Visitors to Kanchanaburi City rarely fail to notice a sprawling complex of gigantic old buildings that have served as the municipality's landmark for almost a century. This awe-inspiring site is Thailand's first paper mill, and the Kanchanaburi people have been rallying around it to preserve their local history and heritage.
At one end of the Thai Kanchanaburi Paper Mill complex stand the remains of a two-century-old city wall along the River Kwai. For the locals, this historical site represents both Kanchanaburi's modernisation and industrial growth as well as their ancient cultural heritage.
The Kanchanaburi civic groups realised the threat to their city's local history when the cabinet halted the paper mill's operations in 1987. The government wanted to make money from the plot, but the locals wanted to turn it into a museum, a learning centre, and a space for community activities for local unity and cultural pride.
However, the government authorised the Treasury Department to give a long-term lease to developers until 2017 while allowing Sirisak Industries, the paper mill operator, to sell the buildings and other assets.
In 2013, Treasury and Sirisak Industries unveiled a joint plan to auction off the land and assets to a private developer to build a hotel and other businesses worth 1.5 billion baht, which sparked protests from locals.
In addition to calling on the government to stop this commercial project, civic groups in Kanchanaburi also worked together to propose an alternative plan to preserve an important part of Kanchanaburi City's history.
The Thai Kanchanaburi Paper Mill is located on a 60-rai plot of land in the heart of Kanchanaburi city district. It was constructed in 1933 by the Ministry of Industry as the country's first factory to produce paper, banknotes, and stamps during World War II.
Designed by engineers and architects from Germany, the buildings showcase impressive European-style architecture against the backdrop of ancient city walls, symbolising the social transformation from agriculture to industry in Kanchanaburi.
Initially named "Kanchanaburi Military Paper Mill," it was formally opened in 1938 by Gen Phraya Pahon Phonphayuhasena, Thailand's second prime minister and a leading member of the People's Party that put an end to the absolute monarchy.
Dubbed Thailand's first industrial museum, this vintage European-style paper mill complex remains largely intact, complete with its original structures, chimneys, power generators, and paper manufacturing machinery, making it the last remaining such complex in the world.
Civic organisations in Kanchanaburi joined forces to form the "Phumi Muang Kan Group" to hold public hearings, enabling locals to voice their views on the museum plan and develop local governance structures for the paper mill museum and learning centre.
Through these meetings, they have agreed that establishing a social enterprise, consisting of the Kanchanaburi local government, the private sector, and community organisations as equal partners would be the best strategy for managing the museum.
The group sent a petition with 70,000 signatures asking the government to halt the business investment project along with their detailed plans for the paper mill museum. Thanks to the Kanchanaburi people's relentless fight to preserve their local history, the Treasury finally terminated the land lease with the developer in 2018. The residents were overjoyed and hoped that their social enterprise plan with community participation would soon come to fruition.
On May 9, 2023, Rabbit Holdings PCL, a subsidiary of BTS Group, announced it had acquired the Thai Kanchanaburi Paper Mill and transferred ownership to the Kanchanaburi Provincial Administration Organisation (PAO) for conservation and other public activities including a local museum.
The development might sound like a victory for the long conservation campaign but civic groups in Kanchanaburi were left stunned nevertheless. Despite playing a pivotal role in the paper mill's preservation campaign, they were unaware of the PAO's conversation with Rabbit Holdings. Being excluded from the discussions raised concerns that the subsequent paper mill project may disregard local concerns.
The Kanchanaburi PAO must prioritise the participation of the Phumi Muang Kan Group, the driving force behind the original conservation plan. Following the handover of the paper mill buildings, a committee should be set up which includes the group. Additionally, the PAO should organise public hearings to gather input from all parties involved.
Inclusive decision-making ensures the conservation plan remains focused on preserving local history rather than advancing commercial interests. In this way, the Kanchanaburi community can ensure their local history remains alive and cherished for generations to come.