Myanmar's Buddhist art looted for profit

Sculptures, gilded thrones, silver-plated brass, and teak carvings fill the rooms of Zayar Min’s house in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Not in perfect condition, with cracks and varnish coming off, they sit gathering dust and waiting to be sold. The items were stolen from remote Buddhist temples in the country, often passing unquestioned through military checkpoints.  

Mr. Min does not investigate the origin of these antiques, nor their age, accepting almost everything that looters want to deposit with him. He comes up with prices, ranging from $50 to $300, based on “the size and the appearance of the antique,” he says.  

A painting of Bagan, an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Myanmar. (Photo delivered). 

For traders like Zayar Min, “there is no legal risk associated with the trade,” therefore selling the antiques offers a great new opportunity to earn a living amid the deepening economic crisis in Myanmar. At the same time, millions of Myanmar people have been experiencing more considerable food insecurity than ever since the country plunged into political chaos following the military’s power grab on February 1, 2021.      

Social media platforms such as Facebook Marketplace enable him to reach potential customers nationwide and abroad. This comes despite its 2020 commitment to remove any content “that attempts to buy, sell or trade-in historical artifacts”.  

“Most companies like Facebook have a mechanism to prevent sales of illicit materials but often only in English, and it requires a lot of reporting by users,” comments Phacharaphorn Phanomvan, a Thai economic historian, archaeologist, and heritage scholar from the University of Oxford specializing in Southeast Asian antique art.  

Facebook’s response to the flourishing illicit trade in antiques has been, however, limited to hotspots such as Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and North Africa. At the same time, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian black markets continue to trade on the platform with little consequence. User reports and Artificial Intelligence have proved not to be sufficient to address it in these countries, with the language barrier at the core of the issue.  

Black market buyers use the platform looking for stolen artifacts to purchase, some also offer tutorials on how best to detach them from sites and deliver them in a safe manner.  

A public display of art by Myanmar artists in downtown Paris. The artworks highlighted the plight of Myanmar after the junta coup. (Photo delivered)

Some of the stolen antiques were taken from Buddhist temples frequented by ethnic minority groups in the states of Karen and Shan, where Myanmar’s civil war has been particularly devastating over the last year, says Mr. Phanomvan, pointing out at the teak wooden carvings that could be at least 100 years old.  

Ms. Phanomvan says that Buddhist art should not be traded at all, as it destroys the linkage between the community and the temple.   

Looters have always threatened the preservation of Myanmar’s rich heritage, but the lack of proper policing by local communities due to the unrest has made matters even worse. Noteworthy, illicit trade in artifacts across borders is often perpetrated by networks that also smuggle drugs and weapons.  

Myanmar’s military junta reportedly ravaged private houses and religious sites while attempting to crush the armed resistance movement.  Thousands of households and some Buddhist places of worship were set on fire, while the number of internally displaced people has reached 1.2 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.   

The chaos created an opportunity for the looters in the region. Some traders, even if lacking knowledge of international art markets, have taken advantage of social media platforms to connect with people with more experience that can re-sell the artworks after they safely arrive in Thailand. This country offers a much more robust trading environment, and due to its proximity to Myanmar, serves as an important transit place for stolen antiques.  

Myanmar antiques are sought after by a variety of private collectors and can fetch over $22,000 depending on their type, material, and age.  

Art is increasingly being stolen in Myanmar. (Photo delivered)

While the country is a member of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, it is the duty of the signatories to enforce its rules, and Myanmar authorities have been turning a blind eye to this illicit trade.  

Facebook’s prohibition of the sale or purchase of historical artifacts has also not been enforced in the case of Myanmar. Posts advertising the antiques can easily be identified on the platform. Facebook has not responded after the posts were flagged for removal.  

In Myanmar, Buddhist art has often enjoyed patronage from the ruling generals, portraying themselves as heirs of the once-ruling kings and the sole guarantor of the integrity of the country. Myanmar’s army, known locally as Tatmadaw, has been a dominating force in the country’s politics since independence.  

Despite this, looting has been rampant in the country under the army’s watch. The prevalent corruption combined with a lack of education on the country’s heritage contributes to the devastation of the archaeological sites.  

Also, the construction of new religious sites brings more attention to the political elites and allows them to earn merit which is essential for achieving wholesome rebirth, according to Buddhist teachings.  

For Zayar Min, there is also nothing wrong with trading Buddhist items. “The junta has made our life unbearable, and all we try to do is to survive,” he says. 

Banner image: A collection of Burmese and Sinhala art. Image: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre