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Chase for buried treasure

A monk stands next to the spot at Wat Ratanak Sophoan where residents
say local authorities attempted to dig for buried Khmer Rouge treasure
this past August. Photo by: James O’Toole
Wat Ratanak Sophoan sits at the top of a hill along a quiet road in
Pailin town, and as with most of the rest of the sedate provincial
capital, is typically a peaceful setting.
Bright orange monks’ robes sit drying on fences, with the Cardamom
Mountains visible in the distance, while children play in the yard out
Aside from Pailin residents living nearby, the pagoda attracts few
visitors. Its tranquility was disrupted in August of this year,
however, when locals say about 100 police and soldiers descended on the
pagoda in search of a cache of gold and gems allegedy buried by the
Khmer Rouge.
Noan Sophen, the deputy abbot of Ratanak Sophoan, said at the time
that the party had been ordered to dig at the pagoda by Y Chhean, the
governor of Pailin province and a former bodyguard for Khmer Rouge
leader Pol Pot. The effort ultimately proved fruitless, however, as the
security forces were confronted by monks and some 2,000 Pailin
residents who turned them back from the complex.
Although locals are divided on whether riches are actually to be
found at the site, they say this confrontation was just the latest
round in a years-long saga of rumour and deception surrounding the
allegedly buried treasure.
While international mining firms have been drawn in recent years to
gold deposits in the Kingdom’s eastern provinces, Pailin has long been
identified with its gems. Small polished rubies and sapphires are still
available from local jewelers, but locals acknowledge that business has
slowed over the years; in earlier decades, however, the booming gem
trade provided crucial funding to the Khmer Rouge resistance, which had
staked out positions against the Hun Sen government in Pailin and
elsewhere along the Thai border.
Illegal logging revenue also played a part in sustaining the
resistance, but from the gem trade alone, the Khmer Rouge collected
perhaps US $3.8 million per month in the early 1990s, some scholars
estimate. In addition to mining the stones themselves, they also earned
money by selling mining concessions to Thai companies, charging them
protection fees and levying taxes at the border.
Benny Widyono, a former peacekeeper with the United Nations
Transitional Authority in Cambodia and UN governor for Siem Reap
province, said in an email that the relative prosperity of Pailin was
evident during a 1992 trip he made to the region as “wine taster” for
then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
“I … observed a non-stop parade of Thai trucks hauling away logs
and also Thai gem traders coming for Pailin stones,” Widyono said.
Electricity was available 24 hours a day, he noted, compared with just
two hours a day at that time in Siem Reap.
“The KR in the Pailin area were really the rich KR as against the
Anlong Veng poor guys. They lived well and nobody defected to the
[government] area,” Widyono said.
These years of resource exploitation took their toll on the
landscape, however, and many residents believe the area is now all but
denuded of gems. So relentless were the miners, said 17-year-old Khiev
Odam, a monk at Wat Ratanak Sophoan, that if treasure had ever been
buried at the pagoda, it would have been discovered already.
“I can’t believe that there are any more gold or gems here, because
the Thais used to dig up all the land here and refill it with new land
instead,” he said.
Others say the treasure is simply well-hidden, buried deep in the
ground by Khmer Rouge members following their retreat from Phnom Penh.
Sokha, a 60-year-old layman at the pagoda who declined to give his
family name, said he believed there were in fact riches buried at the
site, claiming local officials had showed up earlier this year in the
middle of the night to examine the area with metal detectors.
“If there were no gold, the provincial governor would not let them come to dig for it,” he said.
Widyono said it was “definitely possible that a stash of gold is buried there”.
“1979 was a confused year,” he said. “For the first time after the
KR took over, Cambodians could criss-cross the country anywhere they
wanted. The KR at the time already planned to have Pailin as their last
stand, and it would be natural to bury the gold there.”
Marking the spot
During a recent visit to Wat Ratanak Sophoan – where the walls are
decorated with Burmese script, a reflection of the years of migration
to the area by Burmese to work in the gem trade – a group of young
monks led a tour of the pagoda. They pointed out a square patch of dirt
outside their dormitory where the treasure is thought to be buried,
which, lacking the proverbial “X”, was adorned only with weeds and an
empty M-150 bottle.
Just a few metres beyond the site is the home of Mao Kroeung, 73, a
nun who said she had been living outside the pagoda for 12 years. She
expressed doubt that any gold or gems were buried at the site, but said
the area had been subject to intrigue in years past.
In 2004, she said, an elderly layman known to local residents as “Ta
Sokha” was murdered at his home. During the funeral, Mao Kroeung added,
several anonymous individuals snuck into the pagoda and began digging
at the spot in question, a claim echoed by monk Duong Sarath and
several other residents who declined to be cited by name.
“Unknown people shot him to death, but they did not take any of his
property,” Mao Kroeung said. “That layman knew everything about this
pagoda, so that means they were afraid he would give information about
the gold to somebody else.”
Duong Sarath said that on the morning of the confrontation this past
August, a group of seven men came to the pagoda in the pre-dawn hours
to examine the alleged site of the treasure. Later in the morning, he
said, dozens of police and soldiers returned to the pagoda with an
excavator, preparing to dig.
“The police officers said the provincial authorities had ordered
them to dig up the land here to find the gold, but they didn’t have any
letter of permission to show us, so we did not allow them to dig,” he
Instead, a group of monks reportedly blocked the visiting forces at
the entryway, while others beat a drum inside the temple to rally local
residents. Shortly thereafter, Duong Sarath said, roughly 2,000 people
had joined the 140 monks to prevent the pagoda’s land from being torn
“We don’t want them to dig for gold because we’re afraid there will
be problems if they find it, like when the layman was killed,” Duong
Sarath said.
Y Chhean and other members of the provincial government could not be
reached for comment, though Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu
Sopheak said following the incident that he had spoken with Y Chhean
and had confirmed that no further action would be taken.
“This will not be allowed because it is a pagoda, and it is a
separate place for worship,” Khieu Sopheak said. “Sometimes it’s just a
rumour, and in the process of destroying the place they would get
Standing outside Wat Ratanak Sophoan, the name of which can be
roughly translated as “decorated treasure”, 60-year-old Um Eng said he
believed the police and soldiers had come to steal the treasure and
split the spoils with high-ranking officials. Estimates of the total
amount buried, he said, ranged from 50 kilograms to 20 tonnes; speaking
in French-accented English, however, he declined to offer his own guess.
“There are many secret histories of the régime Pol Pot,” he said.
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