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Society & Culture

Protecting Southeast Asia's Cultural Heritage is One Area Where China, U.S. Can Agree

Oct 31, 2016

The talk these days in Southeast Asia seems to be about a growing rivalry between the United States and China for the affections of the region. Whether in Cambodia or the Philippines, the talk is perhaps understandable as a new leader in Manila and a long-established one in Phnom Penh add new geopolitical twists to the mix on such issues as the South China Sea and ASEAN solidarity.

ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations.

But even in these contentious times, there are always areas of potential cooperation. 

As we wrote for the Singapore Straits Times on the eve of the Milken Institute Asia Summit this September, the coming together of nations to protect the region's cultural heritage offers one such opportunity. In Singapore, we focused on the forces shaping Asia, such as a rising consumer class and new advances in finance and technology. 

Yet, as private wealth grows and connectivity as a force for change increases, the enduring challenge of protecting the world’s cultural assets—not only those from China's millennia of history but also those from Southeast Asia—may well grow larger. 

The ongoing trade in looted art from Syria’s ancient cities, including the World Heritage site of Palmyra, or from Afghanistan makes clear that unscrupulous dealers in stolen antiquities can always find collectors willing to look the other way. Also, stories abound of newly unearthed Chinese art continuing to make its way into the wrong hands of those willing to pay. 

With its long and rich history, large parts of Asia, such as China, have known this tragedy all too well as colonizers and collectors have plundered ancient capitals and temples. Examples abound of Khmer sculptures from Cambodia and Buddhist images from Myanmar and Thailand of uncertain provenance crossing international borders and making their way into private collections, if not museum galleries and auction blocks.

This continues despite both international agreements and national laws intended to protect the region’s heritage. Due to thefts increasing both at museums and archeological sites in the 1960s and early 1970s, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a UNESCO convention was developed to prohibit the illegal import, export, and transfer of cultural property.

That convention and a subsequent one, however, failed to win universal support. Due in part to concerns about definitions of what is a “cultural property,” compensation, enforcement, and national sovereignty; the initial 1970 Convention has been ratified only by 131 member states of UNESCO to date.

For the most part, existing measures to protect Asia’s rich heritage have proven inadequate.

According to data from Global Financial Integrity, a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., the worldwide illicit trade in antiquities and other works of art stands at 6 billion USD a year.

However, there has been some recent anecdotal progress in righting past wrongs. 

In 2013, a unique 11th-century standing statue of Buddha from the world-famous Bagan Temple complex was returned to Myanmar thanks in large part to the work of individuals  at Northern Illinois University, including Richard Cooler, NIU professor emeritus of art history and founder and former director of the Center for Burma Studies. 

Standing less than two feet tall, the rare statue of a standing Buddha was stolen from Bagan in 1989 by an unknown individual, according to NIU – before appearing in Bangkok, and was sold to an art dealer in San Francisco, and then listed for sale by Sotheby’s before the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually got involved.

In another example, in 2014, the United States returned to Thailand hundreds of artifacts, including ancient bronze tools and pottery, stolen from an archaeological site in Northeast Thailand. The Ban Chiang artifacts had been found in a 2008 raid of the Bowers Museum in California, following a five-year investigation into an antiquities smuggling ring and tax fraud involving a California art dealer.

Last year, Norwegian art collector and businessman Morten Bosterud returned a ninth-century “Head of Shiva” sculpture along with a 12th-century “Head of a male divinity” statue to Cambodia. Bosterud did not elaborate at the hand-over ceremony on how he came into possession of the artifacts, simply stating that he had come to realize that “they belong to the Cambodian people.”

Sadly, no one really knows how many plundered cultural artifacts from Asia, whether from China or South or Southeast Asia, are in private hands around the world.

Though there is a path forward. Policy makers, museum directors, would-be collectors, and other stakeholders, including those from China and the United States, can lead the way. 

First, education is critical. Greater emphasis should be placed on educating all stakeholders about Asia’s heritage and the importance and means by which to conserve and protect it. Changing attitudes toward what is appropriate to collect will take time and education.  

The region’s museums, private galleries, and art dealers must also step up given their important role on the frontlines of the international art market.

Second, enforcement of existing laws must be strengthened. There can be no more “blind eyes” when it comes to illicit trade, whether of art or persons. National laws have already been instated to reduce illicit trade, including that of protected cultural assets. As an example, for decades Thailand has in place an antiquity law passed in 1961 forbidding certain exports. While funding for enforcement of relevant laws in the poorest nations may well remain limited, there is a need and opportunity for greater cooperation and support across the region. China and the United States can assist. 

Change will require greater intelligence sharing between all appropriate agencies on an international level to prevent illicit items from entering the open market. This has taken on more importance in the last few years as so-called “blood antiquities” – artifacts looted from conflict zones and sold to finance terrorism – has been documented.

Third, enhanced technology can be deployed to tackle the problem. New advances, including the development of “apps” and other technology tools to better document and track an item’s provenance, need to be piloted, tested, and applied. The Antiquities Coalition, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., is one example of a cross-sector partnership using its resources, relationships and the power of technology and communications to “fight against cultural racketeering” and “safeguard our shared cultural heritage.” 

A nation's cultural artifacts are windows to its history and can serve as inspiration for future generations. Cambodia, with the richness of its Khmer heritage, including the temples of Angkor, is one shining example of Southeast Asia’s cultural, diversity, and heritage. As that nation moves forward from its tragic past, its citizens deserve that their treasures be protected and, when appropriate, returned home.

“I came to realize that the [pair of Khmer artifacts I had] are not to be held by a person like myself,” said the Norwegian collector Bosterud. “These beautiful artifacts belong to the true owners, the Cambodian people,” the Cambodian Daily reported Bosterud as having said in his speech at the recent repatriation ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

We could not agree more. And we also hope that therein also lies an opportunity for the United States and China to forge an agreement to the protection of Southeast Asia's own rich cultural heritage. 

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