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Villagers fight to save pagoda

An excavator and water pipes burn next to a crematorium after being set ablaze in Khtor village in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district
An excavator and water pipes burn next to a crematorium after being set ablaze in Khtor village in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Villagers fight to save pagoda

Phnom Penh's municipal governor yesterday announced the cancellation of a plan to tear down a crematorium to make way for a private excavation project in Russey Keo district, after villagers chased off workers and torched their equipment.

An order signed by Council of Ministers Secretary of State Khim Russyda yesterday nullified an April 2012 order to knock down the 14-year-old crematorium – located on National Route 6A, across the street from a pagoda in Prek Liep commune’s Khtor village – and build a new one about five kilometres away.

The pagoda and crematorium sit on state-owned property granted to Eng Kaing Development Corporation & Construction Co Ltd through an economic land concession.

“The government has decided to keep the land plot of the crematorium for the pagoda, for the villagers and monks of the Khtor community,” governor Pa Socheatvong told about 200 villagers and monks gathered across the street from the still-flaming construction equipment.

Officials from Eng Kaing could not be reached yesterday.

Before the construction crew arrived on Saturday night, villagers had already met to discuss what action they would take if and when one came to carry out the 2012 order, said Chhon Torn, 48, who owns a food stand directly in front of the pagoda.

When he saw an excavator park at the crematorium about 11pm on Saturday, Torn ran into the pagoda and told monks living there. As planned, monks beat loud drums to alert villagers, who made their way to the building and went after the construction workers, who fled the scene – after putting a hole in the crematorium.

“[Construction workers] ran away when they saw the people come with wood boards and knives,” Torn said.

The mob blocked Route 6A for hours as they burned excavator and pipes. By 10am police cleared the road, but thick plumes of black smoke could be seen from rising from the still-blazing equipment.

Protesting against the planned demolition, villagers set up a tent in front of the pagoda for the ensuing demonstration.

A man covers his mouth as he runs past burning water pipes that were set on fire during a protest in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district
A man covers his mouth as he runs past burning water pipes that were set on fire during a protest in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. Vireak Mai

Arriving to much fanfare, Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy led villagers and journalists across the street to stand in front of the burning rubble while he spoke.

“We must altogether stop land grabs, the demolishment of pagoda land and the sale of land for illegal sand dredging,” Rainsy said, standing amid the acrid smoke.

Villagers were amenable to Socheatvong’s announcement when he read the order’s cancellation about 11:30am, but some told him the crematorium and all pagoda land should belong to the people, not the state.

“We are very happy,” Teng Phally, 59, told Socheatvong after his announcement. “But we need you to keep this site as pagoda land for the Khtor community, and grant us an official land title.”

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