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In Visit, US Secretary of State Gave a Nod to Cambodian Antiquities

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tours the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool

Many of Cambodia’s antiquities are scattered abroad, stolen and sold by looters during decades of conflict.

During this week’s visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, officials mainly discussed economic and security issues, but Kerry also took time to tour the National Museum and to discuss the potential return of Cambodian antiquities.

The museum, founded in 1920, has on display around 1,600 artifacts, from a stored collection of some 17,000. But many of the country’s antiquities are scattered abroad, stolen and sold by looters during decades of conflict.

In an address to reporters Tuesday, Kerry touted the recent return of some artifacts to Cambodia from US museums and collectors and he praised the National Museum as, “an extraordinary asset, a goldmine of treasure from the past that tells the story of human development in this part of the world.”

Kerry was hosted at the museum by Culture Minister Chouch Phoeun and National Museum Director Kong Virak. On his visit, he paid special attention to the conservation of antiquities, some of which the US has helped bring back through an agreement with Cambodia.

Chouch Phoeun told VOA Khmer later that Kerry was interested in learning how well the statues and other antiquities are taken care of on their return to Cambodia. “The artifacts are here and are in great care,” the minister said.

Chouch Phoeun urged other countries to follow similar agreements and return Cambodian antiquities. But he also acknowledged that some of Cambodia’s lost history may never return. Some may stay forevermore in the hands of collectors, and some has already been irreparably destroyed, he said.