Spirit Possession and Worker Resistance in Cambodia

Credit: Andy Brouwer.

Neak Ta shrine at Wat Raksmei Chei Mongkol, Taing Krasaing. Credit: Andy Brouwer.

In January 2014, the New York Times published an article about spirit possessions and mass faintings in the sweatshops of Cambodia:

Just over two years ago, at the Anful Garments Factory in Kompong Speu Province, a young worker named Chanthul and 250 of her colleagues collapsed in a collective spell of fainting. They had to be hospitalized; the production line shut down.

Two days later, the factory was back up, and the mass faintings struck again. A worker started barking commands in a language that sounded like Chinese and, claiming to speak in the name of an ancestral spirit, demanded offerings of raw chicken. None were forthcoming, and more workers fell down. Peace, and production, resumed only after factory owners staged an elaborate ceremony, offering up copious amounts of food, cigarettes and Coca-Cola to the spirit.

This episode, however bizarre, was not singular. In the past few years, Cambodia has experienced a slew of mass faintings among garment workers […] two-thirds of these episodes are associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.

The neak ta are the local land gods of Cambodia:

[They are] strongly associated with a specific natural feature — a rock, a tree, a patch of soil. These spirits represent a village-based morality and are inseparable from the land. This connection is so strong that in past times even some kings were seen to be merely renting the land from neak ta.

Like those kings of old, Cambodia’s deeply superstitious prime minister, Hun Sen, in power for almost three decades, calls on land and water spirits to curse his enemies. Most Cambodians today, while Buddhist, ply spirits with tea and buns at small altars.

The association of spirits with ancient trees–as well the idea of kingship being “rented” from those spirits–are both elements I was seeking to explore in my last post.

Banyan tree, Karnataka, India. Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman.

Banyan tree, Karnataka, India. Credit: T. R. Shankar Raman.

The mass faintings can be seen as a form of resistance to the exploitation of labor that is intrinsic to capitalism:

These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts.

These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.

The article notes that “In other times and places, ethnographers have also noted seemingly magical manifestations when indigenous populations first confront industrial capitalism.” For example:

Aihwa Ong, another anthropologist, documented an outbreak of spirit possession in the 1970s among Malaysian women in Japanese-owned electronics factories. These workers often screamed hysterically and attacked their supervisors under the influence of a native spirit called a datuk.

Ms. Ong interpreted these acts as a spiritual rebellion against the drudgery of factory life and the rupturing of the women’s longstanding social ties as they migrated from villages to newly established free-trade zones.

She also concluded that the spirit visitations did the women little good because they allowed the factory owners to cast the women’s valid complaints about working conditions as mass hysteria.

However, the article notes, “In Cambodia, the opposite seems to be true.” This is due to the fact that “valid complaints about working conditions” are very rarely listened to by capitalists. In Cambodia, strikes have been brutally crushed, creating the impetus for new forms of resistance:

Pro-government and pro-factory unions occupy most of the seats allotted to labor on the national committee that determines wage increases, and their dominance complicates collective bargaining.

In September 2010, when the national minimum wage was $61 per month, some 200,000 workers took to the streets to ask for a raise. It was the largest-ever strike in the garment sector, but after just three days it came to an anticlimactic halt due to police violence and threats against union leaders. Hundreds of the striking workers were illegally fired in retaliation. The minimum wage remained the same.

Then the neak ta appeared. Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. […] But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. […] Not all improvements can be attributed to spirit visitations […] But insofar as conditions have gotten better, it is partly because the factory-floor faintings have reframed the debate. The government’s brutal repression of this month’s strike has shown that it will still not tolerate large-scale collective bargaining. But mass swooning is a rare form of group action that can hardly be suppressed.

The neak ta have even inspired workers to physically assault the representatives of collaborationist unions. They are also frequently angry about the destruction of their homes (such as banyan trees) by the construction of factories:

I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults.

[…] She said she had been feeling ill on the day of the fainting, and that the factory nurse had refused to let her go home. She did not remember most of what had happened next, but a spirit healer later explained that a neak ta had entered her, infuriated that a banyan tree on the factory site which had been his home for centuries was chopped down, with neither ritual propitiation nor apology, during the construction of the building.

The neak ta have also been involved in struggles around other social issues in Cambodia:

And now neak ta have been showing up to defend other victims of development. […] At protests against urban dispossession in Phnom Penh, traditional animist curses are often levied at state institutions. Salt and chilies are hurled at courthouses, chickens are offered to spirits, mediums summon local gods to mete out justice in land disputes.

Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted [sic] when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.

“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”

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