Problems with Looting: Not just poverty

There was sad news today reported by KI-Media (translated from a Khmer newspaper) about a site in Svay Rieng province called Toul Trapeang Ang which was being heavily looted.   Much looting in Cambodia is the result of poverty- villagers digging for artifacts they can sell for some extra money.  In this instance however, it wasn’t villagers who were destroying an archaeological site but local and military police.

A thousand year old burial site looted by powerful people

It’s been reported that, on Saturday 17th January, 2009 the above officials went to see the village chief and the hill’s curator by telling them that they got a permission from the higher authority to dig out the valuables from the hill to take them to a national museum. When they cannot produce a permission document and the fact that the digging were taken place at night time, the curator got suspicious. But those officials told the village chief and the curator that the works have to be done at night time so that the works do not alarm and attract the attention of the villagers.

Due to the objection from the villagers, the permission was not granted. But those officials retorted that, whether the permission is granted or not, they will still dig out the valuables from the hill because Toul Trapeang Ang is a state property, it does not belong to the villagers here. The officials said that they have the authority to dig the hill because they got the agreement of the commune chief, the local police chief and the local military police officers have also agreed. So everyone is warned not to obstruct the works.

This is really disappointing and disheartening.  When people in a position of power blatantly break the rules in this way it does not bode well for the future of archaeology in Cambodia.  I am happy to hear that the villagers actively tried to stop this looting and the publicity now will hopefully empower people to continue to report these kinds activities.   I can also say from my personal experience with people at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts that this kind of activity is not condoned and the claim that these objects were being dug for the National Museum is most likely a cover- the objects were probably going to be sold on the black market. Again from the article:

Mr. Prum Phary, deputy director of the Provincial Heritage Office, said that, due to complaints from the village chief and from the villagers, he was asked by the director of Provincial Cultural and Fine Arts Centre to go to the area to see for himself. He has intervened and has asked that the digging be stopped immediately. Furthermore, he has instructed the village chief and the villagers to protect this hill and must report to the authority immediately should any group try to dig this hill again. At this time, the Provincial Cultural and Fine Arts Centre is asking the authority to punish those culprits who were involved in the digging of this ancient hill.


Let’s hope there is some kind of accountability for their actions.



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4 responses to “Problems with Looting: Not just poverty

  1. Oh ALISON! Is there any chance someone can step in and comandeer whatever they find? I imagine that any villagers or local officials trying to stand guard would come to harm. Would it do any good to have the National Museum contacted? (I’m betting they know nothing of this.) Disheartening indeed……

  2. I actually contacted my friend in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and he hadn’t heard about this case. He was going to personally go visit the site next week and see what is going on. I’ll post an update if I hear anything from him.

  3. Just wanted to make a comment that, there are imposer authority figures who use fake identity as police or military to do this kind of thing and sell land illegally too. I just wanted you, Alison, and everyone else to realize that. Plus, never to generalize. If there is a few bad fish in the basket, does that mean all other fish are rotten too? Don’t blame an organization such as the government as a whole but individuals. I just don’t like it when people blame a group when individual is the one to be held responsible. Not saying that you Alison is blaming the whole group but just in general. Thanks!

  4. Hi Rudy- This is a really important point- thanks for your comment!