Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Protecting Cambodia’s Cultural Heritage: US-Cambodia Conservation Ties

Asia ASEAN The Mekong

Highlighting their shared commitment to cultural preservation, Cambodia and the United States recently solidified their partnership with a renewed agreement aimed at diminishing the smuggling of historical artifacts and preserving heritage sites.

Cambodia and the United States renewed a cultural cooperation agreement for another five years on August 30, 2023, highlighting the commitment of both countries in restoring and preserving Cambodia's cultural heritage. Primarily, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is designed to promote appreciation of Cambodian culture through exchange of archeological and ethnological materials and protect against the looting of archaeological material. It aims to achieve this by continuing the training of regional law enforcement organs in deterring smugglers and cross-border trafficking, as well as through funding the restoration of various critical heritage sites. At the signing ceremony, US Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy announced that $450,000 would pass through Phnom Penh’s Fund For Cultural Preservation to restore the 9th century Phnom Bakheng Temple.

An important motivation for the United States in renewing this agreement – the only bilateral one of its kind with a Southeast Asian country – is that Cambodia is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world, including a plethora of UNESCO sites such as Angkor Wat, the Temple of Preah Vihear, and the Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk. However, until more recently, many of these monuments and similar sites were acutely threatened due to extreme political turbulence. From 1967 to 1998, unrest resulted in the creation of smuggling networks which facilitated tens of thousands of antiquities to leave the country. Particularly, the Khmer Rouge’s rule and armed insurgency desecrated various forms of art and traditional places of worship.

Fortunately, since the cessation of hostilities in the late 1990s, many advocacy groups and the Cambodian government have made strides in returning stolen artifacts and preserving culturally important sites. For example, Heritage Watch – one of the most notable organizations in the country involved in this work – launched a public awareness campaign in the 2000s with funding from the US Department of State targeting “both those who loot and those who buy antiquities”.

Support by the US government and the renewed MoU illustrates a larger history of US-Cambodian cooperation in cultural preservation, largely beginning with the first version of the existing agreement signed in 2003 and extended in 2018. Since 2001, the United States has funded $6 million towards the preservation of Cambodia’s cultural heritage sites. Recently, the US State Department’s Cultural Antiquities Task Force, a collaboration between the US Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, traveled to Cambodia to provide training for local experts to fight illegal antiquities trading and support local government and museums to protect and preserve reclaimed artifacts.

As for similar endeavors, many prosecutors and advocacy groups in the United States have worked to return items of cultural significance to Cambodia. On September 12th of this year, the Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced the return of 33 stolen artifacts. US Attorney Damian Williams claimed the agreement with the Lindemann family, who possessed such artifacts, builds upon the recent MoU, saying “For decades, Cambodia suffered at the hands of unscrupulous art dealers and looters who trafficked cultural treasures to the American art market. This historic agreement sets a framework for the return of cultural patrimony.” Similarly in 2022, the same New York attorneys facilitated an exchange of 30 cultural artifacts back to Cambodia.

The Cambodian Ambassador to the United States, Keo Chhea, underscored the significance at the time, calling the effort in returning artifacts to his country as a return of the “souls of our culture.” The hope is that with continued cooperation, more souls will return

Claire Callahan is a graduate student at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs pursuing a Master of Arts in Asian Studies. Claire previously worked as Communication Officer at The Korea Society in New York City and was a Fulbright grantee to South Korea.

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.