Precariously situated alongside one of the remaining stretches of the ancient city walls of Bangkok (Thailand) is the community of Pom Mahakan, with fewer than 300 residents. For city managers, Pom Mahakan is seen as a squatter settlement, its residents living in dangerous and dilapidated slum conditions, lacking legal title to the land. They see it as an eyesore and an obstacle to their ambitious plans to beautify the Rattanakosin City area – the spiritual, historic and monumental core of Bangkok and the larger nation. For the residents, Pom Mahakan constitutes a vibrant community of honest working people who have lived together for many generations – indeed, members consider themselves a large family – and whose continued stewardship of the historic area should be utilized as an asset for its sustainability.
The Pom Mahakan community is ethnically and religiously diverse: two Muslim families live alongside others who trace their ancestry to North-Eastern Thailand or to Chinese immigrants. Over decades living side-by-side with one another, they have shaped a shared identity that is literally grounded in the land they inhabit. Members view their community as a microcosm of Thailand as a whole: a welcoming place where cultural diversity is not just tolerated but an asset for social solidarity and harmonious coexistence. For some city administrators, however, the population is too heterogeneous to constitute a real community, its members lacking a single common origin and failing to practise a shared traditional craft; the time depth of their presence is too shallow to claim the land as their own.
Pom Mahakan residents do not just assert that their community deserves to remain where it is: they demonstrate it. Members operate an effective system of self-governance and community management that is always alert to the next eviction threats. Residents have effectively defended the community against the scourge of drug abuse that has damaged other communities, rural or urban; their houses are neat and public areas swept clean. The community has put forward a vision of stewardship in which they serve as caretakers of the area, maintaining their own way of life while accommodating historic preservation and accessibility for tourists, both Thai and international.
Prepared by Frank Proschan