Police in Banteay Meanchey province are searching for a military officer who illegally bought a centuries-old statue head of the Hindu deity Shiva from a farmer who unearthed it, officials said on Thursday.
The man was identified as a 33-year-old Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) officer from Siem Reap province, but has not been located, said Phoeung Mann Soeng, chief of the provincial police’s serious crimes bureau. He added that police also suspected the officer of dealing more widely in trafficked antiquities.
“We have already identified the dealer who is trafficking in statues, so we are hunting him. We cannot tell you his name, because we have not finished the investigation,” Mr. Mann Soeng said. “I can tell you that he is a military official from Siem Reap province.”
“We are in contact with the military and authorities in Siem Reap for help in hunting him,” he added, explaining that police had visited the RCAF officer’s Svay Loeu district home, but that he had already fled.
Some residents reported that the statue head, which weighs 2.2 kg, was made of copper, but others reported that it was made from bronze, he said.
Asked how police had come to learn of the statue being found in Banteay Meanchey and sold onward, he said only: “We have our networks.” They believed the statue was headed for Thailand, he said.
Yong Taing Kuoy, head of the provincial culture and fine arts department, said his officials had only seen photographs of the statue head, and would not be able to date it until they had it in their hands. He said, however, that it was clearly centuries old and quite valuable.
“It’s hard to identify the history of this statue because we have not seen the real one—we have only seen it in the photograph,” he said.
The farmer who unearthed the statue head, 49-year-old Tum Sandan, said he found the piece buried in the ground while feeding his cows in Phnom Srok district on June 21 and had not realized its significance.
“After I kept it for one night, a man came and bought it for 70,000 baht [about $2,000], but a day later the police came to my house and brought me in for questioning at the district police station,” Mr. Sandan said, adding that the buyer had given him an extra $100 in U.S. currency.
He said district police chief Yort Sophal took about 50,000 baht from him as evidence of the sale.
“Mr. Sophal accused me of being a traitor to the nation for trafficking a national treasure,” he said. “I didn’t clearly know of its value.”
Mr. Sophal declined to comment. Mr. Mann Soeng said that while Mr. Sandan was guilty of trafficking an antiquity, the police had not yet arrested him because he was helping find the buyer.