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,"
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,"
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
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."