ODONG MOUNTAIN, Kandal Province – In the late 1950s, at the height of Norodom Sihanouk’s reign as head of state, a golden urn containing relics of the Buddha was transported from Sri Lanka and placed in a stupa in front of the train station in what was then a relatively quiet corner of Phnom Penh.
More than four decades later—in 2002—King Sihanouk led a grand ceremony in which the relics, said to be ashes of the Buddha, were moved to Odong mountain, where they were placed at the top of an ornate, multimillion dollar stupa with marble staircases.
The stupa was built alongside centuries-old memorial stupas housing the ashes of Norodom Sihanouk’s royal descendants.
Last week, the urn containing the Buddha relics was stolen in the early morning without a trace, and apparently from under the noses of three security guards working for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
The theft of the sacred objects has shaken the country’s Buddhist orders.
More than a hundred monks gathered atop Odong mountain on Monday to pray that the thieves return the relics. A separate group of about 200 monks besieged an annual conference of senior Buddhist clergy on Tuesday at Chaktomuk Conference Hall, angrily calling for senior monks to urge Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure the national treasures are recovered. The protesting monks held a banner that proclaimed in large letters, “Because of corruption, the relics were stolen.”
“This all seems like a rather unusual, and unexpected, dilemma [for the government],” said Erik Davis, a scholar of Cambodian Buddhism at Macalester College in Minnesota. “I have no doubt that these relics could have been better protected, but there are lots of things the government should be doing a better job at.”
“The potential for this to be an enormous problem is large, but will depend on the ability of the Sangha, or less likely, non-monastic actors, to mobilize it as a serious issue that people—not merely the monks or the government—must address,” Mr. Davis said in an email.
“In many ways, I think it depends on…whether [people] are willing to adopt the theft of these relics as a political argument—something along the lines of ‘the current CPP regime cannot protect our sacred heritage,’ or even ‘It’s a sign of the current regime’s illegitimacy,’” Mr. Davis said.
The investigation into the theft, being led by the Ministry of Interior, has turned up no leads. Nonetheless, it has thus far placed five men, including the three security guards on watch at the stupa, in prison.
In Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district this week, security guards still on the job at Odong mountain, along with the families of the security guards now in prison, described a poorly managed unit that received paltry salaries for their work.
Chab Soeun, 54, was among 15 security guards who were selected by the Ministry of the Royal Palace to guard the stupa complex on Odong mountain when the relics were moved there in 2002.
Standing at his post in front of a stupa halfway down the 42-meter mountain, Mr. Soeun said that because the guards were paid a monthly salary of only 170,000 riel, or about $42.50, attendance policies were loose and his colleagues often called in sick or took days off to do other jobs.
On the night of December 10, when the relics were stolen, Mr. Soeun said only three of the seven assigned guards had shown up for work.
At about 2 a.m., one of the guards alerted authorities that the eyehooks securing two padlocks on the stupa’s only door, which is painted gold, had been broken.
The three guards who were on duty—Chorm Thai, 57; Sieng Sarin, 58; and Ka Sak, 46—were detained for questioning and on Sunday were charged with aggravated theft.
Sitting outside her one-room concrete home about a kilometer from the mountain, Leng Yem, 62, Mr. Thai’s wife, said that her husband usually worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. at the stupa, and his salary often went unpaid.
“Every five months or so he would get two or three month’s salary. He kept the job because he was old and couldn’t find anything else to do,” she said.
Poeng Sayheang, the wife of the jailed Mr. Sarin, said that her husband worked as a fortune reader at the stupa during the day in order to make extra money for his family, who live in a wooden shanty at the foot of Odong mountain.
“I bet my life that he wasn’t involved in the theft,” said Mr. Sarin’s sister, Loeng Sokhom, 42. “He loves Cambodian heritage and worked to protect it.”
Following the arrests of the security guards, police searched their homes, but turned up no evidence of the stolen artifacts.
Also charged in the robbery of the 2,500-year-old relics of the Buddha were Pha Sokhem, 59, the chief of security for the stupa; and Kann Sopheak, 39, a motorcycle taxi driver in Ponhea Leu district.
According to Mr. Sopheak’s mother Say Ket, 71, her son went out drinking rice wine with Mr. Sak, his cousin, before Mr. Sak went to work at the stupa that night. After returning home, she said, her son went out into the brush around their house to search for small frogs that he planned to use as bait to catch fish in a nearby river.
Ms. Ket said that her son returned home to sleep at about 11 a.m. The next morning, police came to the house and took him away in handcuffs.
“I feel that my son was not involved in this case. He was arrested because someone answered that he had been drinking with one of the guards that night,” Ms. Ket said.
Mr. Sokhem, the security chief, who previously served as the head of the Ponhea Leu district department of culture and fine art, was at his home in Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov commune, about 30 km away from the Odong mountain, when he got a phone call at about 3 a.m. alerting him of the break-in, according to his wife, Chea Buntha, 58.
He quickly jumped in his Toyota Camry and headed to the stupa, said Ms. Buntha. The next day he was arrested.
On the wall of his house hang several photos of Mr. Sokhem, during his time working for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, receiving decorations from Mr. Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and Deputy Prime Minster Sok An.
Mr. Sokhem was the head of the district culture department when the stupa for the relics of the Buddha was being built from 1997 to 2002, and when he retired last year, he was given the job of managing the stupa’s security guards, according to his son, Pha Sodina, who serves as the chief of administration in Ponhea Leu district.
“The reason that he was arrested is that he controlled all the guards,” Mr. Sodina said. “It is the carelessness of my father in managing the guards” that allowed the relics to be stolen, he said.
Despite the protestations of innocence from the families of the suspects, Ponhea Leu district police chief Duong Teng said that the arrests were made based on fingerprints that had been gathered at the stupa, along with testimony obtained during police questioning at the district police office.
However, the Venerable But Buntenh, head of the Independent Monks’ Network for Social Justice, which led Tuesday’s protests at Chaktomuk hall, said that ultimately, it was the failure of the government to support the men guarding the stupa that was to blame for the lost relics.
“When I say corruption caused this, it is because these people [guards at the stupa] don’t get their salaries and don’t have money to live on because of corruption,” he said.
“The relics are a national treasure and a refuge of the people. When we lost the relics, we lost our refuge,” he added.
Sok Oeun, director of the Kandal provincial department of culture and fine arts, who is responsible for paying the salaries of the security guards at Odong mountain, said “I never took or cut their salary like they claim, but I recognize that the national budget is late,” he said.
“So the salaries are late, not lost,” he added.
As a nationwide search for the stolen artifacts is underway, security at the stupa on Odong mountain has been increased, with three National Police officers and three military police officers assigned to guard the complex 24 hours a day.
“But it’s too late to send people now,” admitted deputy district police chief Heng Sophal. “They were already stolen.”