CHIANG RAI - The freshly painted welcome signs at Chiang Khong market are conspicuous, greeting visitors as they cross the border from Laos. Few arrive however, and behind the signs they see only shuttered shops and scattered clothing sellers.
The “new town”, as some business operators called it after the opening of the fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River in 2013, is now known as a ghost town by locals.
Once a bustling trade development area, the market located just a kilometre from the bridge, has been a flop and doesn’t seem to be able to attract tourists.
A shopkeeper, who asked to be identified as Daeng, recalled busy days as hundreds of visitors dropped by to shop at the market, prior to the official opening of the bridge in late 2013.
“Now there are only big trucks passing by,” she said.
But there is a chance the market could be resurrected, after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government announced Chiang Rai would be the location for the second phase of the Special Economic Zones, set to be launched this year.
The price of land in three targeted districts — Chiang Khong, Mae Sai and Chiang Saen — abruptly doubled.
The government has proposed the economic zones could host agriculture and fishery, handicrafts, medical equipment and logistics businesses.
Businesses located in the zones will earn privileges in the first five to 10 years of investment, including exemption of corporate income tax and import duties for raw materials, deductions of up to half of utility bills and transport costs, and permission to employ unskilled foreign workers.
Some locals have doubts about their town becoming a part of an SEZ, sensing deja vu. Their experience shows the winners of such grand developments are the big Thai and Chinese companies who use the town and bridge as a connection to China.
“Cross-border trade negotiations brought together major merchants to increase their opportunities,” said Sanguan Sonklinsakul, vice-president of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce. “Local people have little access to this trade benefit. They can’t compete with the big investors.”
Mr Sanguan said he has seen local people hurt by national border trade policies that do not include them.
Looking at plots along the border, many Chinese-backed banana farms have sprung up, with countless water pumps dotted along the river banks. Bags of Thai chemical fertilisers are seen occasionally. The bananas are exported to China.
With the signing of the 1993 “Rectangle Economy” agreement, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand joined together to strengthen economic opportunities. It was that agreement which resulted in the bridge’s opening in 2013 — and expectation of an economic boom soared in Chiang Khong district when construction of the bridge began. Land speculation was rampant.
China blasted submerged rocks upstream in its Mekong territory in 2001 to cater for commercial vessels, and is now pushing Laos to agree to further clearance. The Xayaburi Dam, potentially a source of border industrialisation, is now under construction in Laos, despite widespread protests.
In recent years, many bilingual signs in Thai and Chinese have popped up near the fourth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge that links Chiang Khong to Huay Xai town. Convoys of trucks loaded with all sorts of commodities cross the bridge into Laos each day. Many are headed for China.
Chiang Rai governor Pongsak Wangsamer said Chinese companies are interested in the SEZ. One company, Muang Ngeun Development, wants to develop an industrial estate on 1,500 rai that covers almost half of a wetland forest in Ban Boon Reung Moo 2. This has prompted local protests.
“The forest is meaningful to us,” said Karuna Orpanya, 54, a Ban Boon Rueng resident. “It produces food for locals as well as retains water to help mitigate seasonal flooding.”
“The SEZ is a ‘pret-a-porter’ policy which ignores local context,” said Decharut Sukkumnoed, a lecturer at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Economics.
A valuation of Chiang Rai’s agriculture sector, he said, shows Chiang Khong has potential to grow sustainably as a farming city. Its value rose from five billion baht in 2000 to 30 billion baht in 2012.
He suggested government focus on creating a healthy environment by preserving forests and water resources.