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Military and Police Officials, Businessmen Scramble for Slice of Angkor

angkor park, Siem Reap province – Ang Choulean is jolting along the wide top of the Western Baray dike, on his way to examine some prehistoric pottery shards, when he suddenly stands on the brake of his four-wheel drive vehicle.

To his left, someone has hacked a clearing in the thick vegetation and erected a cluster of small buildings. Gaudy beer pennants flutter in the breeze.

To his right, workmen are installing a generator to provide electricity and pump water from the ancient reservoir to what promises to be a pleasant little waterside restaurant.

Trouble is, it’s not supposed to be there.

Here at the heart of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, nobody is supposed to build anything. Yet there the fledgling restaurant sits, atop the baray’s southern wall.

“We have to deal with this as soon as possible, before they start pouring concrete,’’ mutters Ang Choulean, the director of the department of culture and monuments for Apsara Authority.

His expertise is in anthropology, archeology and art history, not law enforcement. But he wades in anyway.

The workmen say they were hired by a military officer. Ang Choulean is hardly surprised, but he sighs as he revs the engine and continues on his way down the baray. It will just make his job that much harder.

• • •

Nobody disputes that the legendary Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s only UN World Heritage site, is fast becoming a major international tourist attraction.

But while government officials fret over whether the ancient temple complex can withstand the eventual onslaught of a million or more tourists a year, the area is already crawling with predators.

Some are harmless, like the vendors and beggars who dog well-heeled tourists at every turn. Others are more worrisome, like the officers who demand payoffs to let businesses operate near the monument areas.

Still others are beyond brazen, like the high-ranking military officers who built homes for themselves and their relatives-and finally a karaoke resort—within what is supposed to be an undeveloped “buffer” zone between Siem Reap town and the temple complexes.

And then there’s the modern wat under construction within the walls of Angkor Thom itself. No one asked permission. One day park officials looked up and saw the scaffolding.

Behind the scenes, politicians and businessmen, military and police officials scramble for chunks of once-hallowed and supposedly protected land. In a strange way, the unseemly scrum shows how central the Angkor complex remains to the nation, after so many centuries.

Today, everybody wants a piece of it.

• • •

When Ang Choulean was a boy, Cambodians felt such awe for the temples that a man bicycling by Angkor Wat would automatically doff his hat.

Years of war, along with the virtual destruction of the Buddhist faith and the educational system during the Khmer Rouge regime, have all but obliterated that respect.

People today, he says, have no idea how to behave.

“These are sacred places,’’ he says in disbelief. “I see people standing on the sculptures, putting their feet near the faces of the Bayon so they can have their picture taken.’’

The Apsara Authority is the national body charged with protecting and managing the monuments. Until May of last year, it had virtually no budget or employees.

Since then, with the authority receiving 80 percent of revenues from the first Sokimex contract (or $800,000),  Ang Choulean has hired 20 professional employees and 35 guards, to augment the 420 officers of the French-funded Angkor Heritage Police force, established in 1997.

It is nowhere near enough to protect the more than 70 known temples, let alone the hundreds of smaller sites yet to be explored.

And yet, he says, “I know I am very lucky. My colleagues [in Apsara’s other departments, of tourism and urban development] do not have even this.’’

As the architects, engineers and archeologists wrestle with the long-term problems of preserving and restoring the ancient structures, they are not laboring alone.

Multi-million-dollar restoration projects, funded by Japan, France, Germany, Italy, China and the private, New York-based World Monument Fund, are working at selected sites; the Indonesian government is also providing significant support.

But Apsara must also tackle what are essentially cultural and social problems. On another recent drive past Angkor Wat, Ang Choulean stopped to chide a young man who was promoting a boxing match through screechy loudspeakers mounted on a motorcycle.

Waste bins and security guards keep the central sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom comparatively orderly, and bit by bit, the most destructive behaviors are being brought under control.

Already at Angkor Wat, small signs urge visitors not to stand on the carvings or sit on the naga balustrades. Soon, rope barriers will keep tourists from touching the bas-reliefs.

Yet as tourism rises, more and more poor Cambodians are drawn to Angkor every year, hoping to scratch a living. While those powerful enough to grab land stand to make some serious money, there are not enough low-skill jobs to go around.

Although balancing public access with preservation is hard, says Ang Choulean, “Angkor is a living site. We will do everything we can to maintain Angkor as a living site.’’

At times, it’s like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

He smiles wryly as he describes the 15 families of beggars who were dislodged with some difficulty from Angkor Wat. With the help of NGOs, they were relocated to homesteads north of Banteay Srey temple.

Just a few months later, “I learn that most of them are back, but now they’re begging at Banteay Srey,’’ he says.

In another country, Apsara authorities could turn to the police for help—but too often at Angkor, police are part of the problem.

The beggars, the vendors, even the old ladies selling incense inside the shrines are blunt about it: most are paying someone off, and it’s usually someone in uniform.

***

Angkor survived the war in Vietnam, the Cambodian civil wars and the Khmer Rouge regime, but the 1990s were tough.

Artifacts began disappearing as far back as the early part of the century, but the trickle became a stream during the Vietnamese occupation from 1979-1989, when soldiers assigned to the volatile region learned looting was an easy way to supplement their incomes.

