Wat Ounalom’s Heritage Buildings Totally Razed

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has pledged to work with relevant institutions to prevent more ancient structures from being torn down after confirming three heritage buildings at Wat Ounalom have been completely razed
Heritage buildings at Wat Ounalom were completely demolished. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Heritage buildings at Wat Ounalom were completely demolished. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has confirmed that three heritage buildings at Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom – the centre of Cambodian Buddhism – were completely demolished on December 12.

“The Ministry will work closely with local authorities and relevant institutions to investigate and resolve legal [issues] that keep the site free of new construction until the procedure is completed,” it said in a statement.

On December 8, Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, issued a letter to Tep Vong, the leader of Cambodian Buddhism, expressing his sympathies over the destruction of the three ancient buildings – number 43, 44, and 45, which were built in the 1930s.

She said that registered heritage buildings have valuable infrastructure and art. However, the age of buildings must be checked correctly to prevent them being razed in the future.

Following the news, the ministry expressed upset because the three monk residents' buildings have been designated as national heritage property since the French era and were added to the list of the Department of Culture and Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 2017.

Sackona said the demolitions are being criticized by masses through social media and in 2021, the ministry issued a circular on preventing the demolition and destruction of heritage buildings in general, emphasizing that heritage buildings that will be repaired, remodeled, or demolished must request review from the Ministry and relevant authorities first.

Sambo Manara, a history professor at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, told Kiripost that heritage buildings are valuable to society, and buildings’ validity and structure must also be taken into account.

"The demolition must be based on the needs, qualifications and approval of the ministry, but it is under the control of each ministry. We should take care of this building​ to reduce excessive risk,” Manara said.

Manara expressed regret that permission was not sought before the demolition, and was surprised that the buildings being torn down were not known by the ministry. He said it is important to seek the approval of the Ministry and is illegal otherwise.

“Although it is known that the building is old, the ministry has not visited or investigated, but I regret the demolition. Unexpected disassembly is wrong, but if there is a risk, disassembly is normal.”

If a structure is built in Khmer style, it is beneficial for understanding national history, ethnic concepts, and heritage, for future generations to learn from.