Remarks by Ambassador William A. Heidt at the World Monuments Fund 50th Anniversary Celebration at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap
January 18, 2016

H.E. Sok Sangvar, colleagues from the Apsara Authority and the World Monument Fund, ladies and gentlemen.

Sotie and I are delighted to be with you all this evening to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the World Monuments Fund. It’s a particular honor to be standing in front of the incomparable Angkor Wat – one of the most extraordinary monuments ever built by man, and Cambodia’s defining, uniting symbol.

I first visited Angkor nearly 20 years ago, when I was serving as an economic officer at the Embassy in Phnom Penh. Back then, only a trickle of tourists came to Siem Reap. The tourism infrastructure was not well developed, and many sites – such as Banteay Srei and Preah Vihear – were off limits. Still, it was a remarkable experience to come here for the first time, and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Today, Angkor has lost none of its power to amaze even as it receives more than two million tourists annually from all over the world. The airport has expanded tremendously and now receives more passengers than Phnom Penh. This kind of popularity has its downside, as anyone who has battled the crowds at sunrise can tell you, but increasing the visibility of Cambodia’s cultural heritage is critical for ensuring its long-term viability.

And of course, Angkor’s popularity has brought powerful economic benefits to a country where, even after two decades of economic growth, many people still live in poverty or close to it.

But perhaps most importantly, the temples at Angkor are both a powerful symbol of the Cambodian people and part of the fabric of our shared humanity. As such, it is not only Cambodia’s job to protect and preserve them – it is a shared responsibility of all people and all nations.

The Cambodian government has made significant progress in the last few decades conserving and documenting its cultural heritage, with help from its local and international partners. The Angkor Park itself is a model of cooperation, thanks to the hard work of the Apsara Authority and the International Coordinating Committee for Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor, known as the ICC.

The ICC brings together the government, the international community, NGOs, academics, and other interested parties to work together for one common cause – ensuring the long-term conservation and sustainable development of Angkor.

The United States is proud to be one of Cambodia’s top partners in these efforts, both at Angkor and across Cambodia. We have provided more than $3.5 million in support for cultural heritage preservation programs in Cambodia in the last decade, from excavating archaeological sites to documenting antiquities to securing sites.

I am also very proud of the United States’ leading role in seeing Cambodia’s cultural antiquities returned to their rightful home. In 2003, the United States and Cambodia signed a Cultural Property Agreement that imposes import restrictions on many archaeological materials that are in danger of looting.

Since then, thanks to both successful law enforcement actions and voluntary repatriations of objects held in private U.S. collections, the United States is contributing in a real and meaningful way to our shared goal of protecting Cambodia’s cultural patrimony for future generations. Most recently, the Cleveland Museum of Art has agreed to return a 10th century Hanuman statue to Cambodia and is working on future exchanges with the National Museum.

For 50 years, WMF has been dedicated to preserving and protecting some of the most important cultural patrimony in the world, including right here in Cambodia. The projects at Preah Khan and Angkor Wat are some of the most significant and celebrated conservation programs in the history of the Angkor Archaeological Park.

But it’s the ongoing work at Phnom Bakheng that holds a special place in my heart. Since 2004, the U.S. government has sponsored WMF’s work at Phnom Bakheng, primarily through the State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. To date, we have invested close to $3 million towards this extraordinary project.

When I first visited Angkor in the late 1990s, Phnom Bakheng was literally crumbling away. Today, it is stable and secure, and thanks to the Conservation Master Plan that WMF developed in conjunction with the APSARA Authority, it should remain so for many decades to come.

What’s most impressive is that this work is being carried out almost entirely by Cambodian staff. I met with lead architect Cheam Phally and her team on my visit to Phnom Bakheng in November, and was incredibly impressed with their dedication and commitment to this project. Their pride in their work was very moving.

According to myth, Angkor Wat was constructed by the Hindu god Indra in a single night to serve as a palace for his son. But even if the temple was built in one night, conserving it is more complicated. As you all know, the preservation of cultural heritage is a continuous process that requires commitment, patience, diplomacy, and above all, long term partnerships.

WMF has been exactly that kind of committed, long term partner. Your more than 25 years of work at Angkor represents the very best of American philanthropy. As the U.S. Ambassador and a friend of Cambodia, I am pleased to be here to celebrate your success.

To see Angkor Wat lit up on a night like this is an awesome and humbling experience. That Angkor Wat has survived for nearly 1000 years despite the ravages of time, neglect, and war is nothing short of a miracle. It’s also a testament to all of the hard work that has taken place over the years to protect Cambodia’s cultural heritage, as well as a reminder of how much more work there is to be done.

Thank you very much and please enjoy yourselves tonight.