Culture Above Politics: US and Cambodia Extend Cultural Heritage Agreement

The US and Cambodia have inked a new deal to return looted artifacts to Cambodia while extending the scope of illegally trafficked relics
Signing of a cultural heritage agreement, Phnom Penh, August 30, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Signing of a cultural heritage agreement, Phnom Penh, August 30, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa

The United States and Cambodia have extended a cultural heritage agreement for another five years, in a move that the US Ambassador to Cambodia called "a source of great pride".

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which was signed by Ambassador Patrick Murphy and Phoeurng Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, will facilitate the return of looted artifacts from the US to Cambodia.

Murphy told reporters after Wednesday’s signing ceremony that culture is above politics and this is about people-to-people ties.

“It is a source of great pride for the United States to help the Cambodian people to preserve, protect and restore their cultural heritage. This agreement is quite unique and quite exciting for us. We are delighted to be partners now for 20 years, and another five years going forward,” he said.

Murphy added that a way of uniting people is about collaborating together, and that the return of looted artifacts restores national pride and honor. Ultimately, he said, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Cambodia's cultural heritage is a major source of income for the economy, attracting tourists from around the world, including the US. This helps create jobs and boost the economy, which is beneficial for both countries.

“Also, Cambodia's cultural heritage is an important source of income for the economy. Many tourists and visitors come from around the world, including the United States, to see and experience this incredible world heritage, and Americans are among the most numerous visitors who come here,” he said.

“This helps the Cambodian economy with many jobs and recovery from Covid. So there is another beneficial gain from these people-to-people ties. When people understand each other, I think we can have stronger collaborations in many areas as well, so it’s fundamental.”

“Our differences”

Murphy said that mutual understanding is the foundation of collaboration, and that the US has worked with the government on many issues and addressed differences through cultural understanding.

“The people understand each other a great deal and that’s the foundation. We collaborate with the government in many areas and we also work together to address our differences. Cultural understanding can help do that,” Murphy said.

Cambodia and the US have a long-standing cultural relationship. Cambodia's rich culture has attracted many visitors, but for decades, Cambodian cultural artifacts have been looted and sold illegally, Sackona, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said.

To protect its heritage, Cambodia became the first Asian country to ratify the UNESCO convention to prohibit and prevent the import and export of cultural properties, she added.

“For decades, Cambodian cultural artifacts have been looted and acquired by private collectors and museums around the world,” Sackona said. “Given the size of the art market in the US, the cooperation between Cambodia and the United States is crucial in combating the illicit trade of artifacts.”

Murphy said that the US and Cambodia have now signed a new Cultural Property Agreement, the fifth since 2003. The agreement will deter illicit trafficking of cultural artifacts, reduce corruption, and make it illegal to import protected artifacts into the US.

The new agreement expands the scope of protected artifacts to include glass, bones, stones, medals, ceramics, and woods from the past 1,000 years, as well as architectural elements, manuscripts, and religious objects from the 15th to 19th centuries.

The US has already helped return more than 100 artifacts to Cambodia and has provided $6 million in funding for cultural preservation. Murphy also announced a new $450,000 grant to help conserve Phnom Bakheng temple in Siem Reap.

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