A former Culture Ministry official, Michel Tranet sees himself as stemming the tide of official negligence in conservation.
Michel Tranet, a former secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, at his own modest but meticulously designed museum in Phnom Penh.
Michel Tranet served as a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culure and Fine Arts in the 1990s but resigned, he said, because the government was more involved in abetting smugglers than in stopping them. Of French-Khmer heritage, the 54-year-old has launched a museum in his own meticulously designed wooden Phnom Penh home to house the illegally procured Khmer antiquities he collects from local markets in order to return them to the public domain.
In the past, you have noted the paradox that peace in Cambodia opened the doors to increased pillaging.
Indeed, destruction has sometimes been much worse during peace, as people can move about easily without fear of being shot. But that's not to say our heritage was not destroyed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. They destroyed our intangible heritage, our culture.
Still today, in rural areas, illegal excavations and smuggling happens everywhere. The government has preserved Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear and Koh Ker, but not the smaller temples. And local citizens there don't know the value of heritage and continue to destroy it, as has happened, for example, at Preah Kan Kampong Svay temple. Sometimes the government has a project in place for protection in the smaller sites, but only on paper.
When I worked for the Culture Ministry, I requested that conservation officials catalogue all the antiquities in pagodas around the country. Take a picture and ban the sale of the item. Many of these pieces are now lost. All antiquities in the country should be registered, and all sales of antiquities should be listed and approved by the ministry. But, in reality, this doesn't happen, and the ministry has been an accomplice, too, with corrupt officials.
Trafficking is a system that includes the active participation of police and government officials.
What are the main problems with the effort to protect Khmer heritage?
It's good that Angkor Wat has been registered as a World Heritage temple, but it's not enough. We need to end the illegal trade of Khmer antiquities. Many are still sold at the market. At Tuol Tompoung [Russian] Market, they still show and sell many antiquities, which makes me very upset. What we lose, we can't get back. This comes from negligence in the Cambodian government. The Culture Ministry is not well-educated in Khmer history and culture. They aren't passionate about it and have done a bad job of preserving it because they have been appointed for political reasons and not because of their skills.
When I was [an] undersecretary of state, I did many things to fight the trafficking of antiquities. But now, nobody is fighting very hard because trafficking is a system that includes the active participation of policemen and government officials.
When you were at the ministry and made regular visits to the Customs House, what did you observe?
The officials working at the Customs House (under the control of the Culture Ministry) did not work seriously. I would go there and find people trying to pay off officials to get antiquities out of the country. Sometimes, we gave the owner compensation and transferred the piece to the National Museum.
Traffickers also have various tricks - for example, listing and presenting a picture of a new statue for the ministry's approval, but then using the receipt of approval to take an ancient statue out of the country. I've pointed out this tactic to the authorities a number of times. Nobody is interested in addressing these problems, so I've tried to collect some of the pieces myself.
Has the government pressured collectors to return antiquities that were taken from the country illegally?
We don't have much pressure here yet. In some cases, other countries have rented our antiquities for an exhibit but then not sent them back. And from private collectors, the government cannot get anything back.
Have foreign countries cooperated in earnest with Cambodia in repatriating Khmer heritage? Are foreigners to blame?
Cambodia is poor and has often been the victim of rich countries. We have been asking the French government to send back to Cambodia some statues from the Guimet Museum [in Paris] because they have items that were removed from Cambodia improperly. But it's hopeless and really depends on the will of France to give it back. And with some antiquities sent to France for restoration work before the civil war, France does not want to send them back. They think we've forgotten about them.
Westerners still come to Cambodia to buy pieces of Angkor heritage. Some have secret relationships with officials. They have a trading network in Thailand and Europe. Foreign diplomats participate in the trafficking because they can use their immunity to sneak items out of the country without inspection. These are rich people who know the value of these items on the international market. It's a crime, in my mind.
When I went to Russian Market, I saw [one diplomat] buying antiquities. I was very hurt. In the past, I've been afraid to say anything about it for fear of retribution. Now, I must buy the antiquities pieces with my own money, and I have many antiquities pieces from the market.
What is the value of Khmer heritage?
A country can be evaluated by the richness of its culture, and antiquities are a major part of our culture. Cambodia is recognised for its ancient history. If we lose these, we lose a very important part of our past, and the past helps us guide our future. The government needs to try to educate people to give them a greater appreciation for the value of this heritage.
What is the state of research on Khmer heritage?
Starting about a hundred years ago, the French did research on Khmer antiquities, but they just focused on the Angkor temple complex. We need to expand the scope of research. We should conserve all - the heritage of ethnic minorities like the Khmer Leu.
You are trying to turn your home into a museum for Khmer heritage?
I constructed the museum not to compete with the National Museum of Fine Arts - I have sent many antiquities I bought from the market to the National Museum - but because I think the Ministry of Culture is not preserving everything that needs to be preserved.
My objective is to construct a museum to hold the antiquities I have collected. So far, my museum has around 400 pieces from all over the country. I decided to use my house as the museum space. I've used my own money to do this. If I was allied with Hun Sen, then maybe I would have got some help from the government, and if I was with Norodom Ranariddh, maybe I could have gotten some royal support. But I'm on my own. I work for my nation. When I die, my achievements will still live. The 20 books I've researched and written - it's given some sense to my life. And with everything I've done, I want the next generation to continue to build it.
Interview by Neth Pheaktra and Brendan Brady