Breathing Space: How one abandoned piece of land has brought the city together

During rush hours, this is the busiest road in Chiang Mai and a survey conducted in 2006 revealed that 74% of average student transport spends around 40 minutes per day on this one road.

By | Thu 1 Sep 2016

How many times have we read a story in a newspaper, or online, which caused our blood to boil, our heads to shake in condemnation and our sighs to draw out in despair? A government initiative gone bad, an injustice metered out, an inexcusable policy…we feel powerless and simply chalk it down to yet another wrong we are unable to right.

More often than not we do nothing. Not so a group of women who have, in a few short weeks, managed to not just halt a highly unpopular government development, but bring together communities and organisations across the city in protest.

Troubling Rumours
Regina Coeli is an all girls’ school on Charoenprathet Road, which runs parallel to the Ping River. For the past 30 years an empty parcel of land next to the school, overgrown with trees, has provided a green respite in a rapidly developing part of the city. This area of Chang Klan District is home to six schools totalling nearly 10,000 students, a large Muslim community surrounding two mosques, a Catholic community and its church, as well as a Buddhist community with a temple and a small Sikh community. During rush hours, this is the busiest road in Chiang Mai and a survey conducted in 2006 revealed that 74% of average student transport spends around 40 minutes per day on this one road. Today, ten years later, around 6,000 student-carrying vehicles use the road twice each school day.

It is in this highly populated and congested area that the Treasury Department, under the Ministry of Finance, had planned to allow private companies to bid for a 30 year lease (with an extension period of another 30 years) on a project to build an eight storey 900 unit housing project on 9 rai and 3 ngarn of land, to house government officials.

Looking at Google maps, this is the largest piece of undeveloped public land in the Chiang Mai municipality. Chiang Mai University’s Forest Reforestation Research Unit (FORRU), following a recent survey, said that while it is not a forest, the land contains 29 species of trees, and recommends it be used as an arboretum in order to help offset the carbon emissions generated from the area’s extreme congestion.

“The Treasury Department is following the well-intentioned government policy of developing affordable housing for officials, and I think that this is laudable,” said Plai-aw Thongsawat, Advisor to Regina Alumnae Association. “What we are protesting is the use of this particular parcel of land, when they have so many others which would be more suitable and wouldn’t have such a negative impact on both the environment and local communities.”

In spite of the scope of the project, there had been no outreach or announcement to the local community prior to the start of the development. And it wasn’t until the school, concerned over rumours of development, asked for an August 5th meeting with the Chiang Mai Treasury Department, less than two weeks before the project’s scheduled signoff, that the school had confirmation of this project. Rallying all of its resources, the school, and soon the Chiang Mai community at large, came out in protest, causing a media storm that led to the department’s August 15th announcement that it was cancelling the project.

“They haven’t promised to cancel all future projects, and until we are assured that the land will be used for public good, not to benefit a few thousand people, to the detriment of thousands of others, we will continue this fight,” said Plai-aw.

Once Upon a Time
I was a student at Regina Coeli School for ten years. During my years at Regina, this land was used as a cold warehouse and had been one since, I believe, the sixties. As a state enterprise it went bankrupt around 30 years ago and the land has been abandoned ever since. The land in question is managed by the Treasury Department, which controls over 561,000 buildings on 2.5 million rai of land nationwide, according to the latest 2015 census.

In 2003 the Sunday Bicycle Club sent the Treasury Department a letter requesting the use of the land for cycling purposes. An MOU was signed by the department to show its intent in using the land as a public space. In 2008, Mayor of Chiang Mai, Dr. Duentemduang Na-Chiengmai, another Regina alumna, sent a proposal to the department with designs for a park and a commitment of support by the municipality. Unfortunately the Treasury Department responded by requesting the cancellation of the MOU citing the “high business potential” of the land. However, a then-newly proposed housing project was shelved and Dr. Duentemduang left office thinking the matter resolved.

