kulen district, Preah Vihear province – With flip-flops on his feet and a rusty AK-47 slung across his back, Om Phirum spends his days patrolling the jungle-clad temples of Koh Ker, looking for looters.
But the small bands of artifact thieves, roaming this isolated and heavily mined 10th century temple complex and the nearby sites where statues are buried, are also armed, and the police captain says he and his colleagues are reluctant to apprehend them.
“They always have weapons,” Om Phirum said in a May interview. “It’s difficult. We want to arrest them, we don’t want to kill them.”
Archaeological looting may have subsided at Angkor due to heightened security, but police say it remains a problem here, as it does in most provinces across the country, according to the NGO HeritageWatch.
At Koh Ker, 80 km north of Siem Reap, the government is taking drastic measures to try and preserve Cambodia’s cultural heritage, police said.
The government “encourages us to get a prize from a mission,” said police officer Khem Sophat.
“If we can shoot a looter with evidence and a weapon, we will get [$750]. If we just arrest them we get [$500],” he added.
But despite the alleged incentive, police at the temple have not recently arrested or killed anyone, he said.
Pall San, deputy provincial governor, denied Wednesday that police at Koh Ker are actively encouraged to shoot looters.
“We have encouraged the police at the site to arrest those people. We don’t encourage them to kill them, but if those people react with arms, our police have the right to defend themselves,” he said by telephone.
“This is physical, cultural war,” he added.
“Bad people are destroying our temples.”
At Angkor, looting is no longer a problem as access to temples shuts down at 6 pm and is guarded through the night, Bun Narith, director general of Apsara Authority—the government agency managing Angkor—said through an assistant last week.
Headquarters for Apsara’s guards have not yet been installed at Koh Ker, so some of them return to Siem Reap in the evening, he said.
Outside Angkor, looting of temples or prehistoric burial sites remains a problem in nearly every province, Dougald O’Reilly, the Canadian director of HeritageWatch, said in an e-mail Wednesday, adding that Koh Ker has been “ravished.”
“Overall the situation is getting worse” across the country, he said, adding: “Some temples in rural areas have been so defaced with sledge hammers and picks that there is little point in visiting them.”
Archaeological looting is most prevalent in Battambang, Pursat, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces, perhaps due to their proximity to the Thai border, he said.
The only two provinces where it is less prevalent are Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri, but even there, minority groups have had their carved totems marking their burial grounds stolen, he said.
Once they have been looted, the artifacts tend to make their way to provincial markets, and some reach Thailand, Singapore, Japan and the US, O’Reilly added.
“Bangkok’s River City Shopping Mall is chock full of Cambodian antiques, as are the antiques shops of Singapore,” O’Reilly wrote.
US Embassy-funded HeritageWatch plans to educate people about temple preservation through kiosks at Cambodia’s airports, a comic book, and children’s books for distribution in schools.
The NGO also encourages the formation of community groups to monitor Koh Ker temple.
At the temple, police said they would appreciate further back-up and better monthly pay, rather than one-off bonuses for killing looters.
Police officer Hov Try said Apsara Authority pays him $10 per month, while the government gives him $20 and 20 kg of rice.
“It’s not enough but we try to manage by ourselves,” he said.