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Cambodia's looted art and other embarrassments

For centuries, British colonialists would quip that they were doing the world a favour by relieving conquered territories of their historical artefacts. Whether it was Chinese frescoes smuggled out along the Silk Road, aboriginal artwork from Australia or ancient relics from Egypt, the argument was they were being taken to be put in museums and preserved for posterity.

The subtext, however, was that "the natives" were incapable of looking after their own cultural heritage. Critics of colonialism would counter that such arguments were contrived simply to justify the theft of artworks worth millions of dollars.

Such historical accusations were behind the return of a Cambodian statue taken from near the 12th-century temples at Angkor Wat. When the statue, which depicts an ancient Hindu warrior, came up for auction at Sotheby's, US authorities were provoked into action.

Lawsuits were initiated, Sotheby's was irritated and the $2-million (Bt65.7 million) statue was returned with the cost incurred by the American taxpayers. By most people's reckoning it was a victory for common sense and American generosity over a European art market that has traded in looted artefacts for centuries.

But celebrations have been tinged by a group of Cambodian security guards.

As the Hindu warrior was being packed for the trip home, Cambodia's only claimed relics of the Buddha were stolen from the former royal capital at Odong, supposedly from under tight security.

They were enshrined there in 2002 after being brought about half a century earlier from Sri Lanka to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's birth. In 1989, they were installed in a stupa in front of the Phnom Penh railway station, before King Norodom Sihanouk had them moved them to Odong.

Suspicions immediately fell on the Cambodian guards, amid a chorus of outrage from senior clergy, politicians and the arts community who fear the theft and probable sale will cost Cambodia its chance of having Odong listed as a World Heritage Site with Unesco.

Many see the theft as a symbol of Cambodian ills.

This became clear when 200 monks overwhelmed the annual conference of Buddhist clergy at the Chaktomuk Hall in the capital and demanded that senior monks push Prime Minister Hun Sen to locate the national treasures.

They also held up a banner that said: "Because of corruption, the relics were stolen."

The guards assigned to protect the Buddha relics were paid less than $45 a month, a minuscule sum in anybody's language made far worse when given the historical significance of the assignment these men had been entrusted with. But even worse is the prospect that Cambodians may have given British paternalism an unbidden, nice little shot in the arm.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.


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