Cambodia's heritage going cheap
By Frances Suselo
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 international crime".
Interpol says the annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is exceeded only by trafficking in illicit narcotics, money-laundering and arms-trafficking.
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 decency."
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 illegal."
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 prosecution.
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 own borders.
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 theft."
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."
(Inter Press Service)