Payoffs Scant as Hundreds Dig Near Cham Site

bitmeas village, Prey Veng pro­vince – Under the blistering sun in a scorched and dry paddy field, Pao Seang and seven relatives toiled for almost a week with hoes and axes, burrowing to a depth of around one meter.

On all sides, and for as far as 67-year-old Pao Seang could see, similar groups of people—including the very young and the elderly—numbering more than 1,000 hacked at the dry earth, creating a moonscape of shallow pits and trenches stretching over two hectares of empty land.

When Pao Seang eventually found what she had been digging for on Thursday, she stayed very quiet.

Caked in sticky dark clay, the ob­jects she had unearthed with her hands appeared to be little more than two flattened, yellow-co­lored springs, and not what they ac­tually were: gold artifacts from Cam­bodia’s little-known past, un­covered a short distance from the ancient Cham site known as Tuol Vi­hear Bitmeas in Damrey Puon com­mune.

Fragments of human bone and co­lorful beads also emerged— items Pao Seang couldn’t keep from the sharp eyes of a nearby digger, who let out a triumphant cry that another find had been made.

Hundreds of artifact hunters rushed from their pits to Pao Seng’s. They huddled around, sa­voring her discovery and probably convincing themselves that paying for the privilege to dig here—the land is owned by local farmers who have made a small financial killing by renting on a per-square-me­ter basis—was a wise investment.

“Before, I didn’t dare announce [my find] because I was worried that other people would disturb me,” Pao Seang said as she sat in the bottom of her excavated pit on Thursday and retrieved her stash of gold and beads from a crumpled plastic bag. She placed the artifacts in the palm of her hand to pose for a photo.

“Now I will let them know,” she said. “I prayed a lot since I started doing this. Now I am successful.”

The gold weighs about three chi and is worth, in market price alone and regardless of any historical value, $180, Pao Seang said.

Of far less value are the decorative beads, a mix of turquoise, grey, black and white, which are fetching between $0.25 and $1.25. Buyers are also prepared to pay for the human teeth that Pao Seang found.

The superstitious believe that, worn as amulets, the teeth are im­bued with powerful magic that can protect the wearer from harm as well as bring him good luck.

Pao Seang said a single tooth can fetch up to $2.50. Other bones she took to her house, where she burned incense and offered pray­ers to their dead owners to help bring her better luck on the next day’s dig.

The pillage of this site on private property in Prey Veng has officials either nonplussed or baffled as to how to deal with it. Local police ad­mitted last week that they were con­cerned that security could be an issue if they tried to stop it.

Prey Veng’s Deputy Governor Bin Sam Ol said Wednesday that there was nothing of value in the fields, and that the several thou­sand people who had des­cend­ed with hoes and shovels were throwing their money away by paying the landowner for the priv­ilege to dig. Pao Seang spent $2.50 for her two-square-meter site.

But the surge of people taking part in the mass excavations, around 100 meters from the an­cient Cham site, prompted autho­r­i­ties to set up a loudspeaker in­forming the villagers that the site was protected, was out of bounds and did not contain any gold.

Spirits among the diggers, however, couldn’t have been higher on Thursday.

“When someone found gold and artifacts, I ran to see it and cheered for them,” said Chea Chan­ny, 27, who had brought his two children from Prey Vor village, 5 km from the dig site, four days earlier and had no intention of giving up any time soon.

“I spent 40,000 riel [approximately $10] for a place to dig, gas­oline and food for four days. I have­n’t found anything yet but I will not give up. I will struggle to make a discovery. I think I will be lucky in this place,” he said.

Surveying the fields full of farmers straining under the swings of spades, hoes and baskets of excavated earth, 69-year-old Sum Chhit said it resembled a scene from the Khmer Rouge period.

“Before, we were forced to dig dams and canals. But today we dig for gold and artifacts for ourselves, and we are free to do it,” he said.

Puth Sarun, Prey Veng district governor, said on Sunday that he had asked the villagers three times to go back home, but that they had refused each time. “They say they are free and have nothing to do. If the rain comes, they will stop digging,” he said.

“I deployed police to secure the site, I don’t want them to expand to other parts of the site,” Puth Sarun said, adding that provincial Cul­ture Department officials had visited the area last week but didn’t know what to do, as the digging is on privately-owned land.

Ministry of Culture Secretary of State Chuch Phoeung said on Sun­­day that he still hadn’t re­ceived any reports from Prey Veng province, but warned that the provincial Department of Cul­ture was responsible for protecting an­cient sites and they could, if need be, use “urgent measures to stop the digging.”

Khim Sarith, also a secretary of state at the ministry, said he has ordered a halt to the digging, which may be of graves much more re­cent than those of ancient Chams.

“That site was an ancient grave and a killing field during the Pol Pot time,” he said. “A deputy governor has been appointed to oversee the people’s activities. I told him to go down to the site [today] and stop those people.”

     (Additional reporting by Chhim Sopheark)




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