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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ancient temple is plundered

Ancient temple is plundered

W ITH international attention focused on the spectacular Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap, less-known but historically-important monuments are left unprotected, due to lack of funds and resources, and are being looted, according to the Ministry of Culture.

The latest victim is the secluded and rarely-visited Banteay Chhmar temple, in Banteay Meanchey province. In July, valuable artifacts were stolen in what local authorities say was a well-organized military operation.

Twelvth-century stone carvings and sculptures were looted from the forest-covered temple, 50km north of Sisiphon, by army units, according to local provincial authorities and reports received by the Ministry of Culture.

"They used army rocket-launching trucks and chains to dismantle the statues and transport them to Thailand", a provincial official, who asked not to named, told the Post.

The area is under the control of Kho Chear, a former KPNLF (Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front) general who has controlled the area since 1990 when the resistance forces drove government troops out of Banteay Chhmar.

KPNLF official and local Member of Parliament, Lay Khek, says some of Kho Chear's men may have joined local people to loot the temple, but he does not believe the general was involved.

The area is of vital importance to the nation's heritage, said a Culture Ministry official, who declined to be named. "Banteay Chhmar temple is a priority because, along with the Bayon temple in Siem Reap, it was built by Jayavarman VII as a memorial to his son and four army generals who were killed in the war against Cham invaders in 1177," the official said.

The story of the battle against the Chams is told through kilometers of engraved stone walls surrounding the Banteay Meanchy temple, which because of its isolation, is usually only visited by local villagers collecting food and wild animals from the forest and ponds inside the temple.

The Government plans to restore and protect Banteay Chhmar but it is presently unguarded, and the enveloping forest and military looters now have the upper hand.

Being 400km from Phnom Penh, in an area patrolled and sometimes attacked by the Khmer Rouge, Ministry of Culture funds and resources do not allow for regular visits to protect the temple.

With a less that 30 minutes drive to several unofficial Thai border crossings it is easy for thieves to transport the valuable stones to Thailand for sale.

First and second Prime Ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, have asked the Ministry to investigate the Banteay Chhmar robbery. "The Prime ministers feel very strongly about this so they have requested us to visit Banteay Chhmar and write a report, and they will take measures against the traffickers. This decision will be taken at the highest level", the Culture official said.

A 12th century two-meter Buddha statue was also stolen from Banteay Chhmar between 1991 and 1993, and along with other artifacts have not been recovered, according to the Under Secretary.

The temple was intact is September 1990 when the area was taken by the KP forces, according to Lay Khek, a founding member of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party and the BLDP representative for Banteay Meanchey.

"I am very sorry, very sad", said Lay Khek, who built a house close to the temple and has started development projects in Banteay Chhmar for local villagers.

"Our credibility goes down with this type of thing", he said. "If I go in my capacity as National Assembly Member I will [ensure the arrest of] the people who destroy Banteay Chhmar, even if it's the chief of the village, the district governor or the military."

Lay Khak says he asked General Chear to probe the latest theft and detain those responsible.

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