Protect Si Thep's people, not just site
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Protect Si Thep's people, not just site


This file photo shows the Si Thep historical site in Phetchabun province. The complex, which archaeologists estimate at between 1,500 to 1,700 years old, last week was listed as a Unesco cultural World Heritage Site — the country's first addition to the cultural category since 1992. (Photo: Fine Arts Department)
This file photo shows the Si Thep historical site in Phetchabun province. The complex, which archaeologists estimate at between 1,500 to 1,700 years old, last week was listed as a Unesco cultural World Heritage Site — the country's first addition to the cultural category since 1992. (Photo: Fine Arts Department)

The deal is done. Si Thep has officially become Thailand's seventh official Unesco World Heritage Site. However, the Unesco listing is only half the battle. Now, work must start on rolling out the government's conservation plan, which should be improved.

The plan needs to be adjusted to respect not just the ancient ruins but also the people living around them. They -- not tourists or government agencies -- are the main stakeholders. Unesco itself recommends the plan do more to engage the townspeople.

Unfortunately, much of the community will be forced to relocate under the current plan. Moving the locals out is a quick but disruptive way of managing a heritage site -- officials clear a zone and turn it into a tourist-focused "park". This has been happening for the last 30 years in Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet and Si Satchanalai.

There is a better way: let people and heritage coexist harmoniously. One reason Si Thep won Unesco's approval is because the townspeople have long treated it with respect. The community in nearby villages believe that their ancestors migrated from the ancient city. Locals have traditionally honoured their local guardian spirit, Chao Por Si Thep, by holding rituals inside the park.

Si Thep is impressive. It's one of the largest ancient sites in Thailand, a town that is older by many hundreds of years than Sukhothai and Phanom Rung. Situated in Petchabun province, 300 kilometres northeast of Bangkok, the core site encompasses 1.4 square kilometres containing hundreds of ancient moats, walls, stupas and other ruins and traces of the Dvaravati culture.

Si Thep thrived between the 7th and 11th centuries CE, yet Dvaravati art, philosophy and spirituality have influenced Thailand up to the present day. The government listed the site as a protected heritage property in 1963 and established it as a heritage park in 1983.

Under the government's current conservation plan, the core zone contains a few hundred houses as well as several shops, farms and a temple. Eventually, all of this will be removed, and the government will expropriate all private property linked to monuments. Landowners with title deeds will receive compensation as per their rights under the constitution.

Due to overlapping land rights, many landowners lack title deeds, potentially complicating fair compensation. These people are already suffering because they lack basic needs, such as public water pipelines. In addition, landless citizens pay electricity rates at double the usual cost. Even those with title deeds may have their rights challenged if the deeds were issued after the heritage listing in 1963.

Centralised, top-down heritage planning formulated in Bangkok has had other impacts on Si Thep's people. For example, farmers used to grow crops like cassava in parts of the heritage park, but this has been banned, even though the plant has shallow roots and thus can be grown without disturbing artefacts buried underground. Livestock farming, a key local livelihood, is also under threat of being banned, even though cattle raising has been a Petchabun tradition for the past 200 years. As India has proven, heritage sites can coexist very happily with cows.

Around the world, best practices in heritage planning ensure that local people and heritage thrive together. A good example is Avebury, a prehistoric stone circle in England that is larger than nearby Stonehenge. More than 4,000 years old, the monument intersects with part of the village of Avebury. But when it was protected as a World Heritage Site, cottages and working farms were allowed to stay. Let's do this at Si Thep.

There is also a technical problem in the government's plan: it is not based on a proper cadastral survey. An accurate land survey of private properties, listed heritage properties and the park boundaries has never been done. For example, the map depicts two large ancient water tanks as being more than 1 kilometre apart, whereas the actual distance is just 600 metres.

The 1963 map does not demarcate the core zone based on the waterway that surrounds the heritage, as was proposed in the Unesco plan. Instead, it simply marks out the zone geometrically as a big square. Physical boundary markers were not put in place when that boundary was drawn. An investigation by the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, released in April 2021, found that physical markers were later installed arbitrarily, at the whim of officials, not according to any legal boundaries. The ambiguous core zone boundary is the basis for the larger buffer zone, so that too may be dubious.

As a result of the ambiguities, the authorities' current "land reclamation" plan will lead to a prolonged struggle between the state and citizens, where many could simply be displaced without compensation, according to the Chulalongkorn University Legal Aid Centre. The townspeople have already been fighting for their legal rights and participation in revising the conservation plan for two years. They are exhausted. Unless a cadastral survey is completed, further legal battles will erupt in the coming months and years, putting a cloud over local development and well-being. A survey would only take six months.

We saw this before at the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, where listing it as a World Heritage Site infringed on the rights of the ethnic Karen. They had been living there for more than a century but were relocated. Despite protests and the deaths of two campaigners, land rights and habitation disputes at Kaeng Krachan are still ongoing, affecting conservation and livelihoods.

At Si Thep, most residents have incomes far below the national average, at about 8,000 baht per month. Many farm sugarcane and other crops. A total of 288 households in the core zone will be affected by land reclamation if the government tries to enforce its current plan.

The people of Si Thep stand out for their love of heritage. But they will need to develop new livelihoods. It is about reskilling, investing and incubating the right environment to rejuvenate the town as a heritage city. If managed properly, heritage industries can help increase incomes there and enrich the cultural value of the place.

An inclusive conservation strategy at Si Thep would help create a new era in Thai heritage management. Instead of focusing first on tourism, let's focus on the residents and how heritage can make their lives better. It is better to focus on arts and crafts, and heritage restoration.

Locals need systematic guidance and support to manage archaeological sites on their properties. Heritage can create high-skill jobs and businesses. These opportunities would help townspeople put down deeper roots in their heritage and community.

As for the core zone, it should not be a single zone but a set of smaller protected zones around the sites, with buffer zones in between. Then some farms and houses can remain where they are, and we can work on supporting higher-value agriculture there.

Unesco is important and so are tourists. But Thailand's culture was created by Thailand's people. Let's respect the citizens of Si Thep by respecting their dignity and their right to a proper land survey. Let's get heritage right this time.

Phacharaphorn Phanomvan is a scholar in heritage development, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, and an adviser to the cultural council of Si Thep, where she led an extensive LiDar survey project. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conserving the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the neighbouring region. The views expressed are those of the author.

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