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John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME.
ROCKY HERITAGE: Ancient temples such as Banteay Thom have been plundered.

Reclaiming History
After decades of official neglect and rampant theft, Cambodia is finally recovering its artistic heritage

The Ground Beneath Their Feet:
Poipet, Cambodia

In the courtyard of phnom penh's national Museum are two new acquisitions, carvings of the mythical ten-armed figure of Lokesvara that were returned to Cambodia in April after Thai police confiscated them from smugglers. The faces of Lokesvara, one of the forms of Buddha on his path to nirvana, are fixed in that enigmatic, distinctively Cambodian smile, as fresh as when they were carved 800 years ago. On either side of him are rows of people kneeling in prayerful submission.

The 11 sq m of carvings, removed from Banteay Chhmar temple by the pillagers, would have been worth more than $1 million on the international black market. Their return to Cambodia has given cheer to the archaeologists and conservationists who have fought for years to curb the looting of the country's priceless artistic heritage. In a small way it mirrors Cambodia's attempt to put itself back together again as a country after so many years of civil war. But the battle is only beginning.

In a small jungle clearing on the road to Mount Kulen, north of the temples of Angkor, a man is selling small green bowls, streaked with clay. The area is close to a waterfall popular with locals on weekends and is controlled by the military; everyone has to pay an unofficial entry fee at a military checkpoint on the access road several kilometers back. The bowls, says archaeologist Pheng Sam Oeun, are 1,000 years old. They are protected by law, yet they are selling for $2.50 each. When asked whether this trade is not illegal, the people at the stall say it is their property to sell. They have never heard of a law protecting antiquities.

Another hour up a small jungle track is the site where the bowls were found—an ancient kiln, according to Sam Oeun, who works for Apsara, the official agency tasked by the government with protecting the temples around Angkor. The kiln was only recently discovered by villagers, who have been excavating it and selling what they find. "What can I do?" Sam Oeun asks, throwing his arms in the air. Apsara employs just 68 guards—and Cambodia has thousands of ancient temple sites.

Cambodia flourished as an artistic center from the 9th to the 15th century, and since then its heritage has suffered from the advances of the jungle as well as the greed of humans. When the Thais sacked Angkor in 1431, bringing the Khmer empire to an end, they took all the gold and jewels they could rip from the temple walls. Ever since, countless Buddha statues and wall carvings have been pillaged and sold in the West. In 1923 the French writer AndrE Malraux tried to steal carvings from the temple Banteay Srei, and he was jailed briefly in Phnom Penh when the theft was discovered.

During the three decades of war that ravaged Cambodia from the mid-'60s, looting trailed off as the countryside became too dangerous to move through. But after peace was restored in the late '90s, the pillaging of statues and carvings suddenly shot up; often the culprits were the military personnel who controlled the roads and had tools to remove the carvings. Despite growing international protests, artifacts streamed across the border into Thailand, destined for overseas collectors.

Then came the Banteay Chhmar theft. In January 1999, according to local villagers, a team of men from the Cambodian military spent almost four weeks using giant circular saws to hack up the main bas-relief frieze that runs around the outside of the ancient temple wall. They destroyed a large part of the frieze to get at the two carved figures of Lokesvara, their main goal. It is rare for such a large and instantly identifiable artifact to be stolen—archaeologists suspect a wealthy foreign collector commissioned the theft. The 117 blocks were wrapped and put in trucks for the short drive across the Thai border and onward to Bangkok. Fortunately, Thai police became suspicious, stopped the trucks and impounded the cargo. Thai officials subsequently announced they would return the hoard to Phnom Penh. "The Banteay Chhmar looting was, in media terms, very dramatic," says Ang Choulean, deputy head of Apsara and a professor of archaeology at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. "It has raised the consciousness of many people."

Raising consciousness is the key, says Choulean—both among the poor Cambodians who steal statues to feed their families and among the dealers and collectors in the West and Japan who provide a market for the loot. "Cambodia cannot fight this alone. I call this the problem of the two ends." There had already been some encouraging signs. In 1997 New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a head of Shiva to Cambodia after it was proven the object had been stolen. Several other U.S. museums are "reviewing" their Cambodian exhibits for stolen artifacts. And the shock generated by the attempted theft at Banteay Chhmar has begun to motivate governments. The U.S., France and Thailand have all recently forbidden the import of Cambodian antiquities.

Cambodia lacks a single body to coordinate all the measures that must be taken to protect the temples and their carvings. The nation is plagued with corruption and disorganization, and the military—itself responsible for much of the illicit trafficking in antiquities—still enjoys almost unlimited power in the country. But finally there are grounds for hope. After years of destruction and conflict, Cambodia is beginning to reclaim its soul. For people like Ang Choulean, protecting the country's historical and cultural heritage is crucial to the process of national healing. "We lost so many things, you cannot imagine," he says. Fortunately, there is still much left to protect.

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