Four men were arrested Saturday evening while laying the foundations for a mobile phone network tower on the site of what experts say is one of the most important Pre-Angkorian temples in the country, officials said Sunday.
Police swooped on Kompong Preah temple in Kompong Chhnang’s Boribor district and arrested three Cambodian men and one Thai national who were constructing the antenna for the Camshin mobile phone network provider, according to officials.
Kompong Chhnang provincial judiciary police chief Chim Bunthoeun said Sunday that the men had dug four 2.5-square-meter holes to a depth of 3 meters, one of which was directly on the temple itself in an area where one of its three towers had collapsed long ago.
The temple’s two well-preserved towers remained undamaged by the work, he said.
“They were arrested because they had no permission from the provincial authorities,” Chim Bunthoeun said. “They only informed some of the [laymen] at the nearby pagoda campus.”
He said the four would be sent to the Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court this morning.
Chuch Phoeurn, Ministry of Culture secretary of state in charge of heritage, said the men had seriously violated Cambodia’s heritage protection laws and that officials from his department were conducting an investigation.
“The law states clearly that any building must be at least 330 meters from a protected area like Kompong Preah temple,” he said. “We would consider that every company is well aware of” Cambodian heritage laws.
“We acted as soon as we heard about this,” said Chuch Phoeurn, who added that if it is proven in court that the men were knowingly building on a protected area, they could face up to eight years in prison.
He did not know if any more arrests would be made, but confirmed that only the four who were on the site when police arrived had been detained.
According to Posts and Telecommunications Minister So Khun, Camshin, which operates the 011 mobile phone service and is owned by Thailand’s Shin Satellite Plc, Ltd, was ordered to stop all activity in the area. Kompong Chhnang provincial authorities are dealing with the case, he added.
A woman answering the phone at the Camshin main office in Phnom Penh said her office was unaware of the case and that no one in the construction sector in the company was available for comment.
The Kompong Preah temple is one of the best-preserved temples of the Pre-Angkorian era, according to National Museum Deputy Director Hab Touch. He said that one strong measure of its importance is that the Kompong Preah architectural style, notable for its distinctive floral lintels, was named after it.
“It is a temple of great quality artistically and important to our heritage,” he said.
The temple was built, according to Hab Touch, some time during the reign of King Jayavarman I, who ruled from around 647 to 681 over the beginnings of what would eventually become the Khmer empire.
The Angkorian period, during which the Angkor Wat temple complex was constructed, stretched from the early 9th to the 15th centuries.
“Not many temples remain from [the Jayavarman I] era, so it is important that those which do be preserved,” Hab Touch said, adding: “We should do everything we can to protect them, for cultural reasons and also for tourism.”
Constitutional Council member Son Soubert, who has visited Kompong Preah, said he was “shocked and saddened” that such damage had taken place at the site. He described it as a crucial link for scholars between the Pre-Angkor and Angkor periods.
According to Son Soubert, who is an ethnologist with art history and archaeology expertise, the perpetrators should be made an example of. “We have to send out a message,” he said.
“Why would these crazy people build there?” he said, adding that the fact that work had happened at all demonstrated negligence by officials there.
Son Soubert said it is vital that local communities, and in this case the monks in the nearby pagoda, be educated to be vigilant in protecting heritage sites.
“It is [the government’s] responsibility to protect these sites, not punish people after the event,” he said. “How can they undo the damage that has been done?”