Officials from the Phnom Penh municipal government yesterday mapped out a controversial road to be built across land inside a Boeung Kak mosque compound, which would see the destruction of the mosque’s intricate entrance gates.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng instructed people to “protest later” as government officials used red string and spray paint to mark the road’s path, which will cut diagonally across the mosque land and through the main gate, a municipal map shows.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong had promised to “consult” with the Cham Muslim community back in September, but his hints then that the road was a foregone conclusion were reiterated yesterday as workers took hoes to the earth and dumped sand, cement and gravel at the Al-Serkal mosque site.
The road has been a source in May, causing a rift in the Muslim community between those who want the space kept sacred and quiet for prayer, and those who see business and connectivity opportunities.
“For protesters, you can protest later. Don’t talk too much,” deputy governor Sreng said yesterday, cutting off Harun Yusos, who identified himself as a member of the mosque community who was opposed – but ultimately resigned – to the road’s construction.
Highlighting the “conflict in Muslim community”, Sreng reiterated yesterday’s events were just to “measure” the proposed roads and that further discussions would take place in future. “I don’t come to seize the property of Muslims. We come to make Muslims have a better reputation. People will know this mosque because of the road,” he said.
Plans show the road would be 20 metres wide, with 2 extra metres on either side. The 2,000 square metres of land that will be taken up by the road will be returned in the form of additions to the two back corners of the compound; additionally, some land will be taken from the Boeung Kak community and given to the mosque, and vice versa.
Ministry of Social Affairs secretary of state and Cham community leader Ahmad Yahya has long been a vocal opponent of the project and was found guilty in August of defamation against his counterpart in the Labour Ministry, Othsman Hassan, for alleging he had business interests in the road.
Yahya yesterday described the plan as “a huge mistake” and pleaded for the authorities to curve the road along the mosque compound’s boundary fence, not to cut through their land to the gate.
“The people don’t want the cars to disturb prayer, so it is not right to do this,” he said.
“They have guns, they have police, they have military, they can do [what they want] and they will win. This belongs to the people. We have to get agreement from the people,” he said.
If the Phnom Penh governor could not resolve the conflict, he should resign, Yahya added.
Sarin Vanna, chief of Phnom Penh land management department, said building the road along the fence was difficult for traffic and would also disrupt a proposed sewerage and drainage system plan.
“The road would be important for public interest,” he said.
“This land will be compensated with the land at the back of the mosque. We don’t have any other changes. [The Muslim community] requested that the road be at least 50 metres from the mosque; I put it 50 metres [away] as requested.”
Sith Ybrahim, a Cham Muslim and an adviser to the government of Cambodia, said he and others were upset by the proposal, and that people would be equally incensed if a noisy investment project was constructed in close proximity to a Buddhist pagoda.
“Lots of people are very, very angry,” he said. Yahya said the community would consider taking legal action when they met for prayer this Friday.