Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The future

The future

A conjunction of circumstances developing in this period was to put the Angkorian cultural heritage at unprecedented risk. With severe poverty, widespread possession of weapons, and virtually unbridled military rule, as well as continuing insecurity throughout Cambodia, most particularly in Thai border regions harboring Cambodian resistance groups, Khmer objects rapidly became prime targets for an illicit international art trafficking net-work with its regional base in Thailand. Over the course of the 1980s and particularly into the 1990s the illicit traffic became an organized industry within Cambodia itself.

Nevertheless, the political and economic opening of Cambodia in 1989 offered new prospects for the rehabilitation of national infrastructure, and for the adoption of strong measures for cultural protection. Practice of the Buddhist re-ligion was increasingly accepted by the State. Western language study was permitted; foreign investment took hold. Renewed and diverse scientific in-terest in Angkor was to progressively develop. And the Department of Archaeology at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was reopened in 1989.

However the social, economic and political changes begun in the late '80s simultaneously catalyzed great destruction and loss; cultural, natural and human resources all suffered deeply. Faced with the open market, and before an unknown future, many in positions of power sought to consoli-date personal wealth. In Siem Reap, the illegal art traffic, as well as logging, proved increasingly lucrative.

Faced with rampant looting in the Archaeological Park, the Angkor Conservation Office resorted to removing objects for safekeeping in the compound grounds. Surrounded by barbed wire, its outer walls lined with sandbags, and under twenty-four hour armed guard, the Conservation was still unable to prevent theft. Between 1992 and 1993 the compound was thrice attacked by armed forces. Numerous invaluable pieces were lost. In response to this seemingly uncontrollable violence, the government removed over one hundred remaining pieces to Phnom Penh. With the aid of UNESCO, security measures were reinforced in and around the Conservation compound.

It is however important to note that while threats to the Angkorian heritage increased dramatically during this transitional period, so did pos-sibilities for protective action. In November of 1991 H.R.H. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, in his capacity as President of the pre-election organ known as the Supreme National Council (SNC), signed the instruments of accession to the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, thereby completing Cambodia's ratification of the three main existent international instruments for the protection of cultural pro-perty. Cambodia's obligations as State Party to these three international conventions - the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention - required, among other things, the adoption of a wide range of national laws and regulations. Setting conditions concerning the promulgation of legislative measures for the protection of cultural heritage, the provisional inscription in 1992 of the Angkor site on the World Heritage List reiterated these national obliga-tions. In the early 1990s, and with international legal assistance, amend-ments were made in the penal code of the State of Cambodia to introduce sanctions on the destruction, theft and illicit traffic of cultural property to enable existent authorities to immediately address the growing problem.

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The war

The Modern Period: The war

As for other domains including administrative and socio-economic development, any progress that had been made in cultural heritage management since Independence was lost over the following decades. The activities of the Conservation were considerably reduced from the early 1970s on. Military presence in the region progressively rendered the archaeological sites inaccessible. As the Park itself fell into the hands of Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops, the Conservation shifted its efforts to sites in and south of Siem Reap town. The research, conservation and restoration program that had expanded and reinforced its internal coherency, especially in the 1960s, was dismantled. With the rise of the Khmer Rouge to power in April 1975, all the elements of the living Buddhist cult, were purposely destroyed (religious leaders, Buddhist monasteries, Buddha images, manuscripts, etc.), but the Khmer Rouge had no systematic policy concerning the vast quantities of archaeological material at their disposal. Indifference seems to have been the general rule, and the monuments, as well as objects placed in the Conservation were for the most part simply neglected.

However, while Angkor was physically abandoned, the concept of Angkor as a civilization did figure in Khmer Rouge ideology. The temple of Angkor Wat adorned Democratic Kampuchea's national flag. The national hymn proclaimed Khmer Rouge advances on Angkorian civilization. Cynically denouncing the "slave labor" through which the ancient Empire was built, the Khmer Rouge nonetheless capitalized on Angkor as the hereditary model on which an ideology of personal sacrifice for monumental collective works was based. Nonetheless, the Angkorian heritage did not escape the Khmer Rouge period unscathed. Mines were detonated, for example, at certain post-Angkorian stone Buddha images. Numerous post-Angkorian wooden images from Angkor Wat are known to have been burned for firewood. In comparison to the architectural and artistic heritage, the Angkorian hydrological infrastructure suffered most at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Massive engineering projects undertaken with forced labor and ostensibly meant to augment irrigation capacities proved counterproductive, disrupting rather than ameliorating the pre-war hydrological system, itself largely based on Angkorian structures. These alterations made to a hydrological network that in centuries of use had proved to be efficient continue to hamper development in Siem Reap today.

Driving out the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Vietnamese troops took over the town of Siem Reap, contributing to the desstruction and looting of Angkor. Occupying troops started with-drawing from the Conservation compound in October of 1980, at which time an Indian delegation visited Angkor to undertake the first archaeologi-cal inspection since the early 1970s. A Khmer conservation team was pro-gressively established in the compound, and by February 1982 Vietnamese military presence in the compound had come to an end.

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