The ongoing construction of the Purple Line rail extension that comes at the cost of some almost-century-old shophouses in the Rattanakosin old quarters has caused a stir.
FOR ONLINE: A banner is strung on the wall of a building opposing construction of the Purple Line electric train route. Some residents fear the project would involve expropriation of land and damage their homes. (Photo by Poramet Tangsathaporn/Bangkok Post).
According to the construction plan approved by the Mass Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA), seven shophouses on Phra Sumen Road will be bulldozed to make way for a station which is to be known as Phan Fah.
The controversy epitomises the ugly reality regarding inept state regulations and legal loopholes that make responsible agencies like the Fine Arts Department a paper tiger. With such ineffective laws, the agency is left perplexed, if not frustrated, as rail construction continues.
The loopholes were discussed at a recent forum on the Fine Arts Department's performance on the occasion of its 112th anniversary.
In relation to the Purple Line case, those attending the forum were told the Fine Arts Department was kept out of the project from the beginning even though part of the line is regarded as a protected area under its jurisdiction.
When construction began in the culturally sensitive area, it was already fait accompli. This type of dilemma involving conservation has been seen in several projects across the country.
Technically speaking, the doomed buildings on Phra Sumen Road are still awaiting a heritage registration process, and, in effect, as long as they are not on the heritage list, they are not protected by any law.
Former senator Rosana Tositrakul is a key person spearheading a campaign to safeguard the shophouses in the old town area as state agencies give lukewarm responses to their proposed demolition.
Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has apparently distanced itself from the controversy.
But such an aloof attitude is not acceptable given that the agency has direct responsibility as city administrator and also as a key agency under the Committee for the Conservation of Rattanakosin and Old Towns. By turning a blind eye, the BMA has given the MRTA a free hand in carrying out the project.
The MRTA's past performance regarding conservation is not impressive. When pursuing the Blue Line system, the agency booted out Seng Chong, the city's oldest leather shop built in the reign of King Rama VI, from its original site along with other shophouses when it constructed Sam Yot station.
After construction began over a decade ago, the MRTA placed a fake Seng Chong sign back on the same site as if to show it had paid heed to conservation. It hadn't.
As the debate about Phan Fah train station rages on, the authorities and the contractor need to consider what's best for the nation's heritage and suspend construction of this controversial section. They both need to see what can be done to mitigate or totally avoid any loss to the buildings in question and seek public consultation and hold negotiations between stakeholders.
Ms Rosana, in particular, has suggested the MRTA relocate the station so as to avoid the old shophouses.
In the long run, the Fine Arts Department should think about amending the conservation regulations and address any loopholes so that it can carry out its duty without a compromise.
There is still time to save such examples of our heritage if state agencies are sincere and willing to do so.