In a contemporary civil society, pluralism appeared to be a trademark of the multifaceted world during the 21st century. Hence, it had become quintessential to realize that advancements of understandings among diverse groups of ethnicities, races, religious beliefs, ideological orientations, and socio-cultural practices would not only lead to their reciprocal understanding and appreciations for multiculturalism, but also foster a common value in that all human souls were born free and equal. As mandated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (UN) in 1948, each individual should be treated the same way with dignity and respects for his/her inalienable rights as a fellow being in the humankind, endowed with reason and conscience for acting toward one another in spirits of camaraderie and compassion.
On that account, owing to the enduring efforts from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Center (SAC), such mutual recognitions and receptions by the eleven member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on their shared tangible and intangible cultural inheritances had progressed remarkably, especially by disseminations of knowledge on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites in the region. Out of the 37 places in total, 21 of them were listed in the category of cultural heritages. Altogether, these historical locales served as material manifestations of close-knit ties among the peoples of Southeast Asia in multiple dimensions–ranging from the socio-cultural, politico-economic, to artistic and spiritual arenas–which had continued from the past to the present and into the future.
In this regard, by having their collective vision focused along the lines of the SAC missions, a small team of researchers from King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang (KMITL), had been working since the early 2000s with communities around Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet, and Si Satchanalai historical parks–located in Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet provinces at the lower northern region of Thailand–constituting the Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns, which were jointly registered by the UNESCO as a tripartite World Heritage site in 1991. Thanks to unwavering supports from the chief executives in both provinces, their collaborative endeavors on historic preservations and sustainable developments of the three World Heritage areas had steadily grown, incorporating numerous contributions from several scholars, provincial administrators, state officials, community leaders, local business entrepreneurs, and practitioners from various walks of life.
Accordingly, a multilateral network under the name of Heritages by ASEAN Research Community–simply known as HARC whereby KMITL which played a pivotal role in its formulation–was officially founded on June 1, 2018. Apart from 13 educational institutes, the HARC nexus consisted of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet administrative bodies in conjunction with the SAC. However, prior to the said establishment, first-hand experiences accumulated by HARC personnel in conducting fieldworks and ethnographic investigations during the past two decades disclosed that Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet, and Si Satchanalai historical parks had been ranking among Thailand’s major travel attractions, visited by increasingly large numbers of tourists–both Thais and foreigners alike–per annum. So, not only had the cultural, social, and geographical landscapes in the communities surrounding the three UNESCO World Heritage sites been considerably altered, but the livelihood of the populace also been substantially affected by the burgeoning tourism industry.
In addition, a collection of scholarly publications by HARC partners reaffirmed that tourism had emerged as a powerful dynamic behind the changes in those areas, encompassing wide-ranging effects on the communities, as exhibited by a couple of instances. The first was a commodification of cultural heritages in Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet, and Si Satchanalai–which were important urban settlements in the Kingdom of Sukhothai that lasted between 1238 and 1438. This observation was corroborated by the second occurrence–which was transformations of land use in the areas to accommodate constructions of new facilities for the hospitality and associated service businesses–resulting in a crisis of place identity to their respective host cities and town. In essence, the inquiries revealed that the commodification of cultural inheritances–both in terms of physical environments and traditional artefacts–demonstrated a formidable force of global capitalism, operating through commercial demands from tourists and hospitality enterprises alike, in turning cultural heritages into viable assets to be financially invested and monetarily exploited.
In response to the abovementioned phenomena, members of the HARC nexus had undertaken a series of cross-disciplinary investigations on a master plan to develop strategic models for creative tourism for communities around Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet historical parks. Aside from proposing sensible and practical means for implementing well-conceived policies and measures to pursue sustainable developments while preserving the triad historical sites together with their socio-cultural legacies, the studies intended to cultivate participatory involvements from all concerned parties. Consequently, when a situation required, HARC would occasionally assume the role of a quasi-mediator among main stakeholders–e.g., state authorities, business entrepreneurs, land owners, entrenched interests, social organizations, community leaders, and ordinary citizens–in their processes of: 1) making well-informed decisions; 2) resolving disagreements; and 3) mitigating both inter and intra-group conflicts in a transparent and justified manner.
