About 300 villagers on the outskirts of Siem Reap City protested against the Apsara Authority on Sunday for cutting down a centuries-old rosewood tree that the community had been praying to for generations.
The Apsara Authority, which manages the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park, says the hewing was for the community’s own good.
Choun Chum, a resident of Kokchak commune’s Nokor Krao village, said on Monday that he saw Apsara staff felling the tree on park land on Saturday. About 300 fellow villagers showed up on Sunday hoping to prevent them from hauling the pieces away. They contended the authority was aiming to sell off the valuable timber, which can go for thousands of dollars per square meter.
“The villagers had taken care of the tree because they believed there was a spirit inside of it and they had a Neak Ta ceremony there every year,” when they would pray for peace and a good rainy season, Mr. Chum said.
He said the villagers protested into the afternoon to keep the authority from removing the timber, but gave up after about a dozen armed soldiers arrived to clear the way. Long Kosal, a spokesman for the Apsara Authority, said the villagers were mistaken about their intentions.
He said the authority had been informed by the village chief, Meuk Rith, that an unidentified group of loggers had cut deeply into the base of the tree on Friday night and that the authority was worried about the harm it might do if it fell.
“We cut down the rosewood tree because we were worried it would fall down and hurt a person or animal,” he said. “We cut down the tree to eliminate the danger.”
Mr. Rith said that whoever made the initial cut had filled it in with mud, probably hoping to hide the gash until they could return to finish the job. “The local people are mistaken because they saw the Apsara Authority cut down the tree, but they did not know that the tree was already cut by some unknown people,” he said.
The village chief said the authority could have avoided the misunderstanding by explaining their motives before getting to work.
The Forestry Administration’s local cantonment director, Tea Kimsoth, said his staff was holding the timber while they searched for those who started cutting the tree on Friday.