For 25 years, the government has worked with dozens of nations to preserve and restore the sprawling 401 square kilometre complex that once served as the seat of power of the Khmer Empire. Under the auspices of the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), restoration works and preservation efforts are coordinated and carried out. But there are divergent views within the archaeological community about how restoration and preservation should be approached, which consequently impacts the way projects are carried out.
Khmer Times spoke with Unesco’s Cambodia bureau chief Anne Lemaistre to discuss the diverging perspectives, achievements, challenges and new threats that face Cambodia’s wonder from the ancient world.
KT: In 1993, the Tokyo Conference was held, which was then followed up with the Paris Conference in 2003. It has been 15 years since then. What changes has Unesco seen in terms of the coordination of efforts to preserve and restore Angkor Wat?
Lemaistre: There have been tremendous changes since we began in 1992. Back when we started these projects, many basic infrastructure had yet to be built, the Apsara Authority had yet to be established, there was no law relating to the protection of heritage – in fact, we had no map that defines the boundaries of the entire complex to use as a reference for zoning.
There were less than 30 people working for us at that time, consisting of staff from France, Japan, Germany, Italy and India. These were the pioneers who saw firsthand the challenges we had to face to get the recognition that Angkor Archaeological Park deserves. Since then, the number of countries involved in the preservation and restoration efforts has increased to 23, and more than 150 restoration projects have been completed to date.
To see [Unesco’s] hopes for an overarching organisation materialise as the Apsara Authority – which is filled with young, passionate, professional Cambodians – is especially satisfying for us, because this is exactly Unesco’s aim; to rebuild the capacity of the Cambodian people to safeguard its heritage.
Back in 1993, Angkor Wat welcomed around 7,000 visitors. Just recently I was given the latest figures, which places the number at around five million people annually. All in all, great leaps
have been made in all aspects that I could think of.
KT: There are projects that are carried out through loopholes that effectively bypass the ICC by going to the government directly, for example, the Chinese restoration of the main bridge at Angkor Wat. Such moves undermine ICC as a coordinating institution, because it has less control over the works being carried out. How do you view these recent developments?
Lemaistre: The ICC should be strengthened because if I have to pinpoint the biggest problem relating to the conservation of Angkor Wat, it is a crisis of growth – in terms of numbers of visitors and conservationists looking to be a part of this monumental project. There are more projects that have to be monitored, and as the number continues to rise, cooperation and coordination become
It is true that sometimes we see conservationists going straight to the government to get the necessary permits, sometimes even during our plenary sessions, but we always request the international teams to submit their proposals, findings and plans so that we can study them more closely.
In the few cases where our requests were not fulfilled, eventually the projects encountered many difficulties. I would like to stress that this is not an issue of control – it is a matter of cooperation. Given our longstanding involvement in the field, we can offer advice, or even technical help.
For example, the German Apsara Conservation Project is our go-to expert when it comes to all things relating to geology and stone restoration.
When a stakeholder refuses to cooperate, in the end everybody loses.
KT: What do you think can be improved so that the preservation of the complex can be done in a much more effective, efficient and sustainable manner?
Lemaistre: We appeal to all stakeholders wishing to participate to cooperate more closely with us because everyone has their own field of expertise, not only within the ICC, but also among the other teams who are involved with other ongoing restoration projects. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but we discuss everything.
I would also like to add that only by working together and pooling our expertise can every stakeholder reach their goal of bringing Angkor Wat to its former glory.