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Looters search areas of archaeological importance in Cambodia after bomb disposal experts have de-mined them

Illicit excavations occur as de-mined areas often show no signs of the riches below the surface so authorities do not deploy heritage security teams

After decades of civil and foreign war, Cambodia has been left with some 3,000-square kilometres sown with an estimated 4 to 6 million Chinese- and Russian-made landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge and South Vietnamese Communists.

The removal of these unexploded devices is painfully slow. According to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, the official Cambodian agency that undertakes the defusing of mines and oversees the activities of other outside agencies trying to help, only about 10 square-kilometres a year can be cleared, and the operation will take decades to complete.

As soon as areas have been cleared of mines, locals move in to strip the diggings of artefacts. De-mined areas often show no signs of the riches below the surface, which can include ceramics, metalwork or sculpture, so the Cambodian authorities, already overstretched, do not immediately deploy heritage security teams on de-mined sites. Of the approximately 2,500 sites of known archaeological importance, around 500 still need to be de-mined.

Etienne Clément, the chief representative in Cambodia of the United Nations’ cultural watchdog, Unesco, told The Art Newspaper about the latest steps that are being taken to combat this looting.

They include a mission to improve the quality of life for the locals, since people tend to loot simply because they are very poor. Unesco, with access to immediate funding, has itself initiated these programmes which include a literacy programme and training in duck- and chicken-rearing, which have already reduced looting.

Other Unesco initiatives have been designed to help reduce looting at the country’s extensive temple sites as well as at sites that have been recently de-mined. A network of guards is being increased. The remit of the Heritage Police, currently numbering 700, is being extended. Unesco is preparing to have rapid-response guards to go quickly to newly discovered find sites. These guards cost $10,000 per year, per site. This is a direct initiative by Mr Clément, who can apply these relatively small amounts of money as he sees fit.

A team of Unesco representatives, including archaeologists, will also go quickly to recently de-mined sites to remove loose objects, and then to hire local inhabitants to guard the site. The use of locals is “a weakness”, Mr Clément admits, but a reward scheme is being used to render the guards immune to small bribes.

Meanwhile, a new bilateral agreement designed to reduce the flow of Cambodian antiquities into the US, the largest importer, has been signed. A Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries went into effect in autumm last year. It subsumes a weaker emergency agreement of 1999, and covers all artefacts dating from the sixth to 16th centuries AD. The advantage of this bilateral treaty is that the importer of an artefact is required to show proof that its provenance is legal, whereas general laws require US customs officials on behalf of the State to prove any wrongdoing. A US government official who asked not to be named said that discussions are taking place between the Cambodian authorities and the US Embassy in Cambodia about how best to implement the agreement. This might involve training and grants similar to Unesco programmes.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Looters hot on the heels of the bomb disposal experts'