Society

An Alpine Tale Of Plane Wreckage, Hidden Gems And Small-Town Fears

A young climber discovered a treasure believed to be from a 1966 Indian plane crash and turned it in to authorities. Now nearby alpine towns fear wreckage seekers may come in droves.

A mountain of treasures
A mountain of treasures
Christian Lecomte

BOURG-SAINT-MAURICE — “This kid is a Borain, a native from here. We’re proud of him because he’s been honest,” says Denis, from Le Tonneau brasserie in the French alpine town of Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

Denis, 60, used to work at a printing company in the nearby town of Alberville, but that was before he founded the local newspaper Dauphiné Libéré. It has the region — indeed, the world — abuzz with its coverage of treasure (emeralds, sapphires and rubies) found by a young alpinist on the Bossons Glacier. The climber then handed the treasure, which was found in a metal box, over to the police on Sept. 9. Inside the box were small bags, a few of which bore the words “Made in India.”

The small town of 7,800 inhabitants, known for its Les Arcs ski resort (at 3,200 meters in altitude), is proud that one of its own has achieved a sort of fame in this way. French national television, CNN and even Japanese channels are trying to interview him, but the hero is discreet and elusive. “He wishes to remain anonymous, and we all hail his attitude,” says Mayor Jacqueline Poletti. Does Denis know him? “I have my own idea on that, like everyone else,” he says mysteriously.

The 1966 crash

According to the Alberville prosecutor, these gemstones — rumors say they are worth between 80,000 and 245,000 euros — may have come from the deadly May 1966 crash of an Indian plane, the Kangchenjunga, on Mont Blanc that killed 117 people. Another Indian plane, the Malabar Princess, crashed under similar conditions in 1950, killing 58 people. The treasure’s late discovery can be attributed to the slow and inexorable melting of the glaciers. There have been more and more recoveries on Mont Blanc — including macabre findings of human limbs, chests and bones.

An ambulance driver from the nearby town Séez remembers having transported, in 2001, the body of a Japanese skier who had been mummified in the ice. “He’d been stuck there for 25 years,” he recalls. Pieces of the two Air India planes have been recovered — part of the landing gear in 1986 and a cockpit in 1992. In 2008, wreckage hunter Daniel Roche winched an engine that belonged to the Malabar Princess up into a helicopter. An Indian diplomatic bag was even found there in 2012.

A jeweler’s order

A new theory gives credence to the idea that the treasure found on the glacier may have come from the 1966 plane crash. Françoise Rey, a teacher and author of Crash in the Mont Blanc and The Ghosts of the Malabar Princess, told the Alberville police that the gemstones could be part of a postal packet of emeralds that the British insurance company Lloyd’s has been searching for. The packet may have been an order for a London jeweler of that time.

The Bossons Glacier — Photo: Daniel*D / GNU Free Documentation License

Alberville police have taken the information from Rey very seriously, even though the stones the Bourg-Saint-Maurice alpinist discovered were kept in a simple box and seemed to be carved too crudely for a jeweler. There have always been rumors that a real treasure was buried in the depths of the Bossons Glacier. Apparently a briefcase carrying valuables was on board the Kangchenjunga.

As for the Malabar Princess, it is said to have carried gold bars and an Indian princess’s jewels. But “wreckage hunters have always existed, and people often say nonsense about treasures,” Mayor Poletti says.

A flood of wreckage raiders?

The mayor doesn’t fear a rush of raiders in the region “because the Mont Blanc is far away from us,” but she pities her counterparts in towns that are closer to the mountain. Jean-Marc Peillex, the mayor of nearby Saint-Gervais, is a qualified alpinist fighting to regulate the number of inexperienced mountain climbers that set off to the summit of Mont Blanc without proper preparation and consideration for the site, which is often littered with trash. With the support of other town counselors, the state is now deploying police officers and carrying out closer surveillance. Peillex fears that the well-publicized story of the young Borain who discovered the treasure may draw unscrupulous people to the region.

“I’ll tell you one positive aspect of this story,” the mayor adds. “In 1950, five mountain guides from Saint-Gervais went up there to try and save the Malabar Princess victims. One of them even died. People said that these guides stole the jewels. It’s a very old and lasting story. Today, it has been proven that the glacier still holds the treasure.”

Michel Jacquet, the son of Louis Jacquet, who was one of the rescuers, feels for his 92-year-old mother. “She has always suffered from this rumor, which was revived with the 2004 movie Malabar Princess that suggests that the locals raided the wreckage,” he says. “It shows how little they know about the alpinists of that time. They had the mountain spirit. They went up there to save people, not to get rich.”

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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