Thirty-seven elderly Thai villagers from Chana in Songkhla province, on 6th December were arrested in front of government house Bangkok for peacefully protesting against the proposed development of the Chana industrial estate. They were held in custody for a day and charged under the emergency regulations. After outcry from activists, academics and the National Human Rights Commission, they were released the next day without bail. Critics and the local media claimed the arrests by police under prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s orders was a grave miscalculation, as the villagers were both peaceful and lawful under the constitution.
The protest was led by local residents of Natub, Sakom, and Thaling Chan sub-districts of Chana where 30,000 people reside and primarily earn a living through fishing and small holder agriculture. They are members of the Chana Rak Thin or Love Chana Network who requested Prayuth honour an MOU the government had signed with the residents last year to undertaken an environmental impact assessment and cease preliminary work at the project site.
Prayuth had earlier torn up the MOU signed with the villagers which agreed to the environmental assessment.
The Chana Industrial Estate was originally proposed by an autonomous body. The Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), based in Yala city. The 2,560 Hectare project was approved by the cabinet in May 2019, which was incidentally the last decision cabinet made under the JUNTA that was installed after the 2014 coup.
The plan was intended to become a key part of the Southern Economic Corridor, where Baht 18 billion was approved for infrastructure development. The plan is about turning Chana into an advanced industrial city of the future, which would boost economic activity in the Thai Deep South border provinces. Sixty percent of the land is allocated to power generation, heavy industry, and ancillary port industries. The rest of the land is allocated for light industry and a new smart city.
The first pioneering company is TPI Polene Power, a major power producer and the owner of a chain of petrol stations. TPI has promised to create 100,000 jobs and invest US $9.5 billion into the estate. TPI also promises to provide scholarships to local residents for further study to gain qualifications to work in the new industry brought to the estate. The second is IRPC, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil and gas conglomerate PTT. IRPC developed the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate, which is the heart of Thailand’s petro-chemical industry.
There is fear the Proposed Chana Industrial Estate will bring similar problems as the Map Ta Phut estate in Rayong. Issues concerning the local communities around Map Ta Phut include air and water pollution, release of industrial waste into the environment, and excess traffic. In addition, there have been a number of public safety issues, where an explosion at the ACB chemical plant killed 12 people and injured 14, back in 2012. Some stages of the Map Ta Phut estate didn’t undergo any public health impact assessment, while employment opportunities only benefitted young technical graduates.
Residents in Chana are worried about the construction of a 3,700 megawatt power plant, which would be powered by four plants which could potentially release sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the air. Waste from petroleum refining, natural gas purification, and pre-treatment of coal within the industrial park will be a potential environmental hazard. There are also concerns to discharges at the deep port facilities, which will be on reclaimed land out to sea, potentially endangering residents’ reliance on fishing as a source of income. The deep port will disturb the delicate eco-system in the area. Locals claim the area is home of sea turtles and endangered pink dolphins.
Residents have been fishing for more than one hundred years in the area, relying on catches of octopus and squid. While the men go out in fishing trawlers, the women process the catches in home factories and sell the produce at markets.
The Chana Rak Thin group have been protesting against the proposed industrial estate since last year. In July 2020, representatives from the group travelled to Yala city to attend a meeting on the project at the SBPAC headquarters, but were refused admittance into the meeting. Protests outside government house in Bangkok in December 2020 led to an MOU between the villagers and the government to review the project. Villagers agreed to give the government time to look into the issues. A Board of Committee to oversee the project was set up, but locals claim they heard nothing from the committee for a year.
The older generation of residents are concerned about the effect of the project on their livelihoods. One group of women told the author that they are too old to study and work in factories and can only do work at home. They are concerned about the future tenure of their land and the environmental impact of the estate upon their lives. The development of the industrial estate will heavily impact on their ability to continue their present cultural existence based on living simply and living off cottage industry and multi-incomes from varying activities. The use the narrative ‘daughter of the sea’, owing their life and cultural existence to their connection with the coast.
Some entrepreneurs within the region have other visions for Chana. There is room for expansion in fish processing and canning factories, like the ones that already exist in nearby Songkhla. There is also potential for the expansion of goat farming and processing within the area. Others are interested in developing eco-tourism projects within the area full of natural features. These locally preferred options have never been considered by government.
The younger generation in the spirit of utilizing social media like the protesters in the Arab Spring just under a decade ago, that brought about social and political changes in the MENA. They have reframed the issue as an environmental struggle, one most likely to get international attention. The young activists know the power of photos and video, protesting outside government offices like flash mobs. There are greater audiences online than in the town of Chana. One student even wrote to the environmental activist Greta Thornburg, telling her of their environmental plight.
The younger generation has quickly learned that perception is the key when running a protest from a relatively remote area from the Thai capital Bangkok.
A number of Thai environmental activists, academics and local environmental organizations like Greenpeace Thailand have supported the protesters cause. Bencha Saengchantra, an MP from the former Future Forward Party, and now in the Kao Klai Party has been supporting the villagers cause as project was pushed through without locals being consulted.
The Barisan Revolusi Nasion (BRN), one of the main insurgency groups within the Deep South has unprecedently entered into the Chana issue, most probably taking advantage of Prayuth’s miscalculation over the arrests of protesters. In a recent recording made by the information department spokesmen and uplifted on Youtube, BRN has promised support for the Chana villagers in their fight for truth against the repressive and inhumane actions of the government. This is most probably aimed at building more grassroot support for BRN and reaffirming the BRN ambit claim that parts of Songkhla are part of Greater Patani.
Prayut within hours of the BRN video made a sudden about face. Some pundits claim this is a tactic to buy time, while others claim this is a response to quell criticism over the arrest of the elderly villagers in front of government house on 6th December. There is also speculation the BRN foray into the issue could raise security tensions in the region, if not heeded.
Prayut has ordered a fact finding committee be formed to investigate the project, led by deputy prime minister Supattanapong Pummachaow. There is also an issue of potential corruption arising where a national Thai newspaper Bangkok Post has disclosed that families close to the embattled Democrat deputy interior minister Nipon Boongamanee acquired large tracks of land, which were later sold to the project developer.
Locals draw hope that villager resistance to government plans to convert forest and wetlands in Northern Chiang Rai back in 2015, were averted by protests.