A controversial industrial zone in southern Thailand has been delayed after protestors from Songkhla province occupied an encampment outside of the prime minister’s office for days on end, calling for the project to be canceled.
On December 15, following five days of protests in Bangkok, the Thai cabinet announced that a large controversial industrial zone in the southern province of Songkhla would be delayed and that the cabinet would form a committee to settle the future of the project.
Around 50 people from Songkhla came to Bangkok in early December to lead a protest calling for the cancellation of the Chana industrial zone, citing developers’ refusal to address concerns about possible negative impacts on the local economy, environment and people’s homes.
The cabinet resolution on December 15 notably does not meet the protestors’ demands, as it does not cancel the project or the ongoing required studies. Despite this, the Chana residents agreed to give the government time but promised that they will resume their fight if the project is not eventually canceled.
The project will reportedly occupy 6,600 acres and cost US$618.8 million, with plans for at least one deep sea port, four large power plants, transportation infrastructure, heavy industry facilities and electricity production. Those backing the project say the development will create jobs for more than 100,000 people.
“I want them to reassess Chana’s potential, then find out how to further develop it and educate local people,” Chana resident Khairiya Rahmanyah told Channel NewsAsia. “That’s all we want. We aren’t obstructing development.”
“I felt worried when I first heard about the Chana industrial project,” resident Zakariya Maklim told Channel NewsAsia reporters. “I’m worried about how to survive in the future since most of us here rely on the sea…This is where we make a living. It’s essentially our rice pot.”
Setting up camp near the offices of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the protestors voiced objections to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process for the project, saying that developers had barred those opposed to the project from sharing their concerns at mandatory public consultations. Local opponents of the economic zone plan say it threatens their food security and will damage vital coastal ecosystems that they depend on.
“How can we accept it? The multi-billion baht industrial complex has yet to go through an environmental impact assessment,” Rungruang Ramanya, a member of local civil society group Chana Rak Thin, told the Bangkok Post. “So the government needs to [terminate] the Chana project.”
Participants at a nearby pro-democracy protest in the same area of Bangkok joined the Chana protest to show support for the activists. Hundreds of riot police confronted the pro-democracy protestors, though the incident ended without violence.
Pro-democracy leader Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa spoke in support of the Chana protestors before encouraging those not camping overnight to disperse.
New panel to involve industrial zone critics, address concerns
On the sixth day of the Chana protest, the government announced that the zoning for the Chana Industrial Estate would be put on hold and that a panel would be established, involving both those for and against the project.
Deputy Agriculture Minister Captain Thamanat Prompow said that the construction on the project would be paused but the impact assessments would continue.
The Chana industrial zone was approved in early 2019 in the final months before Thailand’s outgoing junta handed power to the new elected government, still headed by junta chief Prayuth. The zone was reportedly pushed in large part by the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), a government coordinating body for the Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand’s south where a “low-intensity” conflict has killed around 7,000 people since 2004, according to Reuters.
The Chana project has led to increasing tensions between the SBPAC and local residents in Songkhla.
“From now on, the decision-making process on the Chana project will be based on clear and detailed information,” said Nanthaphong Suwannarat, SBPAC director of civil development promotion and support, adding that the process behind the project had so far been “problematic” and pledging to “include” groups opposed to the project from now on.
According to Chana Rak Thin, the local community began to suspect SBPAC was being less than forthcoming after authorities attempted to rezone agricultural land to allow industrial development.
“The areas in three tambons [villages] will be impacted. The seashore will be altered,” Somboon Khamhaeng, head of Chana Rak Tin Network, told BenarNews. “I heard there will be petrochemical factories built, which will affect the villages.”
The zoning process has now been delayed.
According to Amarin Saichan, a lawyer at the ENLAWTHAI Foundation, the EIA for the project didn’t include details as to what the economic zone would look like, nor did it “address the project’s negative consequences on coastal fishing and marine resources.”
Those opposed to the project have called for the government to instead commission a baseline environmental study of the area so that future projects can be accurately evaluated. The movement against the Chana industrial zone has also drawn broad support from academics.
Notably, the Muslim majority communities in the affected area were able to maintain their livelihoods and support themselves while the rest of the country struggled under lockdown earlier this year due to COVID-19.
Local residents are skeptical about the claimed benefits of the project in part because of a similar case in Rayong province around the Map Ta Phut industrial estate. Residents near the development in Rayong were promised jobs when the project was first proposed but today, few locals work at the estate and the majority of workers migrated to that area, according to one representative from Chana.
However, some residents in Songkhla remain in favor of the project, saying it will improve their quality of life. On the last day of the protest in Bangkok, a group of proponents of the industrial estate filed a petition with Suporn Atthawong, deputy minister for the Prime Minister’s Office, calling for the project to go ahead. The group claimed that the Chana Rak Thin protestors are being supported by outside NGOs and that the pro-industrial estate faction can rally 10,000 people to Bangkok to support their position if the project doesn’t go forward.