Military Sealift Command Public Affairs
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June 18, 2010
Mercy helps repatriate Cambodian antiquities
|Click on the image for a high-resolution photo.|
|Military Sealift Command First Officer Matthew Bush stands with Cambodian Buddhist monks and Cambodian Ministry of Culture Director Khim Sarith as they watch their countrymen unwrap precious Cambodian antiquities pierside in a repatriation ceremony held in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, June 17. MSC hospital ship USNS Mercy returned the artifacts, which the U.S. recovered from the black market in 2008 and include several Buddha heads and a relief sculpture, to their rightful owners as part of Pacific Partnership 2010, a five-month humanitarian and civic assistance mission to Southeast Asia.|
The crew of Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy helped complete the repatriation of several antiquities of historical and religious significance to the Royal Government of Cambodia June 17 as part of Pacific Partnership 2010, the ship's five-month humanitarian and civic assistance mission to Southeast Asia.
The artifacts, which are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, were recovered from the black market by U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement agents in 2008. The artifacts, which were originally smuggled from Cambodia into Thailand, were stored in California until April, when ICE worked with the U.S. Navy, State Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation to arrange the artifacts' return to Cambodia via Mercy during the ship's mission stop June 14-28.
The antiquities, which include several sandstone and bronze statues of the Buddha and a sandstone relief sculpture, were transferred in a pierside ceremony in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Attending the ceremony were Capt. Lisa Franchetti, Pacific Partnership 2010 mission commander; First Officer Matthew Bush, one of Mercy's 65 civil service mariners who work for MSC and are responsible for the ship's operation and navigation; and representatives from the Cambodian government, including Cambodian Ministry of Culture Director Khim Sarith.
Five Buddhist monks approached the shipping crates holding the relics of their religious heritage as the ceremony commenced. Some of the items were looted from Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple located northwest of Cambodia's capital city of Phnom Penh that is also the largest religious structure in the world. While Cambodians unwrapped the antiquities one by one, the monks bowed their heads in an acknowledgement of each artifact's return and eventually led the crowd of 60 people in a prayer of thankfulness.
Franchetti and Sarith then signed a document signifying the transfer of custody from the United States to Cambodia.
Bush, who facilitated the loading of the artifacts onto Mercy and secured them for their transit to Cambodia before the ship departed San Diego May 1, felt honored to be a part of the "final leg of a long journey home."
"The most rewarding part of today's experience was sharing in the joy of the Cambodians," said Bush. "You could see on their faces, especially on the face of the senior monk, how much the Cambodian nationals respect and appreciate these items and how they are prized possessions of their country."
"Today was also special for me," Bush continued, "because the role of mariners is usually behind the scenes. It was nice to see the fruits of our labor and seeing how I contributed in my own small way to the larger mission at hand and the United States' greater relationship with Cambodia. The Cambodia people were incredibly appreciative and I was grateful to be a part of their celebration. For Mercy to return the artifacts to their rightful owners, in a token of goodwill, truly fulfills the goal of this mission, which is to strengthen the relationship between the two nations."
As the ceremony came to a close, Sarith expressed his gratitude.
"As a Cambodian, I was very happy to learn of the return of these artifacts," Sarith said. "On behalf of myself and the Cambodian people, I would like to thank the U.S. government for its commitment to the Cambodian people. On behalf of the Ministry of Culture, this is indeed a great contribution to Cambodian culture."
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