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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid