boribor district, Kompong Chhnang province – For more than 1,000 years, the two main towers of Kompong Preah temple have stood, unconcerned by the passage of time.
The occasional traveler came to look at the quietly impressive floral designs carved on its lintels, but for most there is little here comparable to Angkor Wat or the Preah Vihear temple.
A small island in the wet season, few live around Kompong Preah, apart from the monks who inhabit a nearby pagoda complex.
There was no one to protest then, when the men from Camshin mobile telephone company, which operates the 011 telephone service, came two months ago and started digging.
This week, four gaping holes were visible within meters of the temple’s main towers, with bricks and metal reinforcements already placed inside as part of the construction of an antenna.
One of the 3-square-meter, 3-meter-deep holes is on the northern side of the actual temple itself, slicing through a portion of the ancient brick foundation. One of the excavated piles of rubble rests directly against the foot of the lower tower.
Though local and national officials, from whom Camshin workers claim to have gotten permission to build, seemed unaware of Kompong Preah’s existence, the few who have studied the temple say it is critically important in heritage terms.
Its unique design, they say, represents a vital link in the evolutionary chain of a Khmer culture thatwould culminate so spectacularly a couple of centuries later at Angkor.
Built in the 9th Century, Kompong Preah temple was, in short, where pre-Angkor-era temples end, and the glories of Angkor architecture began.
Chief monk at Kompong Preah pagoda Sour Tom, 27, said earlier this week he has been physically ill since the work started.
“I believe [the illness] is the spirit’s way of telling me that this is wrong,” he said.
He was away when the workers arrived, he said, but on his return they said they had permission.
“I did not have the power to stop it,” Sour Tom said. “I was only made chief monk a year and a half ago, and I have no influence.”
Sour Tom reported the construction to provincial cults and religions officials a few weeks later, but it took another month before police took action Saturday, arresting four men who had worked on the site, along with one layman who allegedly gave them permission.
“I regret so much that this has happened,” Sour Tom said.
Cambodia’s heritage protection laws expressly forbid any building within 300 meters of a protected site without special permission, but their implementation, as the Kompong Preah case shows, is a trickier matter.
While low-level workers can easily be arrested and charged, who is ultimately responsible for what happened at Kompong Preah is still being debated.
For Chim Bunthoeun, the deputy provincial police chief who led the investigation, the case is open and shut.
“All the men we arrested have already confessed,” he said. “They built the antenna without proper permission.”
But Provincial Chief Prosecutor Penh Vibol said the investigation should go higher at Camshin, a unit of Thai telecommunications holding group Shin Corp.
“We are reporting to the Thai embassy that [Camshin] violated our heritage laws,” he said Wednesday. “If Camshin are found to have been responsible, they will be punished and fined.”
A Thai embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday. Chuch Phoeurn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, which ultimately oversees heritage protection here, agreed that there was no question of the law having been broken.
“It was very far inside the zone of what is allowed,” he said. “This is a serious crime.” Those found guilty may face up to eight years in prison.
According to Camshin engineer Yuth Mara, who oversaw the Kompong Preah operation, but was not among those arrested, the damage done to Kompong Preah temple was not the company’s mistake.
“I asked the local Telecommunication and Post Department officials to take care of the other paperwork,” he said.
“We thought it was OK because nobody said otherwise.”
Yuth Mara, who visited the Kompong Preah site personally, would not comment on whether Camshin should fix the damage.
Posts and Telecommunications Minister So Khun admitted he had given permission for Camshin to build an antenna to allow for better service for those who live on the nearby Tonle Sap lake, but had no idea they intended to build on an important heritage site.
He said he only gave permission on basis that they consulted local telecommunication officials first.
“This was a mistake made by the local [telecommunication officials], who did not know about Kompong Preah temple,” So Khun said.
Regardless of where sanctions are ultimately applied, those in the heritage protection field see signs of a disturbing pattern.
Ancient temples that have archaeological significance number in the thousands, they say, and though it might not be feasible to save all of them, each one under threat should at least be properly assessed.
Christophe Pottier, Siem Reap director of Ecole Française d’Extreme-Orient, a French institute dedicated to the study of Asian societies, said he was shocked, though unsurprised, by what happened in Kompong Preah.
“Once upon a time, looting was the main problem faced by Cambodian heritage but now as the economy has improved, uncontrolled development is just as damaging,” he said.
“Temples are being lost on a daily basis without anyone even knowing whether they were valuable or not,” he added.
In terms of culpability, Pottier said it was difficult to say. “The people on the ground are generally the ones who assess where you can or can’t build.”
In an e-mail, Dougald O’Reilly, director of the NGO Heritage Watch, said the fact one hole was dug directly into the collapsed remains of Kompong Preah’s third tower was disturbing from an archaeological perspective.
“It is common for looters to dig down in the center of a temple to find foundation offerings and one might wonder what the real motivation for the excavation [in this exact area] was,” he wrote.
Regardless of what the court finds, O’Reilly added, Camshin should at least review its procedures and provide education on heritage issues for its staff.
“Development here is important,” he said, “but it should not come at the expense of Cambodia’s incomparable legacy.”