EDITORIAL: Such little concern for a vanishing past

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - A condo might soon tower over Ban Plainern in Bangkok, home to a grandson of King Mongkut, but public sentiment remains lukewarm.

In few other places in the world would the historic residence of a great artist of royal lineage be endangered in the rush to urban modernisation. The descendants of Prince Narisara Nuwattiwong (1863-1947), a son of King Rama IV who is best remembered as Prince Naris, have intensified their campaign against the planned construction of a condominium project near the Bangkok home where he lived until his last days.

At Ban Plainern, more colloquially known as Wang Klongtoey, Prince Naris conceived countless works of art spanning various disciplines – painting, literature, theatre, music (he composed the Royal Anthem) and architecture (he designed Wat Benchamabophit, the Marble Temple) – over the course of four reigns. To this day the residence boasts culturally valuable elements related to him. But big-city Thais, as fiercely proud of their history as they can be at times, seem less anxious about preserving structures of the past and tend to be apathetic towards the onrush of commercial development.

In most of Europe, by contrast, public sentiment ensures that the authorities carefully maintain the residences of famed, long-dead artists, whether of royal blood or not. The homes of Mozart, Monet and Shakespeare are lovingly kept and evocative of their former tenants. In Cambodia, structures associated with the abhorred Khmer Rouge are preserved, if only to make sure no one is tempted to dispute the mass slaughter of the 1970s. 

Thais might point to the vestiges remaining of the World War II “death railway” in Kanchanaburi, but they’ve done little to improve on their appearance beyond tourism interests. Bangkok’s finest 19th- and early-20th-century architecture survives because of its continuing utility, not because of its past.

MR Chakrarot Chitrabongse, a grandson of Prince Naris who lives in the same Klong Toei neighbourhood, only learned of the condo plan when he was out for a walk one day and noticed the advisory sign on the site. 

The developer planned to erect a 36-storey condominium quite close to Ban Plainern, but was persuaded to move the proposed location somewhat further away. The descendants of Prince Naris remain unsatisfied. Other opponents are worried about the kind of equipment that will be used in construction and possible harm to the environment. There has been comparatively little wringing of hands over historical preservation. 

It seems to us that protection of the Prince Naris legacy supersedes all other concerns, but perhaps more importantly, we wonder why the developer failed to fully consult the family and why approval was given evidently without acknowledgement of cultural and historical loss.
Why, we must ask, has this become the norm in the rapidly commercialising capital and other cities, this disregard for a past that we might not yet have even fully plumbed? The minimal public outcry when such losses are threatened can only suggest that Thais do not adequately appreciate their history and are unable to connect the evolutionary dots linking past and present.

We wish Prince Naris’ descendants well in their efforts to make the developer step away, but win or lose, their case will certainly not be the last of its kind. No amount of appeals to city planners or environmental committees will halt modernisation until far more people value the concept of preserving the past. Someone who doesn’t appreciate history, so goes the wisdom, is like a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree. 

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