By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Gaines, Pacific Partnership Public Affairs
June 18, 2010 - SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (NNS) -- USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), on behalf of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, returned treasured cultural artifacts while visiting Cambodia June 17 during Pacific Partnership 2010.
"As a Cambodian, I was very happy to learn of the return of these artifacts. On behalf of the Cambodian people, I would like to thank the U.S. government for their commitment to the Cambodian people," said Khim Sarith, Cambodian Ministry of Culture director. "On behalf of the Ministry of Culture, this is indeed a great contribution to Cambodian culture."
The governor of Ratankiri, Sbong Sarath, five Buddhist monks and a crowd of approximately 60 people gathered on the pier to watch the return of the relics of their heritage. As they were unpackaged from their shipping crates, the monks blessed the artifacts, as well as all those who helped to ensure their safe return.
Pacific Partnership 2010 Mission Commander, Capt. Lisa M. Franchetti, and Sarith later signed a document signifying the transfer of the custody of the antiquities from the United States to Cambodia. Following the ceremony, the artifacts were taken to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
The artifacts include several pieces smuggled from Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple located 200 miles from the capital city of Phnom Penh. The pieces include stone sculptures with ornate carvings of lions, dragons and human figures. The artifacts are believed to be from the Angkor Period, which spanned from 802 until 1431 A.D.
They were seized during Operation Antiquity, an ICE antiquities recovery operation, in 2008. Conducting undercover meetings, ICE was able to identify and prosecute members of a trafficking organization exporting illegally obtained cultural antiquities from Cambodia, which were routed through Thailand and into the United States. The criminal organization is responsible for a 20-year span of trafficking Cambodian and Thai antiquities. The items were smuggled into Thailand and eventually shipped to their final destination in the United States.
"The most rewarding part of today's experience for me was witnessing how much the Cambodian nationals really respect and appreciate these items," said Mercy's First Officer Matthew Bush, one of Mercy's 65 civil service mariners who work for the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command. "For us to return the artifacts to their rightful owners is a token of goodwill, which truly fulfills the goal of this mission."
In the spirit of building and maintaining partnerships in the Pacific region, Mercy was selected to transport and return the artifacts to the royal government of Cambodia. Taking advantage of this opportunity to return the artifacts was an example of successful coordination between the Navy, ICE and the State Department and coincides with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the United States and Cambodia.
Pacific Partnership 2010 is the fifth in a series of annual U.S. Pacific Fleet humanitarian and civic assistance endeavors aimed at strengthening regional partnerships among U.S. government organizations, host nations, partner nations and international humanitarian and relief organizations.