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Villagers fight to save pagoda

Villagers fight to save pagoda

MORE than 300 villagers distributed fliers to passing motorists outside Kandal provincial court yesterday, condemning a local development company’s recent threats to tear down a nearby pagoda.

On August 15, representatives from the Heng Development Company, which is owned by businesswoman Sieng Chanheng, set an August 30 deadline for villagers and monks to tear down Tuol Tamork pagoda in Kandal Stung district’s Ampov Prey commune, said Kong San, a pagoda committee member.

“We will not agree to tear down the pagoda because the company has no right to that land,” he said, and challenged it to produce a land title to support its claims.

He said the monks asked the company to extend the deadline until the conclusion of Buddhist Lent in October.

Chea Hy, a village representative who helped to hand out the leaflets, said that the pagoda was constructed in 2000, and was officially recognised by local authorities as a legal religious structure in 2007.

“The company’s owner is trying to use her power to remove the pagoda,” Chea Hy said.

“How can someone do that if they are a good Khmer citizen who respects Buddhism?”

Buddhist sites are protected under Article 20 of the Kingdom’s 2001 Land Law, which states that the “land and structures existing within the premises of Buddhist monasteries are a patrimony allocated in perpetuity to the Buddhist religion”. Article 21 states that such properties “cannot be sold, exchanged or donated and [are] not subject to prescription”.

Since 2002, a total of 2,676 families from seven communes in Kandal Stung district have been involved in a dispute with Heng Development Company over 1,044 hectares of land, including the area where the pagoda is located.

Villagers say they have been farming the land since 1986, but officials say the company purchased it in 1996 for commercial rice cultivation.

Sieng Chanheng, the director of Heng Development Company, said yesterday that she had issued a letter earlier this month ordering villagers and monks to remove all “illegal” structures from her company’s land.

“The pagoda has to be torn down because they have constructed it illegally and no officials have recognised it,” she said. “I have all the documents to prove that the pagoda is illegal.”

Ouch Leng, a land programme officer for the local rights group Adhoc, said yesterday that the villagers had resorted to passing out leaflets because the local authorities had been unwilling to find a fair resolution to the dispute.

He said the company “had no specific documents or policy to develop the land”.

When contacted yesterday by phone, Kandal Stung district governor Choie Sobin, said that he was not familiar with the disagreement over the pagoda.

Meanwhile, villagers vowed yesterday to continue distributing the fliers until the August 30 deadline.

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