In June this year rumours began to emerge of a new project proposed for the piece of land. Concerned, the school wrote a letter to the department asking for information and clarification. In response, the department sent the school a list of documentations it required from potential bidders, with the scope of the project stated as four eight storey buildings containing 900 units. On August 5th, school representatives met with the head of the Chiang Mai Treasury Department to ask them to reconsider their project and were told that the department had every right to develop the land as they saw fit; he went so far as to explain that if a neighbour built a toilet, the other neighbour would have no say as it was not on their land. When Regina explained that the matter was perhaps more complex than that of toilet building, and asked whether the department had conducted an environmental or social impact assessment, they were told that there was no budget to do so.

With rumours of development confirmed, the school moved to collect signatures to hand to the governor of Chiang Mai in protest.

On 9th August, the day of the scheduled meeting with the governor, the head of the Treasury Department Chiang Mai contacted the school and asked to come and collect the letter of protest the school had planned to hand to the governor. The school politely declined. He then went on to ask what the school wanted, “If this project is going to happen, what do you want Regina?” he asked.

Building Momentum
“After the 5th we became seriously concerned, but after the 9th we were angry, determined and motivated,” said Dr. Kemakorn Chaiprasit, Associated Dean of Faculty of Business and Administration, Chiang Mai University and Chairperson of Regina’s Parent-Teacher Association. “We reached out to our alumnae, set up a Facebook page and began to strategise.”

“First of all, we realised that this was bigger than two neighbours spatting,” she continued. “There are tens of thousands of people who would be directly affected by this development — students, parents, teachers, communities and the environment. It was important to come from a position of strength and we used every contact we could to gather data, craft a message, bring in support groups and basically raise a ruckus.”

When the steering committee met with the governor on the 9th August to hand him the letter, they were overwhelmed to find representatives of over 30 organisations attend the meeting at the Provincial Hall. Today that number has risen to almost 50 and includes all four religious communities as well as schools in Chang Klan. Many organisations with no direct relations to the area have also joined the ever-growing network such as the Raks Mae Ping Activism Network, The Doctor
Volunteer Network, Lanna Bird Nature Conservation Club etc.

“It has been heart-warming to talk to communities further down the road who wouldn’t be adversely affected by this project, all of whom have pledged their support. Local vendors have also stepped up, many saying that they were willing to sacrifice any future profits from such a project for the sake of the greater good,” added Dr. Kemakorn.

“The head of the Muslim community told me that this road is not just historic, but unique in Thailand for its religious harmony,” she said during a recent meeting. “Four religious communities have lived alongside each other for hundreds of years, one group’s problem is shared by all, he told us. I was very touched.”

The steering committee, largely run by alumnae, set up numerous working groups. I was in the group with Dr. Duentemduang, my production and sales managers (both of whom are my Regina classmates), and Dr. Kemakorn, to craft our message, create logos, slogans, collaterals, and issue press releases. Another group of researchers pulled in experts from FORRU to come in and conduct a survey as to possible environmental impact, another looked at congestion and traffic flow, yet another calculated projected waste and water usage from such a new project. Then there was the social media group which also crafted a petition which, within a week, was signed by over 4,500 people.

A Beautiful Protest
On 13th August the Treasury Department Director General Chakkrit Parapantakul, announced that the project would continue as planned. This development was one of five mega projects the Treasury Departments was launching this year in accordance with the government aim of creating low cost housing for government officials. Areeya Management had won the contract for an undisclosed bid which would be signed on the 16th August.

An emergency meeting was held the next day to plan for a 15th August protest and nearly 100 people turned up, an extraordinary collection of activists and volunteers, each brining a unique expertise, perspective or ability to the communal cause. The campaign slogan was formed, “Our Forest; Our Lungs”, turning this into a city-wide concern, not just a school or community issue.

