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Bangkok's oldest community fights eviction

dpa logodpa 3/04/2017 Hathai Techakitteranun

Want to witness the Bangkok of old, where people shave the sides of their heads and wear loincloths? Then head to Mahakan Fort before it is destroyed.

In the Thai capital, rapid urbanisation often means that nearly-100-storey skyscrapers and elevated railways are set in juxtaposition to close-knit communities of low-rise old flats and wooden houses.

In the midst of the city's fast development, Bangkok's oldest community, dating back six generations, is facing eviction.

For the past 25 years, members of the 235-year-old Mahakan Fort community have been fighting to remain in houses built by their ancestors.

The struggle dates back to a bill, passed in 1992, that granted the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) the right to expropriate land plots deemed to belong to the state.

The city has created plans to clean up the land and build a public park next to the Mahakan Fort - one of two remaining historic forts that defended Bangkok when it was established in 1782 - to attract more visitors to the landmark.

Sixteen houses in the Mahakan Fort community have already been demolished, as some residents agreed to government payouts to relocate. Six more will be knocked down soon.

The remaining residents, however, say they aren't going anywhere.

"We are certainly not leaving," said Thawatchai Woramahakhun, a representative for the more than 120 remaining residents across 44 households.

The homes are tucked away behind the remnants of the centuries-old city wall, just a few metres from the fort.

Dressed in a faded blue traditional shirt, Thawatchai, the 59-year-old community representative, shaves his head on the sides in a typical hairstyle for men in the early Rattanakosin era, when Bangkok was founded.

The Rattanakosin haircut and outfit seem to underscore the community's determination to preserve its traditional ways of life: The disputed land sits on an islet named Rattanakosin.

Preeda Rujipak, 41, is also spotted often in the hairstyle and long loincloths, a fashion that mostly died out in the early 20th century.

His hair and outfit are meant to pay homage to the historic community of Bang Rachan, in central Thailand, who fought invading Burmese troops for five months in the mid 18th century.

"This time we are fighting like the brave people of Bang Rachan," said Preeda, leaving out the part of the story where that community was defeated.

The Mahakan Fort community understands the city's plan, Thawatchai said, "but clearing this community away is not the right way".

"We don't need to be like Champs-Elysees and other international landmarks," Thawatchai said. "We have our own uniqueness."

Public opinions vary, with many saying the community is living illegally in a public space and should be forced to move.

Among the city's roughly 100 old communities - many of which are increasingly populated by condominiums catering to urbanites - 20 are located in the Old Town, near the Grand Palace.

"What makes the Mahakan Fort community unique is that it's located right behind the city wall," said Sanon Wangsrangboon, co-founder of a community-based tourism company.

"The settlers served as a link between the palace and other communities," he said. "Rare professions like crafters of monks' bowls, bird cages and pottery have been passed on to the present generation."

"It is also unique because there aren't new flats built in between the old wooden houses like in other communities," Sanon added.

For the community, nearly as old as the capital itself, the struggle is as much about preserving old ways as it is about living among friends.

"I really hope I won't have to move," said 76-year-old Somporn Apanont. "My whole life is here."

"I run a grocery shop," she said. "My customers from this community and nearby shopowners know me well. If I move to the city, who do I sell my groceries to? City people usually shop in malls."

The community is not fighting alone.

Academics have lent a hand in negotiations with authorities. Architecture and history experts are being asked to help determine the period in which the wooden houses were built and whether they can be kept, according to the BMA.

"It is like a domino effect," said Sudjit Sananwai, chairwoman of the Architectural Conservation Committee, an independent association of architects.

"If the community has fought this hard and [the government] still doesn't see their value, then other tight-knit communities similar to theirs may soon vanish," she said.

The Mahakan Fort community's "struggle is part of a larger ... struggle over who gets to define history, culture and the present," said Michael Herzfeld, a Thai Studies professor at Harvard University.

"These people can teach us all a great deal about the meaning of human dignity, especially under such unrelenting pressure," Herzfeld said.

There must be people left, however, to tell the tale, community representative Thawatchai said.

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