Something rotten in handling of Mahakan Fort issue

The BMA has committed a number of conservation faux pas without guilt or accountability.

The demolition of a landmark house at Mahakan Fort in the name of conservation has stunned conservationists who have condemned the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration for a saga which began in the early 1990s.

With the end almost near, I think it would be wrong to blame this unfortunate case only on the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), without mentioning a bigger culprit — bureaucracy.

In fact, it’s the rusty bureaucratic system that underlies the death sentence for this old community — a living heritage item that makes this part of old town quarters in Bangkok unique.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Our bureaucracy is a failed mechanism that cripples efforts to deal with new challenges. This raises the question of how can we pin our hopes of national reform on bureaucrats?

All the decisions in the Mahakan case were made by bureaucrats in a top-down, authoritarian format.

It’s a pity that the relatively novel mechanisms of the Administration Court, Ombudsman, and the National Commission on Human Rights could not save the community from bureaucrats.

Back in the 1990s, the community filed a case with the Administrative Court only to find itself left in the cold. The court handed down a verdict in favour of the BMA, recognising the agency as legal owner of the land. The BMA had previously appropriated part of the land, and later on purchased the remaining area from a businessman.

Such a verdict, which gave the BMA a dubious right to uproot the community, was issued without due regard to local history.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration demolished a vintage house in the Mahakan Fort community last year, ignoring calls that the house is part of local heritage and should be conserved. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

Legal expert and vice rector of Thammasat University Prinya Tewanaruemitkul noted the verdict was based on civil law which focuses on the legal rights of landowners. It was not particularly relevant for issues like the Mahakan case, yet it gave the state agency a free hand to handle - or mishandle   - the community.

Back in 2016, the lecturer - who, like so many academics who took their students to learn about the saga  - turned up at the embattled community with a group of law students. He instructed his students to examine the case to find an alternative solution. It was a futile effort.

The expert paid particular attention to the verdict of the administrative court. He noted the court was in fact created with the noble idea of ensuring justice for those in conflict with a state that has the power to manipulate the law to its advantage. Under this new idea, the court was supposed to think outside of the legal box. But the Mahakan case sadly proves the court did otherwise.

It is interesting to note that this area has never been vacant. Though the fort is categorised as a historical site, the community has been living there for centuries. Had the court recognised this information, its verdict might have been different.

Mr Prinya recommended the BMA consider the rent option previously proposed by the community under its renowned “Mahakan Model” which

respected both the BMA as the legal owner and the community as legitimate dwellers. Unfortunately, it was never adopted.

The National Human Rights Commission seemed to be one of the few agencies to take the community’s plight seriously. It came up with a solution which advocated co-existence by the fort and the people, disputing claims by the BMA that the laws were an obstacle. In a big bureaucratic leap, the BMA shunned the recommendations that were endorsed by Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu

Krea-ngam who oversees legal affairs for the regime.

As the BMA has raged in its fight with the community, it has committed a number of conservation faux pas without guilt or accountability. Numerous houses of historical value have been bulldozed.

As I mentioned previously in this column, one of the biggest mistakes that the BMA made was to fell some majestic trees ahead of the royal funeral last year. Some of them were probably planted at the same time as Rattanakosin was set up in 1772.

To appease public anger, the BMA claimed: “Some workers inadvertently removed them.” It’s a pity that the agency can escape responsibility with such an irresponsible reason!

The reaction, or lack of, on the part of state conservation agencies baffles me.

I remember well when Borvornwate Rungrujee, a member of the committee on Rattanakosin and old towns and former head of the fine arts department, said with pride how he was particularly firm when instructing the owner of a vintage building, who sought to turn the place into a top hotel, to keep all the old trees in the compound. In his own words: “The trees can tell the age of the place.”

Mr Borvornwate did not bother with the massive tree felling at this historical site. He seems not to be aware what’s going on at Mahakan. I suggest it would not be worth repeating the stance of the Rattanakosin committee against eviction, or Mr Prinya’s suggestion that the BMA work with the community to look for an alternative solution.

And it’s not just Mr Borvornwate, it seems that many of those at the top of Culture Ministry think the case is a nonissue too. Which would be fine if Culture Minister Veera Rojpojnarat this month had not been so thrilled with the way the Japanese have managed to conserve their old traditions — not just “archeological sites, but old communities and trees,” which it has registered as national heritage items. The minister even said the Thais should learn from Japan!

The Mahakan saga has conveniently slipped from the ministry’s memory.

The Mahakan case is full of ironies. Mr Veera took pride in mentioning his initiative on tree conservation, the rookamoradok, which encourages members of the public to save old, rare trees. Many that would have qualified for his project were already uprooted from this old community by the stroke of ignorant act.

The deafening silence of these highranking officials makes me realise that Mahakan is a bureaucratic hot potato for those in top positions. At this time, we may have to accept the fact that the shrinking community will soon be gone. As I said, the Mahakan destruction has occurred in the name of conservation and has been allowed to happen by a state that is run by a rotten bureaucracy.


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