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Khem Veasna: The cult leader and the destruction of Cambodian families

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Some of Khem Veasna’s followers leaving his plantation in Siem Reap province on September 5. AKP

Khem Veasna: The cult leader and the destruction of Cambodian families

Since the establishment of the League for Democracy Party (LDP) in 2006 under the leadership of Khem Veasna, LDP supporters have gained momentum each year due to his literal speech, ideologies, and his style of appeal to certain groups of Cambodians. Recently, Veasna spurred belief in what many would call a “cult”, that brought controversy and upheaval to the social and political spectrum in Cambodia.

In this opinion piece, we discuss cult leaders’ common characteristics, the impacts of Veasna’s ideologies on the Cambodian families and ways to address the issue.

What is a cult leader?

In fact, cult leaders are not new. Throughout the history of humankind, there are countless examples such as Adolf Hitler in Germany, Mao Zedong in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Joseph Stalin in Russia. These cult leaders have some common personalities, but here we discuss only three dominant features.

First, they play the politics of “Us-vs-Them”. The basic idea of this approach is that if you don’t join me, then you are against me. With this ideology, members of the cult group feel close and belong to their group while they see the outside world as a dangerous place. Moreover, it creates a common understanding among the members leading to a sense of unity within the group which strongly binds them towards achieving certain goals.

Second, they employ and instil the urgency of the apocalypse into the minds of their followers. The apocalypse is the end of the world and only the cult leader can keep them safe. The reason is to get all the followers in one place and further indoctrinate them with their own ideologies – be it political or religious ones.

Third, they employ the tactic of isolation and love-bombing. It is isolation in a sense that followers of the cult leaders are encouraged directly or indirectly to cut ties with their family, friends and community. Once they do that, the followers will be bombed with love and care within the cult community. Moreover, the love and care approach can be extremely compliant to some believers, especially those who did not receive similar care from their family or surrounding. This strategy further reinforces the “Us-vs-Them” ideology and the apocalyptic possibility.

These features of the personality cult of a leader have been existent in Cambodia as well.

Khem Veasna as a cult leader

Veasna has transformed himself from being a movie star back in the 1990s to a politician, and later on formed his own political party, commonly known as LDP. Previously, he was outspoken against religion, particularly followers of Buddhism, accusing Buddhist monks of falsely spreading the teachings of Buddha. He also denied the existence of god including the god in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. He reasoned that god is also made of atoms like other human beings and therefore do not possess superpower and immortality as claimed by religion. However, after leaving hospital recently as he had recovered from his long-time illness, he proclaimed himself as “Universe Protecting Brahma” – or Aru Bah Prum, the highest form of life in the universe according to Hindu’s mythology – and has achieved some kind of enlightenment that could rescue those who follow him in the event of an apocalypse.

On the Us-vs-Them approach, following his teaching, he has designated those who follow him as people who have deep critical thinking, honesty, and truly care about the society as they can understand him with open mind and without any prejudice. On the contrary, he claimed that those who do not understand his ideology are retarded, dishonest and have little of critical thinking regardless of the level of education. For this reason, it has encouraged his party members to see themselves as superior and dare to criticise other people whom they thought inferior and need to be rescued from their own ignorance through Veasna’s teaching.

This kind of ideology is similar to those of the aforementioned cult leaders who often promote the belief that their group and nation are superior to the others. For instance, on November 4, 2018, Veasna criticised San Sochea, a prominent Cambodian Buddhist monk who often delivers the teaching of Buddha, for “not possessing the characteristics of being a preacher, while Veasna pronounced himself as having those characteristics. Similarly, in a video posted on YouTube in 2020, a female LDP follower claimed she stopped following Sochea after listening to Veasna, who she said helped her to elevate herself to intellectual level.

In the weeks or even months leading up to August 30, 2022 – which had been dubbed the “Doomsday” by Khem Veasna – the leader of the LDP and self-proclaimed “Brahma” prophesied an apocalypse, claiming the world would be inundated with floodwaters and his farm would be the only safe sanctuary. While people perceived the doomsday narrative as far-fetched and the world did not see the alleged apocalypse unfolding, his disciples took it to heart and flocked to the 12-hectare and 25-hectare “Doomsday farms” near Kulen Mountain.

Though the Kulen-Mountain Incident is over after the illegal gathering of 20,000 Brahma believers was broken up, the socio-economic impacts thereof are far-reaching and perhaps perpetual. The lingering question is, how can these full-hearted LDP supporters or Brahma believers, who fanatically hold distinctive ideologies and beliefs, be reconciled back into society – lest a further deepening of societal and family rifts occur between the Brahma believers and the unbelievers?

On the isolation and love-bombing , Khem Veasna taught his followers that the people who love them – including their own parents – are not pure of heart and did so with expectations or motivated by greed. He raises an example of a parent sending their children to work in the garment factory so that the parent can get financial benefit from their children. More fundamentally, he explained children are the product of their parents’ sexual desire, saying the parents have no intention or desire for their child to be born in this world. Thus, it is an immoral act by the parents if they cannot raise their child properly and provide necessary support to them. This inflicts doubt and anger on the children, making them think that their existence is just a by-product of the desires of their parents or to benefit them in the long run.

