By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
THE NATION WEEKEND
For more than three months, the issue concerning the Court of Appeals Region 5’s office and residential project on the foot of Doi Suthep has left the two sides in limbo despite the fact that the group had reached an agreement with the government in early May.
Under the agreement, two sub-panels were to be set up to take care of the rehabilitation of Doi Suthep’s forest and environment and of the properties deemed to have encroached on the forest and natural waterways – 45 houses in total, plus nine condominiums.
Despite that progress, the group has learned that more people – around 30 as per their monitoring – have moved into those nine condominiums, violating the initial agreement in May that they would be designated as part of the so-called no-man’s land, which was expected to facilitate property management.
What is more “absurd”, Bunnaroth said, is the fact that the court refused to cooperate in any way with the sub-panel on property management. It neither share any information in regard to construction contracts and design plans of the buildings to the sub-panel as requested, nor allowed them to enter the construction site to check facts. This prompted the panel, in which the group’s representatives also sit, to suspect irregularities in the project.
Up till now, nobody has been able to confirm whether the court had renewed or suspended the construction contracts with the construction firm for the incomplete section of the compound.
It is therefore a situation where progress had been made, but apparently backward progress and in an absurd way, Bunnaroth said.
Despite the latest resolution, distrust has grown to the point that the group has confirmed it would stage a mass rally again at the end of this month to demonstrate its stance against the project.
“It has been backward from what was initially agreed on, and what was striven for. Actually their denial and silence says it all,” said Bunnaroth.
The court’s Bt 1-billion housing project has become controversial as its properties, 45 houses plus 9 condominiums, are found to sit at the foot of Doi Suthep, which is revered by locals as one of the seven “Chai Mongkol” – an auspicious element for victory – from the time King Meng Rai built the city more than 700 years ago. With such a spiritual value, the ancient city of Chiang Mai has sought designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Besides going against Doi Suthep’s cultural values, the court’s housing project was also accused by the locals as encroaching upon the pristine forest and natural waterways of the mountain.
This Bt 1-billion project was first developed around 20 years ago when the court sought a plot of land at the foot of the mountain to build an office and residences for the Court of Appeals Region 5. (Read Sidebar)
Despite claims that the land plot of around 147 rai (23.5 hectares) in total had been acquired legally, the project has faced strong protests from the locals, who first publicly took a stance against it in March this year.
According to Bunnaroth, the issue had actually been simmering since the project began a few years back. During those years, Chiang Mai residents were shocked when they saw the forest at the foot of the mountain being slowly eaten up by the project.
But it was not until March that the locals felt they had to raise their voice when a patch of forest was cleared to make way for a group of buildings, which stood out in front of their eyes and hurt their feelings.
Numerous online questions were directed to those concerned. The issue received a lot of publicity, bringing several scholars and social thinkers, including Bunnaroth, together for discussions.
The Doi Suthep Forest Reclamation Network was born as a result of the churn, with a collaboration of tens of local networks addressing environmental conservation and cultural preservation.
Their demands and some rallies over the past months prompted the government to send PM’s Office Minister Suwapan Tanyu-wattana to negotiate with them in early May.
They managed to reach an agreement that saw the court step back from the controversy and allowed the government to handle the issue. Two sub-panels at a provincial level were also set up to work on forest restoration and on “management” of the properties.
More importantly, there was to be land demarcation to determine which part of the plot of land should be included as protected forest, and any buildings there –around 45, plus nine condominiums – would be designated as “no-man’s land”, meaning they would no longer be allocated to any government agencies to occupy or use.
But as the no-man’s land was being determined, a number of people were found moving into those condominiums. As of July, as observed and monitored by the group, around 30 families had moved into those condominiums. The group claimed that among nine buildings, eight of them looked luxurious with only three storeys built for eight units. There is only one condominium that looks like a modest residence for officials.
“With people having moved into the buildings, our agreement on the so-called no-man’s land has been violated. What our PM General Prayut [Chan-o-cha] promised, that no one would live there, has been untrue as well,” said Bunnaroth.
Prayut had actually tried to ease the situation, requesting the protesters a few weeks ago to stay calm and wait for the court to move the residents out of those condominiums. But this, he said, could proceed after the court managed to find new residences for them. No deadline was given, however.
