Thais look to skies in hunt for buried treasure

BANGKOK, Reuters

Hopes are dimming that a remote Thai cave contains a fabled hoard of Japanese World War Two treasure which could pay off the national debt and rescue the economy from crisis, officials conceded on Tuesday.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he had called a halt to digging at the cave near the border with Myanmar until a satellite owned by friends in the U.S. passed over the site later this week.

He said the satellite had remote-sensing equipment which might be able to detect whether the treasure existed.

Controversial senator Chaowarin Latthasaksiri sparked gold fever last week by saying that 2,500 tonnes of booty left behind by the Japanese Imperial Army was hidden in the cave, stashed inside a train and surrounded by the skeletons of Japanese soldiers who had committed hara-kiri.

He later conceded that he had not actually seen the treasure, but said he had evidence that U.S. bonds with a total face value of more than US$50 billion were also in the cave.

Gleeful politicians said the hoard would be enough to pay off Thailand’s 2.8 trillion baht (US$61 billion) national debt, and Thaksin Shinawatra took the story seriously enough to fly by helicopter to the cave on Friday.

But officials now say the bonds were almost certainly fake. For one thing, they are said to have a face value of $100 million each, and the United States has never issued bonds of this size.

Backtracking on his earlier optimism, Thaksin told reporters that Chaowarin may have been the victim of a giant hoax.

“It is possible that somebody might have left the bonds at the cave and made him believe they were real bonds,” he said.