The looting of Cambodia’s temples is generally carried out by “those who are powerful and armed” such as military personnel, national police officials said Tuesday.
“An investigation of offenses committed throughout the country from 1994 to the present [shows] that most of the 455 cases [involved] armed groups equipped…with armored personnel carriers and other big trucks,” said Kim Pinnarath, deputy director of the National Police’s penal department.
His comments, which reiterated previous claims made by Thai authorities, came on the first day of a four-day workshop aimed at training Cambodia’s national police to protect the country’s architectural treasures.
The workshop, organized by the National Police in cooperation with Unesco, included representatives from Unesco’s office in Cambodia, Ministry of Interior officials and 50 national police officers from 13 provinces.
The looting of national treasures has returned to the public spotlight in recent months in part because of the plundering of 800-year-old Banteay Chmar in the northwest.
The New York-based World Monuments Fund recently announced Banteay Chmar had been included on its list of the 100 most endangered cultural landmarks.
Kim Pinnarath said that an Office of Police Property was set up in May 1994 to prevent looting and smuggling by elements in the armed forces. But while national police have confiscated 532 sculptures since 1994, he said, improving security will require further financial support and training from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Hor Rachna, a representative of Unesco’s Cambodia office, said Tuesday evening, “The main problem is that these cultural properties are located in remote regions, which makes it relatively easy to remove [sculptures] and transport them across the [Thai] border.”
In January, 117 pieces of sculpture from Banteay Chmar were seized by Thai authorities at the border.
The Cambodian government, in the absence of a memorandum of understanding on illegal trafficking between the two countries, cannot demand return of the sculptures. However, the Thai government has promised to return the cultural artifacts once their origin has been verified.
In the absence of a clear agreement between Phnom Penh and Bangkok, Yeng Marady, first deputy director-general of the National Police, said that cracking down on the looting and smuggling of cultural artifacts demands skillful and thorough police work.
“Police must be skillful, moral…and aware of the…investigative and legal procedures involved in arresting [looters and smugglers],” Yeng Marady said.
General Thong Lim, third deputy director of the National Police, cited an old Khmer saying in describing why this week’s workshop is important: “If you lose your culture, your nation will disappear.”
Prince Sisowath Sirivudh Panara, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, said recently that efforts to protect the country’s cultural properties should not end with strengthening security in the border region. “I think it will be necessary to encourage people who live in the area to protect [the temples]. Their cooperation is extremely important.”