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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Cambodia's Forgotten Temples Fall Prey to Looters

Guards now patrol Angkor Wat but other cultural sites are being plundered daily.

The three freshly dug holes under the two arching palm trees measured a metre by about half a meter, and about half a meter deep. A few fragments of what appeared to be centuries-old clay pots were scattered around the excavation site, seemingly discarded as worthless in the hunt for more valuable treasure.

"We find new holes every week," said Ndson Hun, a farmer living in the nearby village of Phoum Snay. "The demand [for artefacts] is as great as ever, so people keep digging."

No one knows the extent of the riches at Phoum Snay, an unremarkable Cambodian village about 40 miles north-west of Angkor Wat, the complex of 100 9th to 15th-century Buddhist temples seen as among the world's architectural wonders. But, unlike at Angkor Wat, there are no heritage police here, no Unesco staff, and no local authorities to guard the site.

As the latest holes testify, anyone wishing to pillage the remaining hidden riches will encounter few obstacles. Experts fear the decades-long looting for artifacts across Cambodia is now so rampant there will soon be little left outside the splendors of the Unesco world heritage site at Angkor.

"Almost all sites of antiquity and temples far from towns are being destroyed," said Michel Trenet, the undersecretary of state at Cambodia's culture and fine arts ministry. "Naturally, the priority for us is to protect the Angkor sites and then think about the others. But we don't have enough guards and people are not motivated to protect their heritage. Cambodia is becoming a cultural desert."

Phoum Snay is a classic example. On its discovery, almost three years ago, the site was thought to have been a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge, the communists who ruled from 1975-79 and under whose regime some 1.7 million people were executed or died from disease and starvation.

Then, when iron-age artifacts, including weapons, jewelery, pots and trinkets, started appearing, the site was reassessed as the burial ground of an ancient army. The researchers moved in, and digging started. Thousands of items were found.

Yet little was done to secure the area and antiques traders - people mainly from neighboring Thailand, say villagers, and seeking to sell Khmer treasures abroad - now have virtual free rein.

Their success is shown by the regularity with which Khmer artifacts appear at auction around the world. At any one time, dozens of Khmer "treasures" are on offer on the eBay auction website.

Poverty and greed are considered the two main motivations behind the looting. Monks living in a temple half a mile from Phoum Snay believe the villagers are involved in the illicit digging, despite protestations by Ndson Hun and his friends.

"The villagers are doing it because they are so poor," said Moy Sau, clad in his traditional saffron-colored robes. "They don't respect their heritage because they can't afford to turn down an offer of a few dollars for a night's work."

Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, says that the average annual income in Cambodia is about £155 a year - much lower in rural areas. "Protecting our cultural heritage is a luxury," she said. "People are fighting to survive so they don't know better."

Moy Sau does not dare warn the authorities about the looting: "As a monk I cannot do anything because I rely on the villagers for my food."


Even if he raised the alarm, that might not ensure the artifacts' preservation since government officials and members of the security forces are also involved in the trade, widespread reports suggest.

A stone carver based a few miles away, in Phumi Rohal, who was too afraid to give his name, said some provincial government officials last month asked him to build a base for a "half Buddha" that one of their bosses had acquired.

"I was suspicious even though they had lots of letters and said it would be kept in a temple," he said. "But I did it because I'm afraid of the authorities. Us little people can do nothing against them."

With the country's legal system being so corrupt, the "dark forces", Mr Trenet says, are too powerful, even for him.

A tour of Toul Ta Puon, known as the Russian market, in the capital, Phnom Penh, proves his point, with shops packed with tall cabinets full of artefacts. Bronze-age axe heads and rings sell for less than £15. One intricately carved 11th-century, long-necked water jar was £30.

The shopkeepers appear motivated only by money and refuse to lower their prices, even for Mr Trenet, though most recognize him. "I would like to buy all [the artifacts] for the museum. But my salary is only [£155] a month so what can I do?" he says.
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Ministry steps in after orphanage violence

SIEM REAP - Social services personnel were called to intervene after violence broke out at one of Siem Reap's most prominent orphanages.

The Sunrise Children's Villages orphanage erupted in chaos when a group of boys, angered over the firing of a staff member and new night curfews attempted to take control of the facility, threatening orphanage staff with sticks and trying to batter down doors with hammers and axes last weekend, according to the head of the facility, Geraldine Cox.

Cox, who oversees the orphanage from Sunrise's offices in Phnom Penh, told the Post that trouble began when the Siem Reap staff member was investigated for being too lax in discipline and allowing some boys to leave the orphanage at night, allegedly to participate in gang activity.

"When that person was fired, some children began rebelling and blamed me," Cox said. "I had to seek the cooperation of the Ministry of Social Affairs to remove these children to enable Sunrise to operate normally."

Cox said that she was advised to temporarily sleep in a hotel away from the orphanage for fear of violent reprisals from some of the children at the facility, which is operated by the Australia Cambodia Foundation Inc.

"Not all orphanages can always have all success stories," Cox said. "We certainly have had more than our share of successes, but we also have to accept that some of the children that come from troubled backgrounds are simply beyond help."
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Cambodia plants 600 trees to welcome Olympic Games in Beijing

PHNOM PENH, The Banteay Meanchey provincial authority Friday planted 600 trees in its capital town to welcome the opening of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Khmer-language newspaper the Kampuchea Thmey said Saturday.

"Eight o'clock in the evening, Aug. 8, 2008, is a luck time for us and means good fortune in Feng-shui theory. Therefore, we are planting 600 trees and also organize football tournament to welcome the Olympic Games to open in China and memorize the friendship between Cambodian and China, too," provincial governor Ong Eoeurn was quoted as saying.

This sports gala was very important for the diplomatic relationships between the two countries, which would make the bilateral ties closer, as Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni attended the opening ceremony of the games, he said.

"It is a great day for our best friend China to organize the event," he added.

The trees planted Friday are usually called "royal plant" or "king tree" in Cambodia. They are expected to blossom during the Khmer New Year in mid-April.

Led by Tourism Minister and National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) president Thong Khon, the Cambodian Olympic delegation will join swimming and tracking matches at the games in Beijing.
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