A group of middle class professionals is trying to encourage people to get together and do something about the pollution and other ills that plague the capital. Peter Eng meets Bangkok Forum.
To the many residents who so patiently tolerate the city’s smog, traffic and eyesores, Bangkok Forum sounds a simple message: Wake up, get together and do something before it’s too late.
Bangkok Forum is non-profit civic group of about 300 middle class professionals, including businessmen, academics, social activists, lawyers, architects and medical doctors. They are promoting change through public seminars, special events, and spreading ideas through the mass media. I October, the United Nations’ local office honored Bangkok Forum for “its innovative approach to involving the citizenry at large in urban issues”.
Bangkok Forum is rebelling against the politicians and bureaucrats who’ve made decisions affecting the lives of residents with no input from the residents themselves, and against the uncontrolled, greed-drive development that has wrecked traditional neighborhoods. To those who want to further “develop” the city, Bangkok Forum says: “Let’s humanize Bangkok, let’s make Bangkok Forum liveable”.
Bangkok Forum’s director, Chaiwat Thirapantu, admits that’s not an easy task in a city where even the middle class is so politically passive and engrossed in consumerism. “No culture in Asia has ever talked about humanism, putting the human being at the centre as the agent of change,” observes Chaiwat.
Dedicated leadership can get the middle class and others to re-think their values, he believes, adding that Thailand is a very open society where new ideas can spread very quickly. He notes that Bangkok Governor Bhichit Rattakul has picked up on the phrase “liveable Bangkok”. Phichit’s projects include cleaning up the city and getting citizens involved in improving their communities. Civic groups similar to Bangkok Forum are appearing in other major Thai cities.
Bangkok forum draws on the lessons of civic groups and their major role in governance in Europe. No stranger to new ideas, Chaiwat spent a decade in Germany, where he participated in student protests against the Vietnam War. Bangkok Forum was founded in 1994 to give a voice to the progressives among the rapidly growing middle class. It is funded by Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, a German political education foundation whose overseas activities focus on strengthening democratic institutions.
Among its varied activities, Bangkok Forum has organized a fair to teach middle class consumers alternative lifestyles that would not damage the environment or traditional culture. It has taken reports and concerned citizens on tours of neighbouhoods that would be hurt by new mega-projects. It’s working with the governor’s office on projects to encourage people to take part in deciding development plans for the city.
This month, the Forum is organizing a festival and exhibition in front of the historic Wat Suthat to mark Environment Day. Forum members hope that area one day will be turned into a public square. In 1995, in a well publicized move, the Forum launched a big blimp to protest plans to build a high-rise by Wat Suthat. The temple, completed during the reign of King Rama III, holds a beautiful bronze Buddha image and exquisite murals. Creating open public spaces and preserving cultural heritages are vital to a humanistic way of life, according to the Forum.
The group aims at more than just improving living conditions in the city. The ultimate goal is participatory democracy. Bangkok Forum campaigns for political reform because it says the problems of the capital and the country as a whole stem from a political system in which office holders are not representative or concentrated in the hands of a few people. Bangkok Forum is urging citizens to participate in the current process in which a national council is drafting democratic changes to the Thai Constitution.
Chaiwat says the pro-democracy uprising in Bangkok in May 1992 srirred people’s hopes, but they are disappointed by the slow progress since then. “Maintaining a military dictatorship now is very difficult though not impossible. No one would tolerate it,” he says. “The problem now is how to deal with civilian dictatorship.