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 Loot or Go Hungry?

 

By Martin Lerner

Helping impoverished countries maintain and preserve their cultural patrimony is decidedly complex and not susceptible to easy answers. Solutions, whether they have any foundation of common sense or practicality, have traditionally been advanced by individual groups and governmental agencies following their own often narrow interests and agendas. The ongoing problem of antiquities leaving Cambodia is of major concern, and protective measures beyond foreign archaeologists lobbying for blanket restrictions or the ill-considered recent U.S. embargo on Cambodian stones need to be implemented to correct, or at least significantly improve, this troublesome situation.

Direct responsibility for preservation of antiquities rests with the Cambodian government, but there must first be a clear indication—from its highest levels—that it is willing to address this problem seriously. At present, given disproportionately large military budgets, bureaucratic corruption, and general disregard for cultural institutions, solutions do not seem promising despite some modest improvements. Whenever governmental budgets are drawn up, allocations for museums, archaeological programs at universities, and the maintenance of archaeological monuments are woefully inadequate. This dereliction of responsibility must serve as the real gauge of the importance the government currently assigns to this area.

What happens when a farmer accidentally discovers some form of antiquity? The impoverished farmer can try to sell it in order to feed his large, malnourished family, or he can turn it over to the authorities. If he sells it, he may be able to send his children to school for a few years, since, in many instances, teachers in Cambodia are paid so little they must charge their students in order to survive. The farmer’s probable choice seems obvious.

Soldiers and police forces in the countryside receive their pitiful salaries on such an erratic basis that they, too, must somehow supplement their tenuous existence and are likely to try to sell anything they accidentally come across.

Assuming that the international trade in antiquities cannot be stopped by blanket regulations prohibiting their exportation, and given that it is unlikely that governments of poor nations can smother the incentive to send antiquities out of the country clandestinely, a more enlightened approach is necessary. Since art still remains the single best ambassador for any nation, is it in the national interest to prohibit the exportation of all works of art?

The real goal should be to establish some degree of control over what leaves the country, and this is not beyond the capabilities of the Cambodian government. The government can demonstrate its will to protect its cultural patrimony by allocating adequate funding to establish a large trained force to guard architectural monuments. Currently, the few guards assigned to protect the temples at Angkor are paid so little they seem more interested in selling souvenirs, like their badges, to tourists.

It is also essential to get archaeology students into the countryside to work on the many unfamiliar sites. This may have some impact over the rampant pillaging by audacious temple robbers whose recent theft of an entire wall from Banteay Chhmar is the most egregious example of the magnitude of the problem.

Anyone who has visited the conservation depot at Siem Reap and seen its vast holdings of sculptures and fragments—probably numbering in the thousands—collected from the various sites throughout the country is aware that there are many such pieces that are of mediocre quality, iconographically and stylistically redundant, or historically unimportant. No reasonable person can claim that there is much to be learned about Khmer art history by adding and hoarding even more of the same.

If an agency could be established to sell the unimportant and redundant material, and if the government would issue export permits for art not essential to the nation’s collections, people seeking approvals would submit their material for consideration. This would allow the authorities the right to make decisions about what should leave the country and provide information on new finds.

The same agency could review the enormous inventory of known works of art stored throughout the country and consider allowing licensed dealers to sell the material that clearly is of little value to Cambodian museums or research organizations. A database would record the materials let onto the market. And much-needed revenue could be obtained to finance the agency and provide additional funding for impoverished museums, university training programs for art history and archaeology, and new archaeological research projects.

The Cambodian government must enlist the aid of the Thai government to retrieve Cambodian antiquities smuggled across the porous Cambodian-Thai border. Trained personnel must be assigned to review Bangkok’s many unregulated antique shops, particularly those doing business in the large shopping complex, River City.

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