Three years ago, the small community around the Wat Khtor pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district awoke in the middle of the night to an excavator tearing down the pagoda’s crematorium, so they set the $80,000 machine on fire and watched it burn to a crisp.
Two men operating the excavator to clear the disputed plot for a housing development fled from the 1,000-strong crowd, and the machine – doused in petrol – burned from 11:30pm on the Friday until 2pm the next day, when a fire truck belatedly arrived.
A menacing black plume of smoke had been visible from any quarter of the city throughout Saturday, and by Sunday evening, opposition leader Sam Rainsy had visited to offer his support and Prime Minister Hun Sen had intervened to secure a hard title to the land for the pagoda.
It was a resounding victory against the developers of the adjacent housing project, and if the residents wanted a monument to their success, they inadvertently ended up with that, too: As the third anniversary of the impromptu bonfire passed on Wednesday, the burned-out excavator still sits there, unclaimed.
Highly visible next to National Road 6, which lies next to Wat Khtor and connects Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, no one from Eng Kaing Development or anyone else has ever come to take the forlorn piece of machinery. Three years later, it seems unlikely they ever will.
“After the incident, we have never heard about anyone coming to claim the excavator, and now it belongs to the pagoda,” Chan Senghak, 22, who builds concert stages for weddings, said at his home beside Wat Khtor. “This is a legacy for our pagoda.”
Like other residents interviewed around the pagoda in Prek Liep commune this week, Senghak said many residents still feared that the land may one day be taken, with prominent developer Peng Huot having almost completed a project next door.
Eng Kaing Development, for its part, appears to have disappeared, but many believe the crematorium – which lies directly across the highway from the pagoda – will one day prove too tempting for developers as it becomes surrounded by houses.
But encouraged by their success three years ago, residents said they know what to do if that ever happens.
“If the company comes to take it, we will stand up against, and struggle, and protest, and rebel against them,” said Senghak.
His friend, Chhou Ramou, 22, said he believed there was no way the land could be taken. “We would confront them to claim this land – even if there is a crackdown, or if a few people get killed and we have to pull back,” Ramou said.
Built in 1999, the crematorium still features a large uneven hole on the side facing the highway – a scar from where the excavator landed its first and only blow three years ago. But the residents said it is still being used weekly and remains important to the community, which is built around the pagoda.
Yet despite the pagoda’s centrality to the small community, the same ardor isn’t necessarily held by the monks running the pagoda, with some residents three years ago accusing its chief monk, Tin Sarom, of agreeing to transfer the land to the company – claims he vehemently denied.
“We do not trust our monks,” said Srey Touch, 50, who was manning a roadside drinks stall on a road behind the pagoda on Wednesday afternoon. “We protested because this is our territory and it is considered a communal thing that belongs to our ancestors.”
Neither Sarom nor any other monks were present during a visit by reporters to the pagoda this week.
Touch said that given the number of deceased community members who had been cremated at the site, there was a strong emotional connection to the site that was fuelling the passionate efforts to defend it.
“Even if they completely demolish the crematorium, they still will not be able to claim that land, because we will keep protesting to claim it back, because this land belongs to the pagoda,” she said. “It’s communal land, and the authorities cannot just sell it, transfer it, or do whatever they want to do. If they come with another excavator, we will burn it down again.”
Occurring amid the political crisis and protests following the disputed 2013 national election, the fight over land belonging to a pagoda gave authorities an easy public relations victory with Hun Sen’s intervention.
Chroy Changvar district governor Khlaing Huot – who visited the protest three years ago to deliver news of the prime minister’s decision – said he had always been on the side of the residents who burned the excavator and understood why they took such drastic actions.
“The people are still very angry, because those people came to destroy their property,” Huot said. The governor said that the community had found such rare support from authorities in a land dispute because of the brazen nature of the attempt to seize land from a pagoda, of all possible places.
“I cannot support that, and I hate that the most,” he said.
However, he said that he was not aware of local rumours that Eng Kaing Development had sold the land next to the crematorium to Peng Huot – the well-connected developer with numerous projects around Phnom Penh – but argued that concerns about the crematorium’s future were unwarranted.
“The government granted land title to the pagoda,” he said, before rebuking Eng Kaing for ever trying to steal the land. “Why were they so crazy, trying to do business on [the land of] a pagoda?”
Representatives of Peng Huot could not be reached. But Prek Liep commune chief Preap Mony said by telephone that while the housing project beside the crematorium indeed be-longed to the developer, the residents should no longer fear for their land.
“The land surrounding the crematorium belongs to a private person . . . it belongs to Borey Peng Huot,” Mony said, reiterating the district’s governor’s assurances that the pagoda’s title would keep it safe.
“The government decided to keep the land as the pagoda’s property,” he said. “It’s the pagoda’s property, so there is no one who can sell it or transfer it.”
Yet little trust remains in the community.
Phoum Pov, 41, who was at the pagoda on Wednesday hoping to bless a newly built house, said the community took justice into their own hands before and could do it again if the promises did not hold.
“Residents accused the monk of taking sides with company, and this was the only way to prevent it,” she said of the excavator torching three years earlier.
Pov added that residents were keeping a close watch on what happens to the excavator, and would also launch protests if anyone ever comes to take it.
“The excavator could be sold because there is a lot of metal, but they have never come to take it,” she said.
“If the monk chief gives that to them, the residents will conclude the monk has taken sides with the company, and that therefore the monks do not dare to make the right decision. So, if they come to take it, the residents will protest against them.”