SIEM REAP CITY – In the months leading up to Cambodia’s national election on July 28, authorities in the Angkor Archaeological Park allowed dozens of land owners to build new houses and develop plots of land inside highly protected areas of the world heritage site.
Villagers interviewed last week said they were allowed to push ahead with building work on new homes on land in the region of the Angkor Wat temple, inside the Eastern Baray—an ancient artificial water catchment area—and on a newly constructed road that runs between Angkor Thom and the Western Baray.
Several property owners said they interpreted inaction by the Apsara Authority, the government agency responsible for managing the Angkor park, as a green light to undertake the building work.
“Apsara [Authority] allowed us to do it before the election,” said An Pheakdey, who has built a $3,000 wall around his plot of land, complete with a cast-iron gate, that stretches for about 25 meters and looks like the entrance to a luxury villa.
“Since June, there are a lot of people doing construction. Before June, we were not even allowed to build so much as a chicken cage,” he said.
Mr. Pheakdey’s land is less than a kilometer from the giant moat surrounding Angkor Wat and inside the park’s crucial Zone One protected area. Opposite Mr. Pheakdey’s new fenced-in land stands a brand new bungalow built from concrete that was constructed during the past six weeks.
Mr. Pheakdey, whose land is a two-minute motorcycle ride from the foot of Angkor Wat, said that his side business selling wood for building work in Siem Reap had spiked in the two months prior to the national election, though demand for his product had since tapered off.
“Many houses went up here in June and July…. But I’m worried now because after the election they might come to tell me to dismantle the wall and I spent thousands of dollars on it,” he said.
According to laws governing the management of protected zones in the Angkor region, any building projects in Zone One—which includes both the Eastern and Western barays and dozens of classified temples—must be accompanied by an impact assessment as well as an archaeological study of the area. But in the run-up to the election, residents last week described a hasty rush by locals and outsiders to build new properties and add extensions to already existing structures in the protected area.
On a brand new road that has been built using donor money from South Korea, dozens of new homes in Kork Ta Chan village have popped up in the past three months. Locals in the area say that some of the homes have been constructed by outsiders living in Phnom Penh, who have never been seen in the area before.
“Some land owners in Phnom Penh came here and built a house and then they left again for their home in Phnom Penh. Before the election, people who bought land here were rushing to build houses,” said Khim Lun, 55, a local in the area who said he had quickly erected a basic home made from green corrugated iron for his daughter in June.
“Before the election they built the houses. Apsara Authority did not say anything. Before this time, you could not even build a pig hut,” Mr. Lun continued. “Before they always used to say, ‘This is Apsara’s land. You can’t build anything at all.’ The newcomers who own the land were not allowed to build houses here.”
“Three months ahead of the election people started to build houses here. I wondered if they wanted votes and just let the people do it,” he said.
Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s representative in Cambodia, said her office had been informed of the problem by “several contacts” working inside the Angkor Archaeological Park and would be traveling to Siem Reap imminently to assess the situation.
“Unesco has been alarmed by several contacts and will consider this very seriously, especially because of the 20 year anniversary of the ICC coming next December,” Ms. Lemaistre said, referring to the creation of the International Coordinating Committee, a bi-annual forum between archaeologists and other experts on how to best conserve the Angkor heritage site.
“We are very against illegal construction.”
Part of Unesco’s work will be to discover whether the construction of new buildings was done by existing dwellers in the area or people from outside the park who have bought land and constructed new properties.
Based on interviews with residents in the area, many of the new structures were in the process of being built as Cambodia played host to the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee, which took place in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh from June 16 to 27.
Inside the Eastern Baray, close to Pradak village, a home belonging to a one-star general based in Preah Vihear province has been erected in the past two months, a soldier stationed at the site told reporters last week.
The house stands on land measuring approximately 500 square meters. When reporters visited the home last week, the soldier exited the property and asked that photos of the property be deleted. He also said that another recently built home in the area belonged to a two-star general and a commune police chief.
Pradak has grown exponentially over the past five years. Roads through the village heading in all directions, which were once empty, have seen roughly a dozen new properties go up in the past few months.
A few hundred meters up the road from the general’s house, a man who runs a small business collecting and selling pebbles from Siem Reap’s Kulen River said that prior to the election, the Apsara Authority was more lenient with villagers looking to build new homes.
“Before the elections, Apsara was not so strict during this time,” he said, giving his name only as Phay due to the sensitive nature of the subject. “Now it [the Apsara Authority] has stopped. We’re not allowed to do it any more.”
Development inside the protected zones of Angkor has been an issue for years. In the early part of the 1990s, there were only 37,000 people living inside protected zones One and Two—which cover about 400 square km—compared to more than 190,000 inhabitants today.
Im Sokrithy, a director for the Apsara Authority, admitted that some of the buildings that have recently gone up inside the Angkor park were built illegally.
“Some places are legal and some are not,” he said, declining to say what action the Apsara Authority would take against illegal structures, or what constructions had been allowed to proceed in the first place.
Lim Uok, deputy chief of the Apsara Authority’s department in charge of development within the Angkor world heritage site, also said that some of the recent construction activity had been illegal, though he too declined to say why nobody had stopped the buildings from going ahead.
“Those who have built the houses without permission are illegal,” Mr. Uok said.
Kork Ta Chan village chief Nhean Sarom also said that most of the homes in his village had been built without permission from local authorities, who had not stopped the constructions.
“There was absolutely no permission,” Mr. Sarom said.
“Before the election, everyone rushed to build the houses,” he said, adding that while some homes had to be rebuilt as they were relocated to make way for the new road, others had merely been constructed by opportunists taking advantage of the pre-election environment.
“Half a month before the election, there were opportunists building homes without legal permission.”
Jean-Baptiste Chevance, director of London-based Archaeology and Development Foundation, which runs conservation projects close to Siem Reap’s Kulen Mountain, said if the building of houses going on inside the protected zones was left unchecked, it could, in the worst scenario, end up jeopardizing Angkor’s status as a world heritage site.
“You cannot have the Angkorian villages expand too much otherwise it will fill the whole space between the temples and you have to keep that landscape as heritage,” he said. “The consequence is that if you leave it with no rules then the development will expand…and who knows, they can build everywhere after that. At one point they have to say, ‘No, this is a tenth-century pond, you can’t fill it’” Mr. Chevance said.
“It’s a disaster as you lose this authenticity and the landscape and, of course, you would lose archaeological knowledge because when you fill you dig and once it’s destroyed, it’s destroyed,” he said.
“In the worst case scenario, what they usually do is to declassify from a site on the heritage list to the endangered list,” he added.