As Cambodia Erupts in Protest, a Stolen Buddhist Relic Ignites Anger

Just before New Year's, Cambodia was roiled by antigovernment protests, unprecedented in recent decades; this week a harsh government crackdown is making headlines.

Among the surging crowds in the streets of Phnom Penh are Buddhist monks, who are angry about the mysterious theft of a golden urn, believed to hold ashes of the Buddha himself. As the New York Times reported last week, monks blame a government more concerned with its own protection than that of Cambodia's cultural and religious heritage.

The priceless item, gifted by Sri Lanka in 1957 to commemorate the 2,500-year anniversary of Buddha's birth, was taken during a windy night in mid-December. It had been safely guarded there since 2002. That year, Norodom Sihanouk, the late Cambodian king, transported the urn containing the ashes north from Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s former capital, Oudong. The urn was placed in a stupa—where remains and relics are traditionally kept—atop a mountain that houses the cremated traces of previous royals. Now, Cambodian investigators are scrambling to recover it, along with less significant artifacts lifted in the same heist.

Four security guards and a local villager are facing charges.

The theft outraged monks and lay Buddhists alike. From all corners, there was a feeling of disbelief. The government was urged to do everything in its power to recover the urn.

“I was quite shocked upon learning of the relic’s loss,” said former prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in a rare public statement released days after the disappearance. “As a Buddhist and the one who listed Buddhism as the state religion in the 1993 constitution, I am extremely sad, completely grievous for the loss of the Buddha relics which were a happy, peaceful, prosperous, and holy thing for our respectful country.”

The whodunit also exposed divisions within Cambodia’s sangha, or Buddhist community, and highlighted its increasing politicization in the fallout from a disputed election in July. Monks aligned with the opposition party, which is still boycotting parliament to protest an election riddled with irregularities, were among the most vociferous in demanding that more be done to right the wrong.

Days after the crime, these monks confronted higher-ups in the sangha at a meeting in Phnom Penh, and called for the Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, who is viewed as an extension of the ruling party, to resign if he failed to recover the urn. A prominent activist monk later called for the Minister of Cults and Religion to step down if he also couldn't get the job done.

In contemptuous remarks captured by reporters at the confrontation, Vong said it wasn’t his fault, and went on to blame the security guards who were arrested. He said the monks who demanded him to do more didn’t understand a thing. He then called them “crazy people.”

"You Must Not Destroy or Traffic Us"

Oudong is about an hour’s drive north of Phnom Penh, on a bumpy, two-lane road where cars pass each other frequently and recklessly. At the foot of the mountain, macaque monkeys scrounge for food, or run away from children who spray them with water. A tourist sign in English lists the must-see sights. High on the list is “New Stupa for ashes of Buddha’s bone.”

A long stone staircase littered with the pinkish petals of bougainvillea trees winds up the mountain. At the top of the stairs is the impressive, white stupa, the centerpiece of the site, and the scene of the crime. Older stupas are lined up a short walk away. On good days, the mountain draws dozens of visitors. But vendors say that since the theft, few see the point of coming.

“I ask people to buy my lotus flowers, incense and candles, but they mock me. They do not know what to buy and pray for, because the relic was stolen,” said a 23-year-old woman who has worked there for years. “We feel so sorry about the loss, but we do not know who stole it.

Security has been been tightened ever since the relic vanished. Authorities stationed police and military police at the site, and put more security guards on duty. One of the new arrivals, a uniformed police officer named Kiet Ret, was sitting outside a room full of statues where Cambodians come to pray.

“The relic is the most important and valued; we still tighten the security here even though it was stolen, because there are other valuable antiques and statues placed here by leaders from one generation to another,” Ret said. “We are guarding here around the clock carefully now. We don’t want to have other items stolen.”

Sitting next to him, 51-year-old Khut In talked about the aftermath of the crime. He was one of the original security guards. After being interrogated, he was released.

“I was questioned by police, but I felt normal because we did nothing wrong. We do not know who stole it,” In said, declining to comment about his jailed colleagues. On the wall right above his head was a UNESCO poster depicting a map of Cambodia and a cartoon drawing of a man pulling a cart loaded with antiquities. Above the cart, a message from the hauled-off treasures: “We are the light of the nation. You must not destroy or traffic us.”

In said the guards made little money and often went months without being paid. “I guard here around the clock, but my salary is 170,000 riel ($42.50) per month, but we get only six of 12 months of our salary. It’s very difficult to survive with,” he said.“We do not know where the other six months of salary goes. I don’t have money to support my wife and my seven children.”

Others milling around the mountain said that sometimes, the guards didn’t bother to show up at all. With no paycheck arriving, why come to work? Still, relatives of the accused still working at Oudong maintain their innocence. Sieng Chamroeun, 34, spends her days telling fortunes. Her father is one of the men in jail, 57-year-old Sieng Sarin. He's innocent, she said.

“My father is a good Buddhist and always loyal to the Buddha. He is not involved in the heist. It is very unjust for us because we are simple people, so no one helps,” she said.

According to Chamroeun, on the night in question, Sarin had a cough and wasn’t feeling well, so he took some medicine and went to sleep. He didn't hear the commotion because the wind was blowing loudly. Around midnight, she continued, he got up to urinate and walked around the stupa, checking on things. He noticed the broken door. He didn't go inside. Instead, he woke up the other two guards on duty and reported the crime. The next day, he was questioned, then arrested and subsequently charged, along with four others. The men are sitting in a provincial prison.

“We do not know who the stealer is, but normal people like us do not dare steal Buddha relics,” she said.

The case has yet to go to trial, and the urn has yet to be found, despite authorities calling for a nationwide search. But artifacts can take a long time to recover. (In the same month that the relics were stolen, Sotheby's auction house in New York agreed to return a statue to Cambodia that first disappeared in the 1970s amid civil war.)

Eav Chamroeurn, the provincial police chief in the area, declined to go into detail about the case.

“We are continuing our investigation, but we cannot tell the result of it,” he said. He wouldn't make any guarantees, and called the job a difficult task. He added that they were trying and left it at that.