'Beautification' of Bangkok exacts steep price from squatters: eviction

October 06, 1991|By New York Times News Service

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The World Bank and Miss Universe are coming to town, and for that reason some of Bangkok's struggling poor have been told to move out.

Thousands of Bangkok slum dwellers have been ordered to leave their homes as quickly as they can. The first 2,000 must be out by October, when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund open their annual conference in the new National Conference Center. As many as 5,000 others will be evicted before May, when the glistening conference center is the site of the 1992 Miss Universe Pageant.

Apparently embarrassed that the nation's spectacular economic boom has not provided for all of its citizens, the Thai government has hastily put forward a "beautification" plan that calls for poor neighborhoods to be removed from the view of well-heeled visitors.

It is the sort of story as likely these days in the developing world as it has long been in richer lands.

Despite the protests of slum residents, most of whom do not want to go, the first were evicted from the jumble of tin-roof shantytowns in early August.

Bangkok newspapers have rallied to the slum dwellers' cause, and the publicity has put the Washington-based World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the first big guests in the conference center, in the awkward position of distancing themselves both from their Thai hosts and from the appearance, if not the reality, that thousands of poor people are being uprooted so as not to offend a group of Western bankers.

"We have never asked or suggested that this should be done," said Philippe Annez, the chief of the regional mission of the World Bank. "The Thai government knows very clearly that we are concerned."

Boonnoeng Phanyong, a 42-year-old widow whose husband died cancer in June, has been told she must leave her dilapidated one-room home and move her tiny papaya-salad stand out of the neighborhood.

"The government is ashamed of us," she said, putting down the bamboo-handled knife that she used to chop greens and pointing to the sprawling glass-and-steel conference center across the street. "They do not want the bankers and the businessmen to see how we live."

The Thai government insists that it has been planning since 1986 to demolish some of the slums. One of the shantytowns is on a draining ditch that the city says must be dredged to control street flooding; another is being torn down to build a road to ease traffic jams.

Thai officials acknowledge, however, that it took this month's conference of the World Bank and IMF, which is expected to attract bankers, financiers and government officials from 150 nations, to make them act.

The two development organizations meet outside Washington every three years. In 1976, when they gathered in Manila, more than 400 families were evicted from slums there as part of what was described as a "beautification" campaign by Imelda Marcos.

Thai officials, stung by publicity over the evictions in Bangkok, now refuse to be quoted by name about the move.

But when the plan was made public in June, a spokesman for Thailand's National Housing Authority said that the slums were "an eyesore in the heart of Bangkok" and might cause foreign visitors to think less of Thailand.

Thai officials also said that they were concerned that terrorists BTC might try to hide among slum dwellers -- a suggestion slum residents find laughable, if only because the overcrowded slums offer no privacy to anyone, terrorists included.

Under the plan, many will be moved to apartment developments going up only a few hundred feet away from their current homes.

Luan See Loh, a shopkeeper who has lived in the Theppatharn slum for 40 of her 60 years, said she would prefer to stay. "But the government says I will not move very far and if the government says we must go, we must," she said. "They say the new apartments will be nice."

Others are being moved to developments more than 10 miles from the heart of the city -- a potential calamity for the many slum residents who sell candy or fruit along city streets, earning the equivalent of $3 or $4 a day.

Because of Bangkok's appalling traffic and its lack of reliable public transport, it will be hard for them to return downtown to work. There is hope, but no guarantee, that jobs may become available at factories near their new homes.

"If we leave here, we will be leaving our customers and our livelihoods," said Akaraj Chanpuang, the elected leader of the 40-year-old Klong Pai Sington slum. "I am a taxi driver. How will I find work so far from Bangkok?"

The hurried evictions are part of a larger problem in Bangkok, a city of more than six million people that is growing so rapidly and with so little planning that the whims of real-estate developers often force the poor from their homes.

As Thailand has emerged in the 1990s as one of the economic tigers of Southeast Asia, the capital, Bangkok, has turned into a congested boom town, with an estimated 1.3 million people living in the city's 1,500 slums.

Mr. Annez of the World Bank said that he hoped and believed the slum residents who face eviction would be well compensated for their move.

As for the Thai officials overseeing the evictions, Mr. Annez has urged them to keep in mind that Bangkok has no monopoly on poverty -- that New York and London and Hong Kong and most of the world's other financial centers have their slums, too.

"The delegates to our conference have plenty of slums at home," he said.

"They have all seen slums before."

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