Rich in history and poor at honouring it
Much more than a few homes will be lost with the imminent demise of Bangkok’s Mahakan Fort community
Though historical sites are certainly not scarce in Thailand, their proper management is. We have seen countless important places altered beyond recognition in the name of progress, and now there is another facing the same fate. The latest outcry over our disappearing heritage focuses on the Mahakan Fort community on Bangkok’s storied Rattanakosin Island.
Its residents will soon be evicted so that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) can develop a six-rai historical park that’s foreseen as another city attraction for foreign tourists. The park plan is intriguing, focusing on the two-centuries-old fortress that has witnessed so much of the capital’s changes. Siam’s old capitals, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, have done well by their historical parks, which concentrate visitor interest in single areas so that their cities’ modern development can proceed elsewhere.
The problem with the Bangkok plan is that the municipal authorities are riding roughshod over the residents of 56 homes adjacent to the walls of Mahakan Fort. A scheme being touted as a conservation project does not allow for conserving the neighbourhood. And yet, as one community leader told The Nation recently, the long-time residents have a lot of history of their own to share with visitors.
Foreign tourists already trickle casually through the area, admiring the old wooden homes and a way of life far calmer and engaging than is seen elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile the BMA and legal representatives of the community have for decades waged war in court. An initial plan to revamp the area was mooted in 1959, under the military government of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat. The residents have since then fought off numerous attempts to clear them out – the police say they’ve encroached on public land – but this year the Supreme Court came down firmly on the BMA’s side. The BMA has twice found alternative places in the city for them to live, it was noted. The residents have been told to move after Songkran or else be evicted by force.
Legalities aside, further consideration ought to be given to the residents’ argument that the community constitutes a “living museum” that should be part of the new development. Their lives are interwoven with the story of the fort. Some of them descend from the servants of nobility who settled there, outside the fort’s walls, after the threat diminished that Bangkok might be attacked from across the river. In this claim to be an intrinsic part of the site’s history, the community has several historians and non-governmental organisations on its side.
What needs to be kept in mind here is that every community forms part of our culture, from its roots through its evolution to the present day. The BMA has assessed the Mahakan Fort as an overpopulated eyesore and is anxious to clean up the area, but let us consider what would be lost with the evictions. Public parks, tourist attractions and any type of building can be created with relative ease, but no cost can be assigned to giving birth to a community.
In Thailand, authentic culture always seems to be at risk from the steady demand for tourism development. Invaluable assets are given a price tag, sold off and replaced by cheap replicas, a sham culture that’s of value to no one but ill-informed foreign tourists and the touts who take them there. Our ethnic communities have always suffered from this cultural mismanagement. Their centuries-old traditions are watered down to stylised dancing and singing in restaurants for snap-happy tourists who believe they’re seeing the real Thailand.
Governments shouldn’t be evicting people from old neighbourhoods. Doing so shrinks our culture and undermines our sense of community and even, ironically, our perception of progress, since culture is not static but evolutionary. And so is history.
No matter how wondrous the Mahakan Fort historical park might be, it will have lost much of its intrinsic significance if the people who live there are pushed aside. Whatever it exhibits will be as lifeless as museum relic. Another historic site will become a stage backdrop, all spotlights and no actors, nor any real story to tell.