Folk history, culture at risk unless officials learn from Mahakan Fort fiasco: academics
FOLK HISTORY and culture will never be safe in this land, unless authorities realise the value of unofficial heritage and “intangible” cultural traditions, according to an academic speaking after the last of the houses in Bangkok’s historic Mahakan Fort Community was torn down.
As the last remaining residents of the long-time community moved out and their antique wooden houses were dismantled last Wednesday, they faced housing insecurity and the separation from generations of friendships as they were scattered around the capital.
This was a bitter ending for the two-decade-long campaign by Mahakan Fort Community members intent on keeping intact their 200-year-old community, and preserving a lively part of Bangkok’s folk history from land expropriation by Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).
The empty land now left behind as the bulldozers withdraw will be redeveloped by BMA as a public park as per the Rattanakosin Island redevelopment masterplan, which was drafted 20 years ago. But planning and cultural experts said there are important lessons to be learnt from what some still see as a tragic mistake by the city administration.
The tragic disbanding of the historical community was an affirmation of the authorities’ lack of regard for, and acceptance of, the value of local people’s history and culture, said the head of the Architecture Department at Silpakorn University, Supitcha Tovivich.
“Bangkok has just lost one of its last links to its roots, and if the authorities still hold on to their mindset of sterilising the ‘mess’ – in their eyes – from official historical sites, many more valuable and culturally rich communities across Bangkok may suffer a similar fate as Mahakan Fort Community,” Supitcha said.
She cautioned that the communities on Rattanakosin Island, the heart of Bangkok’s old town, are very likely the next to be affected by the old town’s redevelopment plan.
The eviction of Mahakan Fort Community and the creation of a public park at Mahakan Fort were part of a project to conserve and renovate the old city wall and fortification, which itself was one of 20 projects within the official Rattanakosin Island redevelopment masterplan.
The masterplan’s major projects included the renovation of the areas around Wat Thepthidaram Temple and Wat Ratchanatdaram Temple, The Golden Mountain public park project, and the renovation of land along Klong Rop Krung Canal. Some of these projects have already begun. “From this old town redevelopment plan, we can see that the authorities only cherish the value of official and touchable historic sites,” Supitcha said.
“They do not know how to manage the informalities of the local people’s livelihood, even though these informal ways of life and folk cultures make the city lively and also attract tourists from around the world to travel far just to experience this charm.”
Therefore, she urged, academics and civil society need to work harder in order to create awareness among the official agencies and help them realise the value of these folk histories and examples of intangible heritage.
As for the forced relocation of Mahakan Fort Community members, Pornthep Buranaburidet, former deputy leader of the community, said that most of the residents, including himself, have temporarily moved to the Kanlayanamitr Community in Bang Sue District, while others are for now staying at the homes of relatives.
He said that many displaced community members were not intending to stay long in their temporary shelters. They have a plan to get a joint loan from the Community Organisations Development Institute to purchase a plot of land in the Sai Song neighbourhood in Taling Chan District from a private owner, he said.
Their hope, he said, is to re-establish their Mahakan Fort Community so they could continue their way of life there.
“We will use the wood from our old houses to rebuild wooden houses in the same style and organise the new community similarly to our old home,” Pornthep said with pride.
“We chose to purchase the land from a private owner even though the land price is not cheap and none of community member is rich, because we do not want to be on the authorities’ land and live with the risk of expropriation ever again,” he said defiantly.