Study Details Sophisticated Temple-Looting Ring

Often thought to have been a loosely structured smuggling operation, the looting of Cambodia’s Angkorian temples up until the early 2000s was in fact conducted by a highly sophisticated network headed by military officers, according to research published this month in the British Journal of Criminology.

The result of years of fieldwork and research by two attorneys from the Scottish Center for Crime and Justice Research assisted by a Cambodian field researcher, the report “Temple Looting in Cambodia” outlines a carefully controlled system in which whole walls of Angkorian monuments were cut off and carted away by men answering to two military officers based in Serei Saophoan City.

Sculptures defaced by looters at the Angkorian monument of Phnom Banan near Battambang City. (Tess Davis)
Sculptures defaced by looters at the Angkorian monument of Phnom Banan near Battambang City. (Tess Davis)

This all-Cambodian network was highly effective. One field looter the researchers interviewed believed that he and his team trafficked about 92 statues—including some from the Koh Ker temple—between the 1980s and the early 2000s. These could be sizeable pieces: One statue required 40 men to carry it.

“The volume and organization of the traffic was surprising, even for us as researchers with experience in the issues,” said Simon Mackenzie, one of the authors, an attorney and criminologist in charge of the Trafficking Culture project at the Scottish center.

The network they uncovered worked as follows.

Two field looters were assigned to a territory with very specific boundaries in which they would locate and retrieve artworks with local teams of workers. The field looter profiled in the report covered Phnom Kulen, next to the Angkor Archaeological Park, and Koh Ker.

All stolen works were brought to Serei Saophoan and delivered to two brothers who belonged to different military factions.

In the 1990s, the CPP, Funcinpec and Khmer Rouge armies were clearly divided when not fighting each other. But, the authors write,“We learned that…while Cambodia’s various armed forces refused to govern together, some of their soldiers had no problem doing business together.” Identified as Sambath and Phala in the study, the two brothers handled transport and sale to a Thai agent on the other side of the border.

For the field looters, there was no question of bypassing the Serei Saophoan middlemen. Sambath had organized the murder of his own uncle after he attempted to sell statues directly to the Thai agent, the authors write.

That Thai agent would bring the artifacts to a dealer and collector in Bangkok whose reputation was such that he numbered international collectors as well as museums among his clients. The Thai agent also had a team of 20 Cambodian artwork “fakers” capable of making pieces mimicking the looted artifacts that could fool even the collector. The Thai dealer believed the fakes the collector ordered were at times sold to international museums.

Looting on that scale is believed to have subsided in the early 2000s, one reason being that the Angkor Archaeological Park and other major sites are now well guarded. “Another explanation is that ‘most of the good pieces have already gone,’” the authors write, “which rings true to our site visits, where we accumulated many pictures of headless statues, pedestals from which statues have been broken off at the ankles and holes in walls where relief used to be.”

However, they add, “We were told by a receiver at the Thai border that if we wanted any piece that was currently in situ, we should go and take a picture of it and he would arrange for it to be looted and delivered to us within a month.

“So while the networked looting and trafficking activity we analyze here does seem to have abated somewhat in recent years, there is an open question around how much is still going on.”

With little left nowadays to chop off Angkorian and pre-Angkorian monuments, looting has shifted to prehistoric burial sites and Buddhist pagodas with centuries-old statues and artworks, said attorney and archaeologist Tess Davis, who co-authored the study with Mr. Mackenzie.

“Cambodia is in fact one large archaeological site: There are 4,000 known historic and prehistoric sites,” and new ones are uncovered every year, she said in an interview Tuesday.

“No government can safeguard the entire country…and as long as there’s a demand on the part of dealers and collectors, thieves will find a supply,” said Ms. Davis.

Once described as a "historical museum" by an early French explorer for its wealth of sculptures, Prasat Thom at the Angkorian site of Koh Ker has been one of the most looted in Cambodia. (Tess Davis)
Once described as a “historical museum” by an early French explorer for its wealth of sculptures, Prasat Thom at the Angkorian site of Koh Ker has been one of the most looted in Cambodia. (Tess Davis)

What prompted the authors to embark on this study was the fact that little was actually known of the 1990s-2000s smuggling network in Cambodia.

Some researchers had linked artifact smuggling in general to organized crime; others had conjectured that, in Cambodia, it mainly consisted of a loosely organized structure with locals looting to feed themselves.

“But just in terms of common sense, when you look at the scale of the looting that took place at Koh Ker or Banteay Chhmar, we’re talking about tons of sandstone blocks being moved hundreds of kilometers through very difficult terrain,” Ms. Davis said.

In 1998, 30 meters of wall was chopped off the Angkorian temple of Banteay Chhmar in northwestern Cambodia. A portion of it was returned but some sections of the monument have disappeared.

“It has always been difficult for me to believe that this was the work of poor villagers,” Ms. Davis said. “Looting of that scale requires a lot of men, a lot of money, a lot of resources. And those are things that both organized crime or armed forces can provide. We suspected the armed forces. But we’ve always needed evidence to back it up.”

This meant talking to Cambodians at looted monuments to find out what they had seen over the years, Ms. Davis said. Gathering information and collecting testimonies was done with the help of numerous Cambodian colleagues.

In addition, researcher and archivist Naren Than spent one year touring the sites and interviewing people. She would talk to villagers who had grown up and lived in the vicinity of the monuments for decades. She also tried to persuade people involved in looting and smuggling explain how the network operated.

“The most difficult was to reach the right people,” Ms. Than said. “We did not want to accuse people. We just wanted to understand.”

Ms. Davis and Mr. Mackenzie later joined her to conduct in-depth interviews with key players she had identified—Mr. Mackenzie was already familiar with the Thai side of the system as he had previously conducted studies in Bangkok.

This first report focused on the northwestern smuggling network. Their next study, due to be released toward the end of the year, will focus on the northern network that the Khmer Rouge operated in the 1980s and 1990s, and will look into the role antiquity smuggling may play in armed conflicts.

The authors also believe that a smuggling network has operated at pre-Angkorian monuments in southeastern Cambodia. But confirming this will require another study and funding to support it, Mr. Mackenzie said.

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