Weigh up cost of heritage

Weigh up cost of heritage

The Fine Arts Department should review its plan to extend the conservation area of Phimai Historical Park in Nakhon Ratchasima, as it will affect thousands of local people.

This week, local people in the designated conservation zone, approximately 30,000, voiced their concerns and sought help from a political party and civic groups for fear of eviction under the plan.

They plan to file a case with the Administration Court against it. Under the law, the locals have 30 days to petition against the plan, and seek a review.

The Fine Arts Department's plan for the historical park, which is located in Nakhon Ratchasima's Nai Muang district, is believed to be part of the state's effort to register the Khmer-style sanctuary, which was built in honour of Khmer King Suyarvarman I, as a World Heritage Site.

Thailand has long been in the process of nominating the site for Unesco heritage status and managed to place the site on the tentative list in 2004. To be eligible, it is required to propose a conservation action plan to convince the global body of the site's importance.

Under the initial registration plan, the department, instead of proposing the sanctuary as a stand-alone site as it has done previously for other areas, aims to incorporate part of the so-called Rajamanka route, an ancient path linking Phimai to Phanom Rung and Muang Tam historical parks in Buri Ram province.

Some historians believe the Rajamanka extended to the old Khmer kingdom which is now in the centre of the Angkor historical park in Cambodia.

Over past years, the department has complained of massive encroachment by locals -- due to failed town planning that allowed people to settle in the historical areas for generations -- and regards eviction as inevitable.

Undeniably, conservation is a noble cause and local people are thrilled to see the Phimai historical site being touted as a World Heritage Site and are keen to be part of the conservation plan.

But in formulating a conservation plan for this historical site, the department should avoid a top-down bureaucratic approach that will provide no options except for eviction. The immediate question if such a plan is pursued is: where will the government, and the department in particular, place the evicted people?

Phimai historical park should be preserved. But the park's conservation plan must be practical and realistic, and the heritage status should not be unreasonably gained at the expense of local people. With or without heritage status, the Phimai historical park is a gem of Isan heritage that is already on the tourist map.

The department made a big mistake when it registered the Sukhothai historical site as a World Heritage Site back in the 1990s, which resulted in the eviction of thousands of locals from their area.

Such conservation moves are outdated and no longer acceptable. In fact, some countries like Germany voluntarily gave up heritage site status in the case of Dresden when it was faced with some impractical demands.

Today, Dresden -- even as a former heritage site -- is still a top tourist city that welcomes a swarm of visitors who wish to get a glimpse of its Baroque art and architecture. Thailand should learn from the experience of other countries and dare to make a bold decision. Being on the world heritage list must not be a burden.

The department should reveal the plan's details to the public to lessen public anxiety and suspend all eviction plans and start a dialogue, embracing local people in the plan which should clearly categorise each area in accordance its historical importance. Options like land-sharing for those who are to be evicted should be studied.

Most importantly, it should continue its efforts to educate locals and incorporate them in conservation missions.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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