The promised land

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am

It is always a pleasant surprise to be proved wrong when it comes to rash promises made by vote-seeking politicians. Like most journalists, I am steeped in cynicism. So the green shoots emerging from a particular block of downtown Bangkok concrete has put a smile on my face.

The block in question faces Sukhumvit Road, a typically smoggy vista of cement, steel and bumper-to-bumper cars. It belongs to one of Thailand's most raffish politicians, brothel-boss-turned-politician Chuwit Kamolvisit. Indeed, you could argue that the heated dispute over this 9,600-square-metre piece of land paved the way for his meteoric political rise.

In 2003, before Mr Chuwit got his hands on it, the land was occupied by a cluster of makeshift beer halls collectively known as Sukhumvit Square. One night in January, after the bars had closed, hundreds of paid thugs trashed the taverns and sealed off the area with concrete barriers. It soon emerged that Mr Chuwit, who made his fortune in the 'soapy-bath' sex trade, had taken over the land and was keen to develop it, minus any irritating tenants.

But when Mr Chuwit found himself in the firing line over the demolition, he retorted with a string of outrageous exposes of police corruption in his brothel empire. He went public with a list of bribes, and named names.

Though it failed to stop the police investigation (a court later acquitted him of involvement), it did make his name as a muck-raking showman. This year he won a Bangkok seat in parliament.

So what about the land? Last year, Mr Chuwit promised to convert the area into a public amenity named Chuwit Park - a tree-lined retreat from the hurly-burly. Along with other spectators, I raised my eyebrows at this pledge. Surely a businessman like Mr Chuwit was not going to miss a chance to cash in on a rising property market and build another luxury condo?

But last month, as I strolled past the beggars and bewildered tourists on Sukhumvit, I noticed something rising from behind the concrete barriers. Peering closer, I discovered ... a tree! And it wasn't alone. Others had rooted in the dusty soil, and drainage channels led to what appeared to be a lake or pond. Perhaps, I thought, the bar-smashing thugs had turned their talents to nighttime gardening.

Bangkok needs all the trees it can get. With a population exceeding 10 million, there is an average of 2.24 square metres' green space for each resident. The international standard is said to be 10 square metres, and Bangkok is sliding down the charts.

Chuwit Park may help reverse the trend - and relieve my cynicism.