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Authorities winning the fight against art thieves

Authorities winning the fight against art thieves

SIEM REAP - Authorities tackling temple thieves around Angkor Wat say the tide is

turning in their favor while stressing that the battle to protect Cambodia's cultural

heritage is far from over.

The Culture Ministry's Michel Tranet sent alarm bells ringing late last year when

he told a local newspaper that his ministry had declared a "state of emergency"

for ancient Cambodian artifacts, which he said were disappearing at a rate of one

a day. But officials here and in the nearby provincial capital of Siem Reap poured

cold water on the undersecretary of state's assessment of the situation at least

as far as it applied to Angkor Wat and other major temple ruins in northwest Cambodia.

"I can say that in the past year and a half it's not happened very much and

most of them (stolen statues and carvings), we have recaptured," said Siem Reap

Governor Toan Chay, who attributed the success to a special police force and help

of locals.

"There's no state of emergency," said police commissioner Chea Sophat,

who leads the heritage protection force of about 520 men from a pre-fab office facing

Angkor Wat, while noting that "this year the thefts have decreased compared

to previous years."

Foreign restoration experts working on temples in the ancient citadel of Angkor Thom

bore out the boast, saying they had had no problems with thefts in the past two years.

"Since the beginning of this year there's only been 37 cases... only two cases

managed to escape" during a firefight, said the officer, adding that his force

had detained 17 people, including two Thais, and seized 68 items of art and four

weapons.

On April 18 they recovered 25 busts dating from the 9-12th centuries, which came

from Kompong Thom province in central Cambodia and were headed westwards on the road

to Thailand, the destination of all Cambodia's stolen art before sale to collectors

overseas.

But this seizure underlined that while the temple guardians may be winning the battle

to protect Angkor Wat and other 9-15th century monuments close to Siem Reap, they

still face an uphill battle protecting ruins and archaeological sites in remote areas.

"It happens at distant sites," Governor Chay acknowledged, while Sophat,

whose well-equipped mobile and fixed post force protects 273 temples, said he was

under no illusion that the thefts would immediately stop, "because they're not

scared of us."

Both men paid tribute to the vital role played by local people, including Buddhist

monks, in recovering stolen items and in preventing thefts in their home areas.

"We have found more than we expected," noted Chay, while explaining that

villagers had led the authorities to treasures stored underground. "We have

set up new committees among local authorities since June to help them," he said,

adding that local defense forces had also been enlisted in the crusade to prevent

the smuggling.

All confiscated art is taken to the state-run and partly overseas-funded Conservation

D'Angkor on the outskirts of Siem Reap, where security has been substantially and

successfully boosted since a rash of thefts two years ago.

Curator Uong Von said his warehouse and grounds held 3,000 to 4,000 items, including

200 pieces brought in 1995.

About a third of the 200 pieces were recovered loot, while the rest were brought

to Conservation D'Angkor for protection and replaced by copies that are seen all

over the major temples.

Von, speaking to Reuters in a courtyard overflowing with ancient bas reliefs, busts,

statues, garudas and stone lingas, explained that before and after UN-run elections

in 1993, "We had police protecting the artifacts but they could not curb this

problem so we decided to bring them here."

Many believe police and military men are behind most of the thefts, including the

1993 raid on the Conservation, though the curator blamed the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Chay said Cambodians were behind thefts while "tourists don't rob the statues,"

though a day before he spoke of police who had arrested a German for stealing a floral

decoration from Ta Prohm temple.

"One guard there saw it and reported to the police," Von said, adding that

the unidentified tourist was later released because "the police didn't know

the laws of protection."

Commissioner Sophat said Thais were the masterminds behind the rape of Cambodia's

cultural heritage and backed his claim by producing a well-thumbed catalogue crammed

with pictures of busts and statues that was seized from detained Thais.

He said the Thai-language document was effectively a shopping guide for the thieves.

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