Gov’t Seeking Access to Seized Artifacts

Cambodia is waiting on the green light from Thailand to inspect a haul of items seized last month from a disgraced senior Thai police official—a trove that includes a number of Khmer antiquities that Thai authorities say may have been smuggled into the country illegally.

Thai police confiscated the artifacts last month in a sweeping raid of properties owned by Lieutenant General Pongpat Chayaphan, a former commissioner of the Thai police’s central investigation bureau.

Thai police chief General Somyot Poompanmuang, center, talks to reporters last month as he sits among statues seized from Lieutenant General Pongpat Chayaphan, former head of the Thai central investigation bureau. (Reuters)
Thai police chief General Somyot Poompanmuang, center, talks to reporters last month as he sits among statues seized from Lieutenant General Pongpat Chayaphan, former head of the Thai central investigation bureau. (Reuters)

Police discovered underground vaults storing assets worth more than $60 million, according to Thai media, including about 50 historical artifacts worth an estimated $1.5 million. An additional 10,000 artifacts found there have not yet been identified or authenticated, according to a report in The Nation newspaper.

Lt. Gen. Pongpat was arrested in November along with seven other police officers on charges including insulting the monarchy, money laundering, bribery, smuggling and extortion.

Among the items seized from the senior police officer’s estate were 13 “deities and Buddha images built in Khmer style,” according to The Nation.

The newspaper reported that the director-general of the Thai Fine Arts Department said some of the artifacts found might have been wrongfully taken from their owners.

Prak Sunnara, director-general of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ heritage department, said the Cambodian government is waiting on permission from Thailand to inspect the artifacts and verify their provenance.

“We are not clear about [the artifacts], but we are working on it,” he said. “It is not only us who want to send specialists to inspect [the artifacts], but also Burma and Laos.”

Mr. Sunnara said his department is preparing documents for what he said would be a difficult process of proving that the artifacts were illegally taken from Cambodia.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Cambodia sent a request to Thailand nearly two weeks ago to send experts to examine the seized antiquities.

“We have to wait until they respond first, so that we can inspect and take photos of those artifacts,” he said.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapagorn has acknowledged Cambodia’s request and said that Thailand would find a way for the Cambodian officials to analyze the artifacts, according to the report in The Nation.

Thai police spokesman Prawut Thawornsiri said Monday that a special unit has been assembled to go through the cache of items seized from Lt. Gen. Pongpat.

“A special team of 300 officers has been set up to work on the criminal investigation and analyze the detail [of] the property found,” Mr. Prawut said, adding that details about the items would be disclosed shortly.

“The commission is still investigating. In about two or three weeks they will know the worth of the property.”

The arrest of Lt. Gen. Pongpat comes after the Thai military staged a coup in May against the elected government of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup and became Thailand’s prime minister in August, has announced a campaign against graft in the police force, one of the country’s most corrupt institutions.

However, there is widespread speculation in the international media that the arrest of Lt. Gen. Pongpat and a number of other high-profile police officers is an attempt by the military junta to purge the country’s police force of officials loyal to Ms. Yingluck and the populist political movement founded by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

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