BANGKOK — Still reeling from an emotionally charged experience last week, Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld wasted no time trying to win converts – even a reporter.
Hours after he watched four historic residences be taken apart in Bangkok’s Pom Mahakan, Herzfeld spoke glowingly about its stoic residents as a model community worth saving from eviction by the City Hall.
On March 6, Herzfeld, who is rather fluent in Thai, sat at the negotiating table where he and his Thai peers failed to convince the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration from proceeding with the next phase of demolition in the decades-long eviction saga.
Seeing dozens of workers dismantle wooden homes where he spent over a decade doing field work, Herzfeld said, “was a sickening sight.”
“I want to ask them, ‘Are you proud of destroying people’s lives?’ Because that’s what’s happening,” he said.
Instead of being wiped away, he said the community should be seen as a resource for its model of self-management.
“Can we all be so wrong and the BMA the only people who were right?” he said of the setbacks seen by those who have sought to preserve the community in the 25 years since the city said it had to go to make way for a park.
The BMA other plans. As part of the grander plan by the Committee for the Conservation of Rattanakosin Island and Old Towns, about two dozen houses, some dating back to Rama V’s era between 1878 and 1910, will eventually be preserved and turned into a museum. But all residents must leave. The best some of them, now number fewer than 300, can hope is to come back during the day to work as staff at the new museum to be built adjacent to one of Bangkok’s two remaining old forts.
“I think the problem is many Thais and many Bangkokians have no idea of what the community is like. Some said ‘I am afraid to enter the community,’” Herzfeld said.
While there used to be criminal elements involving gangs and drugs, he said the community has emerged after a decade of protracted struggle for its survival as a model of self-management.
Yet the stigma persists. The London-born, 69-year-old anthropologist said that when he is with the Pom Makahan residents, he not only feels safe, but a sense of peace among other things.
“I feel a sense of peace, affection, solidarity, respect and humanity,” said Herzfeld, whose book “Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok” was published by the University of Chicago Press last year.
The book talks about the community’s “struggle for dignity.” He also refers to them in the book as “the remarkable people of the Pom Mahakan,” a description not at odds if it referred to the last of the Mahicans instead of a community in bustling Bangkok.
The threat is not from European colonists or another indigenous group, however, as Herzfeld notes in the book:
“It is a bureaucratic mechanized modernity that threatens them…”
Herzfeld is aware that bad publicity sticks hard and long. Despite all odds, he still wants to meet the BMA to try and convince them – as well as those higher up the bureaucratic ladder – that it’s not too late to stop destroying a thriving and historic community while he’s still in Bangkok.
For their part, city officials say they are open to all input, though they intend to continue moving forward as planned.
Compromise is a key word dropped by Herzfeld during the interview.
“They’re dealing with an anthropological problem – how to bring about compromise. I was surprised at the attitude. The BMA has made up its mind already and is not interested in discussion.”
The residents do not own the land, and the BMA has said it is trying to reclaim the land for a greater public good by building much-needed green space on the site.
Herzfeld’s argument is that this historic community has over the decade, develop a form of self-management that works well and includes the movements of social spaces, the private houses and the social life of the community.
“Frankly, I think it’s a crime to destroy such a remarkable community which in fact could become a model that Thailand could and should export to the rest of the world,” he said, adding that it seems the BMA is “terrified” to take the initiative to be flexible on the issue fearing it could backfire against them.
Herzfeld also believes the BMA doesn’t want to lose face by retracting or compromising.
“They don’t understand that they will lose much more face if they succeed, internationally.”
So far there’s no invitation by the BMA for Herzfeld to meet and try to present a last-minute anthropological sales pitch. “The only way this can be solved now is if someone very high up says, “This has to change.” I don’t want to say at what level. It is possible that the governor could make the decision. I would be happy to talk with the governor. But after today, I cannot be optimistic about the outcome.”
Yuttapan Meechai, secretary to Bangkok Governor Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang and a member of BMA negotiating team present on March 6, said Wednesday that he’s willing to meet and listen to Herzfeld although some things are no longer negotiable.
“I am willing to meet everyone, but it won’t stop our framework,” said the influential BMA secretary, who is often seen on television monitoring municipal works.
Yuttapan said, as it is, the deal is that 24 homes will be examined by experts acceptable to both sides. If they’re found to be worth preserving, they’ll be kept as part of a new urban museum. He said in the end, only 17 or even four structures would be kept, depending on the final determination of their architectural merits. This process, Yuttapan said, could take just a few more weeks.
Then there’s the issue of residents. The secretary said even if some residents are allowed to stay as staff to maintain the museum, it’s unlikely they would be allowed to live there.
“We haven’t finalized this. Can the 24 householders stay? And how should they live there?” said Yuttapan, adding that while he’s sympathetic to the community, giving in would open a flood gate for other to-be-evicted communities to demand something similar.