When residents of Tateung village in Kompong Chhnang province found pre-Angkorean bas-reliefs, statues and pillars carved in pink sandstone in a nearby forest on May 7, it wasn’t a lost temple they had stumbled upon.
Instead, it was a cache of stolen artifacts hidden by thieves.
The villagers informed local authorities of their find. Now the seven stolen artifacts, dating from the seventh to 11th centuries, are safe at the National Museum, according to museum director Khun Samen.
The discovery in the forest was the second large recovery this month of stolen artifacts, according to Michel Tranet, undersecretary of state of the Ministry of Culture, who blames the increase in artifact theft on the unstable political situation in Cambodia since last July’s factional fighting.
“If leadership focused on national issues instead of the parties and politics, then our national artifacts would be better kept,” Tranet said.
On May 16, Siem Reap military police discovered three tons of artifacts, including Buddha heads and Apsara statues, hidden in a truck under a load of bricks, according to Siem Reap provincial Police Chief Tan Chay.
The artifacts were stolen from archeological sites in Preah Vihear province and were bound for sale in Thailand, he said. The truck driver, Sem Savuth, has been arrested and is being detained in military police headquarters, Tan Chay said.
truck driver, Sem Savuth, has been arrested and is being detained in military police headquarters, Tan Chay said.
The police have also issued warrants for 18 of the suspect’s alleged colleagues, who are a mix of civilians and soldiers, Tan Chay said. The artifacts also remain in the police station, he added.
Tan Chay said that during April and May, provincial and military police in Siem Reap—the home province of the Angkor Wat complex—have seized a total of 20 tons of artifacts.
Tranet blamed the increase in artifact theft on poverty, corrupt officials and the fading of the love in Cambodians’ hearts for their own culture.
“We must all realize that these artifacts, our glorious culture, stands as evidence that our people have been civilized for centuries,” Tranet said.
“If you steal or buy an artifact in Thailand,” Tranet added, “you will be jailed. But in Cambodia, armed men escort the artifacts to the border.”
Nup Phuong, general director of administration at the Ministry of Culture, said armed traffickers make it difficult for the ministry to crack down, although he said there has been increased cooperation regarding the problem from the ministries of Interior and Defense.
The truckload of artifacts were heading toward the border province of Banteay Meanchey, the usual route for stolen antiquities, which are then sold in Thailand, Nup Phuong said.
Along with increased vigilance, Tranet suggested moving artifacts from the ruins into provincial museums for safekeeping.
“We don’t have the ability to keep them at their [original sites] now,” he said.
Tranet had praise for the people of Tateung village.
“Taxi-drivers, cyclo-drivers and vendors have more love for the nation than government officials,” he said.
The seven artifacts recovered from the Kompong Chhnang forest will be put on display at the National Museum sometime in the near future, Khun Samen said. “I am very happy and surprised to see such rare pillar sculptures,” he added.
As for how the artifacts came to the forest and who put them there, local police said there are no suspects, but they are still investigating.