The deputy governor of Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district on Monday put an abrupt end to a pagoda chief’s plans to sell off a nearby pond for $4.8 million, rumors of which have sparked days of protests by angry locals.
Residents of Choam Chao commune rely on the three-hectare body of water to grow vegetables, and pray at a local shrine to the spirit of the pond, which lies a few hundred meters from Wat Kok Banhchoan. Hundreds have been protesting outside the pagoda since Saturday, following a meeting between chief monk Seng Thorn and local officials on Wednesday to discuss selling the pond for $160 per square meter.
During a four-hour meeting at the pagoda on Monday, deputy district governor Khem Sunsoda said the sale would not be approved in order to satisfy popular demand.
“We agree to not sell it and keep it as public property. What do you think about that?” Mr. Sunsoda asked the monk chief.
“I accept it,” Seng Thorn replied.
In his defense, the chief monk said he had only been considering the sale.
“Some people accused me of conspiring with local authorities to sell the land for millions of dollars,” he said. “I want to reject the accusation that there was a plan to sell or swap it. I just had an idea…. I have not received any money yet.”
Commune chief Suth Sath, who attended last week’s meeting at the pagoda, also said the idea had been in its infancy and would now be abandoned.
“We held the meeting following a request from the monk chief, and we did not say it must be sold. We just discussed the idea, and after we received objections, we abandoned it,” he said.
News that the pond would remain public property was met with cheers among the roughly 300 villagers who had gathered outside the pagoda on Monday, but some wanted to press ahead with their demand that Seng Thorn, and Choam Chao village chief Sok Ly, be removed from their positions.
Mr. Sunsoda said he would have his staff investigate their claims against the pair if and when they submitted a formal complaint.