Friday 12 March 2010

Where is the Stolen Buddha Heritage of Laos Ending up?

Luang Prabang is an ancient city on the Mekong River about 425 kilometres north of Vientiane, in north-central Laos. It was the capital city of Lan Xang kingdom, which was established in the 14th century, and is now a World Heritage Site. Students of Minobusan University in Minobucho, Japan are helping restore the Buddhist statues of this site. These are wooden Theravada Buddhism statues made in the 14th century or later, and are of high historical value. Originally the number requiring work was not precisely known, so in 2001 they began a survey of the statues and in 2007 reported to the Laotian government that the study had confirmed the presence of 1174 statues. In the past few years more than a tenth of them have since been stolen presumably by illegal artefact hunters for collection or for sale to collectors both inside the country and abroad. A survey conducted in 2009 revealed that 100 statues were missing from 35 temples. In 2010, another 20 statues were found to be missing. While monks at the temples have begun keeping guard over the statues by sleeping at the temples, Minobusan University students have distributed brochures at the Luang Prabang National Museum to sound the alarm over the property loss and to call for increased security in the city.

This problem is not restricted to a single region. According to figures from teh ao Ministry of Culture and Information, between September 2008 and February 2010, more than 200 Buddha statues were stolen from temples in the southern Lao province of Savannakhet.

Social changes in the country - one of the poorest in Asia - are leading to the breakdown of old attitudes and an increasing awareness of the financial rewards available for looting such items. There had not previously been a tradition in Laos of having anybody be able to deal in Buddhist art. The attraction of money from the art market in Thailand, often a staging point for artifacts on their way to collectors in the West, is strong enough to attract would-be thieves regardless of concerns about desecrating religious sites.
Mark Pratt, a retired U.S. diplomat who served in Laos during the 1960s and 70s, said foreigners could be creating demand for the artifacts. “Foreigners … in Laos would certainly be susceptible if someone [selling artifacts] came around and banged on their door,” Pratt said. “Most likely these are persons working on behalf of people outside who can get the stuff [sold] on elsewhere in the world”. [...] The trade in Buddhist artifacts thrives in the markets of Southeast Asia—from Bangkok’s River City district to the high-end boutiques of Hong Kong and Singapore—making the theft of such items extremely lucrative.
Justin McDaniel, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of California-Riverside is quoted as saying:
The problem is not what they’re selling. The problem is what people are buying. There generally needs to be a broader education about this issue,[...] If you see a beautiful image in an antique store, no matter what they tell you, there is a very good chance that it was stolen ”.
Joshua Lipes Buddha images stolen in Laos AFP March 10, 2010
Norimasa Tahara Thieves loot Lao city's Buddha statue heritage Sydney Morning Herald, March 13th 2010 (Heads-up From Museum Security Network)

LUANG PRABANG, Laos: Lao monk displays a wooden carving of a Buddha.

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