Thousands of Cambodians from across the region converged on a Siem Reap ranch in the last week of August, convinced the world would soon end in a giant flood.
The masses were drawn in by a series of Facebook posts from opposition-leader turned apocalyptic prophet, Khem Veasna, who rallied a crowd of an estimated 20,000 to his farm an hour outside Siem Reap city.
Veasna claimed a black hole was emerging from his spine, and that he had foreseen the end of the world on 30 August. The Facebook posts went viral. And crying emojis filled the hundreds of new comments as his more than 360,000 social media followers frantically asked for his survival instructions.
“Uncle, can you predict which areas in Cambodia may be affected more or less?” asked one Facebook user. “Because there are so many of us who can not leave the family.”
Some believers reportedly came from as far away as South Korea where they had been working as migrant workers. This wave of returns prompted the Cambodian embassy in Seoul to warn Cambodians against quitting these highly sought-after jobs. Cambodians often spend years studying Korean and go deep into debt to gain employment in South Korea.
But when the sun rose the day after Veasna’s predicted apocalypse, the crowd refused to disperse despite orders from authorities. The gathering also assumed a defiant, somewhat political stance, as Veasna taunted and cursed Prime Minister Hun Sen on social media.
Veasna, the president of the fringe League for Democracy Party, has been a vocal critic of both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and other leading opposition figures like Sam Rainsy, and Khem Sokha. More recently, he has appeared to transcend politics, dubbing himself a heavenly king or brahma.
In his political speeches, Veasna has criticised the prime minister’s private bodyguard unit, called for reforms to the voting system and preached the righteousness of Buddhist teachings. His messaging has always been laced with anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and other xenophobic tropes.
While some Cambodians have been arrested for satirising Prime Minister Hun Sen in the past, the PM said he would not take legal actions against Veasna or his followers. But the military has since blockaded the entrance to Veasna’s ranch to prevent more people from entering, local news outlet VOD reported.
“It seems like those who went to Siem Reap still have limited education, lacked research, they didn’t put their thought into this,” said Phnom Penh resident Pitou Brent.
While the majority of Cambodians have access to social media, around 70% of the country lacks digital literacy to parse online information, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications told the Phnom Penh Post.
“People rushing to Siem Reap still believe in superstition,” said Sreynit Houn, a university student in Phnom Penh. “Those who went to Siem Reap didn’t gather enough data about the weather, they just heard about the rumour, got scared and packed their bags and left their houses.”
When the apocalypse failed to occur, Veasna reportedly told his followers he had prevented it – for now.
Check out more reactions on the apocalyptic gathering in Globe’s short video below.