HomeAsiaThailand walks diplomatic tightrope as it races to recover stolen treasures

Thailand walks diplomatic tightrope as it races to recover stolen treasures

SI THEP, Thailand – Under the scorching sun, Thai archaeologist Tanachaya Tiandee climbs ruined pagodas in the ancient city of Si Thep, trying to uncover its mysteries, a task made more difficult because many of the clues are missing.

Looters stripped Thailand’s rich historical sites, such as Si Thep, for decades, taking many items abroad. The kingdom is now attempting to repatriate those stolen cultural treasures.

“The big picture was discovered, like the building, but the artifacts that tell small details are missing, which makes there are many untold stories about Si Thep,” Tanachaya told Agence France-Presse. “It’s like a piece of a puzzle is missing.”

Si Thep, whose antiquity according to archaeologists dates back between 1,500 and 1,700 years, could be inscribed this week on UNESCO’s world cultural heritage list, Thailand’s first addition since 1992.

Over several centuries and under the influence of various cultures, it grew to become a vital trading metropolis until it began its decline in the late 13th century, according to the Thai government’s submission to UNESCO.

As Tanachaya, 33, carefully excavates the ancient stone constructions, he faces the difficult task of reconstructing the stories of Si Thep, which is about 200 kilometers north of Bangkok.

At least 20 objects are believed to have been stolen from the site over the years, and experts have identified 11 in museums across the United States.

It is suspected that the actual number of looted objects is much higher due to lack of documentation.

Now Tanachaya, who as a young man decided he wanted to become a Thai version of the film character Indiana Jones, and his colleagues face their own quest.

Will they be able to bring home the treasures of their culture?

‘Won’t speed up’

The Thai government, led at the time by the military, established the Committee for the Monitoring of Thai Antiquities Abroad in 2017.

Since then, some 340 objects have been voluntarily repatriated to Thailand, according to the committee’s latest report.

But the process is slow, in part because administration officials fear jeopardizing diplomatic relations with important allies like the United States.

Instead, Thai authorities have followed a “discreet” diplomatic route, explained the director general of Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, Phnombootra Chandrachoti.

“We won’t rush anything,” he said.

The Norton Simon Museum, located in California, owns nine Thai artifacts, according to a recent statement by the committee, including one item that an independent expert says comes from Si Thep Park.

The items were among 32 scattered in museums across the United States, the committee said.

The Norton Simon is just one of several American institutions, including the Metropolitan in New York and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, that have been named in the growing scandal surrounding art that investigators say was illegally removed from its country of origin.

The museum told AFP it has not heard from the Thai government but would cooperate with authorities if contacted, and defended its possession of the objects.

The works, which he said were acquired legally, “have been carefully preserved and displayed,” said Leslie Denk, the institution’s vice president of external affairs.

Tourism dilemma

Thai historians face another dilemma: Si Thep’s attempt to become a Unesco site could boost the local economy, but it could also put the fragile ancient site under pressure.

Currently, only 1 percent of visitors to Phetchabun (the province where Si Thep is located) are foreigners, according to official data from 2019.

The Thai government hopes the UNESCO designation will help boost the kingdom’s tourism sector, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

But there are conservation concerns.

The site is already “almost reaching its maximum capacity” of around 2,000 tourists a day, said Si Thep Historical Park director Sittichai Pooddee.

“We will try to balance things. We will try not to do too much promotion,” she stated.

The missing items mean gaps in the record, making it more difficult to satisfy the curiosity of tourists visiting the site, said Thai historian Tanongsak Hanwong.

“The artifacts dignify Thailand’s past civilization, and when parts of it are missing, we are stuck and unable to tell the world important parts of the story,” Dr. Tanongsak said.

In the tranquil complex of Si Thep, domestic visitors gaze upon a carefully carved pagoda wall.

“It is the heritage that belongs to the Thai people and of which we are proud. It would be a shame not to get it back,” said Chaowarat Munprom, a 66-year-old retiree.

“It once belonged here.” AFP

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