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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Charged men ‘stole before’

A man ascends the stairs of a stupa at Oudong Mountain last week
A man ascends the stairs of a stupa at Oudong Mountain last week. Authorities are investigating the theft of artefacts from the site. Heng Chivoan

Charged men ‘stole before’

Police knew some of the men guarding artefacts at the Royal Treasury on Oudong Mountain had stolen from the site in the past, an official said yesterday, as four security guards and a villager were charged and referred to an investigative judge.

Kandal Provincial Governor Phay Bunchouen told the Post that authorities knew some of the security guards were stealing statues of the Buddha from the site in 2010. Police also said that when they searched the chief of security’s house last week, they discovered numerous statues that had been looted from the site.

Police found several Buddha statues at the house of chief of security Pha Sokhem and took five back to the stupa at Oudong, Bunchouen said, but the statues they discovered were not the artefacts looted
on Tuesday.

“We believe the stupa contains thousands, even tens of thousands, of statues,” he said. “There are loads of artefacts buried under the stupa on Oudong Mountain, and some [people] used to comb through the artefacts to sell them in 2010. As a consequence, they [the suspects] have a bad background.”

Sokhem was charged by Kandal Provincial Court yesterday with theft along with his colleagues Seang Sarin, Ka Sat and Chom Thai. Kan Sopheak, a villager who drank alcohol with the guards the night before the theft, was also charged, police said.

In 2002, the urn taken last week was transported from Phnom Penh to the Sakyamuni stupa on Phnom Preah Reach Troap – the Mountain of the Royal Treasury – in what was arguably the most important Buddhist event in the post-Khmer Rouge era.

The relics were donated by Sri Lanka in 1957 in anticipation of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Buddhism.

Experts in Buddhist archaeology told the Post on Saturday that the relics were likely destined for sale to private collectors in Thailand or elsewhere in Asia.

“Sadly, the urn … will probably end up locked away in someone’s private collection,” professor Robin Coningham of Britain’s Durham University said in an email. “I would strongly advocate clearer protection of sites and surveys of unprotected sites to evaluate their importance.”

Dougald O’Reilly, director of Heritage Watch International, which campaigns to preserve Cambodia’s cultural legacy, said that the items could potentially fetch a high price.

“I’m not sure who would want [the relics], but it may be that [they have] considerable value, especially in Thailand, where Buddhist amulets imbued with ‘special powers’ are widely exchanged,” he said.

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