Thailand couldn't even properly maintain the Ayutthaya World Heritage site: How can it dream of co-managing Preah Vihear?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Vendor eyesore imperils heritage

SPECIAL REPORT: Government needs to clean things up in ancient city if it is to keep its world standing.

Lamphai Intathep and Saritdet Marukatat from Ayutthaya
Bangkok Post

Thailand has a new world heritage worry, in addition to the Preah Vihear temple.

In the old capital of Ayutthaya, which holds world heritage status, unlicensed vendors cause an eyesore and resist attempts by authorities to move them.

Officials fear that unless the problem is solved in the next few months, Thailand could end up losing world heritage status over the historic city.

The government's management of Ayutthaya will come under scrutiny when the 21-member World Heritage Committee (WHC) meets in Bahrain next year.

The panel confers world heritage status - and can take it away if a country fails to take care of a listed site.

Thailand has to present a report on how it is managing its five world heritage sites, including Ayutthaya.

At stake is millions of baht in tourist earnings and hundreds of local jobs.

At the WHC meeting now in progress in Brazil, it postponed a decision last week on Cambodia's management plan for Preah Vihear temple, after furious protests by Thailand.

The government was upset that the plan included part of a disputed area on the border between the countries.

Thailand hopes to make progress with Cambodia on the disputed 4.6 square kilometre area before the next meeting in Bahrain.

However, it will have to face up to another world heritage challenge by then as well.

Ayutthaya was awarded world heritage status by the WHC - part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - in 1991.

Every six years each continent has to submit a report to the WHC to show members whether it is taking good care of its world heritage sites.

Any site failing to impress the committee will receive a warning. The host country has three to five years to clean up its act.

If there is no improvement, the WHC can put the site on its danger list. The final punishment is removing the site from the list.

Next time it is Asia's turn to report on world heritage sites under its care.

The kingdom's five world heritage sites are Ayutthaya, the Thung Yai-Huay Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuaries, the Dong Phayayen forest complex, Ban Chiang archaeological site and the Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet historical parks.

In Ayutthaya, authorities are racing against time to find a solution to illegal vendors. The WHC meets again in 12 months.

"If the periodic report on Ayutthaya was submitted this year, it would fail," said deputy permanent secretary for culture Somsuda Leyavanija, who sits on the WHC for Thailand.

"It will be an embarrassment for Thais if Ayutthaya is put on the danger list."

The nature of the Ayutthaya site makes the conservation effort difficult as it is the only "living monument" in Thailand where the old compound and town are close to each other.

Local authorities and the Fine Arts Department have to make sure any structures which go up will not damage or obstruct the historical sites.

But the real problem for Ayutthaya, which puts the old capital in danger of being taken off of the list, is at Wat Mongkol Borpitr.

The temple is the Ayutthaya historic park's main tourist attraction, visited by millions a year. It is also a magnet for vendors selling souvenirs.

The Fine Arts Department built the area about 300 metres from the temple for 146 licensed souvenir sellers.

But about 400 illegal souvenir sellers have set up business about 50 metres from the temple.

The ministry and department tried to move the unlicensed sellers out but they refused to do so.

The vendors are reluctant to move, partly because the local administrative organisation has built makeshift areas for the sellers which are closer to the temple.

The Culture Ministry and Fine Arts Department say the makeshift areas are too close to the temple and diminish its aesthetic appeal.

Officials have tried to evict the traders for years, without success. Local politicians take sides with the vendors, which prolongs the problem, officials said.

Officials from Bangkok find it hard to talk to the vendors. "If the traders get a tip-off that an official car is in town, they quickly close the stalls and disperse," Ms Somsuda said.

"I used to drive to the site and talk to those vendors. But now they remember my face and know who I am," she said.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has assigned Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban to supervise attempts to end the eyesore at Wat Mongkol Borpitr.

The government has given 141 million baht to the department to end makeshift stalls at the temple by building another souvenir area for unlicensed sellers.

Tourist buses, another eyesore, will be banned from the site as the department will provide visitors with trams to tour the area. The plan is expected to be complete in November.

The department also plans to create a conservation zone for the old capital, which will include a core zone of 1,810 rai on Ayutthaya island to help the department manage the area, said Methadol Wichakana, head of the Ayutthaya historic park.

The island alone has 99 ancient temples and more than 500 historic sites in the surrounding area.

Officials hope that when the new souvenir area is complete, vendors will move out and end their defiance of authority. "All parties involved have to enter talks in the right spirit, by leaving behind personal interests," Ms Somsuda said. "People have to focus on how to protect the ancient site and make it sustainable rather than plundering it for advantage."

Chalermpol Polmuk, of the humanities and social sciences faculty at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Rajabhat University, said Thais were keener on taking advantage of Ayutthaya's world heritage status than trying to preserve it for future generations.

"Traders think only about how to make money," said Mr Chalermpol.

"Local politicians think about how to keep good relations with the traders rather than preserving the place's historic value."


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