Heritage falls to big business in Amphawa

All of a sudden, we are made to believe that things are fine in Amphawa _ a popular tourist town in tiny Samut Songkhram province.

With a "public hearing" on Tuesday, in which around 100 attendees or so gave the nod to the Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawa Hotel, a colossal project being developed by tycoon jeweller Chuchai Chairittilert, it seems that all controversies surrounding this project have disappeared and all parties have reconciled as the developer has promised to correct the mistakes he had naively made and revise the construction blueprint.

In response to Mr Chuchai's goodwill by opening up to criticism, the forum "voted" in favour of the project after calling for a minimal adjustment _ a change in the roof style.

Happiness seems to have returned to the community and everything is all right.

But is it really?

Chuchai Buri caused a big stir a few months ago when a social activist posted the project's promo material on Facebook, stunning members of the social network and, eventually, attracting media attention.

Old wooden shophouses _ part of the charm that secured a conservation award from Unesco _ that were torn down to pave the way for the hotel's construction fuelled public uproar.

Mr Chuchai then pledged to listen to local people and right the wrong.

It would have been good if he meant it. But apparently he didn't.

After all, the 550 million baht project that critics say will rob the community of its traditional charm with its alien, European architectural style, is still there. The towering structure, with a new roof, will continue to dwarf and intimidate the remaining wooden shophouses next to it. (We can hardly blame him for picking a European style for the canal community. Beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder).

The "public hearing" or forum was as problematic as the project itself as certain elements merit certain questions.

To begin with, the forum, the second of its kind, was seen as a tactic to make the project legitimate in the eyes of the public _ especially with the "nod" from the local community.

While it's not clear who the organisers were, it's not coincidental that most of the attendees donned purple polo shirts, emblazoned with "Amphawa locals" on the back. It remains unclear in what capacity they gave their backing for the project to go ahead.

The few people who dared to criticise at the forum were booed.

Even though we don't go by the numbers game, the nature of the forum was dubious.

Those who disagree with the project, like members of the Khon Rak Mae Klong community group, were not invited. Worse yet, the hotel's supporters made it difficult for non-local critics to voice their views.

But how is it that being a local or a non-local has become a point here? Mr Chuchai, for one, is an outsider. So are some academics like Assoc Prof Siriwan Silapacharanan from Chulalongkorn University's faculty of architecture, who happens to sympathise with the developer. The lecturer in her mediating role cited economic benefits that may be generated from this huge project.

This is the obvious reason why the forum did not call for drastic changes to the blueprint that can really solve problems like reducing the building's height.

After Tuesday's forum, It seems nothing can stop Mr Chuchai from finishing his controversial hotel.

Legally speaking, it seems there are no laws or town planning ordinances that could have halted construction in the first place. It was the municipality that assured everyone that Chuchai Buri is not breaking any local laws.

If true, it is of grave concern that there are no proper laws to protect towns with great cultural value and heritage like Amphawa. Even more serious is the lack of people's participation in heritage conservation.

Amphawa's people should learn that they can't rely solely on academics. Instead, people need to rise up and protect their own heritage.

But without proper protection, Amphawa will sadly fade away like other tourist destinations before it.


Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor

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Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor