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Monks join in the general anti-government protests gripping Cambodia.

Julie Masis/The Globe and Mail

At 2 o'clock one morning in early December, a guard in a Cambodian village called his supervisor to report an extraordinary crime: The relics of the Buddha were missing.

What these relics were no one could say. Some accounts described them as the Buddha's ashes; others said they were teeth, hair or pieces of bone. Enshrined in a golden urn that was locked in a multimillion-dollar monument on top of a hill that towered above the rice fields, the relics were Cambodia's only remains of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

Shrouded in mystery and believed to transmit spiritual power, the relics have long played a role in political power struggles. Their theft has added to the running conflict over the legitimacy of Cambodia's government. Hundreds of monks marched through the streets of Cambodia's capital after the relics disappeared, demanding that the government do something to find them.

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"The Buddha is our life, it's our refuge," said the Venerable But Buntenh, the founder of Cambodia's Independent Monk Network for Social Justice that helped to organize the protest. "We want only the Buddha's relics back, we do not want anything extra." But he also said that the ministers of culture and religion should resign "because if they cannot protect the Buddha's relics, they should not be a minister."

Cambodia's leaders are well aware of the sensitivity of the theft. "It's like stealing the statue of Jesus Christ in Rome. It's unthinkable," said Oum Darawuth, the spokesman for Cambodia's Queen Mother, Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. He promised that Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen would do everything in his power to get the relics back because he is very religious.

The disappearance of the relics could not be a good omen – and indeed things have not been going well for Cambodia lately. The theft has set off a political firestorm in this Buddhist kingdom – with protests that escalated into violence leaving several people dead and more injured. Cambodians were already angry with their government over last summer's election, which many here believe was rigged, and now they also blamed their leaders for failing to protect the country's holiest treasure.

But who took the relics and why?

One theory is that the motive of the thief, or thieves, was to cash in on the multimillion-dollar urn. According to Tess Davis, a researcher at the University of Glasgow who specializes in the illicit trade of Cambodian antiquities, looters recently started turning to less famous sites, such as urban pagodas, now that the ancient temples of Angkor are better protected. "Most such thefts go unreported to the press and even the authorities," she wrote in an e-mail.

However, But Buntenh doesn't buy this theory. He is convinced the relics were stolen to divert the public's attention from the political situation in the country. "So that people would think about something else and stop thinking about the political deadlock," he said.

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the relics remain unclear. The guard, who was sleeping on the job, said he was awakened by a barking dog. That noise prompted him to look around. He discovered that the lock on the door of the stupa, where the relics were kept, was broken. Police didn't believe the guard's story and arrested him and the others on duty that night.

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The fate of the items remains unknown. But scholars say the theft has historical precedents.

Devotees began stealing right from the moment of the Buddha's death. According to Buddhist mythology, the Buddha's ashes were divided into eight parts after his cremation, but the priest who is said to have supervised the division stole some of the ashes for himself, said Paul Harrison, a religious studies professor at Stanford University.

The tradition of snatching remains continued as Indian kings stole the relics from each other because they symbolized power. In 1561, the Portuguese also appropriated a relic – a tooth – to destroy it as an attack on Buddhism, according to Prof. Harrison. Later, the British carried some relics off to England. (A gold amulet containing what are said to be the Buddha's remains is on display at the British Museum.)

During the Second World War, some of the Buddha's ashes were taken to Japan from Thailand, according to Boston University professor Ricardo Elia, who uncovered the incident in the U.S. National Archives. Japan enshrined the relics, claiming they were a gift. But the Thai government alleged that the relics were removed under duress and successfully petitioned for their return after the war.

What makes the Cambodian case unusual is that, in the past, kings, not grave robbers, stole the relics for political gain or prestige. "I can't think of any cases where they've been stolen for monetary gain," Prof. Harrison said.

Scholars question the authenticity of the Buddha's relics, which more than a dozen countries – including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, China and Myanmar – claim to have. Part of the problem is that the Buddha lived before writing existed, so all inscribed urns that claim to hold his ashes are reburials from later centuries.

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In Cambodia, monks do not doubt that the relics were real. They were given as an official gift by the government of Sri Lanka to Cambodia's late King Norodom Sihanouk in 1957 to mark the Buddha's 2,500th birthday.

The missing relics have provided fuel for more monks to join the general anti-government protests that have been gripping Cambodia since last summer's disputed election. They have fed into a general distrust of the government, and the protesting monks have gone so far as to accuse the government of a deliberate attack on religion.

"Cambodian monks tried very hard – some of them lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge time to keep Buddhism alive," said 22-year-old monk Um Somaun. The fact that "the government [failed to protect the relics] means that they want to eliminate the religion."

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