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25 September 2005
Cambodian archaeological sites being decimated

Tomb raiders are decimating Cambodia's archaeological sites, looting ancient and remote cemeteries to sell antiques to tourists, an independent watchdog warned as it prepares a campaign to educate potential buyers. The problem is in part an unintended side effect of Cambodia's success in protecting its world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex, said Terressa Davis of Heritage Watch, an independent group which works to protect Cambodia's archaeological heritage.
     The hardest-hit provinces are the poor regions along the Thai border, such as Banteay Meanchey province, where villagers have unearthed ancient graves on a large scale to find ancient tools to sell to smugglers who sneak them into Thailand, she said. Some of the cemeteries in Banteay Meanchey date to 500 BCE, while other cemeteries and temples are from the Angkor era, roughly the ninth to the 14th centuries.
     In a bid to curb the illegal trade in artefacts, Heritage Watch is opening a two-month exhibition at Angkor Wat starting October, to educate tourists about how the looting destroys Cambodia's heritage, Davis said. The aim of the exhibition is "try to get tourists to realise that this is going on and also to educate them, so they don't purchase antiquities," Nearly 20 percent of foreign tourists admit to buying an antiquity in Cambodia, according to a Heritage Watch study. With about one million foreigners visiting every year, that means hundreds of thousands of antiques are leaving the country, Davis said.
     Sok Sareth, deputy governor of Banteay Meanchey province, admitted looting was a problem in his region, but said poverty was the real problem. "The poor people dig up the cemeteries hoping to get ancient pots and beads to sell to business people," he said. The national government has issued repeated orders against desecrating ancient sites, but enforcement has proved difficult, said Chuch Phoeurng, secretary of state for the ministry of culture and fine arts. Because many of the sites are in remote areas, authorities often discover the looting too late, he said. The ministry has documented some 3,350 ancient cultural sites, including cemeteries and temple compounds, but teams are still surveying the country for more.

Sources: AFP, Yahoo! News (23 September 2005)

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