Destruction of Southeast Asia's Past Through Looting


Rasmi Shoocongdej (Silpakorn University, Bangkok)

At the WAC-4 meeting in South Africa, I gave a regional report on serious looting problems in Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia. Here, I would like to continue to address this critical issue: the illicit trafficking in archaeological treasures.

I bring up this issue because it is a global problem very frequently encountered in third world countries. Inevitably, this problem directly impacts on archaeological interpretation because artefacts lose value if we don’t know their provenance or associated context. Knowledge of the past is thus lost forever…

Due to economic problems, the illicit antiquities traffic has been intensive in Southeast Asia for many decades, operating through a worldwide trade network. This network involves local people, middlemen, antique dealers both local and foreigner, antique shops, and collectors. Many archaeological treasures have been smuggled out of their countries of origin to the illicit traffic centres. The cities in Asia well-known as centres for antiquities trading are Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. The target sites often are burial sites and religious monuments. The objects most commonly stolen include prehistoric artefacts such as pottery, stone-axes, beads, bronze axes, etc., and historical artefacts such as stone and bronze sculptures of Hindu or Buddhist images, architectural decorations, etc.

However, the case of Cambodia is of particular interest for the world archaeological community because it is involves some of the most popular and desired treasures for art dealers or collectors from all over the world, in particular stone-carvings. Cambodian treasures can be compared to the value of the Egyptian or Roman or Chinese antiques as well.

Looting in Cambodia

Like many countries in the world, Cambodia is a rich source of archaeological treasures. Artefacts have generally been looted from many recorded and unrecorded archaeological sites during periods of political instability. When Cambodia opened the site of Angkor Wat for tourism, antiquities unfortunately became the most popular souvenirs on sale to the tourists. As long as the commercial value of antiquities is high in the market, the looters will continue to dramatically destroy archaeological sites. Sadly, at the beginning of this year, the Thai police stopped a truck at night in Prachinburi Province, a borderland, and found that 117 Khmer stone-carvings had been illicitly smuggled out from Panteay Chamar in Cambodia to Thailand. The Panteay Chamar is the biggest Khmer sanctuary outside the city wall which was built by the great king of the Khmer, King Jayavarman VII. Once the police put all the stone-carvings together, they were surprised to find bas-reliefs of Avalokitesvara (God) with a number of small figures of the Amitabha Buddha (Angle) carved all over of his arms. The style is known by Khmer specialists as Bayon art, which dates to around the 13th century. According to Lawrence Briggs, an author of “The Ancient Khmer Empire” published in 1951, the bas-reliefs can therefore be identified to their original location. In addition to the 117 stolen pieces just mentioned, an object from the Panteay Chamar, which was smuggled out earlier, was found at an antique shop in River City Mall, Bangkok with a price of $6,800. This was reported is given by Prof. Claude Jacques, of The French School of Far East, who is also a Khmer-specialist advising UNESCO in Cambodia. It has been reported that this smuggling is linked through the wider international network to antiquities dealers France, Japan, and the USA.

Clearly, most current conservation and restoration projects have primarily focussed on around Angkor area (e.g., Banteay Srey, Phanom Kulen) owing to problems created for tourism by unexploded land mines. Consequently Angkor has the best recorded artefact inventory of all known archaeological sites in Cambodia. If there is no detailed study of other, smaller archaeological sites or sanctuaries, it will be very difficult to detect illicit traffic in antiquity and pursue a legal remedies, since there is no information to confirm the origin of stolen items.

What should be done?

How can the Cambodian cultural property be protected? The response of the Cambodian government to the illegal international traffic of antiquities is to cooperate with UNESCO and the Thai government as they have been formulating antiquities legislation. At the same time, according to the Khmer Constitution of 1993, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts plays an important role in the development and preservation of the Khmer cultural heritage.

Thailand is well-known as a centre for illicit trafficking of antiquities. The Thai Fine Arts Department and the Cambodian government have set up resolutions preventing the illicit importation or export of Thai-Khmer cultural heritage. However, the Thai Fine Arts Department needs to pursue this agreement seriously in order to protect cultural property effectively. For instance, the Thai should immediately have returned the 117 stone carvings once the investigation of their theft was finished, as they are the cultural property of Cambodia.

It was not until recently that the UNESCO organized a web page which computerized all Khmer artefacts from known archaeological sites in order to disseminate all information concerning archaeological sites and artefacts in the files. This includes the date of the record, a description of sites and artefacts, a photograph, and detailed descriptions of artefact and site discovery. In the case of the archaeological treasures that have been illegally exported out of Cambodia, this information will help to identify the missing pieces. In other words, this will be facility will help prove if cultural property has been stolen from its country of origin. This will facilitate the return of the cultural property under international regulation.

As archaeologists, we are aware that the problem of looting will never cease as long as people remain very poor and the demand from collectors remains very high. I think one simple way we can help save the past for the future is through education. Education about the past is a powerful tool to make people aware of their history, identity, heritage, and community/national pride. We need to promote a new perspective about the value of artefacts, and show that they are meaningless if we don’t know their context. We must change the public perception of artefacts solely as art objects. Additionally, wherever we work in the field, I think it is our responsibility to produce both academic and public publications, particularly in a local language. For instance, if archaeological objects are stolen from the country of origin, having a detailed academic report about them will indirectly help to identify these objects and proceed with legal action.

Finally, the illicit trafficking of cultural property, unfortunately, not only destroy the cultural history of Cambodia but the world history as well. It would be very sad indeed if future Khmer generations have to go to France, UK, Japan, or the USA to study their own history!