siem reap town – Earlier this year, a team of the Heritage Police who patrol the Angkor temples came across two men digging in the medieval walled city of Angkor Thom. An officer fired his weapon and hit one of them in the testicles; his accomplice fled.
“They confessed that they break up into small groups and use modern equipment to detect artifacts” such as pottery, carved stones and statues made of precious metal, Heritage Police Chief Tan Chay told last week’s conference of the international committee that oversees the Angkor World Heritage Site.
“This shows that illegal looting is still going on,” Tan Chay said. “But we are determined to protect the cultural properties under our care.”
When Angkor was put on the World Heritage List 10 years ago this month, it was listed as an endangered site primarily because of the rampant looting that was denuding the temples. Today, officials say, looting has slowed and changed direction somewhat, but it has not stopped.
International measures, officials said, are needed to stop the pillaging.
Professor Pierre-Andre Lablaude, France’s inspector-general of historic monuments, told the conference he often browses France’s art catalogs, and “each year there are five or six sales of archaeological objects held that include Khmer pieces authenticated by French experts.”
These pieces are often listed as belonging to a specific temple such as the Bayon or Baphuon. They are usually of middling quality and sell for $3,000 to $7,000, Lablaude said. But it is not clear when they left Cambodia or even whether they are real, or counterfeits of known artifacts.
“There doesn’t seem to be any routine study or analysis of these artifacts—there is no comparison of pieces being sold to pieces that have disappeared,” Lablaude said.
The first step is to catalog Cambodia’s national treasures. This month, the French government’s Priority Cooperation Fund in Cambodia began conducting an inventory of more than 2,000 archaeological sites throughout the country in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, Michel Verreau, head of the French project, told the conference.
“The Ministry of Culture will have a complete file and will be able to inform customs and police if anything disappears,” Verreau said. “We can also check the origin of Khmer artifacts that are up for sale and prevent them from being sold if possible.”
With its 282 armed Heritage Police, the Angkor site itself is relatively well protected from all but small-scale pillaging. But important sites outside the Angkor complex—such as Banteay Chhmar, in Banteay Meanchey province; Koh Ker, in Preah Vihear; and Sambor Prey Kuk, in Kompong Thom—are still extremely vulnerable, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Country Representative Etienne Clement told the conference.
This year, the Cambodian government ratified the Unidroit convention, which will allow the government to go to court in other countries to retrieve illegally exported objects. It also passed a subdecree to the 1996 Law on National Heritage defining protected cultural objects and setting penalties for their illegal seizure and export, Clement noted.
“But we still need an international body to fight this type of trafficking,” he said.
Once antiquities leave the country, it is extremely difficult to trace them, officials said. Cambodia still needs eyes and ears around the world to find its stolen property.
Azedine Beschaouch, a Paris-based Unesco official who heads the international committee’s secretariat, suggested that Cambodian embassies around the world be alerted when sales of Khmer artifacts are going to take place. The embassies could consult with local experts to identify the artifacts and see if they matched descriptions of looted objects. In Paris, he suggested that Unesco do this monitoring.
“If there are no dealers, there are no looters,” said Council of Ministers Secretary of State Chea Sophorn, who represented the Cambodian government at the meeting. “So we must deal with them on both fronts, national and international.”