THE largest shipment of looted artifacts from Angkor temples ever seized was intercepted
last month on a truck manned by soldiers, including bodyguards of the military commander
in Siem Reap.
Ten tonnes of stone carvings hacked off the Kor Ker temple - located in a zone under
military control - and cut into pieces were found on an army truck by military police
and other authorities Jan 30.
Accompanying the truck were 17 heavily-armed soldiers, including at least five bodyguards
of General Khan Savoeun, a Funcinpec member and commander of Military Region No.4.
Savoeun strongly denied any part in the theft, saying that his bodyguards were acting
as "informants" tasked with discovering the kingpins behind the looting.
Other high-level Siem Reap sources tell a different story, pointing the finger at
Savoeun as the mastermind behind the pillaging and smuggling.
None of the 17 soldiers has been arrested.
The artifacts - which were apparently en route to Thailand, neatly cut into numbered
pieces so they could be reassembled - were recovered after a 24-hour cat and mouse
game between the soldiers and military police.
The pieces are now at the Conservation d'Angkor in Siem Reap town. Foreign conservation
officials said they constituted the biggest haul of looted artifacts ever recovered
The total of nine large Apsaras and 19 Naga statues came from Koh Ker temple, roughly
between Siem Reap and Preah Vihear provinces.
According to various sources - all of whom did not want to be named for fear of reprisals
- the relics were found on a military truck traveling down Route 6 towards Banteay
Meanchey province, which borders Thailand.
The first attempt to stop the truck came at a military police checkpoint outside
Siem Reap at Touk Snoul. The driver flashed his headlights and drove through the
Forty kilometers away, in Kralanh district, the truck was made to stop at another
check-point on the border of Banteay Meanchey province.
According to witnesses in Kralanh, the 17 soldiers aboard the vehicle threatened
the MPs manning the checkpoint. "They were pointing guns at them as the MPs
wanted to stop the truck," said one witness.
As well as their guns, the soldiers showed the MPs a permit signed by Savoeun allowing
them to transport "wood".
"There was no wood whatsoever," explained one shopkeeper in Kralanh.
Prevented from going ahead by the MPs, the soldiers resorted to offering them up
to 20,000 Baht ($800) to allow them to pass, witnesses said.
Despite the threats and offers of money, the MPs checked the truck and discovered
the statues hidden beneath an oilcloth on which the soldiers were seated.
The MPs would not let the truck leave, and telephoned their Siem Reap headquarters
to receive instructions from their superiors.
With a potential confrontation brewing, an ad hoc committee of army and military
police officials was hurriedly set up in Siem Reap to decide what to do.
Back at the checkpoint, there was a three-hour stand-off before the Siem Reap committee
came to a tentative solution - the soldiers were all allowed to leave but the truck
was impounded and photographs taken of its haul.
The truck was then sent back to Siem Reap, and apparently put in the care of Khan
Savoeun. The next day, 24 hours after the truck had been stopped, the artifacts were
delivered to Conservation d'Angkor.
Savoeun later told newspapers that he had been responsible for catching the smugglers.
But no-one was arrested. MPs said they knew they could not make any arrests.
"It is not the first time that such a situation has occurred, said one MP. "We
often have trouble with the soldiers. The small cannot reprimand the big ones."
According to several sources and documents, Khao Savuth, chief of Savoeun's bodyguard
unit, was among the escorts on the truck, as well as at least four of his men.
Savoeun, interviewed last week at his home in Siem Reap, said he did not know anyone
But, when questioned further, he acknowledged that some of his men had been aboard
"I gave the orders to some of my men to dress up and pretend to be robbers,
that is why they were on the truck," he said.
Savoeun said that he himself had arranged the second check-point which stopped the
truck - a version of events disputed by MPs and other well-informed sources in Siem
Reap connected with the seizure.
Savoeun said that his 'spies' on the truck were unable to arrest anyone because the
robbers fled. He said he would rather try to catch the middlemen and the Thai receivers
of looted artifacts, rather than soldiers.
"They are poor and they are offered lots of money. They are not to blame,"
said the general.
Asked about the authorization shown by the soldiers, he said that he signed many
permits and that the one that they had was exclusively for wood.
He said that the truck, registered to another military division, could have been
bought by civilians.
Savoeun declared that he was eager to stop the plundering of Cambodian artifacts,
which he had been told about by contacts in Thailand.
Middlemen had offered up to 2 million Baht for people who smuggled artifacts from
Siem Reap temples, he said. No-one had come to see him and offer money, he added.
Savoeun acknowledged that some senior officials in Siem Reap alleged that he was
involved in the robbery.
"If they want to file a complaint against me, I will be the winner. I am honest
and innocent and I never receive a bribe."
He said some Thai smugglers wanted to kill him.
"I am not afraid of bullets and I am waiting for the one who wants to kill me,"
he declared, removing a pistol from his briefcase and putting it on his desk.