This kind of indoctrination is undoubtedly making people try to get away from their families, particularly for those people whose families are in poor living conditions. Simultaneously, he claimed to have good virtue as a parent. He often uses “heart touching words’’ to arouse the emotions of his followers. For instance, in a video posted on YouTube in 2018, he burst into tears when talking about the unfortunate Cambodian migrant workers in foreign countries. Similarly in 2020, he shed tears when talking of a former LDP comrade who had walked shoulder to shoulder “fighting on the battlefield” (referring to their political activities) and by addressing those people as family. Interestingly, his setting tea moment is brief and full of emotional attachment to his followers.

Impacts on Cambodian society and families

The LDP’s assembly at Kulen Mountain has huge implications for Cambodian families and society as whole. For starters, this incident has deteriorated family cohesion, as members have unnecessarily fallen into verbal clashes with each other over their divergent views toward Veasna’s “Doomsday” theory.

Moreover, some LDP devotees have even become estranged from and leave their family without notice to partake in this movement due to their belief that the apocalypse is inevitable, and the only survival option is escaping to Veasna’s farm. Parents who have LDP supporters as children have to travel from a distance for the hope of bringing their children back, yet many have returned with great disappointment, and some have even been scolded by their own children. To illustrate, a woman from Kampong Speu province shed tears for hours before her teenage daughter and fell unconscious, just to be blamed by her child who called her selfish. This is just one sad example while thousands of families are still waiting to reunite with their loved ones.

The issue is more than just the family breakup, but the consequences of this incident have also caused many long-term issues such as financial debt and the setback of children’s education among the families of LDP advocates. As a matter of fact, many LDP supporters have sold their assets, including real estate properties such as houses or their vehicles to support Veansa’s campaign, as they believe that these material possessions no longer matter for them with respect to their belief that the world is going to an end. Apart from selling personal belongings, LDP’s devotees are also facing unemployment, as some have left their jobs for too long or even without notifying their workplace.

For example, many Cambodian migrant workers in South Korea had abruptly quit their jobs and returned to Cambodia to join the gathering. The issue was so sudden that the Cambodian embassy in South Korea issued a statement encouraging the workers not to believe the superstitious prophecies and that an abrupt departure without notice would result in their unemployment. As a result, in the short term period, the workers may have to borrow a huge sum of money to rebuild their family and eventually might fall into debt. What is more, some LDP did not come alone, but they also brought their children along with them and many of those kids are school age. In addition to the school interruptions during the Covid-19 lockdown, those children now must once again skip their classes which in turn could severely affect their early education.

Apart from the implications for Cambodian families, the incident at Veasna’s farm may also exacerbate social divisions and possibly damage Cambodian workers’ reputations internationally. It is evident in social media comments and public conversation that the majority of the population have a personal hatred for the LDP’s followers, as they believe the “Doomsday” narrative is extremist and potentially could create social chaos.

In addition to the alienating characteristics of the LDP’s devotees, this event may further distance them from the majority. Regarding the worker’s reputations, LDP’s supporters who were employed abroad, particularly in South Korea, also hurried home once they received Veasna’s message. This may create distrust from the South Korean government and business owners which could lead to them considering banning Cambodian workers in the future. Moreover, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, Heng Sour, also warned that workers leaving their jobs without sufficient notice were jeopardizing their future employment. “People doing this won’t be able to go to Korea again,” Sour wrote.

Conclusion

Based on our personal experience with the LDP supporters, there is one big factor that can explain this disaster. Most of the LDP supporters tend to hold extremist views long before they became LDP followers. Khem Veasna has emerged to be the driving force that further ignites this internal extremist tendency of the LDP supporters. These extremist thoughts and behaviors prevent them from having meaningful conversations with other non-LDP supporters. Most often, the conversation will likely turn to harsh mutual criticisms among LDP and non-LDP supporters. This is not to blame the LPD followers for instigating intense conversations. Both sides need to understand each other’s perspectives. A good way for non-LDP people is to have a high level of tolerance and willingness to compromise when interacting with the LDP followers. The basic idea of the compromise is to understand that the LDP followers are unlikely to give up their extreme perceptions and there is a need to acknowledge this fact and assimilate them at various social events so that this high degree of extremism can be reduced. It is not guaranteed that this strategy will work, but it seems that this is the only way of unifying everyone as one nation.

General Hun Manet is right to point out that there is no point in breaking up families and friends because of different political and religious beliefs: “During the Pol Pot regime, they told the children to report their parents and they would take the fathers and mothers away. We must never reach that level”.

We all fully agree on that.

Sovinda Po is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.

Manghout Ki is a Master’s Degree scholar in International Relations at Griffith University, Australia.

Bunly Ek is a Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) Master’s Degree scholar in International Cooperation at Yonsei University, South Korea.

Sokvy Rim is co-founder of the Thinker Cambodia, a digital commentary on foreign affairs. He has written for publications including East Asia Forum, The Diplomat, VOD, ThinkChina and Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung Cambodia.

The views expressed in this article are solely their own.

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