News / Asia

Organized Crime, Military Linked to Theft of Cambodian Artifacts

Kong Vireak, the director of the National Museum of Cambodia, with two of the returned statues known as the Kneeling Attendants, Phnom Penh, June 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Kong Vireak, the director of the National Museum of Cambodia, with two of the returned statues known as the Kneeling Attendants, Phnom Penh, June 30, 2014. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Robert Carmichael

Over the past 40 years Cambodia’s cultural heritage has been looted on a massive scale, with countless thousands of artifacts taken from hundreds of sites, smuggled out of the country and into museums and private collections around the world. New research indicates that not only was much of this the work of organized networks, but that most pieces have disappeared from public view - probably forever.
 
Between the start of Cambodia’s civil war in 1970 and the eventual end of hostilities some 30 years later, the country’s 1,000-year-old temples and other historic sites were comprehensively plundered. In one incident in the early 1970s, government soldiers used a military helicopter to airlift artifacts from the 12th century citadel of Banteay Chhmar in the northwest.
 
At the same complex in 1998 - generals spent a fortnight tearing down and carting away 30 tons of the building. Just one of the six military trucks that went to neighboring Thailand loaded with artifacts was stopped and its contents returned. The rest disappeared, likely sold on the black market.

The Duryodhana statue is one of three returned to Cambodia from the United States in early June, Phnom Penh. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)The Duryodhana statue is one of three returned to Cambodia from the United States in early June, Phnom Penh. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
x
The Duryodhana statue is one of three returned to Cambodia from the United States in early June, Phnom Penh. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
The Duryodhana statue is one of three returned to Cambodia from the United States in early June, Phnom Penh. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)

For many years, researchers assumed that such brazen, well-organized looting was the exception rather than the norm, and that most of the looting of Cambodia’s heritage was a low-level affair, with local people plundering ancient sites and selling statues, carvings and stone reliefs in haphazard fashion.
 
But a new study carried out by researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland shows that was not the case.
 
“The organized looting and trafficking of Cambodian antiquities was tied very closely to the Cambodian civil war and to organized crime in the country," explained Tess Davis, a lawyer and archaeologist, and member of the study team that also included criminologists.

"It began with the war, but it long outlived it, and was actually a very complicated operation, a very organized operation, that brought antiquities directly from looted sites here in the country to the very top collectors, museums and auction houses in the world," she added.
 
Davis said the Cambodian and Thai militaries were often involved in looting, as was organized crime. Local people were often forced to work as laborers.

Researchers say that at the end of the chain in Thailand was a Bangkok-based dealer who provided the laundering link between the criminals and the collectors and museums.
 
The University of Glasgow study is a key part of international efforts to try to improve understanding of how the market for stolen antiquities operates. It is the first to show how artifacts travel the full distance from ancient sites to the hands of art collectors.
 
Grim though the destruction of Cambodia’s cultural heritage is, there are occasional victories. Earlier this month Cambodia welcomed back three life-sized statues that had been looted in the 1970s from the Koh Ker temple complex where they had stood undisturbed for more than 1,000 years. Two other statues in that group were returned last year by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 
In a restoration room at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, specialists are working to ready the five statues for display later this year.
 
Museum director Kong Vireak said authorities are taking new steps to protect culturally important artifacts from looting. That includes documenting all items in the museums and those at unprotected sites - including, in a country where ancient objects are often venerated - artifacts that people worship.
 
“But in the case that those objects are worshipped by local people, by villagers, we will keep in place, but we make a special form that villagers or community who own that object - also provincial authority, district authority - have to sign on the document that they have to protect those statues from looting. Otherwise we have to transfer to storage in the provincial museum,” stated Vireak.
 
The huge value that artifacts command mean museums and ancient sites are often among the first casualties of war - as Iraq, Egypt and Syria have experienced in recent years. In some cases, the money generated gets spent on arms, furthering the cycle of war and the misery of the civilian population.
 
Tess Davis said that fact alone ought to wake up the world to the bigger picture: that the looting and trafficking of antiquities is often the work of organized crime and armed factions.
 
“And that link should be a red flag for the world today because we are seeing the same thing repeated today in Egypt and Syria and Iraq, and with very serious consequences - not just for those countries but also again for the world economy and for global security. The money that collectors in New York are spending on antiquities from around the world is going into the pockets of some very bad people - and I think the art world needs to step up and recognize their role in what’s happening in these countries,” said Davis.
 
In Cambodia’s case, the worst of the looting has now ceased - in part because there is little left to take. But the coming years will see more sites discovered, and it is likely that they will be in danger too. The best way to protect ancient sites, says Davis, is to reduce demand and that in part requires prosecuting those who carry on the trade.

You May Like

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

US Urges Taliban to Stay With Afghan Peace Talks

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Calvin Sanders from: Westfield, NJ, USA
July 01, 2014 7:41 AM
As a parent, I find it very hard to secure the safety of my children. I am a father of two lovely daughters. Both go to high school. I can't be with them every single time. Me and my wife go to work everyday. It's hard to be certain about their whereabouts and situation. Good thing I discovered this amazing application installed on my children's phones. It has a panic button that my children will press in case of an emergency. As simple as that it will automatically be connected to a 24/7 Response center and if needed, your call can be escalated to the nearest 911 Station. Me, along with my wife and close friends as my children's safety network, will be notified also through text message or a conference call. I worry less. This can help you too. Just visit their site to know more about this:http://safekidzone.com/#!/page_home

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs