Cambodia’s efforts to reclaim artefacts taken during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s and smuggled through neighbouring Thailand received a boost when the daughter of a controversial late British art collector last month announced she would return more than 100 items worth over US$50 million (S$66 million).
The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts on Jan 29 said Douglas Latchford’s collection constituted “one of the greatest collections of Khmer cultural heritage outside of Cambodia ” and their return was “an incredible event for the Cambodian people and the world”.
Latchford, who died last year aged 88, was in 2019 charged by federal prosecutors in the United States for making false documents to transport ancient Khmer valuables around the world.
The items, joining others that have been returned by foreigners in previous years, demonstrate the Herculean task faced by the Cambodian government and its supporters in restoring and preserving the country’s history.
Reaksmey Yean, a Cambodian art advocate and programme director of the Silapak Trotchaek Pneik art gallery in the capital, Phnom Penh, said the Cambodian people believed these artefacts were their souls and identity.
“Cambodians believe that [every person has] 19 souls, and only if they are tamed and unified are we complete. Therefore, the return of these artefacts is both [a matter of] national pride and as well as the sign of our prosperity,” he said, adding that their repatriation was important for local scholarship of Cambodian art, culture and religion in a country that had long relied on external experts.
Dougald O’ Reilly, associate professor of archaeology at the Australian National University and founder of Cambodian anti-looting NGO Heritage Watch, said: ‘’In some ways the return of these objects serves to reignite interest in the past, I would think, and the objects retain their value.’’
However, he said the religious value of some of the figures might have been lost.
Dr Chanthourn Thuy, archaeologist and deputy director of the Institute of Culture and Fine Arts at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said many archaeological objects had been returned to Cambodia by individuals and countries after the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in the early 1990s helped restore stability and civil government in the country.
Chhay Visoth, Director of Cambodia’s National Museum said latest figures showed there had been 294 antiquities, most of which statues and jewelry, repatriated to Cambodia in the last five years.
Debates about the repatriation of art and other forms of cultural heritage to their home countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa, have been gaining traction, with many of these works currently in Western museums and other private collections.
While looting took place during Cambodia’s period of civil unrest, many of its cultural artefacts were also taken during the 90-year French colonial period that officially ended with its independence in 1953.
And while Cambodians are looking forward to the repatriation of the Latchford collection, many archaeological sites across the country remain undiscovered or improperly documented, leaving them vulnerable to looters.
“The risk of looting remains high in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations,” O’Reilly of Heritage Watch said. “I fear this may be exacerbated by the global pandemic, which has had a negative effect on regional economies, and poverty drives looting of archaeological sites.”
The UN forecast that poverty might almost double in Cambodia because of the pandemic, with estimates at about 17.6 per cent of the population. There are currently more than 16.4 million people in the country.
Cambodian antiques are protected by both the 1970 UN cultural agreement aimed at preventing the trafficking of illicit antiquities and a domestic law enacted in 1996 that prohibits the looting and unauthorised export of these artefacts.
In its bid to preserve its cultural heritage, the Southeast Asian country has received firm support from the international community, including the United States, which has provided over US$5 million in assistance to this end since 2001, according to the American embassy in Cambodia.
While the US had supported the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, the two countries established full diplomatic relations after the freely elected Royal Government of Cambodia was established in 1993.
But much as the country’s artistic heritage was uprooted and sold to foreign buyers, so is its natural heritage. Illegal sand mining, deforestation, water resources and other environmental issues are rampant in Cambodia.
Cambodian art advocate Yean said while he welcomed the government’s success in reclaim the country’s heritage from abroad, he urged that they “prove the seriousness of their action” by improving museum and preservation standards as well as investing in “important organisms in the art ecology” including art historians, curators, and archaeologists.
“I hope that this attitude should expand to include the protection and preservation of biodiversity and the [nature] ecosystem in Cambodia,” he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.