Finally, the Supreme Court has broken its silence.
For about two months, the country's top legal body has been bombarded with questions over its move to tear down its old office, a complex of courthouses on Sanam Luang and Khlong Lot. The Fine Arts Department has categorised the buildings as historical structures that must be preserved.
But the judiciary had remained tight-lipped, until this week. They must be feeling the heat, with the Fine Arts Department lodging complaints with Chana Songkhram police, accusing the court of ignoring repeated warnings that demolishing the buildings would be in breach of the Historical Objects and Historical Building Act BE 2504.
The issue has also lit up social media, while conventional media have given it the full front-page treatment.
Against such pressure, the court had no choice but to come out and give its version of the story.
So what, then was its explanation?
It vehemently insisted that it has every right to dismantle the old courthouse, citing a cabinet resolution from July 19, 1987. While claiming that it had the consent of a senior officer from the Fine Arts Department, the Supreme Court did also signal it was ready to compromise (though, crucially, it has failed to issue an order to halt the demolition). The court said it is willing to spare one building, the so-called "Building 1" which is located behind the statue of the Prince of Ratchaburi, the father of the Thai legal system, in recognition of its historical value. In doing so, it said the blueprints for the new court buildings will be amended.
Still, the new buildings will be gigantic; with a planned height of 32 metres, they threaten to undermine the aesthetics of several Rattanakosin landmarks, namely the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace.
Many people may find the court's explanation agreeable. But wait, a cabinet resolution? Even first-year law students know that a cabinet resolution can't overrule the law.
It reminds me of the time when I was a reporter on the environmental beat. Forest officers had refused to enforce a cabinet resolution that recognised local villagers' right to live on their ancestral land. I was so naive, I asked the officers why they chose to ignore the cabinet resolution. Why could the villagers not stay despite the cabinet nod? The only answer I got from the officers was that they had to enforce the Forest Reserves Act, which takes precedence over cabinet resolutions, and kick out the villagers.
In the Supreme Court case, the legislature is violating (yes, despite the cabinet resolution) not only the Historical Objects and Buildings Act but also the building code for the inner Rattanakosin area which restricts the building height to 16 metres.
Isn't this a double standard? If there is anyone who knows a cabinet resolution cannot be used to stay above the law, it is the Supreme Court.
So far, the court has failed to tell us what it thinks about the potential for its evasion of the law to set a precedent for other state agencies. I don't think the Supreme Court is so naive that it doesn't know there is a good chance this case may be cited by another state agency (or agencies) looking for a licence to bypass inconvenient laws.
There are also several other important questions the Supreme Court has failed to address, whether that be intentionally or not.
For example, the court has never mentioned a study conducted in 2003 by a Chulalongkorn University team which found that instead of demolition, renovation would be a better and cheaper option for the old courthouse while still preserving its grandeur.
Moreover, the court has not even told us why it needs a bigger building, double the height of the existing one. Most courts, including the Criminal Court and the Juvenile Court, have already moved out of the complex into new premises.
This morning, the Supreme Court will have to welcome a group of visitors _ concerned conservationists who plan to stage a rally in the hope of getting their voices heard.
As the demolition saga drags on, the Supreme Court owes answers not only to the Fine Arts Department and the conservationists. The court should know that all society is expecting good, rational answers to enable it to retain its dignity.
Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor.
About the author
- Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor