Prime Minister Hun Sen has approved an initiative to move all crematorium activity in Phnom Penh to the outskirts of the city because of health concerns, officials said Sunday.
The country’s chief Buddhist monk, Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, said the prime minister signed off on the plan Thursday but that a timetable has not yet been established for the move.
Tep Vong said that he had been pushing for the dead to be cremated outside the city center for years but had been consistently thwarted by unspecified “anti-religious” elements.
“Every good deed we do, there are always rebels that go against it,” he said.
Non Nget, chief monk for the municipality, said City Hall would be in charge of building nine new crematoriums on the outskirts to replace the nine pagoda-based facilities currently active.
Non Nget also said that he had suggested to Hun Sen that cremation should no longer be carried out in the city center.
Non Nget’s enthusiasm for the move comes in sharp contrast to his comments in March 2004, when the municipality first proposed the idea.
“If the governor bans [cremations in the city], we, the monks, will demonstrate,” Non Nget said at the time.
Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema said Sunday that he was away at the time of the prime minister’s signing and could not comment.
Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong declined to comment, saying he was on vacation.
Peo Seung, an adviser to Tep Vong in charge of crematorium development, said the sites for the new crematoriums have not yet been determined.
He added that the project would require a great deal of study to be properly carried through, noting that a particular concern was traffic congestion caused by mourners flocking to the cremation sites.
Peo Seung also said that even though he ultimately supports the project, it would likely require millions of dollars that are just not available at this time.
“I don’t know where we are going to go—there’s no money,” he said.
Chu Y, 64, deputy chief of the Wat Lanka crematorium, said that cremation has never brought much money to his pagoda so it might not be missed—even though the pagoda invested $30,000 in repairing its multi-tiered incinerator two years ago.
Phnom Penh residents said they had mixed feelings about the government’s decision, but were generally in favor.
Across the street from Wat Lanka, restaurant owner Sok Leng, 38, said that she welcomed the end of cremation at the pagoda.
She said that some of her customers complain of the smoke and “a few guests walked away from their food.”
Two years ago, people in the neighborhood filed a complaint with City Hall in an attempt to have the crematorium shut down, but were unsuccessful, Sok Leng said.
Other residents who don’t live in close proximity to a cremation site took no issue with the smoke, but complained about the traffic jams that tend to accompany funeral processions.
“I am tired of such traffic jams—but everyone dies,” sandwich vendor Chhem Chhorn said, adding that the congestion can sometimes last up to an hour.
(Additional reporting by John Maloy)