With respect to the issue of citizen participations in particular, the aforementioned enquiries by HARC–on the one hand–sought to empower the denizens of Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet via disseminations of information and knowledge, notably by cybernetic technologies. An obvious example could be seen from a proposed study on mobile applications that could function across various types of telecommunication platforms. Such a research-based innovation would not only facilitate interactive communications among the stakeholders, but also educate the local inhabitants to exercise their power–as a force to be reckoned with–when negotiating with other key players in order to: 1) improve their living quality 2) take part in thriving and creative economy; and 3) receive their rightful benefits from tourism industry along with accompanying and/or emerging industries; while 4) maintain their ways of life; 5) safeguard individual and communal rights from infringements; 6) conserving indigenous cultural and natural resources; and 7) having a say on whether and how their communities should engage globalization and capitalism.
On the other hand, the investigations performed by HARC aimed to enable the provincial administrations coupled with state agencies responsible for law enforcement, historic preservation, heritage management, protection and conservation of resources, urban development, education, and promotion of tourism to draw up a comprehensive plan–with participations and consent from the populace and other stake holders–in order to regulate the growth of tourism industry and its associated enterprises, so that the town of Si Satchanalai together with cities of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet would remain the places where businesses could still prosper, but not at the expenses of the local dwellers in terms of their living quality, social justice, and economic equality. Most importantly, these studies would suggest measures and pro-active procedures to uphold a delicate balance of economic gain vis-à-vis cultural sensitivity. If fully implemented, their recommendations might be able to save hamlets, villages, and neighborhoods in communities around those UNESCO sites from becoming cultural theme parks, littering with simulacra of historical built forms that were disharmonious and syncretic, thus culminating in a kind of Disneytized environments.
In any case, due credit must be given to the fact that the creation of HARC could not happen without contributions and assistances from many strategic partners–namely the governors of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet provinces–who strove for the same objectives in making their respective areas of administrations a better place for living in accordance with the accepted international standard and practice. Yet at the same time, both governors sought to retain the unique cultural, social, and aesthetic identities of the World Heritage Site areas in the historical town of Si Satchanalai, as we as the ancient cities of Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet. Taken as a whole, their unified supports for the HARC nexus set an unprecedented step in materializing united responses to both national and regional policies on sustainable developments and heritage conservations that could: 1) remove the institutional along with disciplinary borders among the member organizations in this multilateral network; 2) sponsor multidimensional advancements of scholarly and practical knowledges, ranging from the fields of science and technology, humanities and social studies, to urban planning, historic preservation, and heritage management; 3) lead to a foundation of the World Heritage Center ASEAN denoting an organization tasked with an accumulation and distribution of knowledge on cultural heritages in Southeast Asia in the future; and 4) further awareness and efforts on the conservation and restoration of resources in integrating cultural heritage, history, and tourism in this part of the world together in times to come.
To become a learning and knowledge based organization for historical, architectural, anthropology and cultural arts that supports sustainable tourism and heritage conservation and engages in the knowledge nourishment to foster innovative solutions at local and international levels.
To support sustainable tourism and conservation through research on local philosophy and indigenous knowledge in historical, architectural, anthropology and cultural arts by promoting academic to community services through supportive curricula and pedagogy in participating universities that conserves livelihoods, arts, and culture at both local and national levels. This consortium aims to sustain a balance in economy, society, and environment towards implementing an agenda on creative tourism that concentrates on value addition, sustainability, and respect for local cultures built on a foundation of Thainess; a way of life, local wisdom, cultural arts, and history.
The charter therefore focuses on academic collaboration with the wider heritage sectors to undertaken academic research and heritage service consultation. A World Heritage Site is Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai, and Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand.