13 July 2024

Despite recent arrests and legal threats, environmentalists from Songkhla province have refused to let a state-led mega-project transform their hometown into an industrial hub without proper scrutiny and local participation. Just one week after police cracked down on their peaceful protest, demonstrators are heading back to Government House again.

Members of Chana Rak Thin (Chana Conservationist Network) are due to hold the Bangkok rally this afternoon (Dec 13), hoping to meet with Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha in person.

Environmentalists have been closely monitoring the government’s plan to turn the coastal Chana district into a model industrial town for several years. When their 2020 protest led to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government, they thought a deal had been done. However, things did not turn out as they expected.

Mega-project kicks off

The post-coup government led by Prayut began pushing for the Chana Industrial Estate Project in 2016, calling it a model for the future “Security, Prosperity and Sustainability” of the country. In 2019, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) was appointed project facilitator.

However, Chana residents became alarmed when the government seemed to push ahead without local participation or public consultation.

Meanwhile, authorities quickly approved a Bt18.68-billion budget for the privately funded project, naming TPI Group as a key investor.

“We are not opposed to development. We just want to have a say in what happens to our hometown. We live here and we know best what will and will not suit Chana,” said Khairiyah Rahmanyah, a leader of Chana Rak Thin.

Khairiyah, 19, has been dubbed “Daughter of the Sea” and Thailand’s very own Greta Thunberg for leading opposition against the mega-project.

Chana Rak Thin says the multibillion-baht industrial project will devastate the environment and the local fishing industry. The government claims the industrial hub will create 100,000 jobs, but local protesters remain unconvinced.

Gargantuan development

The Chana Industrial Estate project will occupy 17,000 rai or 27 square kilometers of land in three subdistricts of Chana. At least 7,000 rai will be devoted to heavy and light industry, including a huge power plant about double the size of the existing offshore gas-fed 1,531MW Chana Power Plant.

The project will feature two deep-sea ports, along with a port and warehouse for loading and unloading natural gas/petroleum. It will also incorporate a solar farm, as well as roads and a rail link to support the industrial estate.

Thai Energy Minister to head Chana industrial estate fact-finding panel

December 10, 2021 Government representatives met with leaders of Jana District protesters today (Friday), to inform them of the appointment by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s of Energy Minister as head the fact-finding committee on the Chana industrial estate project, replacing Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.

Why is it controversial?

Khairiyah said the government is pushing the project based on inaccurate information from SBPAC, which she claims is working in favor of private firms at the expense of local concerns.

Khairiyah wants future generations in Chana to enjoy the unspoiled natural surroundings in which she was raised. The sea is a stone’s throw from her home, and she often spots dolphins frolicking in the waves as she relaxes on the beach.

Local fishermen have seen before how big investments – funded by capitalists – can damage the marine environment and shrink fish stocks.

Growing local opposition saw the first public consultation forum, scheduled for May 12, 2020, postponed to July 11 of that year. Meanwhile, about 1,000 police officers were deployed from five provinces to ensure peace.

Chana Rak Thin leaders were banned from attending the public forum, but released a statement highlighting the following three points:

  • The government approved the project and allocated a huge budget even before a public consultation was held.
  • SPBAC appeared to favor investors set to be the key beneficiaries.
  • The project would devastate coastal and marine resources, as well as the surrounding environment.

Dr Supat Hasuwankit, director of Chana Hospital, pointed out that the site chosen for the project is a green zone reserved for agricultural activities. However, the government seems set to change it to a “purple” or industrial zone.

“This move has sparked a huge uproar,” he said.

Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu, director of Innovation Policy for Sustainable Development at Thailand Development Research Institute, is doubtful the mega-project will create 100,000 jobs as promised, as it is dominated by industries that are capital-intensive, not labor-intensive.

“It should also be noted that a total of just 95,106 jobs were created by all [nationwide industrial] projects promoted by the Board of Investment in 2019,” she said.

Broken promises?

At the height of Chana Rak Thin’s 2020 protest, the government dispatched Thammanat Prompow, then-deputy agriculture, and cooperatives minister, to negotiate with the network.

The negotiations concluded with an MoU in which the government pledged to suspend the project pending an investigation into SBPAC’s role in alleged irregularities, and a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to decide whether the project could go ahead.

However, the government is going ahead with a public hearing on the project from Monday (Dec 13) to Dec 23 even though the SBPAC probe and environmental assessment have not been completed.

In a bid to halt the hearing, Chana Rak Thin members and their supporters attempted to hold a protest at Government House. However, a police crackdown and the arrest of 37 members on December 6 forced them to switch their rally to the United Nations building nearby. The network also accused the government of breaking promises it made in the MoU.

PM Prayut intervened to say that any deal for the industrial project would not be complete until approved by the Cabinet. Official documents show that on December 15, 2020, the Cabinet acknowledged the MoU – which was presented by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan – and assigned a committee to discuss proposed measures with relevant authorities to find clear solutions.

Khairiyah hopes her network can teach the government that it should not make empty promises.

“They should learn a lesson. They should never do anything like this to anyone,” Khairiyah said as she planned another protest at Government House.

Government’s response

Early this month, Prayut appointed Deputy PM and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow to lead a fact-finding committee to investigate the Chana Industrial Project.

An informed source said the Office of the Ombudsman had investigated SPBAC over alleged irregularities in the public consultation and found nothing wrong.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk