Huddled together at a private farmhouse, thousands of people have spent days anticipating a biblical flood that will engulf all of the world—except one farm in rural Cambodia.
When a politician started sharing his doomsday prophecy on Facebook last week, his supporters left their lives behind and traveled from around the country to northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap province. According to authorities, some even traveled from as far as South Korea to seek refuge from the apocalypse, prompting the Cambodian embassy in Seoul to issue a public statement warning migrant workers against abandoning their jobs to fly home.
Photos posted on Khem Veasna’s Facebook page, which has over 370,000 followers, show a large crowd assembling at his farm. It’s unclear exactly how many people have gathered there, though authorities estimated the number at around 15,000 to 20,000 on Monday, with signs that more people were still streaming in. Among those arriving at his farm are families with children and elderly relatives. The swelling crowds have raised eyebrows among local residents and officials, who have complained about disorderly conduct.
Those waiting out the apocalypse at Veasna’s farmhouse have passed the time listening to the preachings of the president of the small but well-established opposition group, the League for Democracy Party (LDP). Those who were unable to squeeze into the crowded farm listened through loudspeakers installed outside its gates.
Long known for his scathing rhetoric, Veasna has been critical of both the Cambodian government and other members of the country’s dwindling political opposition. In the 2018 national elections, one widely decried as rigged in favor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Veasna led the LDP to almost 310,000 votes.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson, a senior lecturer at Lund University’s Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, said that Veasna’s popularity may be explained by the fact that he “fills a void” in the country’s stifling political landscape.
“Even though the opposition has been allowed to resurrect to some extent, Cambodia is still very much marked by how this is a one-party mandate period. Khem Veasna denounced politics and brought his followers with him on the journey to become a sort of millenarian social movement,” she told VICE World News. “It evidently speaks to people in these globally uncertain and rather dark times.”
In recent years, Veasna has been veering away from politics and cultivating a cult-like persona among his thousands of followers, referring to himself as a brahma—a religious title broadly meaning heavenly king.
The growing cult around Veasna escalated on Aug. 23, when he made a series of apocalyptic predictions on his Facebook page. He has claimed that a “black hole” in his spine has been sending him a message about an impending flood that would wipe out the earth, adding that his farm was the only place that would be spared the catastrophe, urging people to join him there.
“I can’t sleep because whenever I sleep, my spinal cord is pulling so hard, because the world is breaking down, and the water is flowing into the gap,” he wrote.
Veasna specifically called on his supporters in South Korea to return home. In 2017, he traveled to the country, which hosts over 30,000 Cambodian migrant workers, to recruit supporters for his movement. In a Facebook post, labor ministry spokesperson Heng Sour urged Cambodian workers in South Korea to exercise discernment against what he called “one individual’s superstition.”
“Quitting jobs and returning to Cambodia slowly affects the reputation of our Khmer workers who always get respect and love from Korean employers,” he said. “Please believe that if the world were to experience the catastrophe of flooding like that person said, scientists would declare a worldwide emergency. And if the world is sinking, the individual farmland will not be left. It's going to sink.”
Will Brehm, an associate professor at University College London who researches Cambodian politics, told VICE World News that the gathering illustrates the influence that social media has on many in Cambodia, where the local media landscape is tightly controlled by Hun Sen’s government.
“To some extent, it shows the power of social media in a country that is filled with very limited freedom of press,” he said. “Facebook in particular is a way that ideas are circulated. But of course, those ideas are not necessarily reviewed in any way.”
Veasna’s supporters have remained stubbornly fixated on his doomsday calls, ignoring days of orders from local authorities to go home. In an agreement struck between the politician and local officials, he was supposed to disband the crowd by the end of Tuesday—barring any biblical flooding.
Local officials said on Tuesday that some people have left, though a large crowd still remains. Authorities have also set up barricades at entrances to the farm in an attempt to prevent more people from entering.
With Veasna’s farmhouse unable to accommodate the massive crowd, some of his supporters have resorted to sleeping in tents along the road or renting nearby rooms. According to local residents, these supporters are also defecating at inappropriate places due to the lack of access to toilets.
While local residents complained about the influx of visitors, some, such as restaurant owners and taxi drivers, said that they welcomed the business rush to the district.
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