With silence or denial from the other side, the group has been placing its hopes on a provincial mechanism to help deliver their calls to the government.
On August 7, a meeting was to be held under which the property management panel’s proposal was to be tabled before being forwarded to the committee overseen by PM’s Office Minister Suwapan.
The proposal was to call for the demolition of the 45 houses and nine condominiums to pave the way for forest restoration. However, according to one of the group’s representatives, an engineer academic had told the provincial committee that the nine buildings could be used as court residences, as they had no environmental impact.
The August 7 meeting was not held as scheduled, and instead a meeting with a sub-panel was called, which prompted the group’s representatives to walk out. The group said this was yet another sign of foot-dragging on the matter.
In their view, critical problems had been addressed and settled under the proposal, and only a provincial meeting was needed to review the proposal and forward it to the government.
With distrust growing, the group has called on locals from Chiang Mai and nearby provinces to join a rally on August 26. This is despite the fact that a meeting with provincial authorities was set again for August 16.
The August 26 rally has been named “Hundred Streams and Rivers to reclaim Doi Suthep”.
On Friday, the Judicial Administration Commission (JAC) held a mobile meeting in Chiang Rai province, and resolved to have the Judiciary Office negotiate with the Department of Agriculture to use its land for the construction of the Court of Appeals Region 5 office and some residences. A new budget will be sought from the government to fund this project, the resolution noted.
The Office of Judiciary’s secretary-general, Sarawut Benjakul, said the office had surveyed the potential new site at the Horticulture Research Centre under the Agriculture Department and decided to table it before the JAC for consideration.
Sarawut said if the budget were approved and construction completed at the new site, it would then move the Court of Appeals Region 5 offices and residences on Doi Suthep to the new location.
Refusing to provide deadlines or further details, Sarawut said the court would consult with the government and leave it up to the government to decide.
Bunnaroth said he and members of his group believe this move will only make things murkier, as no deadlines or details about the new site have been provided.
This was frustrating, he said, adding that the protest will definitely be held on August 26.
“If we remain positive, we may believe that the court wants to end the issue by moving out. However, this latest resolution has made things very murky.
“It’s like the progress has gone backwards, and now plunged into the area of uncertainty. That’s why we’ve decided to go ahead with the protest until it is made clear that the disputed land will be returned to the way it used to be,” Bunnaroth said.
As explained by the Office of Judiciary’s secretary-general, Sarawut Benjakul, in April, the project began in mid-1997.
July 1997: The Justice Ministry has the Chief Justice Office Region 5 seek permission to use around 106 rai (17 hectares) of land owned by the military.
April 1999: The Military Circle 33, responsible for Chiang Mai and nearby provinces, writes to Chief Justice Office Region 5 wanting to know what the land would be used for. The office answers the query.
2000: The Court of Justice is separated from the Justice Ministry
January 2003: The Chief Justice Office Region 5 once again writes to the Military Circle 33 asking to use the plot – this time for the construction of the Justice Court offices and housing units.
March 2003: The Court of Appeals Region 5 tells the Judiciary Office that the Military Circle 33 has asked how much land will be needed for the project and plans to submit it to the Army for consideration.
June 2003: The Military Circle 33 tells the regional office that it has checked the legality of the land plot and found that it does not encroach on the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park or on land owned by other agencies.
March 2004: The Military Circle 33 tells the Judiciary Office that it has no problems if the court uses about 147 rai of the land, but that it must comply with Treasury Department’s Ratchaphatsadu regulations.
September 2005: The Office writes to Chiang Mai’s governor asking for permission to use the land.
2006: It receives approval from both the governor and Treasury Department.
Sarawut said that after the Office gained approval to use the land, it followed the law closely in hiring a construction firm and consultant. The budget allocated for the project was around Bt955 million.
According to Sarawut, the project was divided into three phases, with the first contract signed in July 2013 for 64 buildings for judiciary officials and nine houses. The second contract was signed in February 2014 for 10 building units for judiciary officials, 38 houses for judges and one house for a director.
The third contract was signed in September 2014 for the Court of Appeals Region 5 building.