Fishermen and farmers burned incense Wednesday on the foundations of an island pagoda that was demolished earlier this week by local officials, who said the structure was blocking the view to the Royal Palace.
“Thirty or forty men came to the island [on Monday night], forced the monk living here to get out, and smashed the building with hammers from 7 pm to 12 am,” said 54-year-old Heng Houy, a resident of Yukuntor Island, located at the point where the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers meet. “They took property including a generator and a bed. And they destroyed Buddha images and tossed a portrait of King Norodom Sihanouk into the water.”
Acknowledging the temple’s destruction was carried out under official orders, Chea Sophara, municipal governor of Phnom Penh, said Wednesday that Wat Santepheap was built without a permit and violated a municipal law forbidding structures too obstruct the view to the Royal Palace.
Chea Sophara added that the operation was carried out under the orders of Touch Sarun, governor of Russey Keo district. Touch Sarun acknowledged his role, but was unavailable for further comment Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Heng Houy on Wednesday picked her way through the ruins of the two-year-old temple. She said she doubted the destruction was the work of municipal or district officials. “If it was ordered by the government, why was there so little warning?” she asked. “And why did they work at night?”
However, Chea Sophara denied the action was unannounced. “It is simply not true that the monk living at the pagoda had little warning,” Chea Sophara said. “He was warned at least three months ago. And there had been talk last year of dredging the island. Yet, the people continued to upgrade the temple.”
Since its emergence in 1998, Yukuntor Island has served as a bone of contention between devout Buddhists and government officials. Interpreted as a religious sign by some Buddhist leaders, the island’s emergence was condemned in many official circles as an impediment to water traffic. The construction of Wat Santepheap exacerbated the controversy.
Last September, officials at the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology announced plans to dredge the 30-by-50-meter island, which they claimed had caused surrounding water to become too shallow for big ger ships to pass through.