The Vietnamese left in 1989, but the Khmer Rouge didn’t, remaining a potent force in the region through most of the decade. That demanded a significant government military presence, much of which remains in place today.

Soldiers aren’t the only looters, but they’ve been among the most effective, Apsara staffers say. Others soon learned, however, that Cambodia’s heritage brought a good price on world markets.

By the early 1990s, the stream had become a flood, and some temples were virtually stripped.

“The rapidly expanding international illicit art market is bloated with objects from this virtually unprotected open-air museum,’’ Apsara staffers wrote in 1996.

On paper, Angkor is well-protected.

Ever since the temples were designated a World Heritage site in 1992, they have been surrounded by regulations and safeguards setting up protected zones and elaborate procedures for controlling development.

There have been victories, significant as well as symbolic.

In 1993, at the Tokyo Conference on Angkor, the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of Angkor was established.

Today the ICC, co-chaired by France and Japan, has 30 members including Cambodia (represented by Apsara) and meets twice a year. The ICC can wield real influence: most recently, it was instrumental in convincing the government to renegotiate the controversial Sokimex ticket concession.

The government had been harshly criticized for allowing Sokimex to keep all profits in excess of $1 million, a deal which brought Sokimex  about $2.8 million last year, the contract’s first.

A new deal is expected soon, with Apsara to get at least twice the revenue it does from the current deal.

And in 1995, widespread public opposition helped pull the plug on a planned sound-and-light laser show at Angkor Wat.

But in Cambodia, politics often trumps paper. From 1995 to 1997, for example, politicians organized annual Water Festival boat races at the western end of Angkor Wat’s vast moat, attracting thousands of spectators.

The races were cancelled in 1998, for fear that higher water levels and the weight of spectators were damaging the ancient stonework. The following year, after heavy rains, an extensive section of the stonework collapsed into the moat.

And despite all the regulations and zoning laws banning building in protected areas, buildings are going up.

“We are not yet in a state of law,’’ Ang Choulean says.

***

Strongmen in Siem Reap don’t like to be told what to do.

Years of social upheaval fostered a climate of lawlessness that persists to this day. For example, when the Angkor Conservation Office tried to protect sculptures in the early 1990s by moving them to its guarded compound, armed robbers attacked the compound.

Three times.

Officials finally had to move what was left to Phnom Penh for safekeeping.

One side-effect of the last few years of peace has been that some military officials, with no more enemies to fight, have placed

Cambodia’s cultural heritage squarely in the cross-hairs.

While some conduct legitimate businesses, observers say others have grabbed land and subverted zoning provisions in the potentially highly lucrative land surrounding the temples.

The buffer zone north of Siem Reap, for example, includes land that was a military base from the 1980s until 1993, when military officials say it was divided up among soldiers.

Morn Samon, Siem Reap’s provincial military commander, said, “The land close to the main road was given to high-ranking commanders,’’ while lower-ranking officers got plots further back.

Although the area was designated a protected zone in 1992 as a condition of making the World Heritage list (and was further declared a “protected cultural zone” by a royal subdecree in 1994) , Morn Samon brushes all that aside.

“I also got a piece of land there in 1993. It belongs to me now. I can do anything with my land,’’ he says. “I do not know where the Apsara Authority was at that time. It was not yet formed.’’

Today the land sports a number of substantial villas, as well as the Khmer Karaoke and Resort.

Other encroachments are less systematic. Northeast of Siem Reap, a military unit has been assigned for years to Phnom Bok, an important strategic site during the war years.

Deminers clearing the area in 1995 discovered an ancient kiln site in Ta Nei village, which is now being excavated by a Japanese team in cooperation with Apsara.

Today research teams traveling from Siem Reap to the kiln site pass by a military checkpoint at a village at the base of Phnom Bok. The village was settled and occupied by soldiers and their families.

The military village is unauthorized. The land is supposed to be forest. But there the village sits.

***

Banteay Srey, arguably the most beautiful of all Angkorean temples, is like a beautiful woman dressed in rags.

The rutted road, for example, veers crazily close to the eastern edge of the complex before turning sharply east at the entrance.

Arriving visitors are typically deposited in a parking lot south of the temple; most follow a dirt path from the lot into the temple, without realizing they are missing the elegant eastern causeway.

Beggars and aggressive vendors chase visitors to and from the parking lot. Garbage litters the ground, from the food sellers and restaurants that line the road.

While Apsara nominally controls Banteay Srey—at least to the extent that visitors are no longer charged extra fees by free-lancing soldiers—it is due soon for an infusion of professional staff and security.

The road will be moved away from the temple, allowing for a screen of greenery and a formal approach to the eastern entrance. Restaurants and vendors will be moved far enough away to preserve  the site’s tranquillity.

Meanwhile, says Ang Choulean, you can hardly blame the poor people for trying to make a living. Ideally managed, he says, Angkor should be able to bring prosperity to all levels of society.

“But this is not happening for the poorest,’’ he says. “The main problem of Angkor is the main problem for Cambodia.’’

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)

 

 

 

 

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