Five Arrested For Theft of Buddha Relics

Kandal Provincial Court charged five people Sunday with aggravated theft for their suspected involvement in stealing the country’s only relics of the Buddha, which were taken early Tuesday morning along with a golden urn that was enshrined in a purpose-built stupa on the top of Odong mountain.

The five suspects were questioned by prosecutors at the provincial court and are being detained pending a review by the investigating judge, said Sam Rithyveasna, deputy provincial prosecutor.

Police said on Friday that six of the stupa’s security guards had been detained for questioning over the theft of the relics—said to be hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha.

“I charged them yesterday with aggravated theft and sent this case to the investigating judge,” said Mr. Rithyveasna, declining to give further details about the suspects because the case remained under investigation.

An article posted to the National Police’s website Sunday identified one of the suspects as Pha Sokhem, 56, the chief of security at the stupa from where the relics were stolen.

Mok Hong, chief of police in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, whose officers are cooperating in the investigation, said that more than 20 statues of the Buddha

were found in Mr. Sokhem’s home in Ponhea Leu district’s Prek Pnov commune.

Mr. Hong declined to elaborate on the significance of the Buddha statues found at the suspect’s home.

“Kandal provincial police arrested a 56-year-old man and found many Buddha statues. Police are investigating whether or not he was involved with stealing the relics,” he said.

The stolen relics have been in Cambodia since the 1950s, when they were transported from Sri Lanka to Phnom Penh to mark Buddha’s 2,500th birthday.

In 2002, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets between Phnom Penh and Odong mountain as the relics were transported by then King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen to a purpose-built $4.5 million stupa.

The Venerable Kim Sorn, the chief monk in Phnom Penh, said Sunday that it would be “very embarrassing” if authorities were unable to recover the relics.

“The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts must take responsibility for this case and the government has to get [the relics] back,” Kim Sorn said.

“The relics of the Buddha are a very important symbol representing respect for Buddhism in the country,” he added.

Kim Sorn also said that monks will gather in Odong either today or tomorrow for a silent prayer ceremony, though he said the gathering was not directly related to the theft of the relics.

Sok Oeun, director of Kandal’s provincial department of culture and fine arts, said that although five suspects have been detained over the theft, he was not aware of any leads into the whereabouts of the stolen relics.

“The authorities are investigating, but there has not been any sign of [the relics],” Mr. Oeun said.

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