Govt railroading Chana complex

Govt railroading Chana complex

It's a big relief that yesterday's forum on the Chana industrial complex in the province of Songkhla passed without confrontation or incident. Yet, it would be a big mistake for the state to use a forum that was riddled with irregularities to justify its push for the controversial scheme.

The organiser, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), blocked project opponents from attending the forum, which took place at Chana Witthaya School.

This might have played a part in preventing confrontation but it must also be said that without their views, the forum was one-sided and cannot be classified as a public hearing.

The Prayut Chan-o-cha government last year approved an 18 billion baht scheme comprising of three deep-sea ports and power plants, prior to a public hearing. The approval caused outrage as opponents said the government had not done things in the correct order. In principle, a hearing, with genuine people participation should have preceded it.

The complex is said to cover a vast area, spread over 16,700 rai in three tambons, namely Na Thap, Taling Chan and Sakom.

The opponents -- mostly small-scale fisherfolk or farmers -- worry the Chana industrial complex will ruin an area abundant with marine resources and affect food security and affect local livelihoods. Land grabs, involving politicians, have also been reported.

Previously, the SBPAC insisted 80% of people in Chana approved of the project. It claimed the complex would help eliminate insurgency and conflict in some districts of Songkhla that are connected to the problem.

Yet, there are questions about the SBPAC's role in the forum which has caused deep splits in the community.

Earlier last week, Suphat Hasuwannakit, the well-respected head of Chana Hospital who is also known for his social activism, faced a move by project proponents to have him transferred out of the area for his opposition to the complex.

Dr Suphat was critical of the forum, saying it's just a trick with no civic participation to justify the contentious scheme.

There are worries the forum is part of an effort to have the Chana town plan revised, with a shift of land use from agriculture to industrial zones.

There are questions as to why the SBPAC made a rush for such a forum.

Previously, it planned to hold a similar forum in May, a time when the country was still battling to contain Covid-19 while the government with the draconian emergency decree prohibited gatherings of big crowds.

Rising criticism over the bad timing, a breach of the decree, prompted the SBPAC to step back and abort the plan.

Yet, with the decree still intact, and the understanding that public gatherings are banned, the SBPAC was still afforded the luxury of being allowed to organise yesterday's forum. Why?

Such leniency has not been applied to political activists who turned up in small groups and practised social distancing in their campaigns. All were summoned by police for "breaching the decree".

This gives a strong impression the decree is aimed at silencing critics, not as a Covid-19 control measure. Bad feelings over the forum can only hasten the splits which the project has already caused.

Several activists also complained of intimidation by local authorities, including uninvited visits in some cases from security officers.

Numerous checkpoints were set up on the route leading to the forum venue yesterday and some parts of the road linking Chana to Thepa district were also closed.

Advocates of the scheme are probably right in saying the industrialisation will bring prosperity, but past lessons show not all will become rich.

The Map Ta Phut case is clear: wealth is concentrated among just a few industrialists, while a large number of ordinary people with zero bargaining power have found themselves trapped in environmental degradation, the results of which are poor health and lower quality of life. Such an outcome in which the benefits are concentrated in the hands of a few is not fair.

In short, the Map Ta Phut blunder must be avoided.

If the Chana industrial scheme is good, the authorities must not taint it with irregularities.

Instead, they have to adhere strictly to the law and regulations concerning environmental, health and social impact assessment studies.

Public hearings in which all information is discussed are a must for ensuring transparency and accountability without compromise.

This means yesterday's forum must not be used in any way to promote the scheme.

Prime Minister Prayut has insisted on a "new normal", vowing to make things right. As such, he must not allow any agencies under him to practise their old dirty tricks as they push to benefit from this already contentious scheme.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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