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90 pagodas now heritage sites

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Motorists ride past Wat Langka in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district. POST STAFF

90 pagodas now heritage sites

At least 90 pagodas with “ancient” buildings in Phnom Penh are now registered as national heritage, meaning that they are legally protected from demolition.

The move follows the irregularities surrounding the recent demolition of three heritage buildings at Wat Ounalom and the attempted demolition of an ancient stupa at Wat Botum.

Phnom Penh Department of Culture and Fine Arts director Chum Vuthy told The Post that before any pagoda was registered, officials met with its management and leaders.

Vuthy said Wat Ounalom was registered as a national heritage site in May 2017, because between 60 and 70 per cent of the buildings in the complex were judged to be culturally significant.

“Because we listed the whole pagoda, and thus all of the buildings in it, they are required to obtain permission from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts before any renovations or demolitions are carried out,” he said.

“The culture department’s archeology team has already informed the pagoda committee and monks, so they are all aware of their responsibilities,” he added.

The culture ministry has issued two letters, the first of which expressed deep regret over the demolition of three buildings at Wat Ounalom. According to the letter, buildings 43, 44 and 45 were built during the 1930s.

Following the first letter, which came after dismantling work was completed, the ministry issued a second stating that it would work with local authorities to investigate the demolition. It warned that prosecutions would follow if evidence of wrongdoing was found.

When contacted on January 5, both the culture department and the senior monks of Wat Ounalom said that no date had been set for a meeting to resolve the situation.

Venerable Chuon Savoeun, a senior monk at the pagoda, said he did not know that the three buildings had been registered as national heritage, as claimed by the culture ministry. He said he had not seen any such paperwork in the more than 10 years he has lived at the pagoda.

“When I asked the ministry to show me the registration papers, they could not. I have been with this pagoda for a long time, and I was unaware that the buildings were listed,” he told The Post on December 21.

In October 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an official notification that would prevent heritage buildings from being destroyed.

In the document, he said the government was concerned that modernisation had been responsible for the loss of many of the Kingdom’s urban heritage buildings.

“We require a delicate balance between conservation and development,” he said.

The letter prohibits modifying the appearance or aesthetics of heritage sites and prevents the destruction of culturally or historically significant buildings.

It ordered an immediate halt to the destruction of heritage buildings and laid out a roadmap for sustainable urban development, stating that renovations, remodeling or the demolition of any registered buildings requires the culture ministry’s permission.

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