A boy runs home to his grandfather, all excited. “I have good news! Some boys dug up very old pots and beads. We can sell them and become rich,” he says, beaming.
But his grandfather’s response is not what he expected.
“These treasures come from our ancestors,” he says, going on to explain that the proud Khmer once ruled most of Southeast Asia and that their tombs should not only be preserved but also guarded.
Later on, the elderly man tries to convince villagers to stop looting a tomb.
But it’s only after several mysterious events, nightmares triggered by guilt and a lesson in long-term benefits of heritage preservation that they would finally listen.
The story takes place in an illustrated album that the NGO Heritage Watch released two weeks ago.
Designed to appeal to all, even people with limited reading skills, it will be used to enroll villagers into protecting archeological sites around the country, said Dougald O’Reilly, an archeologist and the NGO’s director.
The album’s title, “Wrath of the Phantom Army,” was inspired by a female villager who recounted dreaming of an army battalion of 1,000 ghosts, their armor clanking as they marched through the village after their tombs had been dug up, O’Reilly said.
Some episodes in the story are also based on comments made by villagers who had linked people falling sick and cattle dying to tomb looting in their area, he said.
Y Lida, a Cambodian artist who studied and now teaches at the Royal University of Fine Arts, illustrated the album.
Among other characters, Y Lida had to draw a middleman in the story, giving a credible personality to the man who prompts villagers to loot tombs, promising a lot but paying little, and selling the artifacts across the border. “I thought about it for a long time,” he said.
Finally, Y Lida sketched him as a wealthy villager, slightly overweight and wearing shorts and an unbuttoned shirt.
“He is not so white and not so dark. His face is a little bit ugly and he likes to show off with rings and jewelry around his neck,” he said.
It was the looting of a rare prehistoric site near Phum Snay village in Banteay Meanchey province, which O’Reilly excavated and estimates as being 2,000 years old, that prompted him to launch the NGO in 2003.
Since then, Heritage Watch has been running an education campaign in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang province on a budget of $100 per area covered.
O’Reilly plans to continue the campaign along the Thai border, including Banteay Ampil district in Oddar Meanchey province that is now being heavily looted, he said.
As shown in the album, tomb looters are often people with little or no money hoping to make a few riel.
“We can sell to the middleman only one time,” says a villager in the story.
He then suggests setting up a museum with the help of archeologists to attract visitors and generate income for the area.
Heritage Watch hopes to get funding to create such museums, O’Reilly said.
The sale of the album’s English version—now available in book stores and hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap—and the upcoming French version will fund the Khmer version that will be distributed for free through the Ministry of Education, the provincial newspapers Somne Thmey and Heritage Watch in its village education campaign.