Fu­ture of WWII air-raid shel­ter at clos­ing Thai zoo re­mains un­clear

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - World - BY PRANGTHONG JITCHAROENKUL

AS Sun­day’s clos­ing of Thai­land’s old­est zoo ap­proaches, the fu­ture of a World War II air-raid shel­ter, the only his­tor­i­cal spot in­side the zoo, re­mains un­clear.

Af­ter hav­ing been open to the pub­lic for eight decades, Dusit Zoo an­nounced in early Au­gust that the zoo at the cur­rent lo­ca­tion in cen­tral Bangkok will be no more.

Vis­i­tors have since flocked to the soon-to-be de­funct zoo to re­live old mem­o­ries from their child­hood days, or sim­ply to en­joy be­ing around the an­i­mals.

But some Thais have also won­dered what fate awaits the old un­der­ground shel­ter, which was built by the Thai gov­ern­ment in the years fol­low­ing the 1941 Ja­panese in­va­sion to pro­tect Bangkok cit­i­zens from Al­lied bomb­ing raids.

Thai­land was a neu­tral coun­try when Ja­pan in­vaded it on Dec. 8, 1941, just af­ter at­tack­ing the US Pa­cific Fleet at Pearl Har­bor. It forced Thai­land to al­low pas­sage for its troops to fight to cap­ture British-held Malaya and Burma.

A num­ber of air-raid shel­ters were sub­se­quently built across Bangkok, in­clud­ing at Dusit Zoo, which was once a pub­lic park.

Af­ter the war ended, the un­der­ground shel­ter – a rec­tan­gu­lar room 10 me­tres long, 4m wide and 2m high – was turned into an ex­hi­bi­tion at the zoo.

In the cor­ner of the damp, dimly lit shel­ter sit stat­ues of a hud­dled-up fam­ily, in­clud­ing one of a woman cradling a baby in her lap.

Natthapong Pin­gate, 46, who was vis­it­ing the zoo re­cently with his ag­ing mother, un­der­stands why the zoo’s planned re­lo­ca­tion to a far big­ger place out­side Bangkok will be good for its an­i­mals, but can­not help but feel a bit of sad­ness over the zoo’s clo­sure.

“When my mother was young, she wit­nessed the bomb­ing, which wrought dam­age not only across cen­tral Bangkok, but also on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal. To us, the air­raid shel­ter is a re­minder of the war,” Natthapong said.

Many air-raid shel­ters in Bangkok no longer ex­ist, in­clud­ing a large one that was once in front of Hua Lam­phong Rail­way Sta­tion, the cap­i­tal’s main rail­way sta­tion. That shel­ter has been re­placed by a foun­tain and ele­phant mon­u­ment.

Those that re­main are scat­tered at a few places, such as Parusakawan Palace, which now hosts the head­quar­ters of the Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Agency, Suan Su­nandha Ra­jab­hat Univer­sity, a pub­lic univer­sity near the zoo, and Asi­a­tique The River­front, a large shop­ping mall by the Chao Phraya River.

The gov­ern­ment’s Zoo­log­i­cal Park Or­gan­i­sa­tion says the zoo’s clo­sure, de­layed by one month to ac­com­mo­date an in­flux of vis­i­tors, will not be fur­ther post­poned.

The zoo will be re­lo­cated to a site in Pathum Thani Prov­ince north of Bangkok three times the size of the cur­rent site. How­ever, con­struc­tion of the new zoo has not yet be­gun; it is ex­pected to be­gin next year or later, with the open­ing planned within the next three years.

Its more than 1000 an­i­mals are be­ing tem­po­rar­ily trans­ferred to six pub­lic zoos in dif­fer­ent prov­inces.

Chon­lada Khum­lap, a 20-year-old univer­sity stu­dent, hopes that the air­raid shel­ter will re­main open to the pub­lic, even af­ter the zoo closes, to help Thais learn about his­tory.

“If the air-raid shel­ter is de­mol­ished or ac­cess to it is pro­hib­ited, I think it would be bad,” said Chon­lada, dur­ing her first, and pos­si­bly her last, visit to the zoo.

Chon­lada said she was taught at school about World War II – such as for­eign in­va­sion of her coun­try, Thai­land be­ing part of the war and the war’s ef­fects on Thai peo­ple – but had never vis­ited a war­time relic be­fore.

“Be­ing in­side the nar­row and pitch-dark shel­ter, I felt sad. It must have been so scary to be there dur­ing the war.” – Ky­odo

Photo: Ky­odo

Stat­ues of Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army soldiers near a World War II air-raid shel­ter at Dusit Zoo in Bangkok on Au­gust 16.

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