Five Officials Charged for Felling Spirit Tree

Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the arrest of five Apsara Authority employees who were charged on Thursday for their roles in cutting down a 200-year-old rosewood tree revered by villagers in Siem Reap province, according to the provincial governor.

In a post to his Facebook page, provincial governor Khim Bunsong wrote that Mr. Hun Sen ordered the arrests. He also said that the timber would be delivered to a pagoda near the village and fashioned into Buddha statues.

Villagers gather around a felled rosewood tree at a pagoda in Siem Reap City’s Kokchak district on Sunday. (Fresh News)
Villagers gather around a felled rosewood tree at a pagoda in Siem Reap City’s Kokchak district on Sunday. (Fresh News)

Meuk Rith, chief of Kokchak commune’s Nokor Krao village, said on Thursday that locals, who believed the tree was host to a benevolent spirit, were appeased by the timber’s return to a nearby pagoda, but had yet to decide if they wanted the pieces turned into Buddha statues.

As for the arrests, he said, “I think it is fair and the authorities have done a good job.”

Chhor Thanart, a deputy director- general for the authority, which manages the Angkor Archeological Park, and Chev Phal, who runs the authority’s forest management office, were arrested Wednesday at provincial police headquarters because they had instructed the staff to cut the tree down.

Three other Apsara employees were also arrested Wednesday for carrying out the order, Hang Sophat Phearom, chief of the province’s minor crimes bureau, said on Thursday. He declined to provide their names or positions.

Mr. Sophat Phearom said all five were charged on Thursday and placed in detention while awaiting trial.

Deputy court prosecutor Choun Sophanha, who recommended the charges, said they included instigating a felony for Mr. Thanart and Mr. Phal, and unauthorized logging of a rare tree for the other three. He, too, declined to identify them.

Apsara Authority spokesman Long Kosal said he knew the identity of only one of the loggers, whom he identified as Touch Tetra, head of the authority’s cultural landscape office.

“This was the activity of the individuals and it wasn’t a task assigned by the Apsara Authority,” he said.

Apsara employees felled the tree on Saturday. They claimed a deep cut, made into its base the night before by unknown loggers, who possibly intended to return later to finish the job, had made it a danger to locals had it been left to fall on its own.

But local villagers, who prayed to the tree every year for good luck, suspected the authority had felled the tree in hopes of selling off its valuable timber, which can fetch thousands of dollars per square meter.

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