PHNOM CHISOR, Cambodia - Reet grew up among the hilltop ruins of this district
about an hour's drive from the capital, Phnom Penh, learning how to count by
going up and down its 412 steps.
It is also at the area's local school that the 14-year-old boy learned about
the looting of antiquities from the 11th-century hilltop temple, also called
Phnom Chisor. Now, he tells visitors, "There is no looting here."
The community around the ruins runs a program to educate villagers about the
Phnom Chisor temple, made in Baphuon and Khleang architectural style from
laterite and sandstone. Jutting out to the sky from the 100-meter hill, Phnom
Chisor was built by
Suryavarman I, the king of the Khmer Empire, for the god Brahma in 1010. The
Angkorian temple is more or less intact, unlike many other ruins such as Koh
Ker, capital of the Khmer kingdom in the 10th century, or even parts of Angkor
Wat in Siem Reap province.
Looting at Phnom Chisor is often done by poor villagers who sell the artefacts
for small amounts, which then find their way to local or international markets.
International auction houses do not make enough effort to ensure items are not
obtained illegally, argues Dougald O'Reilly, founder and director of Heritage
Watch, a Phnom Penh-based non-governmental organization.
An ancient looted head would probably bring a local a mere US$1, but then could
be sold for a hundred times that amount in a Bangkok market - and much more
outside Asia, said Terressa Davis, project coordinator of Heritage Watch.
Meantime, Reet notes that Cambodian law forbids looting of the country's
antiquities. What would he do if someone offered him a lot of money for
something from the ruins? His eyes blazed as he answered: "I won't do it
because it's illegal. Besides, I know it's a bad thing to do."
"Officers from the Ministry of Culture have made it very clear that looting is
prohibited," a monk at a modern Buddhist temple beside the ruins said. "People
are more informed now, so they will not be tempted to loot. We all have a
duty to protect our own cultural heritage."
The total value of cultural assets, both counterfeit and original, smuggled
each year is about US$22 million, O'Reilly said, quoting Masayuki Nagashima,
the author of Lost Heritage: the Reality of Artefact Smuggling in Southeast Asia.
Worldwide, trafficking in stolen works of art and national treasures is valued
at up to $8 billion a year, according to the Art Theft Program of the US
Federal Bureau of Investigation, which calls the trade "a major category of
Interpol says the annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is
exceeded only by trafficking in illicit narcotics, money-laundering and
The looting of artefacts also means the loss of crucial information about the
past: social and political structures of society, pre-historic health, ancient
technologies, records of border trade, as well as art and architecture.
Many other Asian countries experience differing degrees of looting. But the
popularity of Khmer artefacts along with porous borders and lack of resources
add to the problems in Cambodia. Activists admit it is hard to curb the demand
for stolen antiquities.
So, groups such as Heritage Watch focus on education campaigns to prevent
looting or encourage communities to protect their heritage by training
villagers to develop new skills, such as managing small businesses and
producing crafts to sell to tourists.
But Heritage Watch's Davis said 80% of the catalogues of international auction
houses have no provenance (information on items' origins) and this does not
help efforts to protect Cambodia's heritage.
"They can simply say that a vase is done in Ming style, but they won't say
where exactly they got it from," Davis said. "The absence of provenance could
mean either they really don't know where the item came from, or the information
could be incriminating. People assume that because they are big companies, they
follow the law, when in fact they are operating under a very thin veil of
But Wannida Saetieo, country manager of Sotheby auction house in Thailand, said
the company is a "proper public company" that has always followed the law. "At
Sotheby's, we always try our best to ensure that all items are genuine and not
acquired through illegal means," she said. Before an item can be sold through
Sotheby's, the owner must show documents certifying ownership, she added, but
conceded the company "cannot guarantee 100% that an item is not stolen".
"If we know that there is only one item and that the item is in a museum
somewhere and if someone comes with an item that looks alike, then we know it's
a fake," she said.
But "it's the responsibility of the buyer to also do their own background check
on any item", she added, flipping over a Sotheby magazine to its back pages to
show the company's disclaimer.
She also stressed that Thailand forbids the taking Buddha statues out of the
country. "There is a big demand for them, but we don't sell them because it's
Provenance on Sotheby's catalogues can be absent because wealthy owners guard
their privacy and prefer not to see their names printed for the whole world to
see, she said. "These people are very, very private."
National and international laws and conventions exist to make theft and
trafficking harder, but they are not always adequate.
In 1996, Cambodia's National Assembly adopted the law on the Protection of
Cultural Heritage, which covers "movable and immovable objects and cultural
property from vandalism, illicit transfer of ownership, excavations, illicit
export and import".
In the same year, Cambodia claimed all cultural properties for the state,
making the selling of Khmer antiquities illegal.
But to recover a stolen artefact, the government has to prove theft by
producing a picture of the item in its original site before it was stolen. Most
pictures of Khmer antiquities in their original sites were taken in the 1930s
by the French, so this loophole has added to the difficulty of
Stolen Khmer artefacts are usually smuggled out either by sea to Singapore or
by land to Poipet, a Cambodian town on the border with Thailand, Heritage Watch
founder O'Reilly said.
Smugglers take advantage of the fact that Singapore and Thailand are not
signatories to the 1970 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization) convention that prohibits the import of stolen cultural
property and requires countries to monitor the antiquities trade within their
Cambodia has ratified the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the
Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural
Objects, which declares that "A possessor of a stolen cultural object must
return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original
This allowed the Cambodian government to negotiate with Thailand in 2001 and
2002 for the restitution of 43 Cambodian cultural artefacts, which had
transited through Singapore. A 9th-century stone head of Shiva and a
12th-century stone head of a demon were also returned by the Honolulu Academy
of Arts in 2002.
For now, small teams of local experts from Heritage Watch continue documenting
Cambodia's ruins, so there is visual evidence in case some artefacts go missing
and turn up somewhere halfway around the world. These teams also use
illustrated comic books in Khmer to explain why villagers should protect their
temples and ruins.
Heng Chan Thol, a former student of the Archaeology Department of the Royal
University of Fine Arts in Cambodia, believes that "Poverty alleviation and
education should be the main efforts to get rid of this phenomenon."
For instance, "The Apsara Authority, in charge of protection and preservation
of Cambodian cultural heritage has tried bringing local people to work as
guards for local historical sites. As a result, the looting in Siem Reap
[Angkor Wat] has almost completely disappeared," he said.
"One day, they will be held accountable," Davis said of traffickers in stolen
antiquities. "Art collectors, looters and smugglers will face the same
discrimination as those who profit from ivory and fur today."