May 15, 2021

Op-ed: PM Hun Sen: More Than 100 Khmer Artifacts Returned, Art, Culture Continue to Shine

On Mar. 3, 2021, the Kingdom of Wonder, marks its 23rd national Culture Day with a low-key celebration led by Prime Minister Hun Sen who promoted online displays of many kinds of art performances on social media instead of live gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Despite those limitations our Khmer culture, art, mental education, music and philosophy continue to shine brightly indefinitely.
Speaking of the return of Khmer artifacts reminds me of when many foreign journalists kept asking me what factors that brought such invaluable artifacts to be smuggled from Cambodia to as far afield as Europe and America for commercial interest?
I replied that there are few main key factors behind the trend, such as Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s that provided opportunities for smugglers to cut and steal the artifacts from the ancient temples and sell them to artifact lovers and collectors, many of them foreigners. Many even found their way into unsuspecting legitimate museums through unscrupulous dealers.
The lack of laws and poor legal practice, as well as a lack of the public awareness about invaluable artifacts going back centuries, were blamed. But, Cambodia alone can’t prevent smuggling and trading of artifacts. We need collaborative effort, including neighbouring countries through which the stolen artifacts are transported, regional and international law enforcement agencies, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), World Heritage Committee (WHC), among others.
The Royal Government of Cambodia worked hard through technical and legal processes, with the stakeholders near and far, to enlist famed ancient Khmer temples as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Angkor temples complex was listed in December 1992, Preah Vihear in July 2008, the Royal Ballet in November 2008, Sbek Thom shadow puppets in November 2008, Sambor Prei Kuk, another archaeological site in Kampong Thom province, was listed in 2017.
And the government seeks to add more of its culture, tangible and intangible heritage to the List.
As a spokesman of the Royal Government of Cambodia, I have no magic power to physically prevent or halt the smuggling and trading of the artifacts, but I hope my words through media and public outreach to send the message that, “Khmer artifacts are not for sale, given the fact that our Khmer ancestors—who carved and sculpted such statutes—was to show our Khmer race and culture were glorious in many ways”.
So, it is never too late for art and antiquities collectors in any part of the world—who still hold Khmer artifacts—to come forward and please release them to Cambodia where the nation is now enjoying full peace and development and assured safety and protection for these precious items.
As a Khmer, I totally feel that, my ancestors’ spirit will not be at peace unless the statues, the wonderful artifacts they made for their kingdom, are returned home so that they can be reunited. Some artifacts and statues did come back and we are hoping more will come home.
It is so sad to see many of artifacts and statues lost their limbs and heads, cut by looters. It is still too much and painful to me when I see some artifacts stand headless, missing limbs, others lacking part of its group. It is as if part of me has been amputated.
Our ancestors had learned far ahead of us, centuries ago, that to pass on such legacies to us they had to make artifacts and statue made of stone, and engrave their knowledge on them, to survive the powers of nature such as rains, storms, floods, and damaging animals, even humans themselves in ways that paper or wood could not. They wanted us to know that we are part of them and vice versa.
Even Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge could not, dare not, erase that legacy, and in many ways that legacy played a key role in reviving and uniting the nation after the years of madness.
We, today, have benefited from their foresight and inherited such legacies, such as the temples. Although those temples made of ancient sandstone cannot talk; but their voices speak in the fine arts of sculptures, statues, the stone language, and more which are the tremendous resources of cultural tourism. For instance, Cambodia received more than 6 million tourists a year before the arrival of Coronavirus/Covid-19.
In this respect, the national Culture Day is more than just a day of celebrating the performance of our art and culture, but it is the very day to show our commitment across the board to protect, preserve and developed the culture.
Please do remember in your head and heart that the Khmer race is glorious, our land was large and vast. It was widely well-known around the world, and glorified us, along with regarding our nation as an elder one.
Please, all of you, make up your mind firmly to do your best to help enhance the value of our Khmer nation with great culture, like our elder generation stated, with the most splendor, and once again in accordance with our history, along with ensuring that our great and elegant civilization continues to shine indefinitely.

Source: Agency Kampuchea Press

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