Supreme Court gets a bad name

When the first building of the Supreme Court was built in 1939, Thailand had every right to be proud.

The progress of demolition work at the old SupremeCourt buildings in SanamLuang. SITHIKORN WONGWUDTHIANUN

The structure in a plain, white design according to the modern architectural style was to mark the country's judicial sovereignty.

Today, the structure and another building put up in 1941, classified (but not yet registered) as historical buildings under the Historical Objects and Historical Buildings Protection Act, are doomed as the Supreme Court has chosen to go ahead with its plan to replace them with new, bigger buildings.

This is despite repeated petitions by leading conservationists and the Fine Arts Department that the old courthouse should be preserved for its historical and architectural significance.

The Supreme Court takes advantage of a legal technicality _ that the department has not yet registered the courthouse and the department failed to object when the judiciary proposed the project.

The only compromise the judiciary has offered in an attempt to calm the conservationists is its offer to adjust the construction blueprint and keep part of the old structure.

The "compromise" significantly fails to address concerns by the civic network over an apparent legal privilege that enables the top legal body to breach two laws, namely the Historical Buildings Conservation Act and the Building Control Act.

The court cites a cabinet resolution on July 19, 1988 which authorised the building of its new headquarters, even though it breaches height limits in the area, and would result in the destruction of buildings recognised for their historic merit.

The court insists it has the right to continue with its plan to replace the ageing structure with a new, much bigger office because cabinet approved it.

However, the judiciary has been silent about criticisms about what is perceived as a legal double standard, which has subsequently tainted its image in the public eye.

The public does not expect to see a guardian of the law such as the Supreme Court act in such a cavalier way with the law when it suits its own interests to do so. The 32-metre height of the new courthouse is double the legal limit of 16m stipulated particularly for the inner Rattanakosin area under the Building Control Act.

Destroying or demolishing historical buildings is punishable under the law _ 10 years jail and/or a 1 million baht fine for a registered structure. The penalty is lower for an unregistered building: seven years in jail and/or a 700,000 baht fine.

Chatri Prakitnonthakarn, a lecturer at Silpakorn University's architecture faculty and an expert on the art of the People's Party era, urged the Supreme Court to reconstruct the partially-demolished building to its original design.

There are only two buildings in the vicinity which have heights slightly exceeding the 16-metre legal limit: the old courthouse, and Thammasat University's Main Auditorium. Both were built by the command of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram long before the Building Control Act took effect in 1979.

Mr Chatri said the cabinet resolution must be annulled to ensure no one or no agency is above the law.

He said Thammasat University, which sits on the opposite side of Sanam Luang, had to move to Rangsit as, under the law, the university could not expand or add new buildings to its Tha Prachan campus. Another example is Silpakorn University. Its Na Phra Lan campus also needs new, taller buildings to accommodate a growing student roll. But the Building Control Act does not allow them.

"The campus is so crammed. Students have asked me why we cannot have new buildings," Mr Chatri said.

The lecturer also urged environmental assessment impact studies and a public hearing if the new courthouse is to go ahead.

Speaking at a recent forum, "Demolishing the Courthouse, Erasing National History," Mr Chatri urged the government to step into the dispute.

Intervention is necessary, as law enforcement agencies appear to have done little. The Fine Arts Department filed complaints at Chanasongkram police station in the hope of halting the demolition work but police lacked the courage to take action against the judiciary, so the demolition goes ahead.

The lecturer said the Committee for the Conservation of the Rattanakosin and Old Town should have done more to stop the demolition work. The committee should resign over its inaction, as it has failed to protect Rattanakosin, a landmark of Bangkok, he said.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a feature writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter