The demolition of three 1930s dormitories at the Wat Ounalom compound and the partial demolition of an ancient stupa in Wat Botum Vatey Rajavararam caused controversy in recent months, but several monks are now claiming that they are experiencing delays in carrying out conservation and restoration work.
The monks say the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which is responsible for the protection of heritage listed buildings, is taking far too long to process and approve their applications for permits to do the work.
Chen Dom Dek Cheung pagoda, which is located in the northern part of Wat Phnom – close to the Chroy Changvar Bridge – is home to a 140 year old wooden pagoda. It has been registered as a heritage property for many years.
Venerable Ouk Ngov, who has been chief monk of the pagoda for three years, said the first application for permission to renovate was submitted under the previous chief monk.
“One of the difficulties of heritage listed buildings is that it is very difficult to obtain permission to conduct any work on them. When I met with ministry officials, I took all of the documents that I was asked to bring, but they would not sign my application. It almost feels like they like the idea of listing heritage buildings, but they don’t actually want to deal with them,” he added.
“I would like the culture ministry to understand the impact of preventing work on these cultural assets,” he continued.
As the main pagoda remains a place of worship, he believes its repair is as much a matter of public safety as anything else.
He requested that the ministry expedite the work as soon as possible, so he would not be blamed if something happened.
“The previous chief monk had requested this maintenance work for a long time, and I have been trying to get approval for the length of my tenure,” he concluded.
Venerable So Saroeun has been an instructor at Wat Ounalom since 2011. In the wake of the public outcry that surrounded the destruction of three buildings, he explained that none of the monks or pagoda commissioners was aware that the three buildings had been heritage registered in 2017, the date the ministry claimed.
This was contradicted by culture ministry spokesman Long Bunna Sireyvath, who said the heritage working group had advised the chief monk of the pagoda of his responsibilities regarding the protected buildings.
“Repairing heritage buildings is a delicate process, and we cannot just begin work without making detailed plans. We need to study all possible impacts, because many of them are the last surviving examples of a unique style of Khmer architecture,” he added.
“Work can be conducted on any building that is not heritage-listed, without the need for permission from us. Older buildings are much rarer. It is important to remember that no buildings are listed unless they have artistic or historical value,” he concluded.
The Phnom Penh Department of Culture and Fine Arts is planning to request permission from the culture ministry to publish the documents it has compiled on the registration of heritage properties around the capital, and will hand them to the occupants and owners of these properties.
Chum Vuthy, director of the department, said the documents were all prepared, and they were just waiting on permission from the ministry and funding for the printing costs.
Thuy Chanthuon, a researcher on history and archaeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that the preservation of heritage was of crucial importance for any nation or culture.
“People have to take care of their heritage. If a society does not preserve it, they will lose sight of their ancestors and forget where they came from,” he added.
“The protection of our cultural heritage is the duty of every Cambodian child!” said the ministry, in a December 21 letter which followed the Wat Ounalom demolition.