Poor Custodians of Rich Heritage

The Nation’s editorial bemoaning the fact that Ayutthaya might be removed from the World Heritage Site list, calling it a “national embarrassment”.

24 October 2007 (Nation Multimedia) – The Nation’s editorial bemoaning the fact that Ayutthaya might be removed from the World Heritage Site list, calling it a “national embarrassment”.

Poor custodians of rich heritage
The possibility of Ayutthaya being axed from the UN World Heritage List is a wake-up call to Thailand

The government and people of Thailand celebrated the inclusion of the historic city of Ayutthaya on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage List in December 1991 with great pride and joy. In the immediate few years that followed the decision, while Thailand was still in the first flush of enthusiasm, great efforts were made to preserve the historical park, which includes the ruins of the royal palace and the ancient Buddhist temples that were destroyed in 1767 by the invading Burmese.


For some time, central government agencies led by the Fine Arts Department, as well as the Ayutthaya provincial authorities, worked together relatively smoothly to spruce up the park, one of Thailand’s most important historical sites. Much was done to maintain it in good order for the benefit of future generations. Then complacency started to set in and the working relationship between government agencies began to turn sour. Ayutthaya soon became nobody’s business, except the Fine Arts Department, which is directly responsible for the preservation of all historical sites around the country.

In the meantime, the ravaging effect of rapid urbanisation in Ayutthaya province – where town and city planning was so poorly enforced – started to put pressure on the park area. Encroachment into the historical site by local people, emboldened by lax law enforcement, has become an issue over the past several years. Where once there was no trespassing, ugly modern buildings have sprung up right next to the park, and many of them are eyesores.

The negligence of the government and the public has become so blatant that Unesco has been compelled to remind Thailand of its obligation under the World Heritage Convention. Apparently, little has improved, and Unesco will now make assessments in order to decide whether to keep Ayutthaya on the World Heritage List.

Which explains the frenzied action currently being taken by the Fine Arts Department and the Culture Ministry to try to avert what could turn into a national embarrassment. The two agencies are now running around trying to raise public awareness and spur the government into remedial action to keep Ayutthaya on the prestigious list, which comprises more than 700 sites around the world.

Obviously it is the fear of losing face and the prospect of Thailand becoming a laughing stock in the eyes of the international community that has spurred the authorities to stir from inactivity and negligence. This when they should have been diligently protecting and preserving our heritage with a strong sense of duty.

There is no public sense of good custodianship over our national heritage, and that is why the government’s negligence in its duty has gone almost unnoticed. In all probability, few people in the government and perhaps no members of the public remember the reason why Ayutthaya was put on the World Heritage List in the first place.

Unesco’s constitution can be interpreted to remind member states that the importance of protecting world heritage is not an end in itself, but that it should serve other objectives including advancing mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples, stimulating the spread of culture, and maintaining, increasing and disseminating knowledge.

All these objectives are supposed to combine to enable Unesco to achieve its highest purpose: to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It is not too late for the government and people of Thailand to clean up their act. Our efforts to protect our national heritage are obviously motivated more by greed – such as making historical sites like Ayutthaya a draw for tourist dollars – than by a sense of wanting to cherish and preserve it for posterity or wanting to share it with the rest of the world.

We must get our priorities in order. A special government body with clear authority to require full cooperation from all agencies and local authorities should be set up to take good care of the historic city of Ayutthaya. Sufficient financial resources and manpower must be put at its disposal, and its performance must be judged against internationally accepted standards.


Books about Ayutthaya:
The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800 by F. McGill
Ayutthaya and Sukhothai: World Heritage – Reflections Of The Past (2 Volume Boxed Set)
The Arts of Thailand by S. Van Beek and L. Invernizzi
The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection, the Walters Art Gallery by H. W. Woodward
Ancient Capitals of Thailand by E. Moore, P. Stott and S. Suriyavudh

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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