The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts will work with local authorities to investigate the demolition of three historic accommodation buildings at Wat Ounalom in central Phnom Penh. All work on the site has been halted until the investigation is complete.

The pagoda’s monk council has claimed that they were unaware that national heritage building registration certificates existed for the buildings, saying the ministry had yet to produce copies of them.

The three buildings – 43, 44 and 45 – were built in the 1930s. Demolition was completed on December 12.

“The culture ministry will work closely with the local authorities and relevant institutions to investigate and resolve the matter in accordance with legal procedures. There is to be no new construction until the matter is resolved,” said a letter from the ministry.

“The protection of cultural heritage is the duty of every Cambodian,” it added.

Venerable Chuon Savoeun, a senior sutra teacher at Wat Ounalom, told The Post on December 21 that the pagoda’s monk council is awaiting further developments. He said that before the three structures were demolished, they obtained permission for the work from the Ministry of Cults and Religion.

Savoeun said he was unaware that the buildings were registered as national heritage structures in 2017, as claimed by the culture ministry. There were no such documents kept at the pagoda, noting that he had been the right sutra teacher there since 2011 or 2012.

“I asked the ministry to show me the registration form, but I have yet to see it. I have worked here for a long time, and did not know that those structures had been registered,” he said.

Venerable Srey Narun, also a senior sutra teacher at the pagoda, agreed that no paperwork suggesting that the buildings had been listed as heritage properties were shown.

He said the monks in the pagoda had been surprised by a December 8 statement by culture minister Phoeung Sakona, in which she expressed her “deep regrets” at the demolition, which was to make way for the construction of a stupa for Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong.

Savoeun added that the three accommodation buildings were too dilapidated to be repaired.

Professor of history Sambo Manara lamented the loss of the structures, which had not been properly maintained, but that he did not object to their destruction if they posed risks.

“There is usually a reason for the demolition of older buildings, especially if they have been poorly maintained. As far as I understand they were almost 100 years old. They were built so long ago that construction techniques were not as advanced as they are today. At the same time, they were not built as long ago as the glorious Angkor era,” he said.

He urged developers to consider the cultural costs of removing older structures before action is taken.

“For me, the problem today is that we only think about things that do not exist yet, while neglecting the things that we have. We need to take care and preserve the structures that remain, rather than letting them become so run down that they cannot be used. In this way, we will preserve parts of our heritage,” he added.

In 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a circular preventing the demolition of heritage buildings. The letter made it clear that before heritage buildings can be remodeled or demolished, approval must be sought from the culture ministry.