Siem Reap heritage police arrested two men on Thursday and accused them of illegally digging for artifacts in the jungle near Angkor Thom, said Heritage Police Chief Tann Chay.
Police did not release the names of the men, but said they had been pursuing them for two days.
“My force had been suspicious of this group’s activities, but we could not catch up with them until this time,” said Tann Chay. The suspects were about to begin digging when they were apprehended, he said.
Tann Chay said he fears the arrests are part of a trend.
“Digging deep in the jungle and valleys is increasing, and we are worried about it,” he said. He attributed the problem in part to modern proximity detectors, which he said allowed thieves to easily find buried stone artifacts.
Heritage police seized one such advanced detector from a visitor to Angkor Thom in October.
“We are deploying more policemen,” Tann Chay said, but he complained that it is difficult to apprehend thieves who enter cultural heritage sites as tourists, and then slip off the paths on the pretense of relieving themselves.
Siem Reap prosecutor So Vat denied that digging in the temples is becoming more frequent, claiming that people were now more aware of the need to protect Cambodia’s culture. Some cases of artifact hunting still occurred, he said, but police were able to stop them in time.
Police are holding the two suspects arrested Thursday for questioning before sending them to the court, said Tann Chay. A third suspect in the case is still being sought.
In March, thieves unearthed two large statues from Kbal Spean river in Siem Reap, about 30 km from Angkor Wat. One statue was stolen, the other, which was broken, was left behind. While hundreds of police protect the famous historical site of Angkor Thom, many other sites, such as Kbal Spean, remain unprotected.