Police said Friday that they had arrested a 24-year-old farmer for his alleged role in December’s theft of relics of the Buddha, and the golden urn in which they were kept, from a royal stupa on Oudong Mountain.
The relics and the golden urn were reportedly found, undamaged and intact, in the kitchen of the young suspect’s home in Takeo province on Thursday afternoon.
Though the theft of the relics sparked national outrage and the Ministry of Interior set up a special investigative committee tasked with their recovery, it was commune-level police in Takeo’s Traing district who allegedly solved the crime, according to Khvav commune police chief Oum Thon.
According to Mr. Thon, police became suspicious when a local man, Keo Reaksmey, 24, a known petty criminal and cattle rustler, spent an unusually large sum of money on a new car and new house. According to Mr. Thon, police deduced that Mr. Reaksmey, who had previously spent time in prison for stealing cows, must have been involved with the theft of the relics.
Following a raid on the suspectÕs house on Thursday, police found the golden urn on a shelf in his kitchen.
“He sold some of the Buddha statutes [also taken from Oudong] and used that money to build a house and buy a car just after the relics went missing,” Mr. Thon said.
During the raid, commune police also arrested Sek Saret, a gold seller at Kokoh village’s Prey Sandek market in Khvav commune, alleging that he bought one of the statues from Mr. Reaksmey.
“We arrested both the suspect and Sek Saret when they had a discussion [about the stolen items] at the suspect’s house,” Mr. Thon maintained, adding that Mr. Reaksmey even attempted to escape in his new car.
“After we arrested the suspect, we found the urn and the relics in the suspect’s kitchen,” Mr. Thon said, adding that Mr. Reaksmey had only sold one or two Buddha statues to pay for his $30,000 car and his new concrete house.
Takeo Deputy Provincial Police Chief Suon Phon said on Friday that the suspect worked entirely alone to steal the relics and urn from inside a locked stupa that was protected by several security guards on top of Oudong Mountain.
“We questioned the suspect and he admitted that he stole the relics without an accomplice,” Mr. Phon said.
Five security guards from Oudong who were initially arrested for the theft are currently jailed at Kandal provincial prison awaiting trial.
Some, however, were treating with skepticism the news from police that the intact relics and urn had simply been recovered from the unlikely hiding place of a kitchen cupboard in Takeo province.
“I don’t believe this 100 percent. The size of the [urn] is smaller than the old one, and the color is different,” said But Buntenh, an activist monk and outspoken critic of the government.
“Also, the top of the [urn] looks different. We saw the old one when we took them from Phnom Penh to Oudong with the King,” he said, adding that the man arrested might be a scapegoat.
“The government is doing the same [like] with Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun,” But Buntenh said, referring to the two men framed by police for the 2004 killing of union leader Chea Vichea.
“How could he have done it by himself: climb up the mountain and on top of the stupa?” But Buntenh said, adding that government officials, monks and the Royal Palace need to investigate and verify the police claims.
Defending the authenticity of the find, Ministry of Culture Secretary of State Khim Sarith said that the urn and relics resembled pictures of the original items, which were placed in the Oudong stupa by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk in 2002, and therefore must be the ones that were stolen.
“We can say that they are real because we compared them with some old pictures,” Mr. Sarith said, adding that monks who helped transport the relics to the stupa 12 years ago also verified, from memory, their authenticity.
However, Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said that experts would be needed to scientifically verify the authenticity of the valuable relics.
“You cannot compare them to old pictures,” he said.