BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For more than two decades, a community of more than 300 people living next to an old fort in Bangkok staved off drug dealers keen to extend their turf, and city officials eager to tear down their homes and build a park to draw more tourists.
Last week, the handful of residents who still remained conceded defeat and left their old wooden homes in Fort Mahakan, even as historians and civic groups slammed the city’s modernization plan, saying it is uprooting thousands of people.
The community in Mahakan is believed to have lived behind the octagonal fort for more than 300 years. The area was earmarked for a park in 1978, and eviction orders issued in 1992, when officials said they were living there illegally.
The residents organized protests, filed a petition in court to be allowed to stay, and even proposed a heritage museum that they could run on site. But the demolitions soon began.
“We have lived here through all the changes the city has gone through, and we have helped protect the fort and this neighborhood. Now we are being kicked out,” said Khomonlak Supawatchai, 40, a third-generation resident.
“We were ready to give up some land if we could live here and help people can learn about the history of the fort and the community. But they do not want us here,” she said.
The eviction of the community is part of a wider effort to modernize Bangkok. Authorities are also clearing the sidewalks of vendors and food stalls, and removing homes and shanties along the Chao Phraya river to build a promenade.
Civic groups say the evictions mostly target poor communities who have no formal rights over their land or property, yet are an integral part of the city, contributing to its economy and colorful character.
Authorities say they are removing encroachers to make sidewalks and riverfront areas accessible to more people.
“The people in Pom Mahakan have lived illegally on public land for many years. We want to build a public park, so more people can enjoy this historic site,” said Bangkok’s planning department chief Sakchai Boonma.
“We have offered compensation, and a relocation site, and have had discussions with them for a very long time. Now they have to leave,” he said.
Rattanakosin Island, where Fort Mahakan is located, is the original settlement of Bangkok, and home to some of its top tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho temple, known for its giant reclining Buddha.
Fort Mahakan, built in the 18th century, is one of the oldest structures in Bangkok, one of 14 citadels that once guarded the city. Only one other fort remains.
The eviction of the community and the demolition of their elegant wooden homes is a big loss to the city, where skyscrapers and malls threaten to engulf all traditional architecture and edge out the poor, conservationists say.
“Vernacular architecture is being destroyed in the name of development,” said Chatri Prakitnonthakan, an associate professor of architecture at Silpakorn University, who was involved in the proposal for a heritage museum at Fort Mahakan.
“‘Beautification’ is invoked as a justification for an urban reorganization that threatens existing ways of life and ignores the aesthetic values and social needs of poorer residents.”
Signs in English and Thai outside some of the Mahakan homes traced family lineages, and evoked lost traditions.
One house was the site of the first performances of likay, a traditional theater form. Its residents now sell fish maw soup, made from the swim bladders of large fish.
Residents of another home, called the House of Waterworks, sold water to the community; other buildings were called Gold Melting House, Earthenware House and House of Music.
City officials have said about a dozen homes, some of them more than 200 years old, will be preserved as a museum.
But historians and conservationists say the plan is inadequate and insensitive to the needs of the community.
“This represents the best of Thai culture - extraordinary examples of architecture and the everyday life of a community in a single site,” said Michael Herzfeld, an anthropology professor at Harvard University who wrote a book on Fort Mahakan.
“They are being sacrificed on the altar of a touristic experience. It’s a tragedy for Bangkok and for Thailand,” said Herzfeld, who had opposed the evictions.
Fort Mahakan is not the only historic site in the country where long-time residents have come under threats of eviction.
Only a few have ended favorably for communities.
In February, officials gave up a plan to move more than 1,600 families in the Phimai temple complex in Nakhon Ratchasima province in the country’s northeast, after residents protested and said they had legal titles to their homes.
The insistence on removing communities from monuments and historical sites is misguided, said Herzfeld.
“Many modern architects and planners are in favor of a symbiotic relationship between caring for monuments and communities that live in or near them,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Mahakan, while the residents did not have legal rights to the land, authorities could have used an “ethical interpretation” of the law to allow them to stay and help take care of the site as they had offered to, Herzfeld said.
“The authorities could’ve shown the world a superb example of the self-sufficiency of a community. Instead, they will show a manicured lawn that reflects an ideal of urban beauty that isn’t particularly Thai,” he said.
For the residents packing up to leave Fort Mahakan, a glorious past has given way to an uncertain future.
“I can’t think about not living here. I don’t know where we will go,” said Khomonlak, as bulldozers waited.
“It will be hard to build another community like this one.”