Villagers from Thai Deep South Protest Special Economic Zone

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Mariyam Ahmad
Bangkok and Pattani, Thailand
2020-12-10
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Villagers from Thai Deep South Protest Special Economic Zone Residents of Chana, a district in Thailand’s Songkhla province, gather behind a barricade near the prime minister’s office in Bangkok to protest against a special economic zone planned for their home area, Dec. 10, 2020.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

People from villages in Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Deep South are opposing government plans to build a multi-billion-dollar, China-backed industrial zone in their district, saying they fear the 6,600-acre project would harm the environment and disrupt their lives. 

On Thursday, dozens of people from Chana, the affected district in Songkhla province, camped out near the prime minister’s office in Bangkok to protest the government’s plans for constructing the sprawling industrial park. The protesters arrived on Wednesday night and said they intended to stay encamped outside Government House until they heard from the administration of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

Somboon Khamhaeng, leader of the Chana Rak Tin Network (Chana Hometown Lovers Network), said 50 people had traveled to the Thai capital to protest an environmental impact assessment (EIA) scheduled for early 2021.

“First, the government must immediately stop the Chana industrial zone, city planning and the EIA immediately,” Somboon told BenarNews from the rally site, next to a wall of containers built by riot police as a barricade in front of Government House.

“Second, the government must thoroughly conduct a strategic environmental assessment or SEA to create a quality set of knowledge for future decision making on any projects in the south,” he said.

The Chana special zone was initiated by the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), which oversees development and civilian matters in the Deep South, and received government approval in May 2019, according to SBPAC Director Somkiat Polprayoon.

Somkiat said the project, which includes an industrial zone, could take shape in 2023.

“We don’t want to see any conflicts because of this. This project is for everyone, not only for Chana residents,” Somkiat told reporters in September following local protests.

On Jan. 21, Prime Minister Prayuth’s cabinet approved in principle the implementation of the special zone, according to deputy spokeswoman Ratchada Tanadirek.

She said the project would cover 6,621 acres and include deep sea ports, land transportation networks and an “energy complex” to produce electricity. The project price tag is estimated at 18.6 billion baht (U.S. $618.8 million). 

Somboon said the project would impact the environment and the livelihoods of residents.

“The areas in three tambon (village clusters) will be impacted, the seashore will be altered,” he said.

“I heard there will be petrochemical factories built, which will affect the villages,” he said, adding “I want this project scrapped at once.”

The Thai-language Prachachat newspaper indicated that SPBAC collaborated with Thai companies TPI Polene Power (TPIPP) and leading petroleum and petrochemical conglomerate IRPC.

China concerns

In addition, Chinese investors are likely to invest 600 billion baht ($19.9 billion) in a high-speed railway linked to the project as part of One Belt, One Road, the paper said.

OBOR is Beijing’s ambitious program to build a global network of ports, highways, railways, bridges and power plants to connect China to markets abroad and countries that can supply the world’s most populous nation with resources.

Another protester expressed concern over China’s involvement.

“In the past, the TPIPP and the IRPC have grabbed land and manipulated the prices,” Chana resident Rungruang Rahmanyah told BenarNews. “When Chana becomes an industrial estate, the land will then be sold to Chinese.

“I’m sure that the land in Chana will be sold to foreigners at a loss of our nation’s resources,” he said. “That’s why we have to oppose to this project.”

Another SBPAC executive, meanwhile, said the development is part of a solution to long-standing poverty in the Deep South where many people travel to neighboring Malaysia to find work.

“I wonder how a dated development style could create jobs for new generations. Whether people want to do the jobs their parents did? Whether they can make ends meet,” SBPAC Deputy Director Chonthan Saengpum said earlier this month.

As many as 50,000 of the region’s 2 million people are jobless each year, he said, noting that the project was expected to create as many as 100,000 jobs.

Chana is one of four districts of Songkhla located in the Deep South, Thailand’s southern border region that has been home to an insurgency waged by Malay Muslim armed separatist groups for decades. About 7,000 people have been killed in the region since the insurgency re-ignited in 2004, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.

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