A decorative gate erected in Siem Reap province’s Angkor Archaeological Park for the upcoming Khmer New Year festivities was burned down in the early hours of yesterday morning, following a backlash against its so-called Vietnamese design.
Siem Reap Deputy Governor Bun Tharith said the gate – one of two designed for the province’s annual Angkor Sangkran event that marks the New Year – was set alight at about 1:30am yesterday.
“Someone burned one of our welcome gates that we prepared in front of Angkor Wat temple, and now our workers have started to repair it again,” he said.
Acts of vandalism and other crimes during the three-day event – which is expected to attract some 500,000 visitors – will be kept at bay by an increased police presence, he added.
Local villager Sok Thom, who was sleeping outside his mother’s nearby grocery store at the time of the incident, said that he awoke to see the gate engulfed in flames. “After that, we tried to find water to put the fire out, and not so long after … the police arrived and also helped”, he said.
Police were still searching yesterday for the perpetrators of the arson, which followed criticism on social media about the gate’s nontraditional design, with some describing it as “yuon” – a term for Vietnamese considered derogatory by many.
Thom agreed yesterday that the design was too similar to Vietnamese and Chinese styles, but said he did not condone burning it down.
“I feel very sorry for what happened, because I saw the workers work night and day to finish it,” he said.
Others said such a design should never have been constructed in the first place.
“In my opinion, the Angkor Sangkran welcome gate looks Vietnamese, because of its colour and style”, said 22-year-old university student Sokun Thea. “Before doing something inside the world heritage area, they should understand Cambodian culture.”
Yesterday’s fire followed the partial destruction of the gate on Monday evening, when one of two goat statues on top of it fell down, reportedly because of strong winds.
Local tour guide Thy Vuth said the winds led him to believe that “the spirit in the Angkor area also disliked the decoration, which does not follow our tradition and culture”.
Analyst Ou Virak, who has been a strong critic of anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia, said that, while he too did not like the design of the gate, the racially pointed nature of some of the criticisms was “a sad reaction”.
“While I think this design in particular is cheesy, I would welcome creativity,” he added.
Som Ratana, spokesman of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, which organises the event, said the gate’s design will be changed in response to the backlash.
“His Excellency Hun Many went to see the welcome gates with me, and he said that he does not want to see our Cambodian people feel unhappy because of the gate and said we should . . . just change it” he said. “Now we have a new decoration on the welcome gates, and we hope all of Cambodian people like it.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY