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Ancient shipwreck in troubled waters

Stormy seas and high petrol costs have forced the Cambodian navy to abandon its guard

post above the sunken remains of the centuries old shipwreck discovered last year

off the coast of Koh Kong province.

Meanwhile, the government has also broken off negotiations with Russian dive experts

and is seeking assistance from Beijing in the recovery of what is believed to be

a 15th or 16th Century Chinese trading junk found laden with ancient oriental pottery

and artifacts.

Yuth Phou Thang, governor of Koh Kong and the deputy chairman of the government commission

to collect the ship and its contents, said the government decided to stop negotiating

with the Russians after learning that they were operating independently of the Russian

government, and lacked adequate materials and experience.

"We have talked to Thai and Russian diving experts about recovering the pottery

and boat, but it's impossible," Phou Thang said.

"Now we'll wait to see the Chinese experts come."

An official at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) told the Post that Khim

Sarith, MCFA secretary of state and chief negotiator for the shipwreck commission,

had met twice with Chinese Embassy officials in Phnom Penh and traveled to China

on May 16 to discuss the recovery efforts.

"The Chinese experts visited the site in late 2006 and claimed that some of

the pottery recovered from the seabed had been made in China," said the MCFA

official. "The government asked China to provide technical assistance and diving

materials."

Khim Sarith could not be contacted for comment.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy confirmed that they had submitted a proposal

from the Cambodian government to Beijing.

"We have paid much attention to this issue but it is related to the expenses

for the whole operation," the embassy official said. "We're waiting to

see the decision from our government."

The shipwreck was found in February 2006, about 20 km off the coast of Koh Sdech,

Kiri Sakor district, after the local fishing fleet reported that looters were plundering

the site with makeshift diving equipment.

"Vietnamese fishermen noticed that fish in the area were acting strangely so

they dove to investigate. They found the ship and began looting. We don't know how

long they were taking items away-it could've been months," said Chheng Chhek,

governor of Kiri Sakor, after the initial discovery in 2006. "We don't know

where they took the findings."

The looting prompted local authorities to launch a 24-man naval gunboat to guard

the site. Government sanctioned recovery, and exploratory dives by two Russian teams

yielded some 600 pieces of pottery, and some interesting findings.

Nikolai Doroshenko, a Russian biologist and Sihanoukville business owner who led

three separate Russian dive teams to the wreck, told the Post previously that the

seabed around the vessel is littered with pottery shards, wooden beams and elephant

tusks. According to Doroshenko, the ship is 32 meters under the sea and is approximately

27 meters long and 8 meters wide. He said the ship had a single mast, that its hull

was largely intact and that it was clear the ship had been burned.

"I'd say it's likely a Chinese trading ship. They followed the coastline going

south. In the times of the Indian Ocean expeditions that I wrote of (circa 1400-1500),

trading was less of a commercial enterprise for monetary gain and more of a court

exercise for curios and influence. I suspect that over time it became a commercial

enterprise and this was such," said Michael Bosworth, author of The Rise and

Fall of Chinese Sea Power, in a previous Post article.

At the time of its discovery, the ship caused a flurry of interest with naval historians

and treasure hunters. According to Phou Thang, Koh Kong casino tycoon Ly Yong Phat

paid his own money on behalf of the government for the dive team. He said the recovered

items and the ship itself would be put on display in a proposed Koh Kong tourist

museum.

Phou Thang said the monsoon season as well as high fuel prices forced the gunboat

to leave its post above the wreck earlier this year. Chhek said the navy patrols

the area once a week and that fishing has been prohibited in the area.

Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum, said the officials had diluted

the salt encrusted on the pottery by placing pieces in freshwater in order to keep

the pottery from breaking because the pottery had been buried in the seabed for about

four centuries.

"We're keeping the pottery in a warehouse with good temperature and proper condition,"

Touch said.

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