• Courtesy of Doi Suthep Forest Reclamation Network.

SPECIAL REPORT: A complicated row over Doi Suthep

big read April 15, 2018 01:00

By Piyaporn Wongruang

The Sunday Nation

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PROTESTERS SAY SPIRITUAL CONNECTION OF LOCALS WITH AREA TRUMPS OTHER FACTORS



There is a reason why Assoc Professor Woralun Boonyasurat says the controversial court housing project at the foot of Doi Suthep Mountain should not go ahead  despite repeated claims of being legally on solid ground made by concerned parties, including the Justice Court representatives and premier General Prayut Chan-o-cha.

She is not as concerned about the environment as she is about the city’s spirituality and culture that she pays particular attention to. And that’s why she wants the project called off.

“What we are trying to protect, in this case, is not just the environment, but the city’s spirituality,” said Woralun. “In Thailand, we have a number of similar places, which possess some spiritual characteristics – something that people holds on to spiritually, and it’s something to be taken into account when we develop our towns or cities,” said the dean of Chiang Mai University’s Fine Arts Faculty, and a member of the Chiang Mai World Heritage Initiative Project which is pushing for Chiang Mai to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Haunting begins

The court housing project, which apparently ran smoothly at first, has become controversial as it moves into the final stage. 

As explained by the Office’s secretary-general, SarawutBenjakul, the project first began in mid-1997. The Justice Ministry at that time assigned the Court Judge chief Region 5 Office to ask for permission to use a plot of land around 106 rai (17 hectares) held under the military’s authority on the mountain for the ministry’s office and housing needs.

About two years later, the Military Circle 33, responsible for Chiang Mai and nearby provinces sent a letter asking the office’s chief to confirm the purpose. It was confirmed by the office.

A year later, the Court of Justice was separated from the ministry, and the Office of the Court Judge chief Region 5 in 2003 then resubmitted the letter to the Military Circle 33, asking for use of the plot, this time for construction of the justice court office and housing units. In March that year, it also reported to the Court of Justice Office that the Military Circle 33 had asked for the project's land plot and plans  to submit its report to the Army for consideration.

The Military Circle 33, as quoted by Sarawut, informed the regional office three months later that it had checked the legality of the land plot and found no encroachment of the DoiSuthep-Pui National Park, or on other agency land.

In March 2004, the Military Circle 33 then submitted a letter informing the Court of Justice Office that it had no problem if the court used about 147 rai of the land for the purpose, but it must also comply with the Treasury Department’s domain public land, or Ratchaphatsadu, regulations.

With such checks and approval, the Office in September 2005 submitted a letter to Chiang Mai’s governor asking for use of the plot of land, before receiving approval from the governor and the Treasury Department a year later.

Sarawut said after the Office was granted permission to use the land, it proceeded with procurements following the law, with a construction firm and a construction consultant being hired, and a total budget of around Bt955 million.

According to Sarawut, the project was divided into three phases. The first was construction of the Court of Appeals Region 5 building, for which a contract worth Bt290.49 million was signed in September 2014 alongside a completion date set in August 2016, with provision for 242 days of extension.

The firm delivered the work in April last year, Sarawut said.

The second phase consisted of 10 building units for judiciary officials, 38 houses for judges and one house for a director.

That contract worth Bt321.67 million was signed in February 2014, with the completion date set for August 2015, plus 1,048 days of extension. As of March this year, the project was 86 per cent complete, with completion and delivery expected by this June.

The last phase, according to Sarawut, consisted of another 64 building units for judiciary officials, plus another nine houses. 

Its contract, worth Bt342.9 million, was signed in July 2013, and the completion date set in July 2015, with 1,066 days of extension.

As of March this year, the project is 84.5 per cent completed.

Sarawut pointed that the project is on the same topography as other notable places of the city – Kaset Reservior, Chiang Mai Night Safari, Chiang Mai University and other local hilly communities at the foot of Doi Suthep.

Contradictory views

Some intellectuals in the city, however, see it differently and eventually decided to set up the Doi Suthep Forest Reclamation Network to oppose the project.

Bunnaroth Buaklee, a political and social columnist and a member of the 16 civil organisations network, said the issue had been simmering locally since the start of the project.

During those years, Chiang Mai residents, himself included, were shocked when they saw the forest at the foot of the mountain being slowly eaten up by the project.

Some posted on their Facebook accounts, while others posted on online public forums, raising questions about whether the project was eating up Doi Suthep.

The mainstream media quickly grasped the issue, but the court – almost at the same time – doused the rumour with its affirmation that the plot of land was legally held, as it was under the Treasury Department.

Bunnaroth, who helped popularise the issue, had until then viewed the issue as purely non-political. But he decided the weighty silence since the controversy first broke out indeed had something to do with politics.

The country was under a coup government at the time, Bunnaroth said, and freedom of expression was extensively suppressed, prompting few people to dare challenge the government.

