The cabinet's decision to delay the controversial Chana industrial estate project in Songkhla -- as urged by groups rallying against the project -- from Wednesday until a "neutral" environmental assessment has been completed triggered a fierce reaction from demonstrators.
One protest leader accused the government of attempting to buy enough time to manipulate the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) while another hinted that the protest would escalate following the government's decision.
The cabinet resolved to assign a government committee that oversees the strategies for southern border development, as well as other state agencies including the Office of the National Economics and Social Development Council (ONESDC), to jointly evaluate the project's SEA and related plans, said a source at Government House.
All concerned parties will be invited to take part in the assessment process to ensure it is conducted fairly, the source said.
All state organisations involved in the implementation of the southern industrial project have been ordered to put their work on hold until the SEA wraps up, said the source.
Government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana confirmed this on Tuesday.
"Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has also ordered that the evaluation of the SEA must be done transparently," said Mr Thanakorn, adding Gen Prayut called for improved communication with local people in the interests of greater understanding, in a bid to resolve longstanding conflicts surrounding the project.
Opinions from the protesting group known as Chana Rak Thin (Protect the Chana Homeland) as well as other civic groups will be collected during the SEA process, he said.
Somboon Khamhaeng, one of the protest leaders, said the decision would spur more problems as the selected committee is seen by protesters as anything but neutral.
Since this committee directs the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), it should have not been assigned to lead the assessment of the SEA, he said.
The committee is run by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who also serves as secretary-general of the SBPAC, Mr Somboon said.
"This clearly shows the government intends to control the direction of the study to eventually approve construction of the industrial estate project," he added.
"I'm not confident in this resolution and suspect the decision was simply an attempt to buy time," said Prasitchai Nunual, a leader of the Save Andaman Network.
Dr Supat Hasuwankit, a director at Chana Hospital who also opposes the project, described the situation in the wake of the resolution as "hopeless".
He said the only acceptable solution would be for the government to assign the ONESDC to direct the SEA as urged by protesters.
"The villagers can't agree with the government's decision," he said. "And of course they will step up their protests."
These continued last night with people camping outside Government House. One source said the group was delaying its official response until they had seen written proof of the cabinet resolution.
Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow, in his capacity as chairman of a fact-finding committee looking into conflicts surrounding the Chana project, said he remained optimistic the resolution would eventually satisfy the the protesters.
"The government isn't trying to buy time," he said.
Mongkolchai Somudon, deputy permanent secretary of the PM's Office, said the resolution would take effect from Wednesday and that all activities concerning the project would have to be immediately suspended pending completion of the SEA.
Other groups have urged the government to press on with the project.