Norway returns Buddha statue to protect Myanmar’s national cultural heritage

Norway's Minister of Foreign Affairs Borge Brende speaks to the media during a joint press conference held with Myanmar's State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw on 06 July 2017. Photo: Min Min/Mizzima

Under the auspices of UNESCO, representatives of The Republic of the Union of Myanmar and The Kingdom of Norway finalized the repatriation of an illegally-purchased Buddha Statue to its place of origin, according to a statement. The return of the statue took place during an official handover ceremony in the presence of H.E. Mr Børge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, and H.E. Thura U Ko Aung, Minister of Religious Affairs and Culture, at the National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw on 6 July 2017 at 16.45.

The alabaster statue depicts Buddha in the mudra of ‘earth witness’ (bhūmisparśa), one of the most common iconic representations of Buddha images in Myanmar. Its tumultuous story dates back to 2011 when Norwegian Customs identified and prevented the illegal import of the cultural artefact. The Norwegian prosecutor confiscated the statue and after years of research, the statue was identified by experts as originating from the Mandalay region in Myanmar and estimated to be between 150 and 200 years old. Hence, as a protected cultural object, the procedure for the return to its country of origin was initiated by the Government of Norway.

Recalling that both states are parties to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and bearing in mind the good relations based on mutual trust, representatives of the Governments of Norway and Myanmar, met at UNESCO in Paris on 16 January 2017 to formalize the statue’s return. The process conducted by Norwegian authorities to return the Buddha statue illustrates a best practice for thereturn of cultural property. Norway hindered the illegal import of the statue and engaged specialists to find its country of origin, thus securing a successful return to its country of origin, Myanmar.

The return of the Buddha statue furthermore marks an important step in the cultural cooperation between Myanmar and Norwegian authorities, with international counterparts, in regards to the global efforts to safeguard cultural heritage and to curb illicit trafficking. Trafficking of cultural artefacts often follow the same networks and routes as other international crime. It is, therefore, necessary to keep raising awareness about this issue and increasing international cooperation to combat such illicit trade.

From 2016 and until its repatriation, the Buddha statue remained on display at The Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, where its presentation aimed to raise public awareness about illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts. Upon its return home, the Buddha statue will be put on display at the National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw.

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