Key dissenters absent from Chana hearing
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Key dissenters absent from Chana hearing

Authorities stop them from assembling, citing Covid-19 measures

Police and opponents of the Chana industrial estate project face off on a road to the Chana Wittaya School in Chana district of Songkhla on Saturday. (Photo supplied by Apinya Wipatayotin)
Police and opponents of the Chana industrial estate project face off on a road to the Chana Wittaya School in Chana district of Songkhla on Saturday. (Photo supplied by Apinya Wipatayotin)

SONGKHLA: Vocal opponents of the planned Chana industrial estate have refused to take part in an “illegitimate” public hearing on the project after being blocked from attending it.

The constitutionally required public hearing on the 18.7-billion-baht project was held on Saturday by the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), at the Chana Wittaya School in Chana district of Songkhla province. The SBPAC is in charge of steering the scheme. 

A week earlier, officials reportedly visited the homes of at least eight people who had in the past opposed a coal-fired power plant in the South. On Thursday, police blocked traffic and roads to the school, reportedly to maintain order, Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) reported.

People from nearby Satun province, who had travelled to Songkhla to show solidarity with the dissenters, were also stopped along the way.

The hearing started in the morning and went smoothly, with people from both sides of the debate over the project given chances to air their views.

But some opponents, led by the Chana Rak Tin group, could not make it to the hearing. They later declared they would not join it because they did not want to be part of a mechanism legitimising a project they did not approve of.

On the same day, the SBPAC held a parallel forum at the Taling Chan Tambon Administration Organisation in Chana district. It was attended by 1,000 people.

The Chana Rak Tin group also held an activity at the same time with 100 participants. Speakers took the stage for about 30 minutes while officials took video of them before handing them leaflets with content similar to the government’s Covid-19 prevention announcement.

The leaflets, signed by Songkhla police chief Pol Maj Gen Tivatawat Nakornsri, asked for cooperation to avoid assembling in a manner that risked spreading the disease. They also mentioned civil and criminal penalties for violations, which included imprisonment under the Criminal Code, the emergency decree and other laws.

The Chana Rak Tin group then read a statement before heading to the school, but members were blocked by 50 uniformed police, SBPAC and administrative officials. The group decided to move to the Chana Market instead since the school was 3km away and they believed they could be stopped again.

Their statement pointed out the irregularities surrounding the high-profile project. Unlike other megaprojects, the Chana industrial estate was approved by the cabinet even before public hearings on it were held.

“The public hearing today is just a formality to legitimise the project — one of the many they have held before. We therefore give it no value and do not accept it,” the statement said (story continnues below).

A group of dissenters read their statement after being asked to disperse in Chana district of Songkhla province, on Saturday. (Photo supplied by Apinya Wipatayotin)

Saturday’s hearing came two months after an aborted attempt to hold a public forum on short notice, which drew heavy criticism from local residents.

On May 12, Kaireeyah Ramanya, a young Chana resident, wrote a letter to “Grandpa Prayut” asking him to cancel the hearing that had been scheduled to start on May 14. She slept at Songkhla City Hall in protest while waiting for an answer from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. She gave him until May 20 to reply.

The “daughter of Chana”, as she came to be known, complained that the hearing was poorly publicised and people from nearby provinces were not allowed to join.

Even residents of other tambons in Songkhla were not allowed to take part even though they will be affected, she added.

It was also noted that the hearing had been scheduled during Ramadan, and while strict curbs on travel were still in effect because of the risk of Covid-19. The likelihood of people being able to attend was thus very low.

The SBPAC later agreed to suspend the hearing and reschedule it at a better time. As soon as they left the city hall, another group supporting the project submitted a letter to the government to show their support for the project.

The Chana Special Economic Zone is part of the “triangle of security, wealth and sustainability” that the Prayut Chan-o-cha government and the SBPAC are counting on it to improve the economy of the southern provinces. Improved opportunities in turn are expected to reduce sectarian unrest that has troubled the region for decades.

Three districts were singled out as prototypes for development — Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province, Betong in Yala and Nong Chik in Pattani.

Chana is the fourth and was touted as a “progressive industry town for the future”. Projects planned there are the second Songkhla port, a railway linked to the port, more power plants to support growth, and the Chana industrial estate to make goods from local resources and process goods from imported materials to be exported from the ports.

For the power plants, proposals have been made for natural gas, biomass, solar and wind and some have already drawn opposition.

Overall, the Chana project covers 16,753 rai in three tambons — Nathab, Taling Chan and Sakhom. It costs 18.7 billion baht and is forecast to create 100,000 jobs.

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