Thursday, October 02, 2014

Remarks by H.E. Dr. Sok An, at the Opening Ceremony of the Temporary Exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia of the Koh Ker Statues Returned Home from the United States

Phnom Penh, 1 October 2014

-       Excellency Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts;
-       Ms. Julie Chung, Chargé d’ Affaires of the U.S. Embassy;
-       Mrs. Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO Representative in Cambodia;
-       Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

It is my great pleasure to be with you today at the opening ceremony of the Temporary Exhibition of the Koh Ker Statues Returned Home from the United States at the National Museum of Cambodia. I wish to acknowledge those who helped make this event possible, particularly UNESCO and the U.S. Embassy for co-financing it with the Office of the Council of Ministers, as well as the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the National Museum for the technical arrangements.

Today’s gathering not only marks an important achievement of the Royal Government of Cambodia, but also signifies international solidarity in the wider campaign to safeguard the heritage of humanity. This is an occasion to celebrate a notable success, as the concerted efforts of the Royal Government, the U.S. Government, UNESCO, and other stakeholders have brought home these looted and trafficked Koh Ker statues. Following the welcome home ceremony held in June this year at the time of their arrival, this temporary exhibition is aimed primarily at raising awareness among the public about the problems of illicit trafficking and trade in antiquities in our modern world, which jeopardise not only the heritage of an individual nation but also of humanity, and informing them of the efforts being made to combat these practices.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As you all know, Cambodia is a country rich in cultural heritage, so that it is often called “the Kingdom of Culture”. Apart from the well-known World Heritage sites of Angkor and Preah Vihear, many more historic sites are found throughout the country, each of which is of distinctive significance, historically and/or artistically, such as Sambor Prei Kuk, Angkor Borei, Banteay Chmar, Preah Khan Kampong Svay, Prey Norkor, Phnom Kulen, and Koh Ker.

The Koh Ker site, from which these magnificent statues originate, is unique in many ways. Not only is it an archaeological site that tells great stories in sculpture, but Koh Ker was the capital city of the Khmer Empire between 928 and 944. Furthermore, international researchers have said that it is the sole archaeological site in Asia containing a temple in the shape of a pyramid, similar to those located far away across the world in the continent of America, where archaeological remains from the great Mayan civilisation were discovered.

Unfortunately, during the decades in which our country suffered from wars and political instability, our heritage also suffered. Some  historic sites, including Koh Ker, were left inadequately attended, and many antiquities were looted and trafficked out of the country to different parts of the globe, as the history of the journeys of these wonderful statues have revealed.

At the end of this dark period of our history, and especially since full peace, security and political stability were realised nationwide through the Win-Win policy initiated by Samdech Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, safeguarding of cultural heritage gained an increasingly significant place in our national policy. The Royal Government’s strong commitment to heritage protection and conservation has been demonstrated through the adoption and enforcement of national legislation, on the one hand, and through active engagement with the international community, on the other. As a result, Cambodia’s efforts have gained increasing international recognition, as shown by the inscription of the historic site of Preah Vihear on the World Heritage List, in addition to Angkor, as well as the return of some long looted and trafficked antiquities to their homeland. As testimony to these efforts, the World Heritage Committee at its 38th Session in Doha, in June this year, in its positive evaluation and unanimous endorsement of the State of Conservation report of the Angkor site, commended the effective work of Cambodia and the ICC-Angkor. This international mechanism, active since 1993 and co-chaired by Japan and France, has come to be regarded as a model for international cooperation in heritage protection and conservation.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
These past two years, 2013 and 2014, have seen many historic achievements of the Royal Government in the field of heritage, most notably the successful hosting of the 37th Session of the World Heritage Committee, which was indeed accompanied by the first step in the return of these five statues originating from Koh Ker, when two of the Pandavas were brought home through the generosity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

And this year, we have been privileged to secure the return from the United States of a further three statues from the same ensemble: Balarama through the goodwill of Christie's; Duryodhana from Sotheby’s through the U.S. court’s Order of Settlement; and Bhima from the Norton Simon Museum through direct and lengthy negotiations on the basis of mutual understanding.

These five statues all come from the same scene of the battle between Bhima and Duryodhana, recounted in the famous Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. But a further three figures from the ensemble are still missing, while one more Pandava is being cared for at the Angkor Conservation office in Siem Reap.

These five returned statues, having been restored by our National Museum specialists, are now being presented for the admiration of visitors. After placing them in this temporary exhibition, we have also planned to set up in this Museum a gallery, specially designed and devoted to the display of the complete ensemble of this famous battle scene, along with other surviving statues from Koh Ker, considered to be the pinnacle of Khmer sculpture.

I also wish to mention and acknowledge with thanks that recently a stele dating back to the 11th or 12th century that bears inscriptions in both Old Khmer and Sanskrit has been returned to the National Museum through the goodwill of the Metropolitan Museum. I believe that this stele will contribute to our understanding of Khmer history and civilisation.

Taking this opportunity, I would like to stress that these returns would not have been possible without the good cooperation and assistance from the U.S. Government, UNESCO and the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) as well as the goodwill of certain museums and private collectors, for which I must once again express our sincere thanks. My particular appreciation also goes to the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, which has offered close collaboration, and the dedicated team of the Office of the Council of Ministers, especially H.E. Secretary of State Chan Tani, who has worked tirelessly under my direct guidance with the support and leadership of Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen.

Before concluding, I would like to appeal to those who hold the remaining figures from the famous battle scene to follow this excellent model in returning them home, so that they will be reunited with their peers.

Finally, I wish Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen good health, great success, and happiness.

I now declare open this Temporary Exhibition.
Thank you!

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