Thailand has a rich collection of historical sites, but, like other countries in the region, foreign plundering has destroyed many of them (Manan Vatsyayana)
Under the scorching sun, Thai archaeologist Tanchaya Tiandi climbs through ruined pagodas in the ancient city of Si Thep, trying to unlock their secrets – a task made difficult because parts of the puzzle are missing due to decades of looting.
Thailand has a rich collection of historical sites, but foreign looting has taken away many of them, leaving the country struggling to get back its stolen cultural wealth.
“The larger picture of the building was discovered, but the artefacts that reveal smaller details are missing, leaving many stories about Si Thep untold,” Tanchaya told AFP.
“It’s like a piece of the puzzle was missing,” she said.
The 400-hectare complex, which archaeologists date back 1,500 to 1,700 years, could be added to UNESCO’s cultural world heritage list this week – Thailand’s first listing since 1992.
As Tanchaya, 33, carefully excavates the ancient stone constructions, she faces a daunting task in piecing together the stories of Si Thep, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Bangkok. situated at.
Over the years, at least 20 objects are believed to have been stolen from the site, with experts identifying 11 from museums in the United States.
The actual number of looted items is suspected to be much higher due to lack of documentation.
Now Tanchaya – who decided as a child she wanted to be the Thai version of the film character Indiana Jones – and her colleagues are faced with their own quest.
Can they bring home the treasures of their culture?
– ‘Will not increase speed’ –
The Thai government, then led by the military, established a committee in 2017 to monitor Thai antiquities abroad.
According to the committee’s latest report, about 340 items have since been voluntarily returned to Thailand.
But the process has been slow, partly because government officials are wary of jeopardizing diplomatic relations with important allies such as the United States.
Instead, Thai authorities have taken a “prudent” diplomatic route, said Nombutara Chandrachoti, director general of Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts.
“We will not accelerate anything,” he told AFP.
According to a recent statement from the committee, the Norton Simon Museum, located in the US state of California, houses nine Thai artefacts – one of which belongs to Si Thep Park, according to an independent expert.
The committee said that these objects were among 32 objects scattered in museums across the United States.
Norton Simon is only one of several US institutions – including New York’s Metropolitan and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museums – that have been named in the growing scandal surrounding art that investigators claim was illegally obtained from their Was removed from the country of origin.
The museum told AFP it had not received any information from the Thai government but would cooperate with authorities if contacted and defended keeping the objects.
Leslie Denk, vice president of external affairs at the institution, said the works, which are claimed to have been purchased legally, have been “carefully preserved and displayed”.
-Dilemma regarding tourism-
Thai historians are facing another dilemma: Si Thep’s bid to become a UNESCO site could boost the local economy – but it could also put the fragile ancient site under stress.
Currently, according to official 2019 figures, only one percent of visitors to Phetchabun – the province that is home to Si Thep – are foreigners.
The Thai government hopes the UNESCO designation will help boost the kingdom’s tourism sector, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
However, there are concerns about conservation.
Sitthichai Puddi, head of Si Thep Historical Park, said the site is already “almost reaching its full capacity” of about 2,000 tourists per day.
“We will try to balance things. We will try not to create too much publicity,” he said.
The missing objects mean gaps in records, making it harder to satisfy the curiosity of tourists visiting the site, said Thai historian Tanongsak Hanwong.
“Artifacts epitomize Thailand’s past civilization, and when parts go missing, we are left stranded and unable to tell the world important pieces of the story,” Tanongsak said.
In the peaceful complex of Si Thep, domestic tourists gaze at the carefully carved pagoda wall.
“This is the heritage that belongs to the Thai people, and of which we are proud. It would be a pity not to get it back,” said Chaowarat Munprom, a 66-year-old retiree.
“He was here once.”