Paul Christensen, M.A.
Paul Christensen, M.A.
PhD Candidate
Spirits in Cambodia- Practices, Power and Politics

Institut für Ethnologie der Universität Göttingen

Theaterplatz 15
D - 37073 Göttingen


Spirits in Cambodia - Practices, Power and Politics

Since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and the end of the Vietnamese occupation in 1993, Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia has been reformed and re-established. Alongside these Buddhist practices, ‘Brahmanism’ and its spirit rituals have become a significant cult. The boom in the number of spirit-mediums (kru boramey) both in urban and rural areas attests to this. These mediums – who’s role it is to perform spirit rituals – are the representatives of Brahmanism. They serve clients from all segments of the society, providing them various levels of protection, healing, advice and spiritual power in exchange for money and/ or religious offerings.

As spiritual power, which I will refer to as ‘magic’ power, can be used to effect immediate change in the human world, it is particularly attractive for the socially and politically ambitious. To this end, spirits can be called upon to favorably affect the outcome of conflict situations, such as politicians who use Brahmanist ceremonies to help prevail against Thai troops or business people who simply want to increase their income by making offerings to certain spirits.

Within the framework of my dissertation, I discuss the role of the spirits and their mediums in the life of Khmer-Cambodians. I therefore focus on all contexts in which spirits play a significant role: social, economic, political and military. In particular, I focus on the daily life and work of three spirit mediums and their ritual practice with their clients, and on the importance of spirit beliefs in politics.

My dissertation draws on the 12 months fieldwork I completed in Cambodia in February 2013.

Given that spirits are often mentioned but seldom studied in-depth in the literature on religious topics in Cambodia, my dissertation monograph will focus on the role spirits and spirit mediums are playing in a country undergoing political reform and economic growth.