In his latest book Siege of the City: community and polity in Bangkok (2016), anthropologist Professor Michael Herzfeld (Harvard University) tells the story of how the small community of Pom Mahakan in Bangkok has resisted authorities’ demands to vacate their homes for a quarter of a century. It’s a story of community versus government, of old versus new, and of political will versus the law.
The community – roughly three hundred strong at last count – has shown extraordinary resilience in the face of pressure to vacate the space in order to make way for a public park that apparently will be little more than a vast lawn. The area that has already been turned into a lawn is a disgrace – muddy, unkempt and uninviting.The authorities clearly do not have the manpower to look after it properly or to maintain the monumental structures that abut it. The residents, by contrast, have maintained a clean and orderly space; shown great expertise at restoration and conservation of the wonderful examples of vernacular architecture remaining under their control; and, with expert help and public acclaim, developed landsharing proposals that could set a fine example not only to other historic sites in Thailand but also to the rest of the world. The authorities have stuck to a very literal reading of the law rather than take advantage of the community’s skilled leadership and accumulated knowledge and experience, threatening thereby to destroy one of the last communities to evoke the ancient Siamese polity in the face of the encroaching, polluted mega-city.
On 7 March 2016, the Bangkok-based newspaper Khao Sod posted a report on its website indicating that the actual execution of the plans to evict the community is a real and present threat.According to the Pom Mahakan residents, it was only through media reports that they learned that they would soon be forced from their homes to make way for the proposed park.
Read the full story at www.khaosodenglish.com/detail.php?newsid=1457352497
The community and its struggle for survival are the subject of this new book by IIAS Senior Advisor on Critical Heritage Studies Professor Michael Herzfeld. We plan a review of the book in the next issue of The Newsletter.
Siege of the Spirits. Community and polity in Bangkok
272 pages | 9 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2016
What happens when three hundred alleged squatters go head-to-head with an enormous city government looking to develop the place where they live? As anthropologist Michael Herzfeld shows in this book, the answer can be surprising. He tells the story of Pom Mahakan, a tiny enclave in the heart of old Bangkok whose residents have resisted authorities’ demands to vacate their homes for a quarter of a century. It’s a story of community versus government, of old versus new, and of political will versus the law.
Herzfeld argues that even though the residents of Pom Mahakan have lost every legal battle the city government has dragged them into, they have won every public relations contest, highlighting their struggle as one against bureaucrats who do not respect the age-old values of Thai/Siamese social and cultural order. Such values include compassion for the poor and an understanding of urban space as deeply embedded in social and ritual relations. In a gripping account of their standoff, Herzfeld—who simultaneously argues for the importance of activism in scholarship—traces the agile political tactics and styles of the community’s leadership, using their struggle to illuminate the larger difficulties, tensions, and unresolved debates that continue to roil Thai society to this day.