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Friday, May 22, 2009

Royal oxen signal worry for Cambodian rice farmers

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia's royal oxen performed an ancient ceremony to predict the country's agriculture fortunes -- and raised fears of a low rice harvest by refusing to eat any of the grain.

King Norodom Sihamoni presided over the ceremony in a park outside the palace where thousands of people watched royal astrologers observing the animals' behaviour.

After a symbolic ploughing of a portion of the field, a pair of royal oxen were led to seven dishes -- rice, corn, beans, sesame, grass, water and alcohol -- laid out on trays.

They were seen eating only beans and corn, allowing the palace's chief astrologer Kang Ken to declare that this year "beans and corn harvests will be bountiful."

The astrologer did not spell out to the crowd what it meant for the rice harvest -- but he later told reporters that it would be only about 30 percent of the expected amount.

"I am extremely worried. As the oxen did not eat the rice, I fear that I cannot have (a) good harvest of rice," said farmer Vong Sak, 53, after the ceremony, which marks the start of Cambodia's planting season.

While still taken seriously by many rural Cambodians in this deeply superstitious country, ploughing ceremony predictions have been called into question in recent years.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who did not attend the ceremony, rebuked the royal astrologers for failing to predict deadly floods in 2001 that claimed 59 lives.

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