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A man ascends the stairs of a stupa at Oudong Mountain
A man ascends the stairs of a stupa at Oudong mountain in December. Heng Chivoan

Stolen Buddha urn reclaimed

Authorities say they have recovered a priceless gold urn believed to contain the ashes of the Buddha from a house in Takeo province’s Traing district.

Kandal provincial police chief Eav Chamroeun said officers arrested two suspects yesterday, in the process seizing back the urn, along with a gold statue and part of another statue, stolen from the Royal Treasury on Oudong mountain, north of Phnom Penh, in December.

“The suspects, Keo Reaksmey, male, 24, and Siek Sareth, female, 39, were arrested yesterday afternoon,” he said.

Chamroeun alleged that Reaksmey had melted up to 10 statues stolen from Oudong and sold the gold at market, adding that equipment for such purposes was also confiscated from the home in Khvav commune.

“He has suddenly built three wooden houses and bought a 2014 model car – everyone in his village can’t believe he’s so rich in the past month,” he said.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith confirmed the two arrests but declined to comment in more detail.

Chamroeun also made a point of highlighting that Reaksmey has a criminal record and alleged that up until the theft, took his grandmother to Oudong mountain to beg “every day”.

Police and prosecutors from Takeo and Kandal cooperated with the department of penal police at the Ministry of Interior to arrest the two suspects, Chamroeun added.

Police say the urn has since been examined by senior monks and verified as the relic stolen.

But calls are already emerging for a more in-depth investigation.

“The high-ranking Buddhist monks should check they are the real relics. I guess [they] must know and the Queen Mother must know [what is real],” said Son Soubert, an adviser to King Norodom Sihamoni.

Soubert, who said the relic was “a palladium for the country”, also encouraged continued investigation into who was behind the theft.

“There are many questions and doubts and so on,” he said. “It’s strange that all the relics end up with a poor man.”

But Buntenh, the Independent Monks Network for Social Justice leader who led a march through the streets in December demanding more be done to recover the urn, also demanded a more thorough examination.

“Right now, I don’t believe this. If this is real, then let the whole public come to see them . . . to check the validity,” he said.

Buntenh added that he doubted that “just a simple guy” could steal so many relics from Oudong mountain and said more ministries and top monks should be involved in the verification process.

The urn was brought to Cambodia from Sri Lanka in 1957 by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth.

Four guards at the Royal Treasury and a villager who lives nearby were arrested in December over thefts at the site.

Cham Sophy, 58, a nun at Oudong mountain, said those at the site were happy to hear the urn had been found.

“We’re waiting to have a ceremony for its return. We hope this will be soon,” she said.

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