Houses on the hill are already haunted

opinion April 19, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Chiang Mai court officials might not get to live in the homes built for them after all, but what a price we’re all paying

The controversial housing-office estate built for court officials at the foot of Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai has become a hot potato for the post-coup government – and is potentially a political time bomb for our future leaders.

This three-phase project, which cost Bt955 million overall, was established completely in line with the law. It’s located in an area designated as “state property”. It is not within a national forest. None of this has stopped furious northerners from saying the residential estate shouldn’t be there.

The project dates all the way back to 1997, when the Justice Ministry assigned a local unit of the Court of Justice to ask the Royal Thai Army for permission to use the scenic 147-rai (23.5-hectare) property. It took a second prodding in 2003 before the Army finally gave the notion the green light, seven years after the original request was made.

However, despite initial government endorsement, it wasn’t until 2013 that the budget for the project earned Cabinet approval. Why did it take so long? The speculation is that some of the people in power during those years were too worried about a public outcry.

Regardless, construction began in 2014 and the homes and other buildings, including some for official court use, are almost completed. Environmentalists are railing against the undertaking, saying it encroaches into woodland that serves as a buffer for the adjacent Doi Suthep-Pui National Forest. They are demanding that houses built among those trees be torn down, and not just out of ecological concern. There is also a matter, they say, of showing respect to what is, according to local belief, a sacred mountain. For Chiang Mai 

residents, Doi Suthep holds spiritual significance and feelings for it run deep.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has settled on a strange and unsatisfying “compromise” of sorts. None of the buildings will be dismantled, but they will together form a “learning centre” for area residents. The court officials who’d planned on living there will instead have homes built elsewhere, an option favoured by the Office of the Judiciary, which oversees the project. The problem, 

of course, is that this late, 

dramatic shift in the plans will cost 

taxpayers millions more baht.

Perhaps the concept will evolve further (or devolve), but, whatever the resolution, there will be a negative reaction and the government – either this one or a future administration – can count on a major headache.

There appears to be a raft of people who must be held accountable for the damage done already to the once-pristine hillside and for the need to spend state funds twice over on the same mission. Whoever authorised construction in a crucial buffer forest has questions to answer. So do the Cabinet members who endorsed the financing. The Cabinet should have been where this idea got blocked, not just delayed. It was clearly a project that would cause harm to a national forest and the environment. Despite signs of trepidation, though, the plan gradually moved forward unimpeded.

This is an expensive lesson for people in power and for the 

agencies charged with protecting the public interest. Their decisions in favour of a questionable 

undertaking could spawn much more difficult problems for 

everyone involved and financially burden the country further.