Against the backdrop of stealing artefacts even at places like Colombo National Museum and vandalising places of archaeological value, National Heritage Minister Dr. Jagath Balasuriya decried the lack of human and physical resources to run the administration of his Ministry and to conserve the heritage sites for the posterity. After an exhibition on May 16, 2012, as many as 221 priceless artefacts were stolen, among which were the swords of Nugawela Adikaram. In an interview with Daily Mirror, he outlined the measures taken to conserve the heritage sites and artefacts.
Q Priceless artefacts were stolen from the National Museum. What are the measures you have taken to recover them?
First of all, I must say that this is not a gang robbery. Probably, a couple of individuals were involved in the theft. One suspect had been arrested and produced before court. Some of the stolen items including the sword of Nugawela Adikaram have been found. Investigations are in progress to recover the remaining items. We have to provide all these details to the court for further investigations.
"We have planned to amend the Antiquities Ordinance as part of our efforts to conserve the important places. There will be more fines and more rigorous imprisonment on those convicted of vandalising places of archaeological value"
Q What steps have you taken to prevent the repetition of such robberies?
Cameras have been installed now inside the museum. Sri Lanka is a country with as many as 250,000 artefacts. It is also on top of the list of countries with large numbers of archeological sites. We lack the financial and human resources to conserve and protect them. The annual allocations are hardly sufficient for that purpose. We are seeking Cabinet approval to establish an institution similar to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) to raise funds for the conservation of heritage sites and artefacts. It is very important as we cannot depend on the state to satisfy all our financial requirements.
Q What about human resources?
Again, there is a shortage of seven deputy directors, and 40 management assistants in the institutions coming under my purview. The National Salaries and Cadre Review Commission, and the Management Services Department of the Treasury have not given the necessary approval to fill these vacancies. Also, we need to establish the archaeological service and prepare service minutes.
Besides, we have planned to amend the Antiquities Ordinance as part of our efforts to conserve the important places. There will be more fines and more rigorous imprisonment on those convicted of vandalising places of archaeological value.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa formed a separate Cabinet Ministry for the conservation of the national heritage. That task was entrusted upon me. It has always been the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led governments that run a separate ministry for this purpose. Otherwise, it was within the purview of the Cultural Affairs Ministry.
Q Do you believe laws alone can address this problem of stealing artefacts and vandalising places of archaeological value?
Actually, we have decided to create public awareness on the importance of artefacts. It is one of our key approaches to address this issue before us. We target schoolchildren in this case. They have to be educated.
Q What are the new heritage sites earmarked for conservation?
In the eastern province, we have a trail of archaeological sites identified for the purpose. Nilagiri Mahaseya is one of them. There is a lot of history there. We did a lot of conservation work at some other places like Yudaganawa in Buttala and Mihintale.
Q Once you said a request would be made through diplomatic channels to the countries that colonised Sri Lanka, to hand over artefacts taken from the country at that time. How far have you progressed?
We cannot handle this issue with individual countries. Therefore, we need to approach it through UNESCO. We have prepared a list of the artefacts taken from Sri Lanka at that time. Some of these items are at museums in Lisbon, London and Hague. They are practically unable to hand over them to individual countries because there were many countries colonised by them both in Asia and Africa. There need to be a holistic approach through a world body like UNESCO.