Demolition, lies, nepotism and impunity

Demolition, lies, nepotism and impunity

A fine arts official is assembling debris that used to decorate the gable of ancient Bombay Burmah house that was torn down in a restoration project. (Picture courtesy of Fine Arts Department)
A fine arts official is assembling debris that used to decorate the gable of ancient Bombay Burmah house that was torn down in a restoration project. (Picture courtesy of Fine Arts Department)

Seriously? The national park authorities in Phrae province outraged the whole nation by razing a historical heritage house to the ground, and are we still going to let them get away scot-free?

Destroying historical buildings is against the law. The perpetrators must face legal punishment. Yet, after a month of public uproar, are we going to let the matter rest now that the perpetrators have let the experts take over and promised to pay for restoration costs?

They used tax money to tear down the ancient teak house that is an important part of Phrae's history. When the locals got mad, they lied, saying they were doing proper conservation work. When the lie made people madder, they patted them on the back, telling them to calm down, and promising speedy restoration -- with our tax money, of course -- all the while blatantly dodging legal responsibility.

And we are still letting them get away with impunity. Seriously?

The Department of Fine Arts, being in charge of historical sites, has the responsibility to sue the Department of National Parks and its Phrae office. Yet the agency is submissively going through the debris to rebuild the old Bombay Burmah House from bits and pieces.

Of course, it will be good to have at least a copy of the heritage house back. After all, we cannot undo the damage. But we cannot prevent future ravages either if the law cannot punish violators.

Isn't "sanctity of the law" the mantra of national park officials when they arrest forest dwellers? For them, it doesn't matter if they have been living in the forest for generations. Everyone must respect the law, they insist.

Here, the law says it is a crime to destroy historical sites. If national park officials ordered the axing of the old teak house that is also part of its organisation's history, then they, too, must face the music.

In 1901, after the company left Thailand, the Forest Department took over the house, as well as the logging industry in Phrae, and used it as the residence of regional forestry chiefs. When the logging days ended, it became accommodation for the Forest Department's guests and later a study centre in the Chetawan Arboretum. Surrounded by lush greenery, the house is adjacent to the riverside Chetawan community which is as old as the heritage house, if not older.

The community noticed a sign in front of the house announcing a "repair and improvement" project. Fine, everyone thought. Although there was no public consultation, the old house indeed needed a facelift. Before they knew it, the house was bulldozed overnight.

They were stunned. The teak pillars and planks were strewn on the ground without protection from the sun and rain. Decorative patterns were torn into small pieces. This was not "repair and improvement". It was a demolition. Furious, the Phrae locals staged a protest at the City Hall, demanding the project be stopped, all the details revealed, and to allow local communities to take part in the restoration.

I must admit I feel strongly about the demolition for personal reasons. This is the house where my grandfather used to live when he was the regional forestry chief in Phrae. He also died there.

This house was also my mother's happy childhood home which appeared time and time again in our bedtime stories. Her eyes glistened every time she talked about her pet elephants, how they played together, and how intelligent they were. She could just run and run in the house, she said, because the upstairs veranda was so huge and so long. The fun stories were full of her mischiefs. But as "daddy's girl", she always enjoyed his protection. And how she was proud of him, she reminisced. When a merchant tried to bribe him, he just kicked a box of crackers full of money down the stairs of that house.

Life after her father's untimely death was full of challenges, but in those bedtime stories, the iron lady in Thai journalism who was my mother was once again that carefree, happy, little girl in that old teakwood house.

My family visited the house 20 years ago, some years after my mother passed away. As a private property of the Forest Department, it was not open to the public. But we met a local woman who, once we mentioned our grandfather's name, immediately took us into the house, showed us the wood board showing his name and other forestry chiefs before him.

She also told us spooky stories about the house, such as the sounds of a man riding a horse in the middle of the night, and the death of a little girl in the house. She was stunned when I told her my mother's baby sister died there and the coffin was kept in the house during the funeral ceremony.

I asked to go upstairs so I could see the veranda where my mother used to play. The house, she said, used to be much bigger before the renovation to provide accommodation for forestry bosses from Bangkok. Nevertheless, I was happy to see that the stairs where my grandfather kicked the cracker box were still there.

All gone now.

The demolition of the Bombay Burmah House and the culture of impunity should not come as a surprise. Remember how a national park chief led his men to burn down the houses of forest dwellers in Kaeng Krachan forest? The court ruled it illegal. Instead of being punished, he was promoted. So was his sidekick. The man was ruled guilty by the court for keeping the tusks of a wild elephant as his personal belongings after its mysterious death in the forest. Instead of being fired, he is now a national park chief.

We saw the same games of lies, nepotism and impunity during the Bombay Burmah controversy. The regional forest chief in charge of Phrae kept lying that it was a restoration project that followed proper preservation techniques and blueprints. When pressed for evidence, he reluctantly admitted it did not exist -- but only after his minister had come out to defend the Phrae forest officials and amplified the same lie to the whole nation.

In an about-face, the minister said he was sorry he had not checked the facts and transferred the forest official on the ground. But ministers come and go. The deeply ingrained culture of impunity of the forest bureaucracy stays. Don't be surprised if the demolition man escapes punishment. A transfer, by the way, is short of what the law requires. If you break the law, you must go to court, either the Criminal or Administrative court, or both.

That is not happening. Last week, the big boss of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation eventually paid a visit to the razed ground. Don't talk about the past, he insisted, focus on the present and the future.

Pardon me?

He promised to make the house close to the original "or even more beautiful" and promised to heed local input. He also mentioned the possibility of amending the law so his agency could use national park entrance fees to improve cultural sites on its lands.

Promising to give this and that to appease local anger not only underscores the patronising mentality of the centralised bureaucracy, but it also sounds like bribery.

Should the Phrae people buy that? Under the constitution, local communities have the right to conserve and restore their cultural and natural resources. Yet, the forest authorities keep bypassing community rights because they can get away with it.

Should this go on? Should the locals continue to let the mandarins from Bangkok rob them of their right to manage what belongs to them? This is not only about conserving an old, historical house. It's about the country's need for decentralisation. If not, local rights, culture and dignity will continue to be razed to the ground by the despotic officialdom like the Bombay Burmah House was.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on human rights, gender, and Thai Buddhism.


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