Cambodian protesters turn to spiritual warfare as last resort

Photo Credit: Satoshi Takahashi via

Addressing protesters before his trip to Australia in February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had a message, and it was unambiguous. “Do not burn my photo,” he said. “If you burn my photo, I will follow you home … I will follow you and beat you at home.” In Cambodia, there’s meaning beyond disrespect in burning someone’s image. Often, it’s seen as a malicious magic ritual — a curse. But if the Cambodian leader thought his threat would quell the protests against his now 33-year-long rule, he had underestimated his opponents — and their reach, as far away as Down Under.

“We took up that challenge,” says Hong Lim, a Cambodian-Australian and member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly. A local Cambodian monk taught him and other protesters the proper Pali language words needed for the ritual. They preformed the ancient chants and burned effigies in Sydney’s Hyde Park near the hotel where Hun Sen was dining. They were “wishing him dead in the real sense of the word,” says Lim. They were also celebrating an old practice reborn in an unlikely new form.

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