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In Session: Living Heritage & Historical Memory in Southeast Asia (I)
1: ‘Mr. Damrong, Tear Down this Wall!’ The Historical Context of Urban Heritage in Modern Thailand
Monday, March 22, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Indiana State University, United States
Scholars have examined the power of heritage discourse, both globally (Lowenthal, Meskell, Askew) and in Asia (Peycam et. al., Ludwig, et. al.), with different groups using the physical remains of the past to define or defy political authority, create or capture economic benefits, and reify or revise history. In illiberal Thailand, recent events like the 2018 eviction of the Pom Mahakan community (Herzfeld) highlight the divide between central and local views of urban heritage. This study places events like this, and particularly the ongoing application of Chiang Mai for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in historical context by examining the history behind changing attitudes toward heritage spaces over the long 20th century, specifically royal palaces and city walls. While Bangkok’s elites projected the twin goals of urban improvement and economic development on their own city walls, in northern cities walls also became symbols of a romanticized past. Likewise, while palaces in Bangkok became symbols of a modernizing monarchy, royal residences in the north were a more delicate matter, as they represented both a potentially dangerous alternative source of charismatic leadership, and an opportunity for a land grab. Though center and periphery shared palaces and walls, state elites began to interpret these physical remains of the past in increasingly distinct ways, with modernity and economic growth the focus in Bangkok, while a romanticized, internally colonial/orientalist view took hold in the north. The essay closes by exploring the implications of this history for the future of Thailand’s urban heritage.