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Between a stone and a hard place

Between a stone and a hard place

Nearly 200 families in Preah Vihear didn’t realise that by settling for a buyout from an extractive industry firm, they may have also discarded their religious site.

The Rovieng district families, many of whom are Kuoy indigenous minorities, are demanding mining company TPB-TV Development return the village’s worshipping stone, a giant boulder they call Nakta Leurng (yellow statue) that disappeared two weeks ago.

“Since we were born, we saw the statue there, and we always worshipped and set up the ritual ceremony there every year. But the company stole it,” said Pen Sokngim, 55.

The metre-high sandstone boulder contained in its centre a carving of a man’s head and torso, community members said. Local officials said they were unable to date the sculpture or verify its authenticity without seeing the relic.

Over the past few years, the villagers accepted compensation of between $1,500 and $3,500 per hectare to relocate from a 5,000-hectare spread that included the worshipping area, Sokngim said. TPB-TV was granted a licence to drill for marble last year.

“The company cleared everything, even our sacred place, and they took the statue. Now we have no place for setting up our ceremony,” said villager Sreng Simthorn, 60.

The villagers said they hadn’t dared relocate the stone after selling the land due to an incident 10 years ago when they had tried to build a shelter for it. According to village lore, the stone’s spirit possessed the builder and told him to abandon the project.

While land laws protect monasteries and other Buddhist sites, they are vaguer about non-Buddhist religious areas. But rights group Adhoc insisted yesterday that the company return the holy stone.

“The company has only the right to explore and mine, but it has no right to remove a valuable thing like this,” Adhoc coordinator Lor Chann said.

Kim Sophin, director of TPB-TV Development, denied the statue’s existence and said there was no temple in that area.

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