[Pchum Ben is a Cambodian religious festival that honors departed ancestors. Each night for two weeks, Cambodians visit pagodas in their neighborhood and leave food and other offerings. This tongue-in-cheek report was published in the Phnom Penh Post in October 2001.]
Reliable sources within the international financial community report that leading institutions—including the International Financial Fund and the Global Bank—are distressed, even alarmed, by Cambodia’s failure to adapt its cultural traditions to modern conditions. This failure was particularly evident during the recent Pchum Ben ceremonies.
Financial observers were amazed to see the ceremonies drag on for some two weeks. With most of the country’s labor force rising in the early hours to take offerings to departed ancestors, there must have been an enormous decline in labor productivity throughout the period, and even afterward, until people caught up on their sleep. It is clear that Cambodia cannot afford such an annual blow to its ability to compete in this era of globalization.
For this reason, the sources say that the IFF and GB have established a joint working group to recommend changes intended to help Cambodia catch up with the rest of the world in the hitherto neglected area of posthumous standards.
The working group, known as the Over There Oversight Committee (OTOC), is careful to point out that it has no intention of reducing public reverence for Cambodian ghosts. Regular contact between the living and the dead, one committee member told this reporter, is common in many countries, including countries that are economically successful.
However, Cambodia is a long way from the economically desirable goal of world’s best practice ghosting. In most Western developed countries, for example, communion with the dead is restricted to one night per year, known as Hallowe’en, which is observed on October 31. This means that Cambodia is spending at least 14 times as much time as necessary in appeasing its ghosts—an enormous competitive burden.
The more globally oriented representatives of Cambodian government and business appreciate the efforts of OTOC to modify Pchum Ben to conform with the demands of globalization. While they are reluctant to be quoted by name at this stage, they say they are confident of eventually persuading the wider community, including religious leaders, of the need for change.
This is all the more the case because the planned changes will be minimal: Pchum Ben will not be moved to October 31, but merely shortened to one day.
Where problems may arise is among the ghosts. Thanks to long tradition, Cambodian ghosts are accustomed to two weeks of attention every year, and they may well feel offended by a shift to a one-day observance.
However, a member of OTOC, who asked not to be named, argues that Cambodian ghosts are no less patriotic than their counterparts in the developed countries, and can be counted on to make this sacrifice in the national interest. And it will be pointed out that, in the longer run, increasing labor productivity by curtailing Pchum Ben will mean a wealthier Cambodia, which can provide larger offerings to its departed ancestors.
The OTOC member is confident that Cambodian ghosts will see reason. “When you have the living by the short hairs,” he said, “can the dead be far behind?”