Chiang Mai's Best Opportunity to Become a World Heritage City
Interview : Mrs.Suwaree Wongkongkaew is the director of Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre, and a member of the working group which is responsible for Chiang Mai’s bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Q: Why has it come about now that Chiang Mai is bidding to be a World Heritage Site?
A: I think one of the things that the people of Chiang Mai and the working group have perceived together is that our city is changing rapidly – physically, socially and economically. These changes are both beneficial and at times inappropriate. Personally, I believe the time is right to process our bid for many reasons.
First, the people of Chiang Mai will have a chance to discuss and debate ways to preserve our city. Second, it is bringing about a change in public perception – a feeling that we can take responsibility, which I think is very important. In the past, if something happened, local people would call for agencies or organizations to take responsibility in resolving the issue. Now we are seeing many people and various networks willing and trying heartily to solve problems by themselves. They are volunteering their time, suggesting ideas, supporting the various aspects, and calling for collaboration with other groups. That’s why I think this is the right time for us to move ahead on this project.
Q: Why did you decide to become involved with the World Heritage project?
A: From my personal experience, and having worked and been associated with urban issues for quite some time, I have seen attempts to create a conservation plan for this city several times. Each plan took several years of careful and comprehensive analysis, but in the end those plans were never utilized as they should have been.
However, as a World Heritage Site approved by UNESCO, this city would have a management plan that was created by the people of Chiang Mai themselves. The working group has seriously considered the importance of our commitment to seek World Heritage status, and we know these plans will establish a covenant, both for our generation and our children, to bond with our city more and more.
Q: How can the Chiang Mai public get involved in the plans?
A: The project is specifically designed to give priority to this very matter. Besides several public brainstorming sessions, we will organize a forum to gather opinions and suggestions from various groups – governmental, private sector, local communities and civil society.
Many people may be wondering because they do not see any clear movement yet. That’s because we are still in the process of establishing our platform for the basic values and heritage of Chiang Mai city. This requires time and expertise. We must liquidate the entire data of our history, and produce a plan that evokes and proves the value of our heritage.
Q: Does the project clearly define those areas and places in the city that will be included in a World Heritage Site?
A: The area under consideration is the Old City within the moat. That’s because there are numerous historic sites within the walls of the city, and it is a site commonly recognized as the origin of the Lanna Kingdom. It is also true, of course, that other areas outside the Old City have great value, but we are aiming only at the Old Moated City because in many ways it is already prepared.
Q: How about the timing and other milestones for this project?
A: It will take around two years from now [August 2016] before we submit our report to UNESCO for consideration. Before reaching that point, there are some important milestones which will require help from the people of Chiang Mai. The first task is to establish our basic principles over the nomination of World Heritage status; this is something the working group is processing at present. The next milestone is the preparation of a management plan, which is expected next year. There will be public activities to unveil our collective vision for the city, the draft management plan, and other criteria as they are released.
Q: What do you think our chances are of getting listed as a World Heritage Site? If we do, what benefits will we see?
A: As I explained before, our city’s people and the energy is ready now, and we know that care and attention is needed to protect our city as it grows. While some of UNESCO’s preservation conditions would be quite difficult for other cities, Chiang Mai Municipality already started this process two years ago. So, I think the possibility of success is quite high. But we may also ask the question: What will we lose if we are not certified? Considering our progressive work and the myriad issues that so many people in Chiang Mai are concentrating on, I can confidently say that we won’t lose anything. This is my real answer, because we are currently doing and will continue to do so many good things to help maintaining our beloved city.