Piece by piece, Cambodia’s unique archaeological heritage up for grabs

At a bustling market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s heritage is being sold off, piece by piece: ancient beads are snapped up at two for a dollar, while 15 dollars secures a 3,500-year-old stone tool.

Sales of such ordinary antiquities are booming at markets across the kingdom, robbing it of a rich history archaeologists are only just beginning to study after decades of conflict ended here in 1998, experts warn.

Ceramic pots and bronze bracelets may seem innocuous spoils compared with the stunning statuary prized by "tomb raiders", but their theft from underground sites means Cambodia’s prehistory is being irretrievably lost, they say.

"Most archaeologists are not really interested in finding a giant statue of Buddha or a single magnificent artefact. We’re interested in spatial context," says Kyle Latinis, an American archaeologist specialising in Southeast Asia.

For items such as humble beads or tools to be useful to historians, they must be studied and assessed while still in the ground.

But with mines being cleared across war-ravaged Cambodia, farmers are clearing once-forbidden land and uncovering artefacts they quickly pass to middlemen. And when archaeologists are called in, their finds fall prey to looters.

"We can’t make head or tail out of a site that’s been looted. It’s killing historical interpretation," laments Latinis, who acknowledges how desperately-poor Cambodians are often compelled to sell their findings.

From the middlemen, the artefacts move to local markets where they are affordable enough for both Cambodians and tourists to buy, or they shift into the international black market, which is as yet unquantified and unstudied.

The celebrated Angkor Wat temple complex, the country’s most treasured landmark, was removed from UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger this month, with the body describing its preservation as "a success story".

Illicit excavation, pillaging and landmines were the main threats that put the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire on the list in the first place. Angkor Wat, founded in the ninth century, is Cambodia’s main tourist drawcard today.

But the treasures across the rest of the country remain at risk.

Etienne Clement, the director of UNESCO in Cambodia, says the problem started emerging about five years ago, in part because of the successful crackdown on thefts of stone statuary from the kingdom’s famed temples.

"So the attention is now given to these kinds of objects, which are less spectacular and smaller but which unfortunately contain much more information than a stone statue which may have been studied for decades," he says.

And the trade is virtually impossible to monitor.

"By definition these objects are under the ground… discoveries are made by chance by people who then spend a lot of time digging out near a place where they have already found things," Clement says.

Dougald O’Reilly, director of independent group Heritage Watch which is working to protect the cultural riches buried in Cambodia, emphasises the global importance of the knowledge harboured here.

"In terms of world archaeology, Cambodia is an amazing gold mine, and it’s completely unknown. Angkor is one of the greatest civilisations in the world and as prehistorians we know nothing about how that came about."

Extensive burial sites containing huge iron swords and helmets decorated with buffalo horns — some items never before seen in the region — have been completely wiped out by looters, O’Reilly says.

The ministry of culture’s secretary of state Chuch Phoern in Cambodia’s new government says the laws here are excellent, but police are untrained and locals remain unaware of what should be protected.

"We plan under the new mandate of the government to educate and inculcate deeply on people the laws concerning protection and preservation," he says.

Meanwhile, Heritage Watch, formed earlier this year, aims to educate villagers about the value of the items and plans to establish museums in threatened areas.

O’Reilly says the hope is that sites will generate long-term income.

"We’d like village people to make a living off that sustainable resource, thereby perhaps passing on the message that they don’t need to loot the stuff and sell it so it’s gone forever."

Clamour rises for Khmer Rouge trial as political crisis ends

After a year-long political deadlock, the formation of a new government in Cambodia has finally cleared the way for ex-Khmer Rouge leaders to stand trial over the killing of up to two million of their compatriots.

Cambodia wants to see the Khmer Rouge regime in the dock, but as the clock ticks on the final days of its surviving leaders — most of them now in their 70s — rows continue over who will pay the costs of justice.

At least six surviving leaders have been cited for trial, accused by scholars of genocide and crimes against humanity during their reign of terror.

Pol Pot, who headed the murderous regime from 1975-79, was unceremoniously cremated over tyres after his death in 1998, months after he was purged by his former subordinates.

Some of his henchmen are in jail, including Ta Mok, the former military commander dubbed "The Butcher" and Kang Kek Ieu, or "Duch" head of the regime’s infamous S-21 torture centre.

But others roam free including Ieng Sary, former foreign minister, who returned to Cambodia last week after a month in a Thai hospital suffering heart problems and highlighting the urgent need for the tribunal.

The UN and the Cambodian government struck a deal in June 2003 to see the ageing leaders stand trial but inconclusive elections in July last year left the country without a government and halted momentum.

Cambodia’s two leading political parties finally started work Friday after spending months thrashing out a coalition deal and Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged a top task would be ensuring the trial went ahead.

Observers expect key legislation to sanction the trials to be passed within three months, but a UN estimate of a war crimes tribunal that rose as high as 63 million dollars has annoyed potential donors.

Some close to the process expect it to take another year after the legislation is passed for the international tribunal to begin work.

The UN had been expected in February to appeal to donor nations for money to pay for the tribunal, then expected to cost between 20 and 55 million dollars.

But the UN-proposed figure increased and cast doubt over a swift start to the trials, said Craig Etcheson, a US-based Khmer Rouge researcher closely following developments.

Etcheson said donors are demanding the budget be cut to 30 million dollars for the three years of proceedings after being stung over the cost of other international tribunals.

The UN’s case is hardly helped by the delay in its war crimes hearings of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic because of his health problems as the case drags into its third year. The Khmer Rouge leaders are a decade older.

The donors also want guarantees that the trial will be over within three years and costs cut.

"In short, the donors appear to have been picking apart the budget line by line, questioning pretty much everything," Etcheson told AFP.

He said it appeared the only way to achieve the cuts would be to dramatically cut the number of UN staff involved in the proceedings, a move backed by the Cambodian government.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia which has been accumulating evidence of atrocities, said justice had to be done for the sake of the elderly and traumatised Cambodian society.

"Survivors have died. We need to make sure that survivors see justice done. The government must really try to give justice to the people," he said.

More than 10,000 booklets in Khmer and a smaller number in English about the trial are about to be distributed around the country and two weeks of training for judges and lawyers are slated for next month.