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Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Thieves and smugglers of Southeast Asia


THE LOST HERITAGE: The Reality of Artifact Smuggling in Southeast Asia, by Masayuki Nagashima. Bangkok: Post Books, 2002, 190 pp., 235 baht (cloth).

One of the more disheartening sights for the visitor to Southeast Asia is the sight of headless or dismembered statues at important cultural and religious sites. The reason that the heads and limbs are often missing, as Masayuki Nagashima explains in this book, is not the result of natural erosion, but because they have been stolen and put up for sale.

Formerly a journalist in Japan, and now the editor of a Japanese-language journal in Thailand, Nagashima began his investigation several years ago. It is not hard to get a start, for the sale of forged and genuine antiquities in Bangkok is a lucrative business, especially in the vicinity of luxury hotels. From time to time, important cultural assets are among the illicit trade items retrieved by the police.

Accounts of stolen goods recovered can be found periodically in local papers like the Bangkok Post, but Nagashima's book begins really at the end of his story, with a journey to Cambodia. The main focus of his investigations has been on the depredation of Khmer ruins, and it is to see one of these that he travels to the interior. But his journey is not to the major complex at Angkor Wat, which is so much visited today, but to another site of almost equal splendor.

At its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Khmer empire covered an area from Vietnam to the edge of Burma (Myanmar). Its architectural remains show that it was a highly developed civilization, formed primarily from Indian influence. It appears to have achieved a remarkable synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist religious thought. Yet little other than its wonderful stone structures have come down to us from the six centuries that it lasted. Like the Egypt of the pharaohs, it is still a mystery.

So much more important, then, to preserve whatever still remains. Though lost in jungle growth for centuries, a magnificent array of highly-decorated structures, mainly of laterite and sandstone, has miraculously survived. Dynastic successions and important battles are recorded in inscriptions, and are now being studied by experts. The temples are being gradually reassembled, with funds from Western countries and Japan.

At the same time, however -- as money and manpower come in from other countries, to assist the work of conservation -- thieves and smugglers are cutting pieces from the ruins, and selling them elsewhere. The ravages of war have not helped, though they had little effect on the artifacts themselves. Rather, it is the danger from remaining insurgents and the lawlessness and inaccessibility of the countryside, that make the ruins difficult to guard. Poverty is another encouragement to looting, not only in Cambodia, but also in the northeast of Thailand, where some of the lesser ruins are located. The border between the two countries is long and difficult to patrol effectively.

Nagashima's journey to the interior of Cambodia, takes him to Banteay Chhmar. This temple complex, he tells us, is even larger than those at Angkor Wat and the Bayon, and just as deserving of preserva tion. But the remoteness of the site, and its proximity to the border with Thailand, have made it a major source of stolen Khmer artifacts being sold on the international art market, by way of Singapore and Bangkok. Some, like statues, lintels, and in one case even a whole wall of carvings, are carried away in pieces, carefully concealed below farm produce in rickety old trucks. But some items eventually go overseas in diplomatic bags that no one can inspect.

With a welter of detail and example, Nagashima tries to raise alarm about this problem, especially among wealthy collectors in Japan and other countries. But the ruthlessness and greed of the intermediaries who supply the artifacts to them, and the variety of means at their disposal, mean that the situation is unlikely to be resolved easily or soon.

This book can be obtained from postbooks@bangkokpost.co.th or Tel: (662) 240-3700 ext. 1691-2, Fax: (662) 671-9698.


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