The strength of civil society in Bangkok

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Millions of miles away
between Jakarta and Bangkok (7)

THE INCREASING recognition of the rights of the poor communities in Bangkok did not take place merely because of the good will and the positive concern of the government. The recognition has gradually taken place because of the pressure and long struggle of the poor communities that organize themselves, develop networking and accept large popular supports from NGOs, academicians, and proffesionals.

It is almost no distance between poor communities and middle class people. It is in fact not only NGOs that organize the poor but also academicians from the universities and other higher learning institutions. Lecturers and senior proffesors are not hesitant to hold discussions and mingle with the poor. At least 10 percents of academicians in Bangkok are involved with supporting the struggle of the poor to achieve their basic rights.

It is no longer surprising that a professor of the respected Tamasad University involves himself in organizing 13 poor communities in the city. Another lecturer from the Silapakorn University helps the Mahakan Fort community, the members of which are now threatened to be removed by the land and old building commercialization. Academicians, NGO and proffesionals groups like lawyers, architects, ect. along with the poor communities fight for pushing the recognition of the poor’s rights. The coalition among academicians, professionals, NGOs and the poor communities at the same time would become the controller of the city development direction.

My visit to those three communities that are threatened by eviction, i.e. the Wang Lee, Kratum Diew and Mahakan Fort communities, has convinced me about the comparative strength of the civil society in Bangkok. When the Wang Lee community that is situated at Charoen Krung soi 52, having a small alley (soi) close to Saphan Taksin bridge is threatened by eviction, resistance comes from diverse parties, including from the NGOs, professionals (architects, journalists and lawyers), academicians (anthropologists, sosiologists, cultural studies proffessors and historians) and the organizations of the poor communities from four regions in Bangkok.

The small community that has only 77 household members got large supports from middle class people of Bangkok. The concern with the life continuation of a small community that was channeled into a large support of middle class people has rendered the eviction issue mobilizing into significant pressurizing one: the publicly condemned issue of the eviction against national cultural site.

Why so? Because the house in which the community resides was constructed by a noted French architect in early 20th century. A small alley that is part of the community is also part of the history of the maritime trade and transportation industry in Bangkok. The alley cannot be separated from a ship-shaped momument at the Buddhist monastery situated next to it. Along the alley formerly lived first Chinese migrants from mainlain China. The issue of evicting such precious heritage was raised in diverse fora including discussion forum at Thammasat University. When the evictors wanted to forcefully destroy the old buildings, mass of people coming from diverse directions and walks of life thronged into it to stop the unwanted unilateral eviction.

Similar happening took place at the Kratum Diew and Mahakan Fort communties. At both cases, NGOs, academicians, proffesionals and poor communities joined hand in hand to fight against evictions. Group of professionals supported with providing alternative architectural and community life design when they overhauled and renovated the poor communties. The academicians built supporting arguments from social, economic, cultural and historical approaches. They joined the NGOs in organizing the poor people. Along with poor communities they held dialogues and negotiations with the government or land owners. To sum up, different ways were applied to find solutions and to stop evictions.

It is difficult yet to imagine that Jakartan academicians could work together and willingly mingle the poor communities like what I saw in Bangkok. Even toward different city issues that directly relate to their own public issues like acute traffic jam, sloppy public room use, improper fencing of public parks, misuse of public spaces, land and space over-commercialization, even there are very few academicians and proffesionals voice up their concerns. It is inimaginable that such group builds coalition to resistance for those causes. Jakartan civil society is fairly weak so that Jakarta remains sloppy. The city development is fully at the hand of political leaders and capital owners. The Jakarta residents are fragmented, easily twisted because they are weak.

The weakness of Jakarta’s civil society, apart for low awareness and short public concern and solidarity as common dwellers of the city, political system and the bureaucracy have made its citizens powerless and fragmented in distantiated social groupings one from the other. The contrary takes place in Bangkok, instead. Bangkok’s political and adminstration system has given spaces and opportunities and even encourages its residents to organize themselves. It can be seen at least from the policy of offering funds for organizing the communties. Poor communities that have organized their members register themselves to the Bangkok administration, and they get the status of formal community and they will have loan facilities for further development.

Apart from that, from Baan Mangkong program offers the opportunities for poor communities, academicians, professionals and local government unit to encounter to solve problems. Politicians can no longer boast only promises and object the poor only as their tool to get votes. The politicians are closely linked to the people as voters. They have actual constitutent base knowing most the members and on the other way arount the contituents have critical stance and integrity. They are not easy to be fooled around.

Finally control to the government and the politicians is well in function because the civil society also has actual command over them. This control has contributed in the toppling of former prime minister Thaksin Sinawatra late last year. Most people like street vendors, taxi drivers upto academicians did not want Taksin because he was utterly corrupt. On the other side it is a also know that Thaksin was quite popular among the poor.

After considering Bangkok as a city and from the point of view of the poor communities, there appears a question: Why Bangkok could sustain changes while Jakarta fails? In fact Bangkok once learned it from Jakarta. Bangkok also suffered from traffic jams as serious as in the present Jakarta, but after building a mass transportation means of skytrain, the traffic jams subsides. In the meantime there are many unresolved problems, starting from acute traffic jams, inorderly city management, flood, pollution, poverty, riots upto evictions. As a metropole Jakarta’s problems does not seem to diminish but intensified, even though at a certain point in the past both shared the same level of seriousness. It is surprising that Bangkok may resolve the troubles yet Jakarta even more entangled.

What is wrong with Jakarta? Perhaps both do not share the same line of history. Thailand has never been colonized by any foreign power, but Jakarta and Indonesia have never been really independent. Perhaps the difference stance in each independence has born different mentality. My first queston seems to be difficult to answer. It may be better to jump into the second one: What should we do? Let’s spend some time to think it over and do something for Jakarta. [End]**

Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (6)
Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (5)
Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (4)
Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (3)
Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (2)
Millions of miles away between Jakarta and Bangkok (1)

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