New Internationalist

The lease on life

Issue 386

Richard Swift breaks bread with the resilient squatters of Bangkok.

All photos by Richard Swift
All photos by Richard Swift

Sumon Charoensai sits in a crowded little shop in Klong Toey – Bangkok’s largest slum – where he invents foul-smelling natural cleanser for the festering pollution in the city’s many klongs (canals). From here, he also fixes computers, sells his friends’ art and generally holds court. He is a ‘citizen squatter’ – evicted from his home three times by the Bangkok Port Authority. He knows the history of this area intimately: remembers the days when the Port Authority blew mud and sand into people’s houses to make them uninhabitable. When he hears I am interested in the squatter situation, he sends his daughter to fetch his show-and-tell kit. It holds a truly impressive combination of colour-coded charts, maps and aerial photographs.

Sumon, evicted three times, determined to resist a fourth.

It’s not hard to see where the Klong Toey community starts. On the one side of Bangkok’s Rama IV motorway – one of the capital’s traffic-clogged arteries – are Mercedes dealerships, McDonald’s, boutique hotels and large shopping malls: icons of what was once called ‘the Asian miracle’. On the other side are noodle shops, small furniture makers and dozens of tiny outfits that service the city’s cacophonous herd of motorbikes. Then come alleyways of squatter housing, most with some kind of small survival business crammed into cramped ground floors. One huge Lotus-Tesco shopping mall has jumped Rama IV and now encroaches on traditional Klong Toey. Hundreds of young Thais gather in front of it at night to ‘dancercize’ to a disco/hip hop beat in front of a parking-lot stage. This classic dualism – propped up by its two poles of commercial boom and social exclusion – shapes the politics of space in modern Bangkok.

Some say that 80,000 people live in the waterfront slums of Klong Toey. Others say 100,000; yet others say more. Who (or what) gets counted depends on who is counting and why. With generations of eviction resistance under their belts, they have become an inspiration to poor shantytowns all over the city – indeed all over Thailand – in their determination not to be moved.

The Port Authority has come to learn that Sumon, too, is no pushover. These days Klong Toey leases are for one or two years rather than ten or fifteen. Not that a lease gives any real security. So his battle against Bangkok’s Port Authority (which owns the land) continues. The relentless pressures of commercial development and spiralling real-estate prices see to that. But what is most impressive about Sumon is his grasp of how this affects his community. He sees clearly not just his local enemies in the Port Authority and Municipal Government, but also the global forces that lie behind them. He thinks that Bangkok may soon be bypassed: that a new road route from more convenient Vietnamese ports will run well north of Bangkok. He understands that there is no room in ‘their’ plans for ‘the slums’ or the people who live in them. He holds up a futuristic-looking drawing from Bangkok planners to show a city waterfront devoid of the low-rise houses in which most now live. He points out the contradiction – the poorly paid labour of Bangkok’s squatter communities is necessary to fuel the very system that is trying to drive them away.

When asked if he thinks he has a chance in the face of these seemingly overwhelming forces, Sumon smiles shyly: ‘I’ll try to fight while I can.’ Does he belong to any organization? Another smile: ‘Freelance.’ The disinformation spread by those pursuing their own profit and power worries him. He is against top-down planning: ‘network power’ from below is the best hope. His job, he says, is not to decide for people but to give them information so they can decide for themselves. ‘In our community, people want their own style of building; not to make all the houses the same.’ He fears that some day he will point with his pencil to the local map and have to say yet again: ‘I used to live here.’

The growth of squatter communities in Bangkok is complex. They do not spread as far as the eye can see as they do in many places in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Instead they are stuck into odd places deemed either not yet desirable for commercial development or temporarily won by squatters after a ferocious fight: land dispersed in the nooks and crannies of the global city – under an expressway or jammed beside the city’s klongs or railway tracks.

History unravels further complications. In the 1950s and 1960s the ‘land rent system’ held sway in Bangkok and allowed poor people to move to the city and settle on land for relatively small rents. But when Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular began to boom in the 1970s, all that changed. Condo towers, shopping malls and hotels were the profitable future of the new Asia. Landholders – once satisfied with nominal rents – started either to sell or develop their land themselves. In the process they stopped collecting rents and turned tenants into squatters. Public land held by agencies like the Port Authority also came under pressure either to be sold off to commercial developers or used in infrastructure expansion.

The contradiction was always that this boom needed lots of cheap labour but had no place to house it. As a result around 20 per cent of Bangkok’s population now lives in slums. In response, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has announced that there will be ‘no more slums’ in a decade. This sounds good. But where will the poor go? Does it mean that in a decade Thailand will have wiped out poverty? Surely even the Prime Minister couldn’t say that with a straight face? These questions make Sumon Charoensai laugh: ‘There used to be 500 slums in Bangkok and now there are 2,000. In 10 years there will be 3,000. It’s like a balloon – you push the air down in one place and it just pushes up in another.’

