Thailand's Junta and the Flower Sellers 

Vendors are seen hawking their wares at Pak Klong Talad, Bangkok's Flower Market. Bangkok has long been known for its dense sidewalk markets, but vendors at Pak Klong Talad are now under pressure to move to actual shops after a recent cleanup drive by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration aimed at clearing the pavements and opening up the streets for traffic. ST PHOTO: Nirmal Ghosh
Mrs Jantana Sawangphop, 56, is a vendor who has been selling her wares at Bangkok's Pak Klong Talad for around 40 years. She is among the vendors under pressure to move to actual shops after a recent cleanup drive by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that is aimed at clearing the pavements and opening up the streets for traffic. ST PHOTO: Nirmal Ghosh

As is often the case in Thailand, the deadline came and went - but not quite.

Like much of organic Asia, the flower market at Pak Klong Talad is a part of old Bangkok which is allergic to attempts to instill a modern sense of order, preferring instead to bend like the bamboo under a strong wind - and then spring back again.

Bangkok has always been known for its freewheeling sprawl, its dense sidewalk markets thronged with slow moving lines of people, among stalls selling incense, belts, shoes, shirts, trinkets, bags, candles, paintings and a hundred other wares.

Squeezing among them, or sometimes in territories of their own, are the food stalls, sizzling woks blasting pungent hot chilli fumes. The sidewalk markets have long been part of Bangkok's identity.

But a cleanup is in the air. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is following a beach cleanup drive in Phuket with a drive to free the capital's sidewalks of these dense markets. It has been handing out deadlines; March 8 is the one for vendors in Pratunam, a major downtown clothes shopping area, who have been told to move to actual shops. The BMA plans to revoke even the permits it has issued.

It is a similar story at the Pak Klong Talad flower market.

Across a 1932 iron bridge where tourists gather to watch the sunset on the Chao Phraya river, the famed flower market, which is open through the night, is resisting change. The authorities have issued an order aimed at getting hundreds of vendors off the sidewalks and streets and into formulaic square shops in a nearby market already used by vegetable sellers. The objective: To clear the pavements and open up the street for traffic.

The vendors were given March 1 as the deadline to move. But they are still there, and not about to go anywhere else. Now there is a two-month grace period.

Seventy-nine-year-old Sawai Jitkretang has been selling plants and flowers on the sidewalk since 1975, when the late Kukrit Pramoj was prime minister. And he doesn't see why he should move.

"That was the time when prime minister Kukrit allowed us poor people to start using footpaths to sell things," he said, squatting by his cornucopia of green palms and ferns and reeds.

"We have been ordered to move tomorrow as the announcement said," he told The Straits Times on Feb 29. "I don't know whether they will still allow us to sell here or whether there will be military or police occupying this place. If they force us to move, I will have to," he said.

"I have a place in the market; I use it for storage. But it is impractical for me to move there. It is deep inside the market. No buyers will ever get to that point and my regulars will have no idea where I have moved."

Another man, who sells roses, was more truculent. He refused to give his name, but launched into a tirade. "I heard about it, that they want us to move. But where are we going? Even if they want us to move, there is no space," he griped.

"I have been selling here for more than 40 years; sometimes orchids, sometime roses. I pay the district office 200 baht every month for this spot, that's it," he said. 200 baht is about S$8.

"They told us to move to the market building where the rent is 2,000 baht per square metre. Who can afford that? It is easy for the official up there to issue an order. But have they ever come down here and seen themselves how expensive the rent is?"

He continued: "Flower farmers never cause problems like those rice farmers or rubber farmers. Why they are messing with us?

"If they want to move us to set things in order, they should help us out. Not just give us an order, with a due date, but then leave us hanging because the place is not affordable to us small people."

Civic order was a low hanging fruit for Thailand's military government - or so it may have thought. It first turned its sights on cleaning up the beaches in Phuket - ordering people renting out beach chairs and beach umbrellas to leave. Soon, the beaches looked pristine again as the rows of chairs and umbrellas vanished.

But, in many places, the chairs and umbrellas slowly reappeared. First, they were allowed on only 10 per cent of the beach area. Then, in November last year, Phuket's governor appeared to relent, saying the chairs and umbrellas would be allowed "for now". By January, the beaches were clogged again.

In Bangkok, the BMA, backed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - the junta which seized power in April 2014 - has reclaimed public space from several landmark sidewalk bazaars, including some promoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The reason: vendors were obstructing the sidewalks and even the traffic, and also leaving behind garbage.

Will the sidewalks of Pak Klong Talad which fill the Bangkok night with life and colour be silent and empty in a couple of months? The 1,000-odd vendors are trying to cooperate, keeping off the street and sticking to the sidewalk, in the hope that the authorities will relent. Traffic flows more freely now, even if the pavements are still packed with vendors.

Thailand's cut flowers industry is huge; export revenue in 2014 for cut orchids alone amounted to US$33.47 billion.

But the vendors at Pak Klong Talad are way down the food chain of the industry. Mrs Jantana Sawangphop, 56, who has been selling there for around 40 years, still sits and peels lotuses in front of the family's pickup trucks which have transported them from farms outside Bangkok.

"We come here every day at 4 pm and are done by 4 am or 5 am," she said, her fingers working on the lotus flowers, peeling and putting the long stems in bunches of two or three, each stalk selling at just 10 baht. It's 15 baht for a single stalk.

Next to her, surrounded by buckets of closed lotus flowers, her three teenage daughters helped in the packaging operation.

"Where do they want us to move? she asked, her fingers never ceasing their work even as she spoke. "They told us to move inside the market. There's barely any space left there. It is full of vegetable sellers."

She added: "Here, we don't have to pay anything. In one day, I can make a profit of around 300 baht. It's enough for our family to get by. At least I don't have to borrow money or anything like that."

Looking beyond May, when the two-month grace period expires, she said: "We don't know what we will do if we are not allowed here any more."

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