The Art of Matter

One of The Cambodia Daily’s first stories 15 years ago was about a gang operating with military precision that had stolen Angkorian-era statuary at the government depository in Siem Reap town. The bandits, according to the Daily on Sept 8, 1993, were suspected to be Khmer Rouge soldiers.

Throughout the 1990s, accusations would fly regarding the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian military smuggling Khmer artifacts, which were on demand on the international art market.

An October 1999 story would quote national police officials as saying that most of the 455 art smuggling cases they had investigated involved armed groups equipped with armored personnel carriers and heavy trucks.

In 2000, the return of 117 pieces of wall carvings cut from the 9th century Banteay Chmar temple and seized in Thailand by Thai customs agents demonstrated the extent of smuggling operations in the country.

The pillaging of Angkorian-era monuments had led the Cam­bod­ian government to adopt the Law on Cultural Property in December 1995 and create a Heritage Police unit to protect historical sites. Drafted with the technical support of the Unesco, the law dictates jail sentences for artifact traffickers.

This law, which had been one of the conditions set by the World Heritage Committee when Angkor was put on the World Heritage List in 1992, was passed by the National Assembly one week after the committee’s deadline, the Daily reported on Dec 22, 1995.

According to Vann Molyvann, minister of culture at the time, quoted in the story, international experts applauded the law as a model for artifact protection.

The International Coordinating Committee of Angkor formed in 1993 to oversee the Angkor park would also be viewed as a groundbreaking concept and serve as a model for the creation of a similar Afghanistan committee in 2003.

With the combined efforts of the Cambodian government, Unesco and international organizations to police Angkor and curb illegal art sales, artifact smuggling eventually decreased although remote temples remained vulnerable.

But monuments in the 1990s were threatened by more than smugglers.

Khmer stone temples that were more than 500 years old had emerged from the Pol Pot era fairly unscathed, barring neglect. While the Khmer Rouge had not hesitated to use the country’s pagoda grounds to round up people or kill them, they had left monuments alone.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, they had taken refuge in monuments and mined the grounds around them to keep government forces at bay.

The Siem Reap unit of the Cambodian Mine Action Center had to remove nearly 3,000 mines and about 9,000 unexploded ordnance in Angkor park in the 1990s before the monuments could be open to the public, said Jean-Pierre Billault, then the unit’s co-director, in a July 2003 Daily story.

CMAC later hurried to demine the grounds of Koh Ker and Preah Vihear temples in Preah Vihear province because of their tourist appeal, Billault had added.

The other major threat to the monuments was nature.                                     Unimpeded by restoration teams or maintenance crews since armed conflicts had started in the early 1970s, rainwater and tree growth had weakened the stone structures.

One month before the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement by Cambodia’s factions in October 1991, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had officially appealed to Unesco to help rescue Angkor. The following year, Unesco and international experts assisted Cambodia to get Angkor on the World Heritage List, which opened the door to financial and technical support.

In 1993, the International Coordinating Committee of Angkor was created to supervise conservation efforts at Angkor with Japan and France as co-chairs and members including donors, restoration teams and government representatives. Its work has evolved to reviewing all manners of projects such as escalators along major temples—which were vetoed—to restoration techniques.

In 1995, the Cambodian government formed the Apsara Authority to manage the park, from monument conservation and road maintenance to tourist facilities and the 30,000 villagers living in the park.

The Angkor Archeological Park was designed as a 40,000-hectare, or 401-square-km, site with a zoning code.

“It’s the biggest [archeological] site in the world,” said Azedine Beschaouch, the ICC’s scientific secretary, in a 2003 interview.

Zoning regulations start with a full construction ban on land near the monuments, with fewer and fewer restrictions the further from the center.

Agreed upon by the Cambodian government when Angkor became a World Heritage site, those zones would become a point of contention as the site’s tourism potential increased and land value in and around Siem Reap town increased.

Buildings contravening the park’s zoning code would constantly appear in the park; stopping illegal structures became a never-ending task for the Apsara Authority.

But what caused the most friction was the fact that, following the surrender of the last Khmer Rouge leaders in December 1998, a climate of stability spread over the country and hotel construction soared in Siem Reap town as the number of tourists jumped by the hundreds of thousands.

Resentment of the Angkor

zoning code grew accordingly.

In December 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen blasted a draft zoning subdecree related to the road between Siem Reap town and the airport, and blamed the Apsara Authority for being influenced by foreigners. In a Dec 17, 2001, Daily story, Cambodian and foreign officials were quoted as being puzzled by the premier’s remarks. They assumed that Hun Sen was referring to the 1995 version of the subdecree that prohibited construction within 250 meters of the road.

Since then, this road has be­come a virtual corridor of hotel buildings.

The unregulated construction of hotels, guesthouses and tourist stores prompted the Cambodian government and international donors to agree, in 2003, to involve the ICC in Siem Reap town’s urban planning since development effects Angkor park.

Among other issues, fears are that, because of the absence of a hotels’ water and sewage system, underground water is being depleted which may cause the ground and monuments to sink. But the ICC has yet to have a say in the area’s development even though this is discussed at each of its annual meetings.

In the meantime, construction continues largely unchecked.

Angkor park has greatly changed in terms of tourist facilities. For instance the park’s sole Western-style toilet located near Ta Prohm temple in the late 1990s has been replaced by a series of wooden pavilions throughout the park, equipped with multiple toilet stalls in men and women sections managed by full-time attendants.

With about 2 million visitors per year, traffic has become an issue, forcing the Apsara Authority to limit the size of busses in the park. So has air pollution that, according to a Japanese expert quoted in a Daily story last June, has reached Bangkok’s levels in Siem Reap town and at Angkor Wat.

Away from Angkor, temples still are at the mercy of looters and the elements, with no overall government policy or long-term plans to preserve the country’s historical monuments.

This, with noted exceptions such as Preah Vihear and Koh Ker temples. In July 2001, Cabinet Minister Sok An flew international-donor representatives and the media to Koh Ker temple by military helicopters in an attempt to raise funds for the restoration of the millennium-old temple. Four years later, management of the site was turned over to Apsara Authority, the Daily reported in August 2005, but restoration still awaits.

The government has also been very much concerned with the restoration of Preah Vihear temple, which is located on the Thai border and has made the headlines countless times over the years—and still does.

In February 1995, about 3,000 Cambodian government soldiers surrounded the temple to oust the Khmer Rouge who had taken it over two years earlier, the Daily had reported. During the following years, Thai and Cambodian soldiers and villagers occasionally clashed near the temple, at times with casualties.

A few weeks ago, the temple led to a major incident between the two countries when ultra-nationalists in Thailand claimed ownership of the monument in spite of a 1962 International Court of Justice decision declaring it on Cambodian soil. Now a recently-listed World Heritage Site, which brings in Unesco support and may lead to international funding for its restoration, Preah Vihear temple is bound to remain in the news for some time while tempers assuage on each side of the border.

In recent years, artifact looting has taken the form of villagers digging graves predating Angkor for small pieces of jewelry or beads.

Although they reap little profit from their sale, the authorities have difficulties dissuading villagers barely making ends meet to give this up in the name of preserving national heritage.

Since The Cambodia Daily started publishing 15 years ago, national heritage for the Cambodian government has chiefly meant Angkorian-era or older monuments and traditional music, dance and painting.

Cambodian architectural masterpieces of the 1960s are being demolished, and facilities for the training of Cambodian artists or cultural performances have diminished in size, quality and accessibility.

The government has yet to come up with a heritage and cultural policy that would encompass all architectural periods, promote creativity and properly support the artists of today and tomorrow.

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