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Gods Threatened by the Art Market and Warfare: The AC Interviews Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction Authors

October 11, 2023

The art market’s demand for Cambodia’s material heritage has been high since the 1960s, with many of the nation’s sacred artifacts entering the illegal art market. In a chapter for The Routledge Handbook of Heritage Destruction, Antiquities Coalition Director of Programs, Helena Arose, alongside Angela Chiu and Ben Evans, takes a close look at the demand for Cambodian heritage and provides an overview of the history of its looting and protection. 

In a brief interview, Helena Arose, Angela Chiu, and Ben Evans answer questions about the history of looting of Cambodian antiquities, the impact of cultural racketeering on the nation, and what lies ahead.

What was your inspiration behind focusing on Cambodia and examining the cultural racketeering that takes place there?

  • Angela: A couple of years ago, Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition, suggested Helena, Ben, and I collaborate on a book chapter on Cambodia. At the time, there was a rise in media attention on the return of looted items held by foreign museums to Cambodia. Our chapter provides some historical context to where we are today, from how Cambodian sculptures were first developed as both ‘cultural heritage’ and a commodity of the art market during the colonial era to the efforts of Cambodian governments through the decades to protect cultural heritage, to challenges faced in recent years. Our chapter is brief, but we have tried to bring together some of the crucial work done by various researchers in understanding the threats to cultural heritage in Cambodia.
  • Ben: In 2018, I interned with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and was tasked with researching ways to protect Cambodian cultural heritage. Substantial research has been done on the illicit networks that traffic in stolen antiquities from Cambodia to wealthy Western markets, and there have been concerted efforts to prosecute those who traffic in stolen antiquities. However, fewer resources have been dedicated and less research has been done on looting-prevention efforts that would keep antiquities from entering the illegal marketplace. Or, worse yet, ways to prevent irreplaceable cultural heritage from being destroyed altogether in a time of conflict. When I was with DC-Cam, I was presented with an opportunity to work in a conflict zone along the border with Thailand in a province called Oddar Meanchey.  This area, and the Khmer Empire-era temples within it, have been a point of contention between the two countries for decades. In 2011, this conflict became violent and the temples sitting in the conflict zone were caught in the crossfire. My research focused primarily on interviews with residents, soldiers, and local government officials on what efforts, if any, had been taken to safeguard local cultural heritage sites, like Ta Moan. My research focused specifically on the 1954 Hague Convention, which requires signatories to undertake efforts to protect cultural heritage in times of war.
  • Helena: In my graduate studies, I worked with Tess Davis, Executive Director of the Antiquities Coalition and noted scholar of the illicit trade in antiquities in Cambodia, to examine primary resources related to Cambodia’s efforts to make use of international tools to protect its culture under threat. I was happy to return to that research and contribute it to this chapter alongside Angela and Ben.

What resources and research did you draw from and build upon?

  • Angela: I’ll mention just two works. In 1997, the APSARA, then recently established by the Cambodian government as the agency in charge of managing cultural heritage, published Angkor: A Manual for the Past, Present and Future. Authored by Ang Choulean, Eric Prenowitz, and Ashley Thompson, it provides a perspective on Cambodian archaeology, history, law, and policy that is still very informative and insightful despite the passage of time. More recently, groundbreaking work was done by Tess Davis and Simon Mackenzie on the organized looting networks that brought artifacts out of archaeological sites in Cambodia and onto the international market. The pair of articles Davis and Mackenzie published in 2014 can be read on Trafficking Culture here and here.
  • Helena: We revisited many primary resources, from correspondence to diplomatic cables to UN reports, in addition to the scholarly sources mentioned by Angela and the on-the-ground case study provided by Ben. It is helpful to illustrate some of the abstract policies with academic perspectives, views from the ground, and voices from the time.

What lessons can be learned from Cambodia and its efforts to protect its cultural heritage?

  • Angela: Cambodian administrations have made cultural heritage management a priority at the highest levels of government, engendering a focus and commitment to expediting the present mobilization of resources as well as planning for the long term. In our chapter, we highlight that the Cambodian government has undertaken many measures over the decades to protect cultural heritage. This includes their efforts in diplomacy and engagement on the international stage, which have been crucial because it is foreign demand for Khmer antiquities that has been the main driver of looting and cultural heritage destruction in Cambodia. The country was an early signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It has successfully leveraged its membership in these conventions to enlist international support for the protection of its heritage. In our chapter, we discuss one example from the 1970s. In 1999, Cambodia drew on its accession to UNESCO 1970 to negotiate import restrictions by the US, the largest art market, on Cambodian cultural property. This was extended to a renewable bilateral MOU that is still enforced today and that has provided the basis for the cooperation with US authorities that has resulted in the return of many artifacts to Cambodia in recent years.
  • Ben: Cambodia has done an exceptional job of protecting well-preserved and commercially viable cultural heritage sites, like Angkor Wat. However, more far-flung and less preserved sites are harder to sell as tourist sites, so they tend to receive less protection. This has led to widespread looting and cultural heritage sites being exposed to armed conflict. The lesson that Cambodia teaches us is that investing time, energy, and financial resources into protecting cultural heritage works.  But, as long as only commercially viable sites are afforded adequate protection, much of the cultural heritage of a nation will disappear. If sites like Ta Moan are worth fighting and dying over—they are worth protecting.
  • Helena: The Kingdom of Cambodia has emerged as a leader in protecting its cultural heritage, an example that gives hope to those communities and even countries that have also been victims of looters and traffickers. But from our chapter, we see that these efforts began decades ago. The impact on cultural heritage in Cambodia during the conflict 50 years ago parallels similar challenges seen in other parts of the world today, such as Yemen and Ukraine – the international community cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.