Sixteen villagers on Friday dug into an underground temple known as Boeng Kanseng in Oddar Meanchey province’s Bos Sbov commune, Samraong district, in hopes of finding valuable artifacts, provincial Police Chief Ath Khem said.
The villagers chose their site for its raised earthworks and successfully unearthed 21 pieces of roughly carved stone before they were discovered by police, Ath Khem said Monday.
He blamed poverty and hungry stomachs on the eve of the rice harvest for the attempted theft.
“The poor rice farmers have nothing to do to make money because they are waiting for the rice harvest. So they go digging for money,” he said.
The police chief said the villagers, because of their impoverished circumstances, were detained for education instead of being jailed.
Heng Tim, director of the provincial cultural office in Banteay Meanchey, said Monday that looting in northwestern Cambodia has decreased significantly since authorities raised awareness about cultural preservation and also cracked down on culprits.
“The digging was much worse in the past,” he said.
When the looting of artifacts reached an alarming level in Banteay Meanchey, Prime Minister Hun Sen assigned his cultural adviser to solve the problem.
In August, police took action in Banteay Meanchey’s Thma Puok district against villagers who were digging up ancient burial sites. Burial loot was sold to businessmen who relayed the artifacts to the black market. Though police have claimed to have stopped the looting in Banteay Meanchey province, Heng Tim said that a request for more than $30,000 to build a museum for seized artifacts has yet to materialize.