Cambodia’s Looted Art and Other Embarrassments

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For centuries, British colonialists would quip that they were doing the world a favor by relieving conquered territories of their historical artifacts. Whether it was Chinese frescoes smuggled out along the Silk Road, aboriginal remains from Australia or ancient relics from Egypt, the argument was they were being taken to be put in museums and preserved for posterity.

The sub-text, however, was that the indigenous were incapable of looking after their own cultural heritage while colonial cynics would counter that such arguments were contrived simply to justify the theft of artworks worth millions of dollars.

Such historical accusations were behind the return of a Cambodian statue taken from near the ruins of the 12th century temples at Angkor Wat. The statue of an ancient Hindu warrior had come up for auction at Sotheby’s and this had prompted the U.S. authorities to act.

Lawsuits were initiated, Sotheby’s was irritated and the $2 million statue was returned with the total cost incurred by the American taxpayers. By most reckonings it was a victory for common sense and American generosity over a European art market that has traded on looted artifacts for centuries.

But celebrations have been tinged by a group of Cambodian security guards.

As the Hindu warrior was being packed for the trip home, Cambodia’s only relics of Buddha were stolen from the former royal capital at Odong where some hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha were kept, supposedly under tight security.

They were enshrined there in 2002 after being brought here about half a century earlier from Sri Lanka to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth. In 1989, they were installed in a stupa in front of the Phnom Penh railway station until the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk had them moved them to Odong.

Suspicions immediately fell on the Cambodian guards, amid a chorus of outrage from senior clergy, politicians and an array of people from the arts community who fear the theft and probable sale will cost Cambodia its chance to have Odong listed as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO.

Worse, others see the theft as a symbol of Cambodian ills.

This became clear when 200 monks overwhelmed the annual conference of Buddhist clergy at the Chaktomuk Hall in the capital where they demanded that senior monks push Prime Minister Hun Sen to locate the national treasures.

They also held up a banner that said: “Because of corruption, the relics were stolen.”

The guards assigned to protect the Buddha relics were paid less than $45 a month, a minuscule sum in anybody’s language made far worse when given the historical significance of the assignment these men had been entrusted with. But even worse is the prospect that the Cambodians may have given British paternalism an unwanted, nice little shot in the arm.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.

Comments
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Lootees
December 27, 2013 at 03:08

All tourists can see for themselves when visiting a wealthy country’s rich citites, the streets there are all lined up with museums of arts from Africa, S. America, China, Korea, Middle East, Iraq, Egyptian, Aborinals, Persian, Chinese Tibetan, Indian, Andean, and so on. For the naive, it is very easy to get impressed with the Europeans’, Auss’ and Jpaanese’s rich in cultures and sponsorships in the world of arts.

But think again, one must ask how these arts call came from. When one realizes all these great arts from all other corners of the world were not donated to these museums as gifts from tribal people, but through acquistions with greeds, scheems, murders, cheats, steals, loots, robbery, and all the ugly ways that the many wealthy people from Europe and Japan would do to enchanced their wealths.

Take by all means.

Museums in London, Washington DC, NYC, Paris, Tokyo, Rome, Berlin, and etc, are full of loots. These museums are shameful places where one can cry over the stains of human phoniness.

Shame to be in the same biological specie with these so called sophisticated.

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