The real cost of looting

This is about more than the loss of Myanmar’s physical heritage.

ON JULY 20, the Bodle family of New Zealand did something noble: they voluntarily handed back relics taken by an ancestor from Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago during the Second Anglo-Burmese War (for the full story, read our feature on pages 48-50).

You could, of course, argue that returning stolen objects is simply the right thing to do, and therefore not deserving of praise. But both the original and recent act needs to be considered in the context of their time period. In 1852, it was generally not considered wrong to take valuables from a vanquished opponent (although some were beginning to argue the contrary).

Everybody did it, including the former empires based in modern-day Myanmar. Maha Muni Pagoda in Mandalay still contains six bronze statues that were first taken from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Ayutthaya, but were later pilfered by the kings of Bago and Mrauk-U before finally ending up at Amarapura after the Burmese conquest of the Rakhine kingdom in the late 18th century.

Today, many would find the idea of purchasing looted antiquities abhorrent. But how many of us would actually hand back family heirlooms to a museum in a country we’ve never visited? Negotiating the various logistical hurdles would probably be difficult enough to discourage doing the right thing.

Sadly, though, antiquities fraud is still a significant problem in many countries, but particularly Southeast Asia. There are many reasons for this: poverty, porous borders, the region’s rich cultural history, weak law enforcement, and the relative lack of archaeological work that has been conducted – to name but a few. When we think of looting, it’s often large or particularly significant items that spring to mind.

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But as Phacharaphorn Phanomvan, a PhD Candidate in economic history at the University of Oxford, wrote in a recent article for the Tea Circle blog, even smaller, less obviously valuable objects have their market. Phanomvan wrote that beads from Dawei and elsewhere in Tanintharyi Region have become popular among buyers in Thailand and some other countries, not just for their appearance but also perceived spiritual power. They are being sold online and even in markets in Bangkok, which has long been a clearing-house for antiquities looted from around the region (as well as many more reproductions being passed off as antiquities).

This is about more than the loss of a country’s physical heritage. In and of themselves, the things that are often being taken – beads, coins, small amulets – have little monetary value, and would probably not find pride of place in a museum.

But the looting process is highly destructive. Looters, be they area residents or more professional outfits, have little interest in objects that are not valuable or desirable in some way, and will throw them away like rubbish.

Their methods result in more than just the loss of historic items. The looting damages the integrity of archaeological sites that often have not been properly surveyed, or even studied at all.

Even if items are recovered, the context in which they were excavated cannot be recreated. To an archaeologist or anthropologist, the item itself is not as valuable as what it can tell us about the people who created, used, traded or discarded it.

This is the real loss from looting: the opportunity, when the resources are available, to learn more about Myanmar’s many cultures. In particular, non-Burmese cultures, which have often been neglected by the authorities.

In the meantime, Myanmar and its neighbours clearly need to do more to stem looting and the illicit trade in antiquities. The key is to diminish or eliminate demand, because if there are no buyers there will be no looting. That will require enforcement, education – and more people, like the Bodles, who make the effort to do the right thing.

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