Police in Siem Reap province on Wednesday arrested two officials from the Apsara Authority for the unauthorized felling of a centuries-old rosewood tree revered by villagers who routinely prayed to the spirit believed to reside inside.
Chhor Thanart, a deputy director-general for Apsara, which manages the Angkor Archaeological Park, and his subordinate, Chev Phal, head of the authority’s forestry management office, were being held on Wednesday at the provincial police headquarters, provincial environment department director Phuong Lina said.
“We arrested the two officials because they gave orders to their subordinates to cut down the tree,” Mr. Lina said. “The two officials committed a mistake because they cut the tree without asking permission from the upper level.”
Mr. Lina said others were being sought, including those who used chainsaws to cut the tree into pieces.
The felling of the tree in Siem Reap City’s Kokchak commune drew about 300 residents to the scene on Sunday.
They accused the Apsara Authority of intending to sell off the valuable timber, which can go for thousands of dollars per square meter, and sought to prevent officials from hauling away the pieces.
The Apsara Authority, however, contended that it merely removed the tree on Saturday after an unidentified group of loggers had already made deep cuts into the base of the tree on Friday night, and feared it could cause damage if it were to fall.
Mr. Thanard, the Apsara Authority’s deputy director-general, wrote a letter of apology on Tuesday and asked his boss to pardon him for having ordered his subordinates to remove the tree.
“I am grieving because I ordered the staff to cut down the tree without discussing and asking permission,” he said in the letter. “Every consequence, accusation and criticism from people for the leaders of the Apsara Authority from logging the tree is my fault and it is not the responsibility of the Apsara Authority.”
Meuk Rith, chief of Kokchak commune’s Nokor Krao village, said the timber had been transported on Wednesday to commune’s Damrey Senchey pagoda, pleasing villagers who had been upset about losing the spirit tree.
“They were happy when they saw the tree was returned to the pagoda this afternoon,” he said.
Mr. Rith said villagers had held Neak Ta ceremonies at the tree every December, when they prayed for peace and a good harvest, and offered food to the spirit.
“I think that the spirit staying inside the rosewood tree has strong power because two people were arrested after the tree was cut and felled,” he said.
Hang Sophat Phearom, chief of the provincial police’s minor crimes bureau, said the two Apsara Authority officials would be sent to court today, but declined further comment.