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Southeast Asia

Illegal trade in antiques plunders heritage
By Boonthan Sakanond

BANGKOK - Asia's economic crisis may have driven the market for many modern products into recession, but nothing can put a damper on the illegal trade and consumption of antiques from Indochina's numerous temples, palaces and old monuments. A combination of greed, desperation and official collusion is continuing to lay to waste the region's ancient heritage.

In one of the biggest catches in recent years, Thai authorities in late June stumbled upon a collection of antiques at a sculptor's home in Ayutthaya, the capital of old Siam two centuries ago and now a quiet tourist town 80 kilometers from Bangkok. Police raiding the house of well-known local stone sculptor Sunthorn Sowapee found more than 700 artifacts, many of them more than 900 years old. Among these were stone Buddha images, singha (lion) porticos, hand-rails, and sections of Buddhist structures apparently stolen from historical sites around Thailand as well as as from the famous Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia.

Police officials said that initial interrogation established that Sunthorn acted as an intermediary between customers - both in Thailand and abroad, who wanted the historical objects to decorate their homes - and gangs of thieves. The modus operandi for smuggling the artifacts involved carving up bigger items such as lintels, which can weigh 5 to 10 tons, to make them thinner. The objects would then be turned upside down on a truck before being covered with pots or plants. Some were hidden in the forest or down wells while waiting to be delivered to customers.

Within a week of the raid in Ayutthaya, Thai customs officers seized 43 antique sculptures weighing more than eight tons at a port owned by a Thai shipping company. These antiques had been smuggled from Cambodia to Thailand via Singapore and were destined for markets in Europe and the United States. The sculptures are believed to have been stripped from ancient Khmer temples or monuments.

''There is no doubt that antique smuggling is becoming a more and more well-organized operation,'' said Wanchai Pussadej, a deputy director-general at the Thai Customs Department. According to him, the items confiscated at the port had initially been shipped to Singapore to avoid police detection on the short land transport route from Cambodia to Bangkok. This route ending in Bangkok had been chosen, he said, because Thailand's image as a source of ''genuine stolen artifacts'' was the most credible in the region.

Thailand's dubious reputation as a source of stolen antiques has been around for a couple of decades now, and for several very convincing reasons. In the first place, lax or even corrupt policing makes it easy for smugglers to take artifacts in and out of the country. In addition, Thailand has long and porous land borders with countries like Cambodia and Burma, which are sources of large numbers of valuable antiques. The two neighboring countries have become a sourcing point for antiques because of many years of civil war and poor government control over their national monuments, making them easy targets for antique thieves.

A third reason for the proliferation of artifact smuggling in Thailand is the money involved. Antique theft and smuggling is quite lucrative, with busts of apsaras, or mythical angels, from Angkor Wat fetching up to $60,000 in Western markets.

In response to such rampant antique smuggling, the chief of Thailand's state-run Fine Arts Department, Nikhom Musikakhama, has suggested a radical overhaul of existing legislation and stricter controls to deal with the problem. Among the new laws he has proposed is one regulating the operation of antique stores in the country, which according to him purport to sell antiques with proper documentation but in practice are the major conduits for stolen antiques.

Existing laws concerning the sale and possession of antiques were passed in 1961. The laws make the trade in antiques legal, subject only to mild controls, and allow antiquities to be sold to people who take them out of the country. Critics of these nearly forty-year-old laws complain they have not been updated to take cognizance of new tricks employed by smugglers.

Likewise, current Thai laws dealing with antiquities do not allow the authorities to return confiscated antiques from neighboring countries to the original owners without proper documentation, which in the case of Cambodia and Burma does not exist to a large extent. This lack of documentation has led to numerous disputes between Thailand and Cambodia over antiques which obviously come from Angkor Wat but which Thai officials refuse to hand over, citing legal complications.

The amendment proposed by the Fine Arts Department will ask for an ban on antique stores and their operations unconditionally, or else the complete legalization of such stores with much tighter restrictions than those presently in place. A working panel has been set up to draft the amendment to the current laws and a public hearing will likely be held soon to sound out public opinion on the subject.

Fine Arts Department officials, however, fear that their efforts to change the laws may be subverted by those with powerful vested interests and political influence who are involved in this illegal business. ''These people seem to be more concerned about the profit generated from the business than the sake of the country in terms of preserving culture and history,'' noted Nikhom.

The idea of a ban on antique shops has drawn strong opposition already from antique vendors, who claim the move would adversely affect a large number of people trading honestly in legal antiques. Another problem facing Fine Arts Department officials is a shortage of staff specializing in archaeology and having the expertise to identify true antiques from imitation sculptures. The Fine Arts Department currently has only 200 such personnel covering the entire country.

(Inter Press Service)



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