Conservationists join anti-government movement

Pheu Thai or Democrat. They are all the same to concerned ecologists

An interesting development to the current anti-government movement is the appearance of several conservationists who have joined “the fight”. Many have shown up around the city to represent villagers affected by development projects initiated by the state, with a joint purpose much more complicated than just to topple the caretaker government.

A prayer worship by Muslim residents in Satun took on more of a political flavour when they asked Allah to bring an end to the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port project.

Among them are villagers from Satun province who’re campaigning against the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port project, envisaged to become Thailand’s biggest port in the Indian Ocean. Those who disagree with the megaproject believe that the port will destroy coastal seas, the livelihoods of the fisher folk and the tourism industry in the Andaman Sea.

The protesters demand the cancellation of the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port, on grounds of protecting local fishery and the pristine ecology of the Andaman, which are going to be affected by the project and the following petrochemical related industry.

Life had a chance to talk with one of the environmental protesters in Bangkok, Somyot Towhlang, 36, a conservationist at Andaman Foundation — a group overseeing environmental problems and rights issues in the Andaman coastal provinces in the southern region.

Can you tell us why local people disagree with the development?

Satun province is a small and reclusive province with a very good environment, something that is rare to find now. Villagers make a living from the so-called ‘Three-Leg-Economic Model’ which stands for fishery, farm and tourism. Indeed, 80% of revenue now comes from tourism as Tarutao National Park and Li Peh Island are becoming more famous internationally.

Needless to say that industrial development will hurt farming, fishery and tourism. Just try to imagine having oil vessels and cargo cruisers criss-crossing the ecologically-pristine Andaman Sea and try to visualise the Laem Chabang Sea Port and other industrial factories lining the beautiful Andaman coast and you will understand why villagers are rallying against this project.

Why have you and villagers joined this anti-government protest when this project was started over a decade ago and not by this particular government?

Somyot Towhlang.

We just want our voice to be heard. It needs to be stressed that the Satun villagers do not come here because they want to overthrow the government. Indeed, there are a number of Satun villagers who are protesting against this project but are supporters of the Pheu Thai Party.

During the past years, villagers have been protesting against all governments including the Democrat government. But the main reason villagers have joined this protest is because of the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port which was included in the 2.2 trillion baht loan under the Pheu Thai-led government.

Is the group representative of the voice of Satun province?

If we look at it from the point of the numbers game, you cannot say that everybody is totally against this project. Yes, there are always villagers who want development because they can benefit from that. But there are also many villagers who question the project or are holding off making a decision until they get more information. I think the level of acceptance depends on how aware local people are and how reliable the information given to people is. In this particular case, the Satun Provincial Administration Organisation has only just released the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to local villagers.

So what do you expect to achieve from joining the protest in Bangkok?

In the short term, we believe the Pak Bara Deep Sea Port project will be delayed because the 2.2 trillion baht loan was also delayed when this government dissolved parliament. But we know we need to fight against the successive governments. We are not fighting against particular politicians or even the ‘Thaksin Regime’.

This project is part of a plan to create a new international logistic route for the oil and cargo industry. It is part of a global trend. The ‘Thaksin Regime’ is just part of a global investment trend [that exploits local resources]. Was Abhisit’s idea any different? When the Democrat Party was in government, Abhisit’s policy was to ‘scale down’ the project [which was also not acceptable for us]. So, in fact, the different political parties shared the same idea in terms of the Pak Bara project.

Satun villagers have protested against the project for the past five years but the protest has gained little attention from media and urbanites. Why?

Satun province is far away and its people are quite peaceful. They have only just found out about the project after the EIA was approved and I would say even many local people still do not know about the project. At a local level, we are still holding campaigns and activities to inform the public. Local people are steadily becoming more vocal. Indeed, some have travelled to Bangkok many times to protest but we still don’t attract much attention. Last year, we held a 220km walk from Pak Bara community to Songkhla [another point a deep-sea port is to be built]. Through this we were following in the steps of the walk-marathon campaign of Sasin Chalermlarp [against the Mae Wong Dam]. But our walk was not as popular; perhaps because we did not walk to Bangkok.

What will the villagers do next?

We need to fine-tune our campaign more to communicate with Bangkok urbanites. I will return to Satun and prepare more activities and events for this year. We are cooperating with the Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation and other national conservation groups. Silent Power, an activist student group at Thammasat University, will also come to visit the village. So, I would say Bangkok residents and urbanites will hear more about Satun province and Pak Bara Deep Sea Port this year.

BIG NUMBERS, BIG PROJECT

The Southern Seaport Project, which is expected to cost at least 4.3 billion baht, has become a heated issue since the government revealed in 2010 that it had chosen Satun’s Langu district as its location.

Many are outraged that authorities have not provided public access to all information and have demanded clarification from officials.
Residents are worried that the scheme will affect their well-being and the environment.

The Marine Department, which initiated the project, claims the port will bring economic prosperity to the country and provinces in the lower South.

It will open a logistics route between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand to the South China Sea. It will also be an oil hub, oil pipeline delivery system and industrial estate.

The Network of Satun Watch, a civic watchdog group formed by people in southern provinces including Satun, said the port would cover 4,500 rai of land that forms part of Mu Koh Phetra National Park.

The project would suck up 13 million cubic metres of sand from the sea bed and require the blasting of 10 mountains to gather enough soil for landfill.

A graphic rendition of Pak Bara Deep Sea Port which is to be built in Langu district of Satun province.

About the author

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Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Assistant News Editor