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When Facing Life and Death

By: Norbert Klein Posted: December-06-2010 in
Norbert Klein

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 693

Commemorating the victims of the Koh Pich tragedy of 22 November 2010, a Day of Mourning was observed on 25 November. There was an early morning ceremony held, attended by the Prime Minister and his wife, and high level government officers. In the afternoon, the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, which holds the 99 years lease contract for the Koh Pich Island, observed its own ceremony

[more details on the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation contract was in the last Sunday Mirror]. Mr. Pung Keo Se, the highest officer of this company, participated in the ceremony, “he lit candles and helped to fill three small wooden boats with offerings of rice, pig heads, spices, and fruit” which were set afloat on the river. “On behalf of the Koh Pich Company’s general director, I would like to share my grief with the families of the dead and all victims in this incident” – this was read by a monk over a loudspeaker, according to The Cambodia Daily.

Over the weekend of 27 and 28 November, Seven Days Funeral Rites were held, according to Cambodian tradition, in many places in Cambodia, but also in other countries where there are Cambodian communities, like for example in Silver Spring in the State of Maryland in the USA, where, during the ceremony, US$4,900 were raised for the victims.

The former Vice-President and now Adviser of the Royal Academy, Professor Ros Chantrabot, is quoted in The Cambodia Daily:

“If we did not do the seven-day funeral for the dead people in order to bring them to lasting peace or get reborn, their souls would become ghosts that harm people or their relatives.”

Mr. Chantrabot said that the ghosts of those who have died in violent accidents were believed to be fierce and restive, so seven-day ceremonies were of particular cultural importance this week.

And there were other reports:

…Cheam Yoeun and his family were preparing to burn a large paper mansion for his son Yen, who was 19 when he died on Diamond Bridge.

A chauffeur driven gold Lexus SUV made of paper was parked in the paper garage. Two stern faced servants flanked the front door. The mansion was accompanied by a deed and title handwritten by Yen’s brother and sister.

“We are afraid that his soul doesn’t have any house to stay in. The deed and land title make sure the home belongs to him.”


…in Russei Keo district, a similar ceremony was being held for 20-year-old Tay Sibuoy… A priest dumped sack after sack of fake gold bars onto a sidewalk fire dedicated to her.

As her brother-in-law spoke, he and several other men held to a thin string that formed a perimeter around the family’s burnt offerings.

“We make this holy line to make sure no other spirits can come to get this stuff, only her. We’ve burned everything – a house, a car, a box of gold. What we burn, she will receive.”

When I raised the question what would happen if some foreigners were also killed at the Diamond Bridge, I got inconsistent replies.

The response, that it is probably different for foreigners than for Cambodians, because Westerners are not Buddhist, was somewhat off the point I had tried to raise. I referred especially to my experiences of having lived 10 years in Japan, where I had been in close contact and friendship with many Buddhist persons, lay people and monks. I had learned from their Buddhist traditions quite a different understanding of life and death. In Japan, in Zen Buddhism, the goal of practice is sudden, dramatic enlightenment, for an individual here and now, rather than having a concern for past or future lives.

In the Buddha’s teachings is the clear message stated categorically that the idea of a soul – like many other things, according to the Buddha’s teaching, – is an illusion. Zen masters have a long history to say to their disciples: “Nothing reincarnates!”

Could the tragedy at the Diamond Bridge, which has taken away the lives of so many people, also be an occasion to enter into careful dialogue about the different traditions of the world. Living no longer in a world of separate communities of nations, cultures, and religious traditions, the present tragic experiences are also a challenge to face deeper questions. We are living in a globalized world – and this should not only be seen as relating to politics and the economy.

Norbert KLEIN

Note:Please have a look at About-the-Mirror, where important changes are announced.

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 693 – Sunday, 5.12.2010
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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