Finders should be keepers: Vietnamese fight for right to loot sunken ship

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Residents in Quang Ngai overturned a police car Saturday as they fought with officers who tried to prevent them from looting valuable relics from a sunken 700-year-old Chinese ship.

Conflicts between residents in the central province of Quang Ngai who discovered an old Chinese sunken ship last month and local authorities escalated into pitched battles during an official salvage operation Saturday.

The locals, who are said to have taken hundreds of pottery plates and bowls from the 700-year-old wreck since last month, insist they have a right to the boat's cargo, or at least a major share, since they discovered it.

Hundreds crowded the beach at Binh Chau commune in Binh Son District from 8 a.m. when provincial authorities and a salvage company from Ho Chi Minh City were surveying the vessel belonging to the Yuan Dynasty era from the 14th century.

General Nguyen Thanh Trang, the province deputy police chief, said people entered the water pretending to bathe, and threw stones they had carried with them at the police who tried to shoo them away.

The violence peaked when officers arrested a man in the water and put him in a police van -- the crowds stoned the police and overturned the vehicle to release the man.

Then they broke the glass and damaged another police car and a car belonging to the salvage company, Trang said.

"The whole beach was terribly chaotic," said a resident who had gone just to watch. "People were shouting like in a battle. A lot of stones and sand were thrown at the police."

Five police officers were injured, two in the head, and needed stitches.

Trang said the residents easily outnumbered the few dozen officers.

Experts from the Quang Ngai Museum had to stop their work to protect themselves and the equipment, and the residents, many of them divers, continued to loot the ship.


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The police dispatched 130 more officers, and order was restored at around noon.

They are looking at footage of the riots to make arrests.

The boat is 1.5 meters under the seabed in water three meters deep.

The survey team had managed to clear the sand above the boat Saturday morning, but now would have to start all over again.

Rejecting government writ

Le Van Nguyen, a commune official, said local authorities had repeatedly told residents that whatever was on the ship belonged to the government, but they had refused to accept it.

Vietnam's heritage laws require finders to hand over relics to authorities for a cash reward of 15-30 percent of an artifact's value.

But in this case people have kept hundreds of relics they found on the boat since discovering it on September 8, 100 meters off the beach. Some were seized by the police.

Doan Ngoc Khoi, deputy director of the Quang Ngai Museum, said the violence broke out since people are aware of the value of the relics.

Some residents said they have earned big sums of up to VND60 million (almost US$3,000) on the black market for a ceramic bowl they found.

Seabed Exploration, a company that salvages shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, estimates there are 40 old ships in Vietnamese waters.

But the government has only salvaged five of them in the past decade, and always only after local residents discovered and looted them first.

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