Organized Panel Session
Like other Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist states, Cambodia’s topographical landscape is dotted with guardian spirits known in Khmer as neak ta. Some neak ta are important lords holding royal and aristocratic titles and exercising spheres of influence over vast areas of land. Some neak ta are minor lords with their realm of power over small local areas. The Preah Vihear temple region is guarded by a powerful neak ta called lok ta Dy. During Cambodia’s recent Preah Vihear border dispute with Thailand, lok ta Dy’s rank had been promoted from a local guardian spirit to a national hero by the Cambodian state. This paper aims to examine how the contexts of contestation between Cambodia and Thailand over ownership of border territory at the Preah Vihear temple heritage site have given rise to national prominence for a previously local and little known territorial spirit. Drawing on fieldwork interviews with local people and collection of oral local history in the border region, combined with archival research and interviews with historians and scholars in Phnom Penh, the paper argues that the mythology of lok ta Dy possessed a separate local and oral history prior to the conflict’s eruption. The neak ta’s promotion to the status of a national guardian spirit originated from the Cambodian state-led nationalist projects. The paper argues that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nationalizing of the neak ta was intended to appropriate the spirit’s potent cultural and symbolic power for the state’s politics of nationalism.