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Thailand returns stolen artifacts

Thailand returns stolen artifacts

THIRTEEN Angkorian artifacts - stolen at least six years ago - are due home from

Thailand in mid-October, while other priceless works are about to embark on a worldwide

exhibition which will last the better part of two years.

The Thai government officially handed over the 13 stone pieces, some up to 800 years

old, to Cambodia's Ambassador in Ban-gkok, Roland Eng, on Sept 23.

The artifacts were scheduled to be flown to Phnom Penh on Oct 15, and will reside

at the National Museum, according to Michel Tranet, secretary of state for Culture

and Fine Arts.

"This is a symbolic gesture of goodwill on the part of Thailand," he said.

"But we would also appreciate that they return other objects which were stolen

from Cambodia."

Tranet was referring to 40 other artifacts which, according to official documents,

are suspected to have been stolen from Angkor between April 1990 and February 1995.

The fate of these objects has yet to be determined.

After they were confiscated in 1990 by police from an art gallery in Bangkok, the

13 artifacts became the focus of a long legal wrangle to establish their exact origins

and ownership.

"The majority of decision-makers in Thailand would have liked to have returned

those seized artifacts sooner," said Raschada Jiwalai, the first secretary at

the Thai Embassy. "But the decision was delayed because of legal complications.

"The position of the Thai government is we are not going to keep artifacts which

were stolen from other countries. But we simply want to make sure that these stolen

objects have not come from Thailand."

A visiting UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) official

supported Thai claims about legalities delaying the return of the 13 objects as legitimate,

given the history and geography of the Khmer civilization.

In his opinion, an important distinction has to be made between Khmer civilization

and modern-day Cambodia.

"The Khmer universe left behind cultural and artistic traces which can still

be found in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and even Burma," said Azedine

Beschaousch, Unesco director-general's special representative for Angkor.

"Unfortunately, the fact that Cambodia lost its archives as a consequence of

its dirty war and the Democratic Kampuchea regime, has made establishing proof that

these Khmer artifacts originated in Cambodia especially difficult."

Jiwalai said Cambodia had provided photographs and documents since 1994 to authenticate

their ownership claims, but these did not constitute conclusive evidence in court.

The Thais were therefore returning them partly as a show of goodwill, he added, noting

that bilateral relations had gradually improved since the Cambodian Government took

power in 1993.

In the past, acrimonious Thai-Cambodian relations had been further strained by allegations

on both sides of complicity in the smuggling of Khmer artifacts.

Corrupt quarters of the Cambodian military were suspected of facilitating the pillaging

and smuggling of large stone pieces from Angkor. The Thais were accused of being

in cahoots with Khmer Rouge looters and smugglers, providing them with access to

overland routes in Thailand.

Jiwalai said that the return of the 13 artifacts was not linked to the recent power

reconfiguration within the KR high command and prospects for peace in Cambodia.

However, according to Michel Tranet: "The Thais waited for the start of the

peace process before returning objects to Cambodia."

Unesco's Beschaousch agreed with Tranet, saying that Thailand had not signed current

international arts and culture conventions and was therefore never obligated to return

the objects to Cambodia.

In his view, their return was borne out of a thaw in relations as well as the likelihood

of a Cambodian peace.

"The improvement of Thai-Cambodian relations and the peace process certainly

contributed to the repatriation of these art pieces," said Beschaousch. "Now

with the prospect of peace at hand, Cambodia has an opportunity to recover and protect

its cultural heritage."

Meanwhile, finishing touches are being put on Khmer antiquities to be displayed at

art galleries of the Western world, beginning next January.

Thirty-nine artifacts, restored at the National Museum, will be flown to Paris at

the end of November, according to Ang Choulean, aide to Vann Molyvann, senior minister

for Culture and Fine Arts.

They will join 27 pieces previously sent in July for special treatment, as well as

other artifacts drawn from overseas collections.

The exhibit will however be without the controversial presence of the statues of

Jayavarman VII (seated) and the Nandin Ox, the two most venerated treasures of the

Angkorian heritage and sacrosanct in Cambodian folklore.

The show was almost cancelled as a result of political wranglings over whether the

two pieces should have been included.

A campaign by Vann Molyvann and the Western organizers of the exhibit to include

them was undermined by Nouth Narang, the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, and his

deputy Tranet. A co-Prime Ministerial order eventually overruled Molyvann.

Baschaousch remained upbeat that the exhibit would succeed regardless of Jayavarman

VII and Nan-din.

"One must not forget that the Cambodians will be sending masterpieces of their

artistic heritage anyway," he said.

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