It was not until last month that the locals felt they had to raise their voice, he said.

“When those buildings first appeared, we could not yet see clearly what they were. But now, we see well what they are, and that has really hurt the locals’ feelings,” said Bunnaroth.

Question after question was directed to those concerned online, and with the help of social media, along with a more open political atmosphere. As the country is heading towards the planned election, the issue has received a lot of publicity, and dragged in all concerned parties – including the prime minister.

No end in sight

With no end to the controversy in sight, the network last week organised a forest ordaining campaign in a bid to protect the forest of Doi Suthep. Some peaceful walks to Bangkok were organised to petition against the project.

Committed to a peaceful outcome, the network chose to issue to authorities a statement outlining a proposed compromise. Bunnaroth said the network no longer wanted removal of all the buildings from the site, but only demolition of those that could damage the environment.

Their survey of the site found that some construction units obstructed or altered waterways, and could soon cause water pollution if they remained. Nobody is certain whether such impacts have been properly assessed and ameliorated, said Bunnaroth.

To reach a compromise, a joint meeting between project opponents and army representatives was held. They resolved to set up a joint committee to survey the site for units that could threaten the environment and mark them for demolition, find new locations to compensate the court and rehabilitate the deforested area.

The Third Army Area chief Lt-General Wijak Siribansop told the meeting participants that he would report the resolutions to the Army for consideration.

The Court of Justice’s executive board, meanwhile, also held a meeting before reaching a resolution to hear all sides of the argument and report on the issue to the Prime Minister.

Sarawut said the Court of Justice Office was well aware of the need for environmental sensitivity, and during the construction it had tried its best to ensure there would be no environmental damage by removing the fully-grown trees, up to 240 of them, and replanting them elsewhere.

It also planned to grow new trees to harmonise the area to its environment, he said.

Sarawut said the Office could neither nullify the contracts nor remove the properties, as demanded by the local groups because such actions would be illegal. But the Office was willing to accept whatever solution the government chose to apply to the stand-off, he said.

During the press briefing on Tuesday, PM Prayut hinted that the properties would not be removed, but be used for other purposes and the court would no longer be able  to use them.

The opponents just felt that their peaceful calls had not been heard. 

From what Prayut said, “I no longer believe negotiations are on the table any more. Folks, let’s fight!,” Bunnaroth posted on Facebook shortly after the premier’s brief.

Spiritual possession

As an expert on fine art and culture, Woralun said Doi Suthep plays a spiritual and cultural role in the ancient city of Chiang Mai. The need now is to educate all concerned that issues such as this should be considered in their various dimensions.

An attentive dialogue would be critical in getting that deeper understanding, she said.

Since being was placed in 2015 on a list of potential Unescoworld heritage sites, Chiang Mai has gained increasing attention from art and cultural experts who want to help it over the last step to designation, which requires it meet certain creteria.

Chiang Mai is “a living city”, Woralun said, unlike some other World Heritage historical sites such as Ayutthaya. It’s also unlike the living town of Luang Prabang, although they both possess “living” culture and lifestyle. Chiang Mai is where cultural preservation meets with urban development, the drivers making the city so “alive”.

But more importantly, it is the way that the city was built, Woralun said. That reflects the ancient wisdom of the city’s design and planning, which was based on auspicious and spiritual elements that Woralun calls “Chai Mongkol” or the auspicious elements for victory.

This has prompted it to meet the Unesco’s second criteria for designation, which states that the nominating site must exhibit an important interchange of human values over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, through developments in architecture, or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design.

Built over 700 years ago by King Meng Rai, the city planning shows a distinctive selection and use of Chai Mongkol lanscapes involving the plains land, water and forest on Doi Suthep, which were annexed and connected to one another from the East to the West.

Doi Suthep in the West of the city, presents a good fortress against the city’s enemies, and has long generated and provided water sources for the city to the east below, while the city was built in response to natural landscapes.

Ancient canals and reservoirs at the foot of the mountain are still vividly evident nowadays, Woralun noted.

The top of Doi is, very importantly, where another King had invited and placed the auspicious Buddha’s bones in the stupa inside Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, signifying the most sacred place in the city.

For years, the entire mountain of Doi Suthep was taken as a deeply spiritual location tightly embraced by Chiang Mai residents and local people nearby. That personal spiritual connection is the reason why local people have deep feelings for Doi Suthep, Woralun said.

“If you notice, Chiang Mai people do not sleep with their feet pointed to the West where Doi Suthep is located.

"Time passes, but some stories and beliefs are still always in people’s minds. This includes the stories of the city of Chiang Mai and DoiSuthep,” said Woralun. 

“I think this aspect – of spirituality and people’s beliefs – needs to also be taken into account when we talk about development of cities and towns. There are places that people, indeed, spiritually value.”