TRAING DISTRICT, Takeo province – To pull off one of the biggest heists in Cambodia’s recent history—the theft of the country’s only relics of the Buddha—the perpetrator had to sneak past five security guards, climb more than 500 steps to the top of Oudong mountain, break open the $4.5 million stupa, remove the relics, carry them back down and disappear into the night.
After the theft in December, experts speculated that the relics had already left the country, probably trafficked to Thailand, to be flogged on the black market.
The thief—or thieves—had left no trace and must have been very skilled, police assumed.
Five security guards who were arrested soon after the crime said that they had not seen a thing,
and have continued to affirm their innocence.
But not all thieves are as smart as they initially seem, and once a feeling of triumph and security spreads, the majority start making mistakes that eventually get them caught.
“You take a big gamble when you commit such a crime, but normally, most [thieves] here are not that intelligent,” said John Muller, managing director of Global Security Solutions, a security services firm.
“They brag to a neighbor about it, or they are suddenly in wealth they didn’t have. For bank robberies, they start spending the money, for example,” he said.
For Keo Reaksmey, a small-scale farmer from Takeo province’s Traing district who was arrested and charged with the theft a little more than a week ago, that mistake was buying a Honda Dream motorbike for $1,000, five days after the theft occurred.
The purchase baffled neighbors and immediately led to rumors in Khab commune’s Kokho village, and Mr. Reaksmey could not offer a satisfying explanation to the curious residents.
Not even Mr. Reaksmey’s grandmother, Meas Nhe, 78, a hunched woman with betel-nut stained teeth, believed that her grandson had earned the money legitimately.
“I asked him about [the motorbike] but he wouldn’t tell me how he got the money,” she said.
Suspicion and envy spread so rapidly around the village that Oum Thon, commune police chief, got tip-offs from suspicious villagers the same day Mr. Reaksmey purchased his bike.
“Five days after the relics disappeared he bought a new motorbike, and people called me about their suspicions. They told me that he got very rich, but wouldn’t tell anybody how,” Mr. Thon said.
Mr. Thon informed district police, who then informed the provincial police, who told the Ministry of Interior.
In the meantime, Mr. Reaksmey had flaunted more unaccounted for wealth: two other motorbikes, one of which was worth $15,000, and a 2014 model car.
Last week, police decided to call Mr. Reaksmey in for questioning, but instead found themselves engaged in an unlikely car chase along the bumpy paths of Kokho village, many of them not even broad enough for a car.
District police had spotted the suspect driving his new car about 5 km from his house around lunchtime last Thursday, and he had refused to pull over.
“I told him to stop, but he didn’t,” district police chief Seang Maly said.
“We drove after him and chased him down to his house,” he said.
After a strip search, both Mr. Reaksmey and Ms. Nhe were arrested, and police started to search the house and surrounding area.
Ten statues Mr. Reaksmey allegedly stole from Oudong along with the relics, as well as three others he is accused of stealing from a local pagoda last year, were recovered from the gutters and bushes around his home as well as the backseat of his car.
“I myself found one statue here,” Mr. Thon said last week, pointing at a corrugated iron gutter of a small shelter for livestock.
“It was very small, maybe the size of my thumb,” he said, adding that he found another statue close to a cupboard in the kitchen, which also served as Mr. Reaksmey’s bedroom.
The most valuable find was the relics of the Buddha, which had been secreted under Mr. Reaksmey’s bed.
Ms. Nhe, the grandmother, who was released without charge, said that she was completely unaware that her stilt house had been home to the country’s most valuable religious relics.
“I know there is the evidence, but I am not sure if he did it,” Ms. Nhe said.
The Royal Palace and the supreme patriarchs of the country’s Buddhist orders are now discussing how to make the stupa more secure before the relics will be taken in a procession from the Royal Palace to Oudong mountain.
Kandal provincial police chief Eav Chamroeun said on Friday that the relics would likely be returned to the mountain to coincide with the Buddhist holiday of Visak Bochea which marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, and which falls on May 13.
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)
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