THIRTEEN Angkorian artifacts - stolen at least six years ago - are due home from
Thailand in mid-October, while other priceless works are about to embark on a worldwide
exhibition which will last the better part of two years.
The Thai government officially handed over the 13 stone pieces, some up to 800 years
old, to Cambodia's Ambassador in Ban-gkok, Roland Eng, on Sept 23.
The artifacts were scheduled to be flown to Phnom Penh on Oct 15, and will reside
at the National Museum, according to Michel Tranet, secretary of state for Culture
and Fine Arts.
"This is a symbolic gesture of goodwill on the part of Thailand," he said.
"But we would also appreciate that they return other objects which were stolen
Tranet was referring to 40 other artifacts which, according to official documents,
are suspected to have been stolen from Angkor between April 1990 and February 1995.
The fate of these objects has yet to be determined.
After they were confiscated in 1990 by police from an art gallery in Bangkok, the
13 artifacts became the focus of a long legal wrangle to establish their exact origins
"The majority of decision-makers in Thailand would have liked to have returned
those seized artifacts sooner," said Raschada Jiwalai, the first secretary at
the Thai Embassy. "But the decision was delayed because of legal complications.
"The position of the Thai government is we are not going to keep artifacts which
were stolen from other countries. But we simply want to make sure that these stolen
objects have not come from Thailand."
A visiting UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) official
supported Thai claims about legalities delaying the return of the 13 objects as legitimate,
given the history and geography of the Khmer civilization.
In his opinion, an important distinction has to be made between Khmer civilization
and modern-day Cambodia.
"The Khmer universe left behind cultural and artistic traces which can still
be found in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and even Burma," said Azedine
Beschaousch, Unesco director-general's special representative for Angkor.
"Unfortunately, the fact that Cambodia lost its archives as a consequence of
its dirty war and the Democratic Kampuchea regime, has made establishing proof that
these Khmer artifacts originated in Cambodia especially difficult."
Jiwalai said Cambodia had provided photographs and documents since 1994 to authenticate
their ownership claims, but these did not constitute conclusive evidence in court.
The Thais were therefore returning them partly as a show of goodwill, he added, noting
that bilateral relations had gradually improved since the Cambodian Government took
power in 1993.
In the past, acrimonious Thai-Cambodian relations had been further strained by allegations
on both sides of complicity in the smuggling of Khmer artifacts.
Corrupt quarters of the Cambodian military were suspected of facilitating the pillaging
and smuggling of large stone pieces from Angkor. The Thais were accused of being
in cahoots with Khmer Rouge looters and smugglers, providing them with access to
overland routes in Thailand.
Jiwalai said that the return of the 13 artifacts was not linked to the recent power
reconfiguration within the KR high command and prospects for peace in Cambodia.
However, according to Michel Tranet: "The Thais waited for the start of the
peace process before returning objects to Cambodia."
Unesco's Beschaousch agreed with Tranet, saying that Thailand had not signed current
international arts and culture conventions and was therefore never obligated to return
the objects to Cambodia.
In his view, their return was borne out of a thaw in relations as well as the likelihood
of a Cambodian peace.
"The improvement of Thai-Cambodian relations and the peace process certainly
contributed to the repatriation of these art pieces," said Beschaousch. "Now
with the prospect of peace at hand, Cambodia has an opportunity to recover and protect
its cultural heritage."
Meanwhile, finishing touches are being put on Khmer antiquities to be displayed at
art galleries of the Western world, beginning next January.
Thirty-nine artifacts, restored at the National Museum, will be flown to Paris at
the end of November, according to Ang Choulean, aide to Vann Molyvann, senior minister
for Culture and Fine Arts.
They will join 27 pieces previously sent in July for special treatment, as well as
other artifacts drawn from overseas collections.
The exhibit will however be without the controversial presence of the statues of
Jayavarman VII (seated) and the Nandin Ox, the two most venerated treasures of the
Angkorian heritage and sacrosanct in Cambodian folklore.
The show was almost cancelled as a result of political wranglings over whether the
two pieces should have been included.
A campaign by Vann Molyvann and the Western organizers of the exhibit to include
them was undermined by Nouth Narang, the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, and his
deputy Tranet. A co-Prime Ministerial order eventually overruled Molyvann.
Baschaousch remained upbeat that the exhibit would succeed regardless of Jayavarman
VII and Nan-din.
"One must not forget that the Cambodians will be sending masterpieces of their
artistic heritage anyway," he said.