A demolition crew operating heavy machinery has continued with the destruction of three dormitories for Buddhist monks at the Wat Ounalom compound despite objections from Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona to the Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, as the buildings were designated as protected natural heritage.

The monks who used to live in the nearly century-old buildings could only look on as they were torn down, and were unwilling to answer questions or provide comment to journalists about the situation.

However, one of the construction workers hired to tear down the buildings told The Post that the destruction was authorised by senior monks at the pagoda, including Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong.

“No one would dare to demolish these building without the consent of Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who has been staying at the pagoda and leading this work directly,” he said.

The three structures were built in 1930 and placed on the list of national heritage structures by the Phnom Penh municipal Department of Culture and Fine Arts in 2017, giving them protected status under the law on the protection of cultural heritage and the government’s circular on preventing the dismantling of heritage buildings, according to Sackona’s December 8 letter to Tep Vong.

“This is very regrettable because these three dormitories for Buddhist monks were considered to be part of the cultural wealth of the nation,” the letter read.

She added that the renovation of heritage buildings was permitted as long as the plans were first studied by the ministry and she appealed to Tep Vong to stop the destruction of national heritage-designated buildings.

Venerable Khim Sorn, chief monk of Phnom Penh, told The Post that the lack of publicity about the existence of cultural heritage buildings in pagodas from officials of the relevant ministries and departments had resulted in buildings throughout Cambodia being destroyed continuously.

“In fact, the monks at Wat Ounalom did not know that these three dilapidated houses were listed as national cultural heritage. I only found out about this after receiving the letter from the ministry, but by then it was too late,” he said.

Venerable Sorn said that prior to the demolition, senior monks informed him that Tep Vong had moved the monks who stayed there to other accommodations in order to make room to construct a stupa after his passing.

Chhot Bunthang, professor of philosophy at the International Relations Institute of Cambodia, told The Post that dismantling these buildings amounted to the destruction of the identity and national culture of Cambodia and was totally illegal, so those behind it should be held accountable before the law.

According to Bunthang, Wat Ounalom was established in 1443 and some of the buildings at the compound are centuries old, while others are more recent and date to the French-colonial period but are still considered historic national heritage sites.