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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Officials lower their hopes for return of artefacts from Thais

Officials lower their hopes for return of artefacts from Thais

Having aimed to get all 43 confiscated Khmer antiquties returned,

government officials now say they expect just seven to come home.

FIRST A CHARM

In November 1999, the Thai government returned more than 100 carved stones blocks that had been smuggled into the country earlier in the year after being hacked from the wall of the temple of Banteay Chhmar in northwestern Cambodia.

CAMBODIAN officials say they are expecting the return of only seven of the 43 smuggled Khmer antiquities intercepted by Thai authorities that have been the subject of a series of recent high-level talks between the two countries.

Khim Sarith, a secretary of state at Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts who has been involved in meetings with Thai authorities over the return of the artefacts, said that, pending approval by the Thai Cabinet, Cambodia would send a delegation to retrieve the pieces.

But the acquisition would be bittersweet.

In 1999, Thai customs agents seized 43 antique Khmer sculptures weighting more than eight tonnes at a port owned by a Thai shipping company.

Thailand has recognised 18 of the 43 artefacts as belonging to Cambodia. But following a meeting between Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Thai counterpart Kasit Piromya at the end of last month in which the visiting top diplomat pledged to push the Thai Cabinet to approve the repatriation of the artifacts, without specifying how many, local officials were hopeful they would see the return of all 43 pieces.

Now, they have had to lower their sights to acquiring just seven artefacts, all of which are the decapitated heads of statues, officials said.  

"The artefacts are in their hands so they have the right to decide on how many pieces they will return to us," Khim Sarith said.

Still hope for complete return

The antiquities were being smuggled from Cambodia to Singapore via Thailand and were destined for markets in Europe and the United States. The sculptures are believed to have been stripped from ancient Khmer temples and monuments inside Cambodia.

Negotiations with Thailand on the return of the artefacts began a few years ago, but political instablility in Thailand has delayed the approval of any agreement. The most recent agreement is still awaiting approval from the Thai government, Khim Sarith said.  

Koy Kuong, an undersecretary of state at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said his office welcomed the artefacts' return but said he hoped that eventually all of the confiscated items would be back in Cambodia.

Hab Touch, director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said the seven heads would be a significant contribution to the museum's collection, but lamented that the majority of the intercepted cargo would remain in the hands of Thai authorities.  

"The delay of this return is because of Thai internal political problems, but Cambodia will continue to negotiate to acquire the remaining pieces," he said.

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