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February 8, 2024

Reclaimed Heritage: A Cambodian Buddha Goes Home

Seized by Swiss authorities in the Canton of Basel 10 years ago, this 18th or19th century (Khmer empire) Buddha, seated in vajraparyankasana, with the proper right hand touching the earth in bhumisparsha mudra, at the moment of his enlightenment, is finally on his way home.  

Originally Swiss experts believe the sculpture dated back to the pre-Angkor or early Angkor Periods and is was assumed to be over 1,000 years old. However, according to a first-step assessment by experts from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA), based on form and style, the sculpture is believed to be of the later period. 

Representing Cambodia ata ceremony held on 6 February 2024, His Excellency Mr. H.E. Dara, Cambodia's Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and International Organizations in Geneva received the enlightened Buddha in a handover between both countries coordinated by Fabienne Baraga, Head of the Specialist Department for International Cultural Heritage Transfer, at the Federal Office of Culture and Anna Mattei Russo, Head of Southeast Asia and Pacific Regional Coordinators of the Swiss Foreign Ministry. 

Ambassador In Dara expressed gratitude to the Swiss government and emphasised Cambodia's ongoing efforts to repatriate other significant cultural properties. He called upon museums, institutions, and curators holding Khmer antiquities to voluntarily return them to Cambodia, framing such actions as gestures of generosity and respect for cultural values.

Fabienne Baraga, Head of Specialist Division on International Cultural Property Transfer of the Federal Office of Culture of the Ministry of the Interior of Switzerland, also reiterated the commitment of the Swiss government to prevent illegal trade and trade of cultural assets and for the preservation of human cultural heritage told the individuals on hand that this return is not just the return of valuables to their birthplace, but also serve as a symbol of the spirit of unity and respect between the two states. 

As a source country, Cambodia's cultural heritage has suffered significant losses due to looting, particularlyas an outcome of periods of civil conflict, political instability, and poverty. The widespread looting of archaeological sites and temples, such as those at Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, and Banteay Chhmar has resulted in the illicit trafficking of countless artefacts out of the country. 

These artifacts, ranging from ancient sculptures to intricate carvings, represent key aspects of Cambodia's history, religion, and artistic achievement. The illegal trade in Cambodia's cultural heritage not only deprives its people of its rightful treasures but also erases vital connections to its past for future generations. 

Efforts to combat looting and repatriate stolen artefacts from the country are ongoing, but the scale of the problem underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and collective action to safeguard Cambodia's cultural legacy.