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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs