Construction on the junta’s 14-kilometer river promenade has yet to get started despite claims at the end of 2016 that it would be underway by January this year. Facing fierce protest, the promenade’s delay has bought time for civic groups such as Friends of the River, which at the end of May submitted a court injunction against the controversial project for violating maritime planning laws. It’s a last-ditch attempt to halt what many see as a disaster for Bangkok both environmentally and historically. Here, we chat to Paranee Sawasdirak, an independent scholar on urban planning and co-founder of the River Assembly group, about the river promenade’s current status and whether they really have any hope to end it.

What’s the latest information you’ve received from the government on the promenade’s progress?

We’ve heard nothing new. Nothing at all. We’ve sent letters out to every department that relates to environment, society, urban planning and culture, but they all send the same replies back that contain no information and do not relate to what we’ve asked. 

Tell me about the court injunction—what does it mean and what are your hopes for success?

It’s still in progress and can’t be revealed to the public yet. However, if this tactic brings us nowhere, we will still try negotiating. We will continue doing whatever we can to protect the community and the river.

When do you think construction will start?

The river walk is under the responsibility of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Right now they already have the money for the project. However, they cannot spend it until they host an auction to find the right construction company. Right now, the auction has not started, so therefore there is no construction.  

Have you at least seen the government’s final plans for the promenade?

The BMA did show us their initial master plan, but then the plan was changed and split into two. So far, we still haven’t seen any of these changes. So now we have absolutely no idea what this river walk is going to be like. 

What is Friends of the River’s next move?

Right now, we have no intention of encouraging or supporting any protests. We are doing everything in a nonviolent way. We have already submitted our new letters to the government. We want them to carry out the impact analysis survey and show us the master plan. We want them to reconsider this project. The budget they have right now can be used in a way that will be good for both the communities and tourism, without harm to the environment. We want to negotiate and come to a fair compromise. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the government’s river promenade, can you explain why you object to it so strongly?

The impact of this project will be felt by both locals and tourism. People have been living on the river banks for generations. At the moment, the BMA is trying to move people out of the area in order to clear up the banks. I understand that settling down in the actual area is against the law; however, if that’s the main issue, the BMA or the government could have done something long before now. Villagers will now have to find new homes, and those whose livelihoods depend on the river—like fishermen—will have to completely transform their way of life. Tourist businesses like hotels and restaurants aren’t thrilled with this project either, since the height of this river walk will ruin their view. 

How would you like the money to be spent instead?

The BMA can use the budget to improve the life of people in that area, instead of building a walkway that will obscure the scenery. They could use that money to build more roads, a bicycle lane, bicycle parking spaces, or playgrounds for villagers. This would end up profiting both locals and tourists in the long run, since tourists want to see the local lifestyle. The beauty of the river is more than just the water; it includes the people and communities that live along the river.
Interview by Napaphat Boonyadhammakul and Pavisporn Potchana