But Bangkok’s poor squatters have not exactly been silly putty through this process. Their core principle is ‘never move unless you absolutely have to’. They have organized and they have resisted in place after place. And despite their lack of any legal recourse they have been remarkably successful. Now that the bad old days of the military dictatorship have ended, violent eviction and demolition are rare. And the Thai cultural preference for conflict avoidance and compromise gives squatters some edge.

The city (and Thai civil society) is thick with a vast array of community organizations and networks that assist squatters fighting to define their own space and way of life. Fires – sometimes deliberately lit to flush the squatters out – are a major problem. Father Joe Maier of Klong Toey’s Mercy Centre speaks proudly of the squatters’ resilience: ‘What you do is you get the people alongside the road on the ashes and they go right back in and begin to put up houses again. We’ve had some 70 fires here and we’ve rebuilt over 10,000 houses. No-one in the world has built as many houses as we have under these slum conditions. We go in there like vandals and rebuild houses overnight or over weekends. [After fire] the Government wants to come in with guns and cars and uniforms and pieces of paper. They want to put people into refugee camps outside the city and forget about them. But if you get the people right back in to put up structures then they’ve got something to bargain with.’

This is typical of the vast range of creative tactics that Thailand’s squatters are employing. Across the city from Klong Toey, the little squatter community of Pom Mahakan – which has lived for several generations beside the Old Fort right in the middle of tourist Bangkok – is also resisting being moved. Like many other well-organized squatter communities, they have put forward a plan for park space as an alternative to demolition – an eco-tourist village right in the middle of town. Then there are less orthodox strategies. Recently when they received news of a police eviction raid they called on the Buddhist monks across the street to stage a religious ceremony. It stopped the raid – an eviction in the middle of such a ceremony is unthinkable.

Officially, the major policy response to squatter insecurity and slum conditions is an elaborate countrywide slum-upgrading programme called Baan Mankong. This is the brainchild of Thai housing activists whose most prominent spokesperson is Somsook Boonyabancha, Director of the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), which administers the programme. CODI is currently working with some 25 per cent of slum communities and is well financed by the Thai state. And the programme is perhaps the most ambitious shantytown upgrading initiative in the entire Global South.

Somsook Boonyabancha, head of Thailand’s innovative Community Organizations Development Institute, sees squatter self-government as the way forward.

Somsook – a former activist as an architecture student – puts heavy emphasis on solutions coming from the communities themselves. She sees ‘horizontal’ organization where self-governing communities put forward their own plans – ‘collective land-holding and collective finance’ – as the way forward, and believes that vertical solutions imposed on squatter communities are bound to fail. Private land-holdings, she feels, will just be swallowed up by the real-estate market. As a well-connected practitioner of soft power, Thai-style, she is reluctant to talk about how the horizontal power of the squatters would conflict with the vertical power of the landowners and the politicians. Her approach is to work out compromises on the ground (using CODI resources as leverage) on a case-by-case basis.

Then there are those, such as Scott Leckie of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, who are critical of the CODI approach. He believes in a more rights-based challenge to vertical power and is uncomfortable with the accommodations to big landlords the CODI approach implies. Instead, he thinks that evictions and land-grabs can only really be stopped when housing rights have the force of law.

A man from the squatter community Rim Klong Pai Singto displays a model of a desirable future home. But will CODI help them realise their dream?

It’s an old debate about working within the system or challenging it from the outside. Both positions have some validity. On the one hand, it seems highly unlikely that the state and private sector can provide decent housing solutions. There is not enough profit in it, so solutions need to tap the energy of the squatters themselves. Enabling this is a CODI priority. On the other hand, it is essential to extend human rights beyond a narrow civil liberties perspective and to address the social and economic needs of slum communities as their ‘rights’ to secure living space are faced with hostility and indifference. It is not just freedom of speech but freedom from arbitrary eviction. It is a debate that has echoes far beyond Thailand. I meet with Prapai, a Klong Toey community activist, to get a sense of how CODI’s approach is working on the ground. She lives in a CODI project of 114 new houses on Port Authority land and is very positive about the way the organization helped the community come together, develop their finances and design their new houses. The problem for her is the same as for squatters outside the project – the Port Authority still owns the land and the residents feel very insecure because of the short three-year leases the Authority has imposed on them. Will these be renewed? At what price? Will they be evicted as they have been so many times before? Or will the cost of leases make it impossible for them to stay? It seems – at least in this case – that CODI’s accommodation with power has not solved the problem of secure tenure.

