Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Valuables stolen from Bangladesh

Valuables stolen from Bangladesh
SYLHET, Bangladesh, Dec. 24
Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
Two statues of the Hindu god Vishnu were stolen from the Zia International Airport in Dhaka Saturday at midnight, while under "tight security." Government officials were about to load the statues onto a French cargo plane, along with other artifacts headed for a three-month exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris. The lost terracotta statues are 1,500 years old, and are insured for 4.5 million takas (around US$66,000).

According to the reports, the government had decided to send 187 artifacts, all around 1,000 years old, to the French museum. A first batch of 42 items had been sent on Nov. 30 to France, which has not ratified the International Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, issued by UNESCO in 1995. These artifacts had been on exhibit or stored in various museums around the country.

Despite serious protests from cultural activists, the government went ahead with the shipment of these national treasures, despite a complaint to the High Court which resulted in a stay order, which was later lifted by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court so the shipments could go ahead.

Following the loss of the irreplaceable statues, the government set up a committee to investigate the theft, headed by a group of bureaucrats. Eleven people, mostly airport staff and cargo handlers, were arrested.

On Sunday, Indian customs authorities reported seizing four artifacts, including two statues of Vishnu, at India's border with Nepal. Many Bangladeshis believe that the seized statues are the same ones that were stolen from Bangladesh one day earlier.

It is no wonder that the military-backed government, which has utterly failed to protect its citizens from atrocities even while in police custody, failed to protect these artifacts no matter what their value.

Officials have failed to take responsibility for the outrageous incident. In a statement to the press, former director of the Bangladesh National Museum, Dr. Shamsuzzaman Khan, tried to cast suspicion on the Guimet Museum, saying that in the past it had cheated the government of Turkey by failing to return a collection of tiles from the grave of an Ottoman emperor.

Local media quoted an adviser to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Ayub Quadri, as saying he was thinking of resigning over the incident. Quadri was one of the people responsible for sending the artifacts abroad. He should not be left to ponder whether or not to leave his job; he should simply be removed from his post.

Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, chief adviser to the Ministry of Home Affairs, which looks after security issues, is also keeping mum about the stolen artifacts. This is no surprise, as he has remained silent over even the most serious violations of human rights since his government began to share power with the armed forces. Perhaps Fakhruddin has already lost all sense of shame and capacity to feel, which enables him to remain shameless in his position as head of government.

None of the officials of the Bangladeshi government has so far explained what benefit was intended for the country in sending the artifacts to the Guimet Museum of France, which does not even respect the UNESCO Convention.

Everyone in Bangladesh is aware of the capacity of the investigating committee and the authorities who make up the committee, as well as the culture of filing reports that lack key information. For instance, the five-member committee set up following the theft of the artifacts from the Zia International Airport was asked to investigate whether any of the France-bound items were lost or stolen, to make a list of the lost items and determine the persons responsible for handling them. The government did not even ask the committee to discover how the actual theft occurred.

Inefficiency and irresponsibility are rooted so deeply within the government, including officials in ministerial positions and in public service, they do not seem to understand the purpose of sitting in official chairs, as evidenced by the decision to send the artifacts to France and forming the investigating committee afterward.

Bangladesh is daily losing its valuables at the hands of the ruling class; this includes its artifacts, its humanity, its national morality and patriotism, its social values and the rule of law. The nation is gaining nothing but an ever-deeper frustration over a corrupt system that is ruining the country.

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender of Bangladesh who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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