Thailand returns looted ancient artifacts to Cambodia

Thailand Focus week of July 13, 2015

Thailand marked the signing of a new border-crossing agreement with Cambodia by demonstrating its commitment to preserving cultural heritage as it returned 16 ancient Khmer artifacts to its eastern neighbor, during a ceremony and press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.

“It is my great pleasure to hand over these 16 antiquities through you to the people of Cambodia,” Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn told his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong.  “This handover is a unique gesture demonstrating the long-standing and friendly relations that exist between our two countries and peoples.”

Artifacts and antiquities dating from the Khmer Empire, as Cambodia was once known, are highly prized and sought after by collectors around the world. The Khmer Empire dominated mainland Southeast Asia from about 800 A.D. to 1431 A.D. and its crowning glory were the temples of Angkor Wat.

Looting of relics and artifacts, and outright destruction of some, began when the communist Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. After Viet Nam invaded and ousted the Khmer Rouge the theft only increased.  Some looting was the work of Cambodians who were desperately poor and perhaps unaware of the value of the ancient relics, and so they sold them to smugglers. The smugglers were often from Thailand, and the artifacts frequently ended up for sale in antiques shops in Bangkok, scooped up by Thai and foreign collectors from around the world.

However, attitudes began to change in 1998, when Thai police uncovered a truck carrying an entire Khmer temple wall that had been dismantled and was being transported to a wealthy client in Bangkok. They began seriously investigating the illegal trade in antiquities.

Their efforts received an important boost when Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn spoke out against the looting and sale of cultural and artistic items from neighboring countries following the seizure of the wall by police. The princess’s call for action immediately rallied the Thai public’s support and stronger efforts on the part of the Thai government.

Today, finding genuine Khmer artifacts in art and antique shops in Thailand is exceedingly rare, although reproductions abound.  Much of the looted Khmer sculpture and artwork is in the hands of private collectors around the world, and has never been recovered. In 2010, however, the United States returned 27 Khmer artifacts to Cambodia.

Thailand has also suffered from looting. Last year, the Bowers Museum in California returned over 550 artifacts from ancient Thai kingdoms, and about 20 years ago the Museum of Chicago returned an entire lintel from a northeastern Thai temple.

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