"Surrounded by casino developments, the iconic Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh faces the prospect of relocation or even closure as the modern world starts to close in
One bookshop by the remaining entrance remains open, its religious, cultural, reference and historical texts undisturbed, collecting chalky construction dust.
The library chambers inside the octagonal building are also open but empty; the students who used to come in their dozens every day have vanished. A handful of staff and friends of the institute sit around the grounds, beneath the Khmer-style three-tiered roof, discussing politics or their picks for the World Cup. Sometimes they have to pause until the clatter of drilling subsides.
With the Buddhist Institute surrounded on three sides by casino construction, visitors are almost non-existent. Across the street loom the cranes of the TSCLK Integrated Complex, still in its early stages but part of the future 1,000-hotel-room Naga 2 casino annex. There are concerns that the developments will swamp the institute and force it to relocate or close.
To the left, digging machinery removes mounds of earth for a subterranean walkway that will connect the new complex to NagaWorld, the existing 24-storey casino and entertainment complex that rises behind the institute. To the right on institute land is the beginning of steel framework for an electricity sub-station, designed to power the new buildings. A nearby tourist park will also follow.
The facilities will cater to the growing demand for high-end tourism, especially among Vietnamese and Chinese visitors facing gaming restrictions at home.
“This is a holy place,” says a middle-aged man, who asked not to be named. “There are so many records and religious history, donated by kings and dignitaries. This is one of the most important places for our culture.”
He worries about the absence of visitors, the dwindling land and damage to the building, but says there is no mechanism available to them for making complaints. The Ministry of Culture and Religion, he says, has done nothing to protect the institute.
Parts of the wall and main gate intended to protect the institute from incursions were torn down last month with the consent of the ministry, leading to a protest march led by monks on May 29. The ministry denied accusations by the monks that the land for the electricity substation had been leased or sold to the casino. Ministry spokesman Seng Somony said the construction was necessary to promote development in Cambodia, and that the boundary wall would be rebuilt after Naga 2’s completion.
Somony also said that the ministry itself might abandon its home on Preah Sihanouk Quay and move to a seven- or eight-storey building on institute land. The ministry this week could not be reached to answer questions on the matter.
Considered the world’s key research centre for Khmer studies, the institute is involved in the preservation, scanning and cataloguing of ancient Khmer manuscripts, as well as publication, research and international workshops. Founded with French support in 1930 by King Monivong, the institute became a centre for the preservation and development of Cambodian national culture, and was the country’s first major publisher.
The institute’s journal, Kambuja Soriya, which is still being published, brought classical literature, religious works and folk tales. The country’s first Khmer newspaper, Nagara Vatta, was co-founded by institute librarian and nationalist Son Ngoc Than, who would later become prime minister. Other publications include the 110-volume Tripitaka translated from Pali, collections of Khmer legends and the first Khmer dictionary, which is still being updated and used, with an app for mobile phones. The current cream-coloured building opened in May 1998 on its one-hectare site.
“The land belongs to Buddhism,” said But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice. “Someone can’t just give it away without the consent of the sangha. King Norodom Sihanouk gave this land to the institute, and the Ministry of Cult and Religion must stop giving land away to companies....” Read it all