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Governor pushes for mosque road, offers consultation

People enter the grounds of the al-Serkal mosque in Phnom Penh yesterday, where city officials met with locals to discuss a controversial road project.
People enter the grounds of the al-Serkal mosque in Phnom Penh yesterday, where city officials met with locals to discuss a controversial road project. Heng Chivoan

Governor pushes for mosque road, offers consultation

Phnom Penh’s governor yesterday made a prolonged pitch for development to the neighbours of a Boeung Kak mosque site – where a planned road sparked a recent legal feud – offering locals an olive branch in the form of community consultation, while also hinting that the road’s construction was a foregone conclusion.

Governor Pa Socheatvong articulated a four-point plan to install a drainage system, running water and electricity – along with the controversial road – for the broader Boeung Kak area, which has been a powder-keg for protests since the one-time lake was filled with sand and residents were forced from their homes in 2008.

But Socheatvong’s promise of public participation at the forum, held in the shadow of the Al-Serkal mosque, appeared to ring hollow, with City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada admitting officials had already signed off on a map for the proposed road, which would cut into the mosque compound.

“Yes, we have a map . . . we already approved it,” he said. Chanyada, however, declined to make the map available to the Post, saying “other newspapers did not want it”.

Socheatvong yesterday extolled the virtues of developing the area and touted the benefits a road would bring. He urged the community to gather seven representatives to consult with City Hall on the matter, while also noting that it was Prime Minister Hun Sen’s desire to develop the area, and insinuated that the road would be built regardless.

“If you can compromise quickly, I will invest to develop this area to be better, and quickly. If there’s no compromise, it is hard to help,” Socheatvong said. “We want a compromise,” he continued, before adding: “We have to do so, to have traffic here.”

“Can you imagine how good it would be to have traffic here?” he asked the crowd. In other words, Socheatvong said, “If there is no road, there is no hope. If a place has roads, the price of real estate is also good. The bigger the road is, the higher the price of real estate.”

But it was real estate that, in part, gave rise to the controversy surrounding the road plan, sparking a defamation suit in May between prominent Cham Muslim leaders Othsman Hassan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, and Ahmad Yahya, himself a secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Hassan successfully sued Yahya for 100 million riel (about $24,000) over comments he made about Hassan’s potential business interests in the road that were deemed defamatory by the court.

Yahya, who was present at the forum, did not rule out the development and welcomed the consultation with local Muslims, but also warned municipal officials they should listen to the community if they wanted to be re-elected.

“The question is whether the municipality will listen to the people or not,” he said. “The Islamic community doesn’t want to have the road through the main entrance. They just want it to go around like a curve.”

Views within the Cham Muslim community varied on the construction of a road that could cut into the mosque compound, although opinions were difficult to gauge given the reticence surrounding the road’s precise path.

One Muslim student, who lives adjacent to the mosque compound but declined to be named, said he had no problem with the road, provided an equal amount of land would be provided at the rear of the mosque compound as compensation.

But Cham resident Yok Kao, 70, who lives behind the mosque, said the road should not be built in order to maintain the worship centre’s atmosphere of reverence.

“It is a place for praying, not for dancing,” he said. “It is a quiet place and should stay quiet. People who support the road, they just want to have money.”

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