Brave teenager fights to save her hometown – and environment

Khairiyah Rahmanyah from the deep South of Thailand may not be as famous as Sweden’s young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, but they both have plenty in common. Not only are they both 17, but each shares the same commitment to saving the environment from destruction.

The teenage Thai activist from Baan Suan Kong Village in Songkhla is making headlines after launching a campaign against the government’s plan to develop her home district of Chana into a special economic zone. The development will disrupt the livelihoods of local people, cause conflicts, and damage the area’s marine resources and other environment, said Khairiyah.

In May, when all of Thailand was under a state of emergency due to COVID-19, the 17-year-old spent almost 50 hours picketing Songkhla’s City Hall, waiting for an answer about the district’s future.

The project aims to turn 16,753 rai in three sub-districts – Na Thap, Sakom and Taling Chan – into an industrial estate.

Khairiyah and members of the Chana Rak Thin Network submitted a petition asking Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and related authorities to review the plan and cancel the public hearing scheduled for May 14-20. The petition questioned the Cabinet’s decision to develop Chana district as a model city for industrial estates, saying locals were not asked if they agreed with the project and that the public hearing process was unfair.

Thanks to her determination and patience, Songkhla authorities agreed to postpone the hearing.

However, her battle is far from over. Now, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), which first proposed the development scheme, is scheduled to go ahead with the public hearing on Saturday (July 11).

With time running out, Khairiyah and her network decided to travel 1,000 kilometres to Bangkok to submit a second petition to the prime minister asking him to revoke the Cabinet’s resolution.

The activists also submitted a petition with the United Nations this week, expressing concerns over the project.

Meanwhile, Khairiyah shared her thoughts and feelings about what is happening to her community in a letter to her idol, Thunberg.

“Your great sacrifice of skipping school to protect the world has brought me hope and encouragement. I truly hope our inner powers will connect and I will be able to use this special force to protect my homeland and community. What you have done inspires me and gives me confidence to continue with what I’ve been doing,” read Khairiyah’s message to Thunberg, which was delivered to the European Union mission in Bangkok.

In May last year, Prayut’s Cabinet approved SBPAC’s proposal to develop Chana as Thailand’s fourth model city for industrial progress in the future. The objective is to create a state-of-the-art industrial zone centred on Chana and fanning out to Na Thawi, Thepha and Saba Yoi.

Plans for the Bt18.68-billion project cover construction of Songkhla’s second deep-water port in Chana district, an alternative energy plant, the Chana Industrial Estate, a new system for water and environmental management, and a fund to boost the quality of life for people in southern border areas.

While the government claims the project will create more than 100,000 jobs, locals are resisting the development over fears it will seriously harm their environment.

Chana district comes under the government’s economic and security development scheme for southern border areas, which is being piloted in Pattani’s Nong Chik district, Yala’s Betong district and Narathiwat’s Sungai Kolok district under the name “Triangle of Stability, Prosperity and Sustainability”.

Child of the sea

Born to a family of fishermen in Chana, which hugs the Gulf of Thailand, Khairiyah is naturally bound to the ocean. Dubbed “Chana’s daughter of the sea” by local media, the young activist’s home is just 30 steps away from the surf.

In her first letter to Prayut in May, she said: “The house where I live, the clothes that I wear, my shoes, my uniforms, my school fees, my bicycle, my toys, my whole life, happiness and memories all come from the sea.”

Khairiya’s activism began when she was barely 13, when she and her friends starting monitoring their beach after becoming worried at signs of deterioration.

“When I first started, ‘phu yais’ [elders] and local people asked me what I was doing. I tried to explain my aims, to help them understand [the importance of saving the environment],” she said.

The young girl conducted an informal survey and learned that people in her community relied heavily on local marine resources to earn their incomes and maintain a self-sufficient, traditional lifestyle. She is proud of her hometown’s fame as an international source of seafood, which is exported to China, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea, among others.

However, the more she learned about what has happened to other areas that were turned into industrial zones, the more her worries grew. She did not want the same fate to befall her hometown, as there was no guarantee the locals would benefit from the industrial zone in the future.

“I believe our fate will be the same as people living in Map Ta Phut. Obviously, [environmental] problems in the East of Thailand remain unsolved, and now the same problems are coming to the South,” she said.

Map Ta Phut, Thailand’s largest industrial zone in Rayong province, may have brought progress and better incomes, but the price has been pollution that is harming locals’ health and well-being.

“I want to protect the sea here so we can live in harmony with nature for as long as possible,” she added.

In a public forum on the issue held earlier this week in Bangkok, Khairiyah called on Prayut to visit her hometown.

“I want ‘Granddad’ Prayut to remove his suit and tie, and visit my home. Come and taste the seafood and breathe the fresh air. Maybe then he will realise that true development can emerge from existing resources,” the youngster said.

“I’m just a child who wants to grow up in a world of clean air and untouched nature.”

By Thai PBS World’s Environment Desk


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