Out of bounds: City Hall says Bangkok int’l school squatting on public land

Photo: Nicky Tanskul
Photo: Nicky Tanskul

When Mayta Lerttamrab was a child, he remembers people fishing on the public land behind his family’s Bangkok home, which swelled with water during the wet season. 

Today, the wetland strip and a path once used to traverse the Phra Khanong area just off Pridi Banomyong Road have been replaced by multi-story buildings and a football field. One step off his property now, and Mayta is confronted by the boisterous students of a school that has swallowed up the public land – and refused a city order to return it.

“The school must show responsibility and accountability by returning this public space to its original state where everyone can freely benefit from it again,” Mayta said today.

Photo: Nicky Tanskul

He has been fighting over the land with St. Andrews International School for well over a year. City officials say the school has ignored their order to demolish the structures that are illegally encroaching on public land.

A Feb. 4 letter from the Watthana District Office said it had filed a legal complaint against the school for not complying with a November order to remove the structures. Mayta said no action has been taken by prosecutors.

“The district office has informed St. Andrews to demolish the buildings from the public space and also filed an encroachment complaint,” it read.

St. Andrews employees refused entry to a reporter Thursday morning and several faculty members said no one would discuss the matter. An email sent to representatives of Nord Anglia Education, a UK-firm which operates schools worldwide including St. Andrews.

On Thursday morning, Mayta opened a door built into the wall separating his property from the strip of land. In one step, it transports one from a private residence to a strip of grass alongside a hectic playground. Between what used to be the public walkway – during the dry season – and the school is a dotted line demarking the boundary between public and private property. That boundary continues beneath what is now a multi-story campus structure built atop the easement.

“Where we are standing, this is considered public space. But if you cross that line, that the BMA drew, it’s considered trespassing onto school grounds,” Mayta said.

Photo: Nicky Tanskul

When he first built the door and went through onto what is legally public land, he said the school called the police to complain he was trespassing. Anticipating the move, Mayta showed the police that he had gone through the proper legal process of obtaining a construction permit for the door from the city.

The public land was a feature to help collect, redirect and absorb surface runoff. Much of Bangkok’s natural water control features have been lost to development, worsening its propensity to flood.

“When I was a kid there’d be some flooding, but it went away quickly,” he said, adding that flooding became an issue after the school, established in 1997, was built around 2000. A later expansion made it worse.

“The school has been here for around 20 years, however there were some expansions which have caused a lot of problems later on,” the 40-year-old concert pianist said this morning. “That was nine years ago.”

On Tuesday, he said newly elected district representative Sansith Naothavorn came to visit the site on what was his first day on the job.

He said Sansith promised to help solve the issue. On Thursday, Sansith did not return messages seeking comment.

Mayta himself filed a lawsuit against the school in 2020 over its neighborhood impact. He has tried to recruit his neighbors in the fight over the public land, but they didn’t want to get involved.

For Mayta, who lived 16 years in the United States, it’s a black-and-white issue, and an example of the greater injustice gripping Thailand playing out, literally, close to home.

“I just couldn’t let go of the fact that something so wrong was happening right in my backyard,” he said. “If I don’t do something about it, who will?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Mayta was preparing a lawsuit against the school. In fact, he sued it in 2020 over other alleged neighborhood impacts.

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