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Destruction of historical monuments continues unabated in Bangkok

The former Supreme Court Building on Rattanakosin Island, Bangkok’s historical area, is to be replaced by a new structure exhulting “Thainess”. Its destruction will erase an important chapter in Thailand’s history.

BANGKOK- It probably goes unremarked for most tourists and visitors to Bangkok. Located along Sanam Luang- the Royal field- the building of the Supreme Court looks rather dull compared to the glitzy golden spires and colourful tiles of the Royal Palace, which stands on the same location. But it does not mean that the austere-looking structure lacks historical value.

Just in contrary! Like the buildings of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, the Bangkok Central Post Office in Charoen Krung Road or the Democracy Monument, the Supreme Court reflects the attempt of Thailand in the thirties to build up a new order. The modern architecture movement with its minimalist geometrical lines was seen as opposed to the old Thai architecture with its arches, its adorned roofs and its abundance of gold elements.

Built during the era of Thai Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram, the courthouse was achieved in 1939. The building was inspired by the “People’s Party” ideology which took power following the change from absolute to constitutional monarchy in the Kingdom.

The People’s Party ideology is engraved into the building’s structure through its six main pillars at the front.They signify the party’s six principles of Thai folk’s supreme power, national security, economic welfare, equality, people’s rights and liberties and public education.The building has striking resemblances with other structures in Europe from fascist countries. Obviously, the presence of Italian architects during that time gave a ‘Mussolini’ look to the imposing structure.

“Of course, lots of people in Thailand feel that this architecture does not reflect our nation. But this is really a piece of our own history and we cannot eradicate it, especially as it has been recognized of historical value”, explains Ponkwan Lassus, President of the Association of Siamese Architects’ Committee (ASA) for the Architectural Art Conservation and also an architect and designer.

ASA gave a conservation award in 2009 to the Supreme Court while Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts declared the building of historical value.

However, there is most probably political ideology behind the planned demolition, which already started this week. The People’s Party left a rather negative image of Thailand, especially due to its leader Plaek Phibulsonggram.

As Prime Minister from 1938 to 1944 and from 1948 to 1957, Phibulsonggram did not hide his admiration for fascism and nationalism, adopting some of Hitler or Mussolini policies such as a personality cult or discrimination measures against minorities such as Chinese. For example, Thai-Chinese were under his leadership banned from business while Propaganda Minister Luang Wichitwathakan compared in 1938 the Chinese in Siam to the Jews in Germany! The Field Marshal then collaborated with Imperial Japan during World War II by letting Japanese troops passing through Thailand to attack British Malaya and Burma.

The old Supreme Court is of course part of the construction of Phibulsonggram’s ideology. “Destroying the building will then help eradicating a dark page of our history. To replace it by an average-quality structure supposedly reflecting best our ‘true Thainess’ is denying our own historical evolution!” adds Mrs. Lassus.

The demolition of the old Supreme Court building is expected to take about four months. The future Supreme Court building also raises controversy for its height, which will exceed the fixed limit to historical areas in Thailand. With a planned height of 32m, the new court building will violate the building code set by the Committee for the Conservation of Rattanakosin and Old Towns. The code sets a height limit of 16m for any structure in the inner part of the Rattanakosin area. Opponents to the project say that the structure will be higher than the nearby Royal Palace. It will then dwarf the building which is the ultimate symbol of the Thai Monarchy.

Ponkwan Lassus and ASA have launched a public petition to block the project. The ASA in conjunction with the Society for the Conservation of National Treasures and Environment (Sconte) stepped up their call for state agencies _ including the Fine Arts Department and the National Human Rights Commission _ to intervene and block the Supreme Court’s demolition plan, even by going to court. Sconte now plans to submit a petition to the Administrative Court seeking to block the demolition.

But this is a typical story about ways Thais –especially government institutions look at our architectural history. Many officials effectively do not consider architecture, they just see a ‘building construction’. With the lack of knowledge and education in architectural and urban preservation, little notions over esthetics and environment the task for protection our heritage is immense. Especially as the Fine Arts Department has a very limited budget and can only list twenty buildings per year when the Kingdom records some 8,000 buildings of historical significance. The department will then need 100 years to list all of these structures- if they still exist”, tells Mrs. Lassus.

Mrs Lassus deplores that buildings from the 1930s until today are rarely considered of historical significance in Thailand. It explains why buildings such as the Siam Intercontinental – a masterpiece from the late sixties-, shop houses from the 1940s, individual houses from the 1960s are merciless destroyed. ASA is fighting currently more cases such as Charoen Chai old community houses due to be demolished to let a future MRT line passing through.

The public can sign a petition to protect the Supreme Court everyday as ASA Centre in Siam Discovery in the city centre of Bangkok from 10 am to 9 pm.

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.