The current exhibition at Thailand’s National Museum, “Khmer Artefacts return to Cambodia” represents an extraordinary turnaround in Thai government policy during the last year.
Thailand has long been the leading art entrepot for mainland Southeast Asia, serving much the same role as Hong Kong does for China—the safe exit point for pieces looted from other, more dangerous climes.
The kingdom shares long, malarial borders with unstable countries—Burma, Laos, Cambodia—and generals posted to these frontiers tended to treat them as private fiefs. Add to that the particular tragedy of Cambodia, coincidentally (along with Java) Southeast Asia’s ancient cultural core.
Artefacts from the great medieval Khmer kingdoms were steadily looted by the Khmer Rouge and common bandits, smuggled in with the connivance of corrupt Thai military, then sold to galleries or collectors in London or New York by dealers in the capital, Bangkok.
The three years since the financial crisis, however, have seen a new constitution in Thailand and a new democratic government led by tough-minded P.M. Chuan Leekpai. Chuan’s government has had bigger fish to fry, but this year it cracked down on the Cambodia transshipment trade.
This began in January 1999, when hundreds of pieces looted from Banteay Chhmar, the most remote of major Khmer temples within Cambodia, were captured by police in Thailand’s Prachinburi Province. A few days later, another horde was discovered in Ayutthaya, an ancient Thai capital which has become a centre for art crime due to its thriving legitimate restoration business.
Soon customs police announced yet another shipment, routed through Singapore from Cambodia. Then, on 5 July 1999, police raided River City, an antiques mall popular among international dealers and collectors. Two galleries, Panya and Asian Art Store, were found selling looted artefacts and their owners were arrested. Nothing, however, has been heard since. Under the Thai criminal code, selling such items should earn ten years and/or a maximum B20,000 ($500) fine.
Around this time, Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh all but admitted the widely rumoured role of the army’s Seventh Division in the looting of Banteay Chhmar and transferred authority over the ruins to provincial police. The Thai police, meanwhile, reported a disturbing proportion of these pieces originating in Thailand; Colonel Sanit Miphan of the Ayutthaya police estimated it at 50% (large areas of Thailand bordering Cambodia were part of the ancient Khmer empire, with major sites).
The current exhibition originated in Chuan’s decision last December to return 122 of these recently confiscated pieces to the Cambodian government, 117 of which came out of a single horde from Banteay Meanchay in western Cambodia, another five from the River City haul. It is a modest collection of reliefs and sculptured heads, some of them badly mutilated during their removal.
Still, this show marks a fundamental change in the smuggling trade, with the government in Bangkok finally able to exert some authority over the recalcitrant military elements abetting it on the borders.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Turn-around for Thai government'