Mahakan Fort community keeps up eviction fight

Mahakan Fort community keeps up eviction fight

The Mahakan Fort community has been threatened with eviction for decades in the face of Bangkok city
The Mahakan Fort community has been threatened with eviction for decades in the face of Bangkok city "development" plans. (Photo by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)

Despite facing eviction by the city administration for many years, the Mahakan Fort community in Bangkok's Rattanakosin old-town quarters has evolved into a city learning space.

Since earlier this year, the Mahakan community has co-hosted a series of public forums on old-town conservation with the Lek-Prapai Viriyapant Foundation, an organisation advocating for local culture and history. The first forum focused on the community's history, followed by that of other old-town communities facing the threat of new development.

The forum takes place on the first Sunday of the month in the community's grounds under the shade of large trees. 

In fact, the Mahakan Fort community is more than familiar with learning activities.

Since the community's eviction became an issue in the early 1990s, a number of education institutes used the community, viewed by experts and academics as a place representing "Old Bangkok", as a case study on community rights. In terms of architecture, the community group's old wooden houses typify those of the old Rattanakosin architectural style.

Mahakan Fort was one of the forts constructed in the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) to ward off invaders. Later, King Rama III (1824-1851) granted land along the walls of Mahakan Fort to his servants, a custom continued by later kings. The area soon became a busy residential area and transport hub, with a canal linking the spot with other parts of the city.

The development of land transport in the 1960s saw the Mahakan Fort community cut off from the outside neighbourhoods by its walls and by water.

Given that the area was a grant from the palace, respective residents have no land title deeds proving legal ownership, and the state has treated them as illegal occupants.

The Mahakan eviction plan, which was initiated by the Committee on Conservation of Rattanakosin and Old Towns, dated back to 1992 when Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang ran City Hall. Under the plan, the area would become a public park.

Some residents who were made to feel they had no choice, accepted compensation and were resettled in the outskirts of new Bangkok, which made it difficult for them to make a living. Many wanted to return to the fort, promising they would return the relocation money and work to conserve the area, keeping its park-like landscape. But the city turned down their plea.

As the city under Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej started to develop the eviction plan, the community filed a case with the Administrative Court, citing community rights. It lost the legal battle, both in the Lower and Supreme Administrative Courts in 2003. 

When Apirak Kosayodhin was Bangkok governor in 2004, the community came close to becoming a living museum. The idea was supported by research by a Silpakorn University lecturer who was hired by the city's administration. But the governor eventually made a policy U-turn.

Yet, members of the community -- altogether 66 families in 53 households -- have been allowed to live in the fort but cannot get rid of the label of "illegal occupants". The current governor, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, has said they will not be booted out in his time. But their fate lies with his successor, who will replace him in 2017.

"We have fought the eviction order for 23 years," said community leader Thawatchai Voramahakun, saying they had kept their hopes alive despite a series of broken promises by the state.

He said the fort community was lucky that some educational institutes have given it a helping hand.

The Rajamangala institute provides vocational training including screening techniques for T-shirts and tote bags, and souvenir making, as the community occasionally welcomes foreign tourists. 

He said the history of the community would appeal to tourists and Thais. Mahakan Fort was also the birthplace of likay (folk theatre) performances in Bangkok in the 1880s.

Mr Thawatchai said the community maintained its plea that it would do its part in taking care of the fort, trees and historical landscape in return for the right to stay. "We will work in exchange for the compensation money the city handed to us some 20 years ago," he said.

The community's offer is important given that the fort is an enclosed spot with a towering wall structure, and may not be the ideal place for a public park. Some experts say having a community in the designated park would guarantee safety for visitors.

Srisakara Vallibhotama, adviser to the Lek Prapai Viriyapan Foundation, viewed the forced relocation as a blessing in disguise for the community as it had turned the shock and fear of eviction into a force and awareness that it must protect its place and its history.

He said the Mahakan community deserved state recognition for its relentless conservation efforts.

It won't be until 2017 that the community knows their fate, when the new governor takes office. Mr Thawatchai said the community was ready to talk with the new administration in the hopes the latter would seriously consider their proposal.

MR Sukhumbhand's promise may not be very helpful as the Phra Nakhon district has in practice curbed the community residents' rights. 

When a house owner dies, their next of kin cannot take over as the new house owner in registration documents, Mr Thawatchai complained. They are reduced to house dwellers without any rights.

"Without a designated house owner, a family with a newborn baby cannot register the new member in the house documents," he said.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post

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