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MEDIA ADVISORY: International Forum Opens with Call for Global Cooperation in the Fight to End Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Heritage in Southeast Asia


Growing demand online and lack of preventive measures among factors driving illegal smuggling in sub-region, say experts at landmark UNESCO symposium

BANGKOK, 19 NOVEMBER, 2014 – “Southeast Asia is the point of origin of some of the world’s most priceless [cultural] treasures,” said Thailand’s Culture Minister H.E. Vira Rojpojchanarat at the opening of a UNESCO symposium targeting the illicit traffic in cultural heritage. “Unfortunately, it is also one of the crossroads for the [illicit] trade in art and antique objects.”

The “Sub-regional Symposium for the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Heritage in Southeast Asia” has taken place from 19-21 November in Bangkok.

In his opening remarks, UNESCO Bangkok Director Gwang-Jo Kim spoke of the pressing need for the symposium at a time when the art market is rapidly expanding, particularly on the internet, creating a demand for cultural objects that too often leads to heritage items being smuggled illegally out of countries with insufficient preventive measures in place.

Dr Kim said that instrumental in this battle are two international frameworks aimed at combating the trade in stolen and illicitly exported cultural artefacts: UNESCO’s Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (the 1970 Convention) and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention), through which State Parties commit to a harmonized frame for prevention, restitution and international cooperation of stolen or illegally exported cultural objects.

“Southeast Asia continues to be a major point of illicit trafficking both as the source of the objects and as a transit point. It is therefore important to be aware that the fight can only be effective if it is an international effort,” Dr Kim said. “Countries must act beyond their own borders and join together to stop the flow of illicit trafficking of unique and often irreplaceable cultural heritage. The conventions in this regard are essential tools in achieving this.”

Currently, out of 127 State Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention only three are in Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Viet Nam and Myanmar. Only Cambodia is a Party to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

Culture Minister H.E. Vira spoke about the case of the Phra Narai Lintel, which typifies some of the issues at the heart of the symposium. The historic lintel went missing from the Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung temple in Buri Ram in the 1960s before turning up at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s. A process of negotiation and mediation through UNESCO mediation resulted in its repatriation in 1988.

“Since then the Ministry of Culture has worked closely with many agencies, especially the Department of Customs, to strengthen the protection of cultural objects from illicit exportation,” HE Vira said. “However, the global problem of trafficking in art and antique objects is impacting negatively on the situation in Thailand. We are, therefore, making more efforts [to strengthen] protection by cooperating with all agencies within the country and we look forward to closer cooperation with countries in Southeast Asia.”

In his opening remarks, Mr Borvornvate Rungrujee, Director-General of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department, referred to the illicit traffic in cultural heritage as a “transnational crime that affects the countries of origin, transit and final destination.

“In Southeast Asia, we are working to raise awareness of the problem among the relevant organizations and the general public,” he said. “We encourage not only police but also art and antiques dealers and owners of works of art to play an active role in the exchange of information. This combined action will strengthen our efforts to curb the erosion of our cultural heritage.”

More than 60 participants are attending the event, including experts from UNESCO headquarters, INTERPOL, the Word Customs Organization, UNIDROIT, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) as well as other heritage enforcement professionals, art market dealers and legal workers from 11 Southeast Asian nations.

This symposium is part of a series organized by UNESCO to marshal efforts to combat the illicit trade in cultural heritage throughout the Asia-Pacific region. It follows on from a similar symposium held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in December 2013 that focused on South Asian Countries. In 2015, a similar meeting will be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu, for the Pacific Island States. This South-East Asian symposium is being held with the generous financial support of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science of the Netherlands.

For more information, please contact: Noel Boivin, UNESCO Bangkok Media and Communications Officer: or Ms. Montakarn Suvanatap, Communication and Programme Assistant for the Culture Sector:   

More on the 1970 UNESCO Convention:

More on the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention:

 press release opening unesco symposium on illicit heritage trade 19 11 2014 2FINAL (43 kB)