In the past week, approximately 10,000 villagers have descended on a hectare of rice paddy in Prey Veng province with axes and other tools to dig through recently discovered ancient graves for gold and other buried treasure, officials said Wednesday.
Prey Veng district police chief Seng Pon Lok estimated that 3,000 or 5,000 fortune-seekers remained on the plot of land Wednesday, adding that he could not stop the digging, which is on private property about 100 meters from the Tuol Vihear Bitmeas ancient Cham Muslim religious site.
“We do not know how to stop them,” Seng Pon Lok said. “Thousands of them are digging for gold and artifacts, and we do not dare prevent them from digging, because they have axes and knives.”
The villagers have paid the landowner between $1.25 and $2.50 for the right to dig at the site, where some have found rings, earrings, beads and other small amounts of gold in the graves, which have inscriptions indicating they are 900 years old, Seng Pon Lok said.
Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts Secretary of State Chuch Phoeung said he had not heard about the mass dig at the site.
“Provincial authorities have to stop them,” Chuch Phoeung said. “The rice paddy owner has the right to do it only one half-meter down, and he can’t make business deeper than that,” he said of the excavations.
Deputy Provincial Governor Bin Sam Ol said people had found very little of value at the site and exaggerated their finds to spread rumors and draw more people to the dig.
“We do not want them to dig, but if we stop them they will accuse us of hiding something in it,” Bin Sam Ol said. “Let them do it until they stop by themselves.”
District Governor Puth Sarun said he had ordered police to protect the nearby site of Tuol Vihear Bitmeas. “It is their right to dig in the rice field because the owner agreed, and they paid him some money, but we do not allow them to dig at the ancient place,” Puth Sarun said.
“We are worried that it will spread to the nearby site, so we have educated them by loudspeaker that it has no gold.”