About 400 monks and villagers protested Sunday outside Wat Koh Puthivong pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district to protest what they say is a real estate company’s encroachment onto the pagoda’s land, including an island that monks consider sacred.
During the protest, dozens of young men used sledgehammers to demolish part of a wall in what is slated to become a massive residential development, before marking off the boundaries of the pagoda’s land using spray paint.
“If we did not take action, we would lose this land since the company has continued construction although it knew this land is in dispute with the pagoda,” said chief monk Poeuy Metta.
Poeuy Metta said the 5,100 square meters of land in question was cut from the pagoda in 2013 by local authorities who said a reservoir would be built by expanding a small existing lake.
Instead, the lake was filled with dirt and the Borey Peng Huoth company started construction work on the site. The chief monk said the pagoda filed a complaint with Prime Minister Hun Sen in April, but had not received a response.
“First they forced monks to sign to make the reservoir, but they filled up more land and built the residential area,” he said. “Therefore we were unhappy with it and called on the prime minister to find justice for us to keep the land for the next generation.”
Before the lake was filled with sand, a small island in the middle had been considered sacred by monks and local residents, who left offerings at a stupa there that was built—legend has it—by a soldier who hid out in the area before emerging to topple his foes.
In their complaint to Mr. Hun Sen, the monks accuse deputy Sen Sok district governor Chea Khema of conspiring with a businessman, Chheang Paksour, to sell the land to Borey Peng Huot.
Mr. Khema declined to comment.
According to the Borey Peng Huoth website, the new development has been dubbed The Star Quateria and will eventually feature stand-alone villas, townhouses and apartments, along with amenities such as an amusement park, a swimming pool, and “steam, sauna and Jacuzzi services.”
Sor Meas, 40, a villager who attended Sunday’s protest to support the monks, said villagers were unhappy that previous protests and appeals to authorities to save the pagoda’s land had gone unheeded.
“We will keep protesting with monks to get the land,” she said. “We cannot let them take pagoda.”
Cheav Sambath, the head of customer service for Borey Peng Huoth, said the company had legal documents and letters of permission allowing it to build on the disputed land. She declined to comment further.