Buddhas of Angkor Under Threat from Looting

John Gittings in Siem Reap
The Guardian Unlimited
August 28, 2001

There is the sound of chanting at the gate of Ta Som temple. Workers are carrying out a heavy figure on two crossed poles.

It is neither a corpse nor a tourist to Angkor who has slipped on the ruins. It is a 12th-century Buddha with folded hands, meditating on the coils of a naga—a cobra whose several heads protect him from the sun and rain.

The Buddha is lifted into a pick-up truck. Local people have tied prayer scarves on the rope by which it is hoisted. They study the statue respectfully before it is removed to conservation headquarters in the town of Siem Reap.

"It was only discovered yesterday," an excited temple guardian explains. "Now they must take it away quickly before someone steals it. For the robbers, it is worth a new house and several new cars."

"You came at the right time to see the Buddha," says a moto-cab driver. "It will bring you good fortune!"

For eight centuries, this Buddha had lain undisturbed a couple of meters below ground level, in the sanctuary of Ta Som. It remained undisturbed when the temple was used as a field hospital by the Khmer Rouge soldiers who occupied Angkor in the 1980s. Only excavation has exposed it to danger.

Need for Greater Security

Proper security for Angkor was one of the conditions set by UNESCO when it listed the area as a World Heritage Site in 1992. But after 20 years, abandoned to war and the forest, Angkor was in such a desperate state that UNESCO reversed its usual procedure and allowed the conditions to be satisfied after, not before, listing the site.

The Angkor archaeological park's force of nearly 300 French-trained "heritage police" was not fully established until two years ago. "We are trying to teach the villagers to understand the value of heritage," says the deputy commissioner, Sin Sinareth.

Everyone agrees that UNESCO's support came at a critical time and may have saved Angkor from being torn apart. But security, like everything else in this operation, is a relative concept.

"Nowadays we only lose a few things," says an official of Apsara, the Cambodian management authority for Angkor and the Siem Reap region. "We still lose something every day, but it's better than elsewhere in the country."

In Phnom Penh, Cambodian archaeologist Son Soubert is more pessimistic. "The police are very forceful, but they are not enough," he says.

In recent years, the Khmer Rouge units in the area have been demobilized. Some of the soldiers are now "heritage police." But elements of the national Cambodian army that fought against them remain at two important sites in the park.

Continued on Next Page >>


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