Prime Minister Hun Sen told a group of international art experts Tuesday that if rich countries would stop buying stolen art, poor countries could retain their cultural heritage.
“It is the money of the rich which creates a network of traffickers and thieves in artifacts stolen from poor countries,” he said. “So if one wants to get rid of small thieves, he or she should get rid of big thieves first.”
Hun Sen said rich nations have the resources and the laws to ban the lucrative trade in stolen artifacts, while poor countries such as Cambodia suffer from weak laws and too little money for enforcement.
Add to that the fact that only about one-third of the country’s people are functionally literate, Hun Sen said, and “you can realize that protecting cultural heritage is Cambodia’s big challenge in the new millennium.”
The premier addressed more than 60 delegates at a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization conference meeting this week at the Hotel Le Royal. Although Hun Sen began reading a prepared speech, he abandoned the text at one point to denounce developed nations as hypocrites for preaching to Cambodia about good governance, while allowing the trade in stolen art to run rampant.
Like drug dealers and weapons traffickers, unscrupulous Western art collectors spend their millions with impunity, while Western governments criticize poor nations as corrupt, he said.
“I do not understand such a world,” he said, noting he hopes to speak on the topic before the UN next year, though he doesn’t expect it will have much effect. “Even if the prime minister of a poor country dares to get up and say the truth, the world [will] close his mouth.”
Hun Sen also attacked Thailand for its role in the illicit trade, noting that stolen Khmer artifacts aren’t for sale in Laos or Vietnam, but have been found in Bangkok galleries. In 1978, Unesco created a committee to settle disputes between countries over stolen artworks. The committee meets every two years, and this meeting in Cambodia is its first in Asia. Etienne Clement, Unesco’s representative in Cambodia, said the country was a good location for the meeting “because Cambodia is truly a country of great culture, both in Asia and the world. But it is also a land that is looked at somewhat covetously,” with cultural predators taking advantage of its turmoil to “pluck from it masterpieces of its cultural heritage.”
Clement was to host a reception Tuesday night at the National Museum. The conference concludes Friday, after which the delegates will travel to Siem Reap to visit the Angkor temples.