Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Angkor Thefts Reach New Heights of Cheek

Angkor Thefts Reach New Heights of Cheek

Angkor Thefts Reach New Heights of Cheek

SIEM REAP -"We have just lost another statue," sheepish police officers

told staff at the Angkor temples conservation office in Siem Reap.

The night before, the statue, as tall as a human being and weighing more than 100

kg, disappeared from the courtyard of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's palace in the town

center, 200 m from the police headquarters.

That was on Mar. 1 and the rare 9th century piece, a female divinity without a head,

had been at the site only since January. Staff at the conservatory estimated it would

take at least three people to lift it over the two-meter wall around the palace compound.

The incident is just the latest in a string of thefts of priceless antiquities from

the nearby temples of Angkor and provides a graphic illustration of the problems

facing those who are trying to protect the 200-square km site.

In the same week, five stone heads were reported stolen from the northern gate of

the Angkor Thom temple, which is just next to Angkor Wat, said Richard Engelhardt,

head of the UNESCO operation in Cambodia, which is heading international efforts

to preserve the ancient temples.

On Feb. 10, around 50 armed attackers on motorcycles stormed through Siem Reap shooting

rockets and assault rifles, broke into the conservatory, and made off with 11 rare

pieces which the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia has said could be worth

up to half a million dollars on the international market.

Three people were killed in the attack on the town and among the eight people wounded

was a guard at the conservatory. The storeroom is marred with shrapnel from a B-40

rocket fired to blast through its locked metal gate.

Cambodian and U.N. officials cannot believe the thefts could have been carried out

without the connivance of some local officials. "We can say that more than just

simple theft going on. This sort of crime is usually done with the connivance of

someone and we cannot get a straight answer," one U.N. official said.

The statue stolen from the town center had been in storage at the conservatory and

was moved to the palace with the permission of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"We received permission to take the statue out of storage, not to get it stolen,"

said In Phally, a curator at the conservatory. "It's so ridiculous, I wanted

to laugh, it's so funny - two hundred meters from the police station!"

Policemen stationed near a bridge about 30 meters away missed the crime because of

the darkness, a senior police officer said. "There was not enough light,"

he said.

Siem Reap police chief, Colonel Chea Suphat ,said his force did not have enough men

or resources to fight theft from Angkor effectively. "In a country where there

is no law, where the population is ignorant of new laws and doesn't know the history,

nor the religion, or local customs, they don't know about preserving precious monuments.

What to do?" he asked.

He said the fight between police and thieves was unequal because the thieves had

cars and motorcycles while his officers could only patrol on foot. Who was responsible

for the Feb. 10 attack remains unclear.

The director of the conservatory, Uong Von, blamed Khmer Rouge guerrillas and said

it appeared to be spontaneous, but other curators said it seemed to have been carefully

planned. "Some people say it was the Khmer Rouge, - maybe, but how can we say

for sure," one said.

Engelhardt said it was not even certain exactly which statues were taken. The first

report said the pieces were all portable, but now the police said they included two

stone bodies weighing more than 50 kg and difficult therefore to transport on a motorcycle.

Colonel Chea claimed government secret police had tracked down the missing pieces

to a Khmer Rouge zone and had managed to photograph two of them. He showed two poor-quality

photographs, each of a stone head lying in grass.

Engelhardt said the thefts highlighted the need for a proper photographic inventory

of the 7,000 pieces at the conservatory. "This is the most crucial element in

protecting the site, but none of the international donors is willing to fund it,"

he said. "I certainly hope these recent thefts show that this is an absolute


The fact that there appeared to be no photographs of most or all of the artifacts

stolen from the conservatory meant it would be very difficult to trace them, he said.

Experience showed most artifacts were shipped out of the country within 24 hours

of their theft. Most go first to Thailand. "It is one of the most sophisticated

black market crimes in the world-it's right up there with drug trafficking,"

Engelhardt said.

The most valuable pieces never appear on the open market worldwide. "They go

from private dealer to private buyer," he said. "Antiques are valuable

and they appreciate with time. People don't need to sell them straight away-they

know that if they keep them the value will only increase."

Engelhardt said the problem of theft from Angkor had worsened since the Cambodian

factions agreed to a formal cease-fire in 1991 and had become especially serious

in the past two months.

"Before it was difficult to transport stolen antiquities because there were

many military checkpoints. When the fighting stopped it gave dealers and traffickers

much easier access to the sites and to the Thai border," he said.

Cambodian officials said it was possible that the recent series of thefts was intended

to raise money for candidates in the May national elections.

Engelhardt said part of the problem seemed to be that the police were preoccupied

with maintaining security for the elections and did not have enough time to devote

to preventing art thefts.

"Maybe when the elections are over the situation will be better," one staff

member at the conservatory said. "After we can say much more-now we have to

take care, people try to get money in their pocket and in Cambodia there are too

many guns."

Pich Kao, director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said he did not know to

which countries stolen antiquities were going but he knew of several museums-including

the Metropolitan Museum in the United States, the Musée Guimet in France and

museums in Australia-which display valuable Khmer art from the Angkor era.

Engelhardt said it was impossible to put a value on all the recently stolen objects.

"They are part of the national cultural heritage and in that sense they are

priceless," he said

"People ask me the value of the statues," In Phally said. "I tell

them that they are like my Cambodian heart-that is the price."


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