Vendors Revolt as BMA Moves to Demolish ‘Saphan Lek’

A billboard ordering vendors out of Bangkok's famed Saphan Lek market as seen Monday. Photo: Matichon

BANGKOK — A maze-like warren of cheap electronics, toys and other goods is the latest target of a government campaign to reclaim public space, and once again the vendors who’ve long called it home are not leaving without a fight.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission said today it will review a city hall order giving vendors until Tuesday to clear out from the famed Saphan Lek market after several filed a complaint against the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, or BMA.

“I will invite every party, from the BMA, vendors and experts to join a discussion into whether the demolition process is legal,” Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara said.

Situated on the west side of Bangkok’s Chinatown, Saphan Lek is unique among other street markets. It’s situated over a canal, next to the metal bridge which its name was given. It’s the kind of place one readily finds inexpensive imported toys, knock-offs and game systems modified to circumvent copy protection.



A vendor sells electronic toys in Bangkok's Saphan Lek market on Monday. Photo: Matichon

The BMA said the market affects water management because it sits over Khlong Ong Ang, which is registered as a historical site. They plan to demolish it.

But the stall owners nestled there, some for more than 30 years, said they’ve always paid rent to a private agency with a BMA concession.

Hatairat Sinthaw, a 47-year-old representative of the vendors, said after the order was issued that it didn’t make sense for city hall to one day approve their tenancy then claim it was illegal the next.

“Then how come the vendors could previously get permits from the district office?” she said.

The order to cut off the market’s supply of electricity and water before demolishing it came only 11 days ago. Vendors said the order infringes on the community’s rights, and their right to earn a living.

Come Oct. 13, the BMA said it has the authority to forcibly remove the vendors under a 1959 law established after a coup led by dictator Gen. Sarit Dhanarajata which authorized the clearing of public space.

More than 500 houses and stalls there are illegally located on public land, where they clog the waterway and encroach onto the historic canal, according to police Maj. Gen. Wichai Sangprapai, adviser to Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

Nearly 100 Saphan Lek vendors also went to the government ombudsman’s office to call for it to intervene.

An unwelcome eyesore to some and landmark fixture to others, Saphan Lek is the latest icon of chaotic Bangkok to face elimination.

In February, Bangkok’s largest grey-black market, Khlong Thom, was shut down not far away. Elsewhere, vendors have been cleared out from locations or restricted in operating, such as on Silom Road. BMA now sweeps their cleanup campaign to reclaim the public space from many iconic street markets.

Each time vendors have mounted resistance but were only able to win small concessions in how they would be accommodated.

Clearing out Saphan Lek would make for about 2,700 vendors displaced, including those earlier pushed out of the Khlong Thom market.

These actions have been euphemistically referred to as “reorganization,” but mostly have involved removing vendors from an area and offering them distant, alternative selling spaces many have rejected as impractical.


A man walks between stalls in Bangkok's Saphan Lek market on Monday. Photo: Matichon

The BMA has said it is carrying out the military government’s policy to reclaim the city’s public space and walkways.

Next it plans to dismantle well-known street stalls at the Banglamphu Market, as well as those at Phra Arthit and Chang piers along the Chao Phraya River.



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