann was driven into his bedroom upstairs, where a dozen men bludgeoned him.

For years, Sovann had been a renowned traditional healer, a well-respected man in his community who mixed potions from herbs and roots.

Two days before the attack, the relatives of a recently deceased woman allegedly saw centipedes around a corpse’s head — proof enough for the villagers that the 54-year-old woman had been cursed.

Between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., the crowd swelled from 200 to 600 villagers.

“My police could not do anything because there were many people who carried stones and clubs and were very violent,” the district's penal police chief, Khut Lo, told The Cambodia Daily.

Eventually, after countless stones, fists and clubs had hailed down on Sovann, he was pushed down the stairs of his house and died.

The case of Pov Sovann is particularly grisly, yet it isn't the first, nor will it be the last.

Human rights group Licadho said they recorded one case of a person being killed for sorcery in 2012, and a total of three in 2013. In the first half of this year, the media has already reported four.

In January, six people set upon an alleged sorcerer and decapitated him. Two days later, another practitioner was hacked to death with a machete. In May, a sorcerer was killed by his own nephew, armed with a scythe.

Experts are struggling to come up with a reason for the brutal killings.

Ryun Patterson, an independent journalist who has spent several months researching magic and sorcery in Cambodia for an e-book, said that “mystics” enjoy a high level of respect among their communities.

“In many cases we saw evidence of that, as people would line up outside the mystics' working areas while we conducted our interviews,” he said.

Perhaps, he said, it's simply a strong belief in magic — good and bad — that makes people so afraid of potential harm that they would turn against their neighbors.

“I think these killings have more to do with Cambodians' perceived lack of agency in their own lives than with increased sentiment against people who claim supernatural abilities. And mob-think can be very powerful, especially in a country with so little effective governance,” he said.

Most perpetrators are never arrested.

In a 2003 paper, "Economic Determinants of Witch-Hunting," two German economists argue that economic hardships play an important role in the increase of witch hunts.

Why, the paper asks, would people in 16th-century Europe accuse their neighbors of a crime that would most likely lead to execution? Natural disasters, droughts, diseases and other social and cultural factors had to be taken into account. But even in contemporary times, the economists wrote, “The regions facing the most serious deterioration of economic and health conditions are the ones with the highest persecution rates.”

Using a complex econometric model, economists Joerg Baten of the University of Tuebingen and Ulrich Woitek of the University of Munich connect grain prices with the fluctuating number of accusations of witchcraft.

The result: “[A] 30 percent decline [of real wages] implied a 60 percent increase in accusations,” Baten said.

“An econometric analysis of data from these regions demonstrates that in fact, there is a significant relationship between economic pressure and witch hunting activity,” the paper reads.

In Cambodia, inflation is generally higher than 4 percent, compared to around 2 percent in the US. Without a national minimum wage, low-skilled laborers, such as construction workers, make as little as $2 a day.

“Witchcraft is born in the time of misery,” said Ang Choulean, a historical anthropologist with the Royal University of Phnom Penh, citing an 1862 book that was published in English under the title “Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition.”

“If one understands that, one can understand anything,” Choulean said, adding that although massacres had happened throughout the world, they still happen in Southeast Asia in times of insecurity or war.

Economic pressure could be a reason, said Sotheara Vong, an expert on Cambodian culture and history, but he pointed out that sorcerer killings have deep roots in Cambodian society.

And while today's killings appear to reflect a sudden outburst of fear, distrust and retribution, they used to be state-sanctioned.

Practitioners of black magic, the laws of the 16th and 17th centuries stipulated, had to be killed once their guilt had been proven, Vong said.

“The suspect's hands were tied and they were put in a bag before being thrown into deep water,” he said.

Like during witch hunts in America or Europe, there was no way to survive the accusation of practicing black magic.

If a witch or wizard stayed afloat and survived for more than 15 minutes, they had done so through black magic and were to be killed. Only by drowning could the accused prove their innocence.

“When [killings of sorcerers] still happen, I feel that Khmer [Cambodian] people are still living the way of life of the 17th century,” Sotheara said.