20 Years Later, Sukhumvit Square Legal Battle Wages On (Photos)

The aftermath of the Sukhumvit Square demolition in January 2003.

More than 20 years after 300 military-style mercenaries looted and demolished the Sukhumvit Square bar complex, the legal battle continues in court.

On March, 29, the Bangkok Southern Criminal Court ruled that Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has the authority to request copies of court orders related to the demolition of the former entertainment area on Sukhumvit Soi 10 on Jan. 26, 2003. Even though City Hall is not a party to the case, the court stated that the decision would serve the public interest.

However, BMA must submit a written request to the duty judge instead of the chief judge to obtain permission.

Sukhumvit Square History

Sukhumvit Square was a compound of temporary buildings established after the economic crisis of 1997 in Bangkok. Initially, it sold locally produced goods but gradually attracted tourists with the opening of bars such as Sweet Home Bar, Jo Jo’s Bar, and Casablanca.

The critical mass needed for the area to become a Night Entertainment Area was reached in early 2002 with the opening of Happy Today beer bar cluster, which led to the establishment of more bars.

By July 2002, it had 43 night entertainment venues, including lounges, pubs, pool bars, and an a go-go bar. However, it was destroyed in 2003 by clandestine raiders, who looted the bars of their valuables and demolished the entire compound.

In the predawn raid, approximately 400 men dressed in military-style uniforms carried out a coordinated operation using heavy construction equipment and truckloads of men starting at 4 a.m.

The raiders quickly cleared the entertainment area and adjacent public sidewalks of hired security and other personnel, and then proceeded to destroy and remove all structures, property and personal effects within the complex.

Only a few of the 70-80 shop and bar owners were able to return to the scene of destruction, but were denied entry by the uniformed squads to retrieve their property and personal effects. Hired local security guards and their families were forced to leave without being able to take their belongings.

The military types involved in the operation were divided into several groups, each with a specific function. The first team’s job was to take control of Sukhumvit Road on both sides of the center divide in front of Sukhumvit Square and Clinton Plaza to ensure that no passing vehicles lingered or attempted to stop to witness the ongoing assault on personal property.

Another team cordoned off the area while yet another team erected a two-meter prefabricated concrete-based wall around the entire Sukhumvit Square area. The wall was topped off with two strands of barbed wire and reinforced with a network of steel rebar.

Several preprinted signs were posted on the newly erected wall by the raiders, some of which read “Support the Policy of Social Order of the Ministry of the Interior” while others forbade entry into the compound and threatened that no responsibility would be accepted for those who entered.

Another team went inside to start loading trucks with looted shop properties, such as antiques and computers. Those valuables that weren’t able to be removed in a timely manner were bulldozed under by yet another team of heavy equipment operators. Shopowners whose personal property was removed reported that they did not know where their property was taken, nor were they certain under whose orders the uniformed raiders were acting.

By the time the sun came up, there was nothing left standing in the area. It appeared that a tornado had demolished the entire complex. The hastily erected wall was apparently intended to hide the shame and eyesore of this unprecedented assault on Thai citizens’ personal property. The police’s efforts to disallow any photographs of the catastrophic wreckage lend strong support to this.

The 60 lounge and bar owners, as well as a dozen or more other shops, have no means of reclaiming their property or making a claim for the value of their property. Some shop owners lost over 2 million baht in physical assets and goods. They received no prior warning of the raid, either from their landlords or the unnamed organization in charge of the demolition.

The aftermath of the Sukhumvit Square demolition in January 2003.

The Lumpini police took over from the paramilitary-type teams sometime after sunrise and were still maintaining the inner perimeter by nightfall. Around 10 p.m., another group of police showed up and briefly confronted the Lumpini police within but were turned away without gaining access to the compound. In the process, a Thai journalist and a foreign journalist with a reputable foreign wire service were physically menaced and ordered to leave the area by the newly visiting police personnel.

Lawsuits & Legal Battle

In March 2003, 44 tenants filed a lawsuit against 130 people on charges of trespassing and damaging property, and forcefully detaining a person.  Former massage parlor king-turned-politician Chuwit Kamolvisit was the 49th defendant. The suit cited 100 million baht in damages.

In 2004, Chuwit admitted to paying police to level the bar complex on his land, but said that when the crooked cops came back looking for more money, he refused.

In 2006, Chuwit turned the former bar site into Chuwit Garden, which he called a “gift to the public”, but one he kept ownership of. The park was private. And in 2016, telling the media “enough time had passed”, Chuwit locked the gates and sold the prime parcel of land to Land and House Co. for 5 billion baht.

The developer is now building a mixed use commercial project with 20,000 square meters of office space, 400 hotel rooms and 3,000 square meters of retail space.

In July 2006, the Bangkok South Criminal Court acquitted all defendants except Chuwit’s lawyer, Charnwet Malaibucha, who was sentenced to eight months in jail. The plaintiffs appealed.

In September 2012, the Appeal Court found 66 defendants guilty of damaging personal property. It handed a five-year sentence to 60 defendants, including Chuwit, and imprisoned six others to three years, four months. The remaining 64 were acquitted.

The 66 defendants then appealed to the Supreme Court.

In January 2016, Chuwit and the 65 others were sentenced to five years in prison. Unlike other high-profile cases, the court did not suspend Chuwit’s sentence, however it was reduced to two years because he filed a guilty plea before the verdict was originally to be read in October.