Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Looters target Myanmar temple treasures in tourist slump




Looters target Myanmar temple treasures in tourist slump

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
An aerial view of the temples of Bagan, an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. AFP

Looters target Myanmar temple treasures in tourist slump

A squad of gun-toting police patrol Myanmar’s sacred site of Bagan under the cover of night, taking on plunderers snatching relics from temples forsaken by tourists due to coronavirus restrictions.

Each evening as dusk falls, about 100 officers fan out across the plain of Bagan measuring 50 square kilometres, sweeping torches over the crumbling monuments to scour for intruders.

“Our security forces are patrolling day and night,” Police Lieutenant Colonel Sein Win tells AFP.

“We have it under control for the moment, but it’s a challenge.”

The central Myanmar city is strewn with more than 3,500 ancient monuments — stupas, temples, murals and sculptures — and was finally added to the prestigious UNESCO world heritage list last year.

But the pandemic has stymied plans to capitalise on Bagan’s new-found status.

The dearth of visitors means temples and hotels lie empty, crushing the livelihoods of locals and opening doors to opportunistic burglars.

In a spate of break-ins across the holy site in early June, robbers looted 12 different temples, swiping a range of relics, including copper stupas, ancient coins and jade jewellery.

The 35th Battalion regional police squad have been deployed to bolster local tourism police and firefighters, the teams ranging across the site by jeep, motorbike and foot.

“It’s not easy to patrol as the area is so big,” one police officer says through his face mask, worn by all on duty to protect against Covid-19.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Police patrol the temples at night, hunting for thieves while dodging venomous snakes. AFP

They also need to be on their guard against the area’s numerous venomous snakes, he adds, asking not to be named.

Temple curse?

For now, the extra security seems to have thwarted any break-ins at the most prestigious temples.

Some of the relics date back to the 11th-13th century, an era when Bagan was the capital of a regional empire.

This is the first time in decades the site has been so seriously targeted, says Myint Than, deputy director of Bagan’s archaeological department, as he shows at one stupa how the looters scaled the walls to enter from the roof.

“When there were tourists here, there were no burglaries,” he explains, adding he believes this is the work of outsiders.

Even if locals’ livelihoods have been devastated by the tourist downturn, he says he does not believe they would “betray their heritage”.

Times are hard in an area dependent on tourism.

Bagan welcomed nearly half a million visitors in 2019, while this year the figure was 130,000 up until the country’s New Year festival in April and much of the area has been closed to tourists since.

Hotels and restaurants lie shuttered while the hawkers and tuk-tuk drivers not lucky enough to clinch rare construction or farming work wait in vain for customers among the deserted lanes connecting the temples.

Souvenir seller Wyne Yee, 46, says the money she makes in April alone usually keeps food on her family’s table for the following six months.

“But this year we have no money left,” she says wistfully.

She says she is saddened by the desecration of the temples but — like others in the area — is convinced a curse will see the crooks receive their comeuppance.

“The Bagan temples will not tolerate it,” she says. “The robbers will be dealt with.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Seven positive for Covid-19, Hun Sen confirms local transmission

    Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that there has been local community transmission of Covid-19. However, he urged the people not to panic even though the Ministry of Health announced the discovery of seven new cases on Sunday. Among the victims are Chhem Savuth, the director-general

  • Cambodia at ‘most critical moment’, Hun Sen warns

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the first community transmission of Covid-19 in Cambodia has led the country to the “most critical moment” that warranted urgent, large-scale operations to contain the pandemic. Hun Sen, who confirmed the first local transmission on November 28, said the source of

  • PM confirms community transmission, calls for unity

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has called on the public to stay calm, unite and follow the Ministry of Health guidelines after the wife of a senior official tested positive for Covid-19 in the Kingdom’s first case of community transmission. The case has drawn criticism

  • Over 110 garment factories close

    A government official said on November 22 that at least 110 garment factories had closed in the first nine months of the year and left more than 55,000 workers without jobs – but union leaders worry those numbers could be much higher. Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training undersecretary

  • Singapore group seeks $14M in damages from PPSP over ‘breach of contract’

    Singapore-based Asiatic Group (Holdings) Ltd is seeking a minimum of $14.4 million relief from Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX)-listed Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone Plc (PPSP) for allegedly breaching a power plant joint venture (JV) agreement. Asiatic Group’s wholly-owned Colben System Pte Ltd and 95 per

  • PM vows to protect Hun family

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to continue his fight against opposition politicians who he said intend to smash the Hun family. Without naming the politicians but apparently referring to former leaders of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Hun Sen said there