Grassroots activities in Chiang Mai pooled local resources, but alumnae living in Bangkok also worked behind the scenes to hand deliver letters to nine government ministries, while those with better contacts worked to get those letters pushed to the top of the priority piles. The press was invited and through social media thousands of people pledged that they would attend the protest.

At 1pm on the day of the protest, 15th August, one day before the planned signing with bid winner Areeya Management, someone sent us a message in our Line group telling us that the project was cancelled. Jubilant, we jumped up and down in glee.

The more level-headed amongst us, however, advised caution, and rightly so. The department had announced the cancellation of its contract with Areeya Management but stated that they would discuss with the local community plans for future development.

“I think that it is clear at this point,” said Dr. Duentemduan, “that overwhelmingly, Chiang Mai people want to keep that land as a green space for public use. We don’t want any future developments at all. There is no reason this project needs to be built here and the land is more valuable to us and future generations than whatever the department will generate from this lease.”

The protest went ahead as planned, but because of this last minute, and unsatisfying, announcement, thousands of people as well as the majority of the media who’d pledged to attend, assumed that the matter was over and didn’t turn up.

Over 1,000 supporters however, came through and following a presentation of facts by Dr. Kemakorn, we all converged onto the Regina lawn, forming circles around the four religious as well as core protest leaders, and joined together in song; children from neighbouring Sacred Heart and Montfort singing songs alongside hardened activists, busily wiping their moist eyes.

“I have heard these two songs so many times in my life,” said Father Francis, Bishop of Chiang Mai, “But today was the most beautiful song I have ever heard in my life.”

Long Road Ahead The following day, all major news outlets nationwide covered the protest and the project’s cancellation. In spite of the small victory, however, we believe the battle is far from over. “I am at about 50/50 with confidence in our success,” said Dr. Kemakorn when asked. “This matter has popped up time and again and there is nothing to stop the department from coming up with new projects in the future. What we need to do is get it down in writing that that land will be made available to the public. To that end, we are having a meeting on the 27th August to brainstorm ideas for its use.”

There is a long road ahead, but support is also growing, with many seeing this as a case study for future citizen activism. The Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University has pledged 100 law students, who next month will study all legal avenues and ramifications involved in this initiative. The Faculty of Architecture, Mae Jo University, which will hold its tenth anniversary event next month, will invite acclaimed Chiang Mai artist, Thepsiri Suksopha, to hold a painting competition for students on this theme as well as plans to host a nation-wide competition to solicit designs for a new public space on the contested land. A working group is currently researching best practices nation–and world–wide, and FORRU will make a proposal as to how the land can be used as an arboretum and public park.

According to renowned cardiologist and President of Lanna Bird Nature Conservation Club, Dr. Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, “It is such a shocking misuse of public land. Government policy is clear in its support of the creation and protection of green spaces within local communities and the Treasury Department is not only going against this national policy, but is also destroying an important local treasure as well as ignoring the wishes of the citizens of Chiang Mai.”

It’s Not Constitutional!
According to Section 58 of the new 2016 constitution, “In the case where any activity to be implemented by the State or with permission of the State may seriously constitute impact on natural resources, environmental quality, health, hygiene, quality of life or any other substantial interest of people or community or environment, the State shall manage for the undertaking of a study and an evaluation of impact on environmental quality and health of the people or community, and for the consultation with the concerned stakeholders, the people and the community beforehand with a view to supporting the consideration to implement or to grant permission according to the law. A person and a community shall have the right to obtain information, explanation and justification from State agencies prior to the implementation…the State shall take cautions to minimise the impact on people, community, environment and biodiversity to the least extent, and shall fairly and promptly arrange for the provision of remedy for the suffering or the damage to the people or community affected thereby. So there!

UPDATE: The Treasury Department, following mass protest, has now announced that this piece of land will be donated to the people of Chiang Mai. A council has been set up, including Citylife’s editor, to oversee its use for the benefit of all.

Related Article: 
Breathe Out: The Park that WE Made