With assistance from UNESCO and some foreign governments, Cambodia is gradually recovering priceless artifacts stolen more than four decades ago, as it ramps up efforts to protect its cultural heritage.
In the last year, for example, the U.S. government has helped repatriate five long-lost Khmer artifacts stolen from a remote jungle temple during the turbulent 1970s and eventually sold to international collectors.
On June 3, a lavish ceremony was held in Phnom Penh to extend a hero's welcome home to the return of three sandstone warriors, sculpted by skilled artisans more than a millennium ago during the time of the Khmer empire.
The statues were returned by the U.S. branches of auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's, and the Norton Simon Museum in California, following last year's return by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York of two other statues stolen from the same site.
In the 10th century, all five sculptures stood proudly at Prasat Chen temple, part of the historic site of Koh Ker in the northern province of Prea Vihear. But all that is left there today are the pedestals decapitated by the looters.
"In a long 40-year journey, surviving civil wars, looting, smuggling and traveling the world, these (statues) have now regained their freedom and returned home," Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony.
"Their odyssey ends here. These precious symbols of our heritage have returned to their rightful owners," he said.
They will be put on public display next week at the National Museum of Cambodia.
In 1996, Cambodia's legislature passed a law prohibiting the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission.
Its government has since been working to safeguard and recover its cultural heritage in cooperation with UNESCO, the U.S. government and the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, a French institution that studies classical civilizations of Asia.
The international cooperation is being extended in line with a 1970 UNESCO convention on prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
All five statues belong to the same set of nine, which shows mythic Hindu figures Bhima and Duryodhana locked in an epic battle, witnessed by seven other figures. In the battle, described in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, Bhima mortally wounds Duryodhana by crushing his groin area with a mace.
Organized looting networks have over past decades stolen many such statues from isolated temples in Cambodia and smuggled them, sometimes in pieces for ease of transport, across the border to Thailand. Brokers transport them to dealers of Khmer artifacts who in turn sell them to local or international customers.
Sok An said that following the return home of Bhima and Duryodhana, as well as three of the seven witnesses, Cambodia seeks to complete the ensemble by recovering three still-missing statues.
The seventh has already been recovered -- sans its head.
According to UNESCO, two of the missing three are in collections in the United States, but the location of the third is unknown.
Jeff Daigle, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said at the ceremony that the latest statue repatriation, which took more than two years to accomplish, "demonstrates the strengthening commitment of American collectors and institutions to adhere to the highest ethical and legal standards in acquiring objects and reaffirms the U.S. pledge that our country will not serve as a safe haven for illegally acquired art and antiquities."
"The pillaging of Cambodia's historical legacy has rightly been called a brutal attack on the soul of the nation," he added.
Daigle said over the past two decades, 97 Khmer artifacts have been repatriated from the United States.
"While we celebrate a happy ending for the statues we see today, we must not forget that the commercial trade in illicitly acquired art still strives. It is incumbent upon each of us to be part of the solution in combating this shameful crime," he added.
In 2009, Thailand returned seven pieces of smuggled artifacts upon the request of the Cambodian government.
Chuch Phoeung, secretary of state of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told Kyodo News that Thailand has promised to return 36 remaining pieces, but only when all documented proof is submitted.
He said Cambodia so far submitted documents identifying 18 pieces of the 43 Cambodian artifacts that were stolen from Cambodia in 1990s.
Chuch Phoeung said that in addition to the stolen artifacts in Thailand and in the United States, others are scattered around the world including elsewhere in Southeast Asia and in Europe.
Kong Vireak, head of Cambodia'sNational Museum, told Kyodo News that France has returned six artifacts since 1996.
Cambodia's rich cultural heritage, including Angkor Wat temple complex built between 9th to 12th century, attracts millions of foreign tourists a year.