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New List Aims to Stem Tide of Cambodian Stolen Antiquities

  • Robert Carmichael

A wall relief stolen in 1998 from Banteay Chhmar temple in north-western Cambodia, and later returned from Thailand. It now stands in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

A wall relief stolen in 1998 from Banteay Chhmar temple in north-western Cambodia, and later returned from Thailand. It now stands in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Cambodia recently released a publication that it hopes will help reduce the number of artifacts being stolen from sites and temples and sold on the international market.

One thousand years ago, Cambodia's Angkorean empire was at its peak, ruling areas that are now part of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

Today, its achievements are admired by two-million foreign tourists who visit Cambodia each year. Many come to visit the crowning achievement of Angkor Wat, the famed temple-city in the Cambodia's northwest.

But, in recent years, Cambodia's rich cultural heritage has been plundered, with many temples and ancient sites ransacked for statues. Those trying to preserve the heritage sometimes struggle to do so.

Hab Touch is the outgoing director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

He says one method recently adopted to combat the theft of antiquities is the publication of a glossy eight-page brochure. The booklet lists the different categories of Khmer artifacts at risk of being stolen and smuggled abroad.

The publication, which is called the Red List, was drawn up in conjunction with the International Council of Museums.

The Red List will be distributed to Cambodian border and customs officials, as well as to museums and auction houses overseas, as part of a strategy to combat the illicit trade.

"I hope that the Red List will also play an important [role] in protecting Cambodian cultural artifacts and I strongly believe that the Red List, in the future, will build more capacity for the protection of Cambodian heritage," he said.

The items on the Red List range from jewelry and weapons to stone heads and bronze statues. The brochure lists beads from more than 2,000 years back and wooden items from just a century ago.

It is, in short, a comprehensive time capsule of Cambodian artistic achievement.

Douglad O'Reilly is the director of Heritage Watch, an organization set up to combat the plunder of Cambodia's cultural heritage. O'Reilly says the problem of looting is widespread.

"I think that the problem is fairly substantial. We are finding that in rural areas there is quite a lot of activity. There has been, since about 2000, a significant amount of heritage destruction at archaeological sites that date especially to the period from 500 BC to 500 AD," he said. "So people are excavating illegally a lot of cemetery sites in the search for carnellian and agate beads and glass beads and other artifacts."

O'Reilly applauds the idea behind the Red List, saying it has the potential to reduce dramatically the number of items being smuggled across the border -- as long as the brochures printed in Khmer and Thai actually reach the officials at the border posts.

O'Reilly explains that many Cambodians and Thais want looted Khmer antiquities for their talismanic properties - their perceived ability to bring good luck.

He says the problem of looting of prehistoric sites started ten years ago and peaked five years later. So is it getting better or worse?

"It is very difficult to say. It appears that there is a slight slowdown in the looting of these sites and the Cambodian government can be credited with making good efforts to crack down on a lot of the looting," added O'Reilly. "So there seems to be a tide for good, but I do think there is still an issue with the destruction of heritage in Cambodia."

For his part, Hab Touch at the National Museum believes matters are improving. He says other methods are also being used, such as teaching Cambodians in rural areas about the cultural value of antiquities.

"Of course we work also to educate local people and also to get the local people to participate in the protection. Because I think it is very important that, if they don't understand, they do not protect their own culture," said Hab.

But it is not hard to find stolen antiquities. Even a brief visit to Phnom Penh's Russian Market reveals trays of ancient beads, and Khmer artifacts continue to turn up for sale in the region.

As those working to protect them know well, if the demand for Khmer antiquities continues there will always be those prepared to supply - until the day comes when there is nothing left to take.