MANILA: For decades, treasure hunters have been searching the Philippines for a vast trove of war loot believed to have been hidden in caves and secret tunnels by Japanese troops before their surrender in World War II.
By Alastair McIndoe, PHILIPPINES CORRESPONDENT
Fact or fanciful legend, Yamashita's gold - named after the Japanese general who led a desperate last stand in the Philippines - still casts an unbreakable spell.
So residents in the hilly coastal town of Mauban, long rumoured to contain a trove of Yamashita's gold, were not surprised when treasure hunters arrived in February to excavate a plot of private land.
'The search has been the cause of a lot of illegal activity. It's responsible for damaging archaeological sites in caves dating back to the Stone Age, and areas of historical importance.'
Mr Angel Bautista, head of the National Museum of the Philippines' cultural property division
This month, scores of angry locals marched to Mauban's municipal hall demanding the digging be stopped. The Sept 14 protest highlighted how the obsessive search for long-ago treasure has caused modern-day problems.
Unlike many digs and wreck dives for Yamashita's gold, this one was legal. Cabanisas Credit Corp, the Manila-based company doing the excavations, had a government permit to hunt for treasure.
Mauban's Mayor Fernando Llamas told The Straits Times: 'We heard they had a map belonging to a Japanese guy, who was with them from time to time.'
The bayside town on Luzon Island's Quezon province was one of the main landing points of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941; and published sources and locals say tunnels were built there during the occupation.
Residents complained about noise from the digging, and said it disrupted their water supply.
Mr Llamas said matters came to a head when night-time blasting jolted residents awake. The locals also feared the excavations could trigger a landslide.
Last month, illegal treasure hunters digging for Yamashita's gold outside Olongapo City were blamed for a rock slide that affected houses killing two people and injuring seven.
The diggings have now stopped at Mauban. Local officials visited the site last Wednesday and found numerous permit violations, including horizontal tunnelling.
Cabanisas is believed to have found nothing of value in its seven-month search. The firm could not be reached for comment.
'A lot of Filipinos and foreigners are still losing money investing in the hunt for Yamashita's gold,' said Mr Angel Bautista, head of the National Museum of the Philippines' cultural property division, which issues permits for treasure hunting.
Treasure hunters believe that bullion, gems and other valuables looted during Japan's wartime occupation of South-east Asia were stashed in the Philippines after the Allied submarine offensive made it too risky to ship them to Japan. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos even used the Philippine army to search for the gold.
One post-war estimate puts the amount of bullion at between 4,000 and 6,000 tonnes, making it potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The National Museum says not a single bar of bullion has been verified as Yamashita's gold.
'But the search has been the cause of a lot of illegal activity,' said Mr Bautista. 'It's responsible for damaging archaeological sites in caves dating back to the Stone Age, and areas of historical importance.'
The National Museum - which was given the main mandate to supervise treasure hunting last year - has received information on 60 illegal digs for Yamashita's gold this year. Of the 40 applications it received in the past eight months, only five were granted.
Under the law, the government gets a 70 per cent cut of treasure found on public land, and 50 per cent on private property.
Not surprisingly, the legend of Yamashita's gold has created a cottage industry of fake treasure maps and bogus investments.
Just in January, airport officials in Manila inspecting the bags of a Chinese couple bound for Hong Kong found a 5kg 'gold' bar bearing the stamp 'Yamashita Gold 999'. At any rate, they were allowed to board their flight, but had to leave the bar behind. It was later found to have been made of bronze.