The final judgement on the Baan Mankong policy will be in communities like Rim Klong Pai Singto where 57 families cluster near the Klong Toey market. These people work as producers and sellers of processed river fish and fried insects. They are not slackers: processing and moving over three tons a day of fish (mostly wholesale) to feed the people of Bangkok. Pimjai Pa-Ta – a large animated woman – is a leader of the community and she has little doubt as to what is at stake. Her community lives in a row of several very busy houses beside the klong where production takes place on the bottom floor and people live above. ‘Here we look out for one another,’ she says. When asked about their legal status, Pimjai points across the street to a parking lot. ‘That used to be all houses,’ she says. ‘Now they have been torn down.’ She then points up the street to a large highrise that hovers over the community like an expectant vulture. ‘That is where they put the people now. They hate it there. They cannot afford the rent and expenses. They have drug problems.’ Here is the mirror for the two opposing core values of urban life in the era of globalization. Whether it’s Bangkok or Bogotá, the promoters of the shiny global city want big prestige projects and lucrative investment. Their core value is accumulation. The city’s people (only some of them squatters like Pimjai) want a sane and secure place to live – safe communities with clean air to breathe; an ability to shape change rather than have it imposed. Their core value is liveability.

The families of Rim Klong Pai Singto will continue to challenge the development vulture. They proudly display an attractive model of the kind of house they would like to replace their own deteriorating housing stock – two storeys, not ten. They have built a sophisticated network of community organizations, including a microcredit-based project and a ‘garbage fund’ where people can borrow money and pay the interest in recyclable garbage. With typical Thai pragmatism they have painted all their houses blue in honour of the Royal Family. They plan to approach CODI for help to realize their modest dreams. They are trying to play the game. And they have every intention of winning.

Slum priest

‘Would you have a minute for a fat slum priest?’ Father Joe puts on a heavy Irish brogue but – as he’s making his phone call – the twinkle in his eye is real enough. He is hustling, as he has hustled for decades now, for the people of Klong Toey – Bangkok’s biggest slum. For Joe, this community is not just dilapidated housing and poor living conditions: ‘The slum is a village. A village in the city. It is a sacred place. There are Buddhist temples, a mosque, a church here. It was built on a traditional graveyard even before the Port Authority took it over.’

Joe is still very much the Sixties rebel kid and brings that style – of radical politics together with Deadhead aesthetics (identified with the militant fans of the rock group the Grateful Dead) – with him from his home in the US Northwest.

There is Joe Maier, the social entrepreneur, who has built a thriving agency – the Mercy Centre in the heart of Klong Toey – which, like most of the rest of this community, is on squatted land ‘belonging’ to the Bangkok Port Authority. When I was here 15-odd years ago the Mercy Centre was a dusty old building hanging on at the edge of Klong Toey. Today it is a collection of handsome new buildings run mostly by Buddhist staff that has become a sanctuary for the community, particularly the children. It carries out a range of activities including community outreach, microcredit and has a busy legal department to champion people’s rights. To make all this work, Father Joe sometimes needs to come across as the friend to all – even those whose power and privileges keep the excluded that way. He’ll do whatever it takes.

Then there is Father Joe, the social activist and slum analyst. Unlike many of the agencies that work with Bangkok’s poor, he’s quicker to place blame than to allot credit to government largesse. He rails against ‘the uniforms’ – not just the corrupt police but also the whole system of power that serves itself at the expense of most of the people of Bangkok’s shantytown communities. But his critique of what is happening to the squatters in the slum is not limited to manipulation by the rich and powerful. Despite Bangkok’s improvements in infrastructure he sees people’s situation deteriorating as the pressures of modernity (such as long work hours and consumer desires) and its discontents (a plague of amphetamines, the collapse of the family, child abuse, prostitution, and the growth of HIV/AIDS) eat away at community and disperse the village-in-the-city.

‘Do parents sell their children often?’ I ask. Joe looks at me: ‘Richard, that is a stupid question.’ Father Joe has been asked some variation of this question many times. As always, it’s much more complicated. Poverty makes it so. ‘They get in debt with gambling and borrowing money. The interest rate is two per cent. Two per cent per day! The sons all leave but the daughters stay.’ So do parents sell their children? Obviously yes and no.

Hundreds of Klong Toey’s children live in the Mercy Centre. They have gotten there through a variety of routes. But as Father Joe puts it: ‘As soon as they arrive we start to plan on how they are going to leave’. But some won’t leave at all. They are the HIV kids, born with the disease that has hit Thailand hard over the past decade. Dealing with the disease is just part of the work of trying to make Klong Toey a healthier and safer place.

Finally, there is Father Joe, the charismatic figure loved by the Mercy Centre – children, HIV/AIDS patients and staff. He’s an edgy contrarian – an extension of, rather than a contradiction to, a big heart. He leads not just simple masses but also brings in Thai rock stars to sing along with the kids and watch them perform. He wouldn’t be that popular in the contemporary Vatican or down at City Hall in Bangkok. But the 500-odd people who crowded into the Mercy Centre to celebrate his 65th birthday are sure glad he is ‘still crazy after all these years’.

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This article was originally published in issue 386

New Internationalist Magazine issue 386
Issue 386

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