05BANGKOK1921 THAIS SEEK RETURN OF CLAIMED ROYAL HEADDRESS
“This record is a partial extract of the original cable.
The full text of the original cable is not available. “,
“C O N F I D E N T I A L
SECTION 01 OF 02 BANGKOK 001921 SIPDIS
DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV, EAP/PD E.O. 12958:
DECL: 03/11/2015 TAGS: PGOV, KPAO, TH
SUBJECT: THAIS SEEK RETURN OF CLAIMED ROYAL HEADDRESS
REF: A) BANGKOK 1617
B) BANGKOK 1737
C) BANGKOK 1527
Classified By: Classified by Political Counselor Robert J. Clarke, Reas on 1.4 (d)
1. (C) SUMMARY: Thai media and some politicians have recently called for the return to Thailand of a 500-year old royal headdress which they claim was stolen in the 1950s. The headdress is currently on display at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the urging of the Prime Minister, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture set up committees to investigate the authenticity and possible return of the relic. Private individuals and one publicity-seeking MP have staged several demonstrations at the Embassy urging return of the headdress. Recently, some prominent individuals quietly approached the Embassy hoping to negotiate a discreet return of the \”crown\” to the Thai Royal Family.
2. (U) During a news lull between Thailand\’s February 6 general election and the official swearing in of Prime Minister Thaksin\’s new cabinet on March 14, local media focused attention on a controversy over a golden royal headdress currently on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The headdress, an item in an exhibit entitled \”The Kingdom of Siam: The Art Of Central Thailand 1350-1800,\” is on loan through May 8 from the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which reportedly bought it from Sotheby\’s auction house in 1982. When and how the piece got from Thailand to Sotheby\’s is unclear. Interestingly, the controversy in Thailand was stirred by Prime Minister Thaksin himself. Thaksin apparently saw a Thai news report about a raid by thieves on Thai Buddhist temples in Ayuddhya Province in the 1950s. The news story supposedly traced some of the relics lost in that temple raid to the current exhibit in San Francisco. On the basis of the news report, Thaksin asked the former Minster of Culture Anurak Chureemas to investigate, and publicly announced his decision to pursue the matter on March 1.
3. (U) Ayuddhya, located some 80 kilometers north of Bangkok, was the capital of the Kingdom of Siam from the 14th to 18th centuries. The headdress reportedly was made in 1424 and belonged to King Borom Rajathiraj II. Local news reporters interviewed an elderly man who claimed he was one of the last surviving members of a band which over 50 years ago had raided the temple where the headdress was kept. According to various accounts, the headdress was among golden palace artifacts which had been hidden inside Buddha images to protect them from the marauding Burmese army which ransacked the former capital prior to the fall of the Ayuddhya Kingdom in 1767. To date, no other major Thai royal artifacts have been identified in the San Francisco exhibit and claimed.
ELEPHANTS VISIT EMBASSY GATES
4. (U) Initial media coverage used misnomers to describe the controversial relic as the \”Ayuddhya Crown Jewels,\” or \”Crown of Ayuddhya.\” The piece is not a ceremonial crown, but a royal headdress worn on day-to-day occasions. On March 3 and 8, peaceful protests were held at the US Embassy to demand the return of the object (Refs A and B.) The first was highlighted by the participation of 5 adult elephants and one baby elephant from the Ayuddhya Elephant camp. Many of the approximately 200 demonstrators carried the former national flag of Siam which features the symbol of an elephant on a red background. It is unclear who organized the demonstration but it coincided with the release of the 2004 Country Human Rights Report and calls for protests by a local TV news personality who was vehemently critical of the report, which criticized Thailand\’s recent human rights record (Ref C). Written on the side of one elephant was the message, \”Traitors helped sack Ayuddhya once, don\’t let them do it again.\” The second demonstration, organized by opposition Member of Parliament Chuwit Kamolwisit, provided an opportunity for media grandstanding by the former massage parlor and brothel tycoon. Chuwit presented a letter to an Embassy officer calling for the return of the crown.
5. (U) On March 4, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture set up three subcommittees to investigate the headdress issue. The committees will first address the authenticity of the headdress, seek a legal mechanism to prove its ownership and then address negotiations for its return. The Embassy has not yet been contacted by MFA concerning this matter.
6. (SBU) Separately, on March 3, the Department of Fine Arts (under the Ministry of Culture) contacted the Embassy\’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office to seek assistance in the return of the headdress. The Bangkok ICE office contacted their New York Field office to report possible stolen artifacts located in the US but of Thai origin. ICE would need proof of authenticity and origin of the article in order to issue a summons to the Philadelphia Art Museum for the return of the object. ICE investigations in the U.S. and Thailand continue.
A MESSAGE FROM THE PRINCESS?
7. (C) On March 10, the Vice Governor of Pathumthani Province, Mom Luang (M.L.) Panadda Diskul contacted the Embassy directly to discuss the headdress issue. ML Panadda is the great grandson of the late Prayaracha Damrong, who founded the Ministry of Interior and was a son of King Rama IV. ML Panadda is known to be well connected to King Bhumibol\’s daughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. He is also chairman of the board of directors of the respected Prince Damrong Rajanupab Museum and Library. During a brief meeting with the Cultural Affairs officer, Poloffs and ICE agents, ML Panadda expressed his desire to see this matter settled privately and not \”politically.\” He expressed concern that the story of the headdress was being distorted by the media and politicians as a nationalistic issue. \”Some individuals were not really interested in preserving an important cultural artifact,\” he said. He asked the Embassy whether, if the headdress were to be returned to Thailand, it could be given to the Royal Family and not directly to the RTG. He specifically mentioned giving it to Princess Sirindhorn via private, unspecified channels. ML Panadda also hinted that a good time to return the headdress might be next year during the 60th anniversary commemorations of King Bhumibol\’s accession to the throne. He expressed his hope that the matter of the headdress would not spark a major \”diplomatic incident\” between the U.S. and Thailand. ML Panadda repeatedly stated that he was visiting the Embassy in his private capacity as a close associate of Princess Sirindhorn and not in his official capacity as a Thai civil servant.
8. (C) COMMENT: The publicity surrounding the headdress has generated great public interest in the issue of stolen Thai artifacts. Stories in the print and broadcast media immediately focused on quick repatriation of the headdress in San Francisco to the Kingdom. More recent media coverage observed that the RTG and private Thai foundations have in many cases failed to protect Thailand\’s antiquities from plunder. Museums in Ayuddhya featuring artifacts from the same historic era as the alleged royal headdress also registered a large increase in attendance. Thais are rightly proud of their cultural heritage and particularly sensitive about antiquities associated with royalty. The private intervention with the Embassy from ML Panadda, which could genuinely have been at the behest of the King\’s favorite daughter and popular \”People\’s Princess,\” indicates the level of interest and pride in this golden treasure. END COMMENT.