Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona expressed her dismay over the destruction of three buildings at the Wat Ounalom compound, which were razed in order to build a new stupa.

In a December 8 letter to the Great Supreme Patriach Tep Vong, Sackona noted that these three buildings used to house Buddhist monks were built in 1930 and placed on the list of national heritage structures at the Phnom Penh municipal Department of Culture and Fine Arts in 2017.

“We are very regretful because these three dormitories for Buddhist monks were considered to be part of the cultural wealth of the nation,” the letter read.

Sackona said the destruction of the buildings violated the law on the protection of cultural heritage and the government’s circular on preventing the dismantling or destroying of heritage buildings.

She added that the renovation of heritage buildings was permitted as long as the plans were first studied by the ministry and she appealed to Tep Vong to stop the destruction of national heritage designated buildings.

Tep Vong could not be reached for comment on December 11, but the destruction of the buildings came under heavy criticism from social media users.

Seng Somony, spokesman for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, said the ministry is extremely busy with annual meetings, and has not yet received specific information about the matter.

Chhort Bunthang, Cultural Relations, Tourism and Education research officer at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the dismantling of these buildings amounted to the destruction of the identity and national culture and those behind it should be held accountable before the law.

“I’m very regretful to learn that these three antique houses for Buddhist monks on the compound of Wat Ounalom were dismantled to build a stupa.

“I believe that this could only have happened with the permission of the senior leadership there. But it is not correct without first receiving permission from the culture ministry because these lodgings for Buddhist monks were placed on the list of national cultural heritage for preservation,” he said.

Bunthang continued that if necessary, each pagoda should build one or two stupas for storing the ashes of important or wealthy people or senior civil servants so that the pagoda will have enough space for its main religious ceremonies, but the building of private stupas should be ceased as a practice.

Located on Sisowath Quay near the Royal Palace, Wat Ounalom was first established in 1443 and has several dozen structures on its compound, some of them centuries old. It is one of Phnom Penh’s most important historical sites and considered to be one of the most important cultural sites in the Kingdom and central to Cambodian Buddhism.