At Fort Mahakan, a birthday that shuns the past

opinion April 28, 2018 01:00

By Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Special to The Nation

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Those who found themselves in Bangkok’s historic quarter last weekend may have noticed added grandeur in the already grand spectacle. There was a celebration to mark the 236th anniversary of Bangkok’s founding on April 21, 1782.

The capital’s glorious past flowed through the streets in a procession on Saturday evening and also at exhibitions held at seven locales around the old city.

The celebrations were organised by the Ministry of Culture, which encouraged participants to wear traditional apparel to add to the historical atmosphere. 

I’m definitely grateful the capital was founded and for the way it has been steadily developed into today’s City of Angels. But obviously the history of Bangkok didn’t stop at the first chapter, with the birth of the city.

Just behind the old city wall where the procession began lies the Pom Mahakan (Fort Mahakan) community, a venerable neighbourhood that housed courtiers in the early Rattanakosin Period before becoming home to a tight-knit group of residents who helped shape the historic quarter in recent decades.

The residents, desperate to remain in their homes, repeatedly proposed turning the community into a “living museum”, in which they could act as custodians and conservators of the city’s history and heritage. Unfortunately, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration didn’t see the significance of that heritage. So, just a day after the weeklong anniversary celebrations kicked off, the last group of residents held their final meeting behind the wall – to bid farewell.

Reluctantly, I visited the community on Sunday to witness the sad ending, which included a final meal attended by a few remaining residents and international supporters.

I knew I had to see the people who had been fighting for 26 years to live in their own homes. Now they were accused by City Hall of encroaching on public land and were forced to leave.

It was heartbreaking to return to the community the next morning and join the last group of departing residents watching as workers carelessly demolished the wooden homes. The structures were being hastily pulled down, with no heed to whether the wood might be used to rebuild the homes in another location. Such entertainment!

I’d never seen the BMA acting so efficiently. But I understood now that the BMA never intended to relocate the houses that dated back a century, as it had promised the news media.

Everything seems ironic.

It was ironic to hear the city’s governor, during a site visit on Wednesday afternoon, order all the big trees felled to create a completely open space for the planned public park. How could a property that was already a perfect park, with shady trees, be turned into “better” park with nothing more than scraggly shrubs and concrete foundations?

It is ironic to see how we celebrate the glorious past inside the city’s old quarters while erasing a chapter of that same history on the other side of the city wall.

I also can’t help grimace at the superficiality of the state making traditional costumes the pride of Thai history, but not the community or even their way of life.

It is ironic how Thais often appreciate the heritage of foreign countries they visit. They take selfies at Unesco World Heritage sites, in a mountain village at Shirakawa-go, Japan, in the circular village at Fujian Tulou, China, and at the lagoon in Venice, Italy.

And yet they ignore the heritage of Thailand’s capital, right there by the old city wall, and the community that carried on, right in the heart of Bangkok, the bygone way of living together as a village.

It seemed the authorities wanted to celebrate our glorious past with Disneyland-style festivities while at the same time erasing the history of the real people who lived that history and helped build this city. If so, the old quarters will soon become sacred and at the same time empty, apart from occasional official celebrations, boutique hotels and tourist guesthouses.

Many have said the Pom Mahakan community lost the long battle, but I regard that as untrue. The physical homes may be gone, but the spirit of the community lives on in the virtual world set up by its supporters. And the community will always be remembered. And meanwhile the BMA has lost a chance to help city residents appreciate real history, rather than just superficial period costumes.

Anyway, a belated happy birthday, Bangkok! I hope the city grows older with grace and dignity – and with real people living in it.