Report by: Natjanan Ketsuwan
Photo by: Methavajee Sarakune
Translated by Pantharee Sujitvarong
Aiming to make eastern Thailand a special economic zone, both government and private sectors have put effort into development plans by focusing on attracting foreign investment especially in automobile and electronic industries. As such, every step of the Eastern Economic Corridor or EEC project is overseen by the EEC Committee, who carries out the tasks stipulated in the Eastern Economic Corridor Act B.E. 2561 of Thailand.
Most of the committee members came from political or bureaucratic positions: the prime minister as the committee chairperson, deputy prime minister, ministers from involved ministries, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Thai Industry, and technocrats. These positions were designated by the government sector. They had only 120 days to consider and pass the project. Moreover, the law also enables the committee to make any decisions without the need of approval from other agencies. Therefore, in the view of civil society sector, what has been missing in the process of the EEC project is public participation from people who are directly affected.
Supaporn Malailoy, Manager of the Environment Litigation and Advocacy for the Wants (EnLaw), a civil society organisation that monitors legal issues concerning the impact of development projects on local people and ecology, said that the main problem of the EEC act is that it enables the EEC committee to override other regulations. Generally, laws do not grant such high-level of decision-making power to individuals, particularly in projects that tend to cause risks to environment and public health. This type of operations normally requires input from the public.
When an absolute power of decision-making is bestowed to one commission, and without public participation, the impacts this mega-project have on local people were barely mentioned.
“Normally, by law, [projects] such as in the case of a power plant , a public participation process must be organized by a regulatory body, namely the Energy Regulatory Commission. But in the EEC Act, the EEC committee has the right to propose for any changes and amendments to enforce the law that will drive the operation further. Therefore, there is no guarantee in the EEC project that there will be a public participation process, because the key objective of this project is to promote investment whereas public participation is not mentioned. This differs vastly from other projects wherein the Energy Regulatory Commission must sign off on the permission first,” Supaporn said.
As the EnLaw manager saw it, because the junta is not democratically recognized by some Thais and international forums, the military government, therefore, has been trying to boost Thai economy in order to earn acceptance from local people. Moreover, the eastern region is suitable for economic activities such as expansions of transportation, technology, and water consumption for the industrial sector, thanks to existing infrastructure. As a result, it was chosen to be the site for big industrial project like EEC.
However, Supaporn said that the government could not simply focus on the development of infrastructure since local people, along with the environment, are affected, while the existing repercussions of industrial negligence that remain unsolved. The imminent project may worsen these issues.
According to the EnLaw manager, the impact of the EEC has emerged ever since the EEC act was enacted. The land price has been increased as entrepreneurs wanted to hoard the land deeds for incoming business, barring low-income locals from gaining access to land use. At first, the local rent the area to make a living, and some live in the areas allocated by the government. Now that the act is in effect, the locals fear that the government may expropriate the land in response to the EEC policy.
As for the impact on environment, Supaporn anticipated that the important factors of developing an industrial area are land and transportation; as a result, the impact will likely emerge right away when the lands that were once for residential or farming purposes are turned into large factories or motorway. Such changes may lead to drought, polluted air, and wildlife emigration in the area. She said the eastern region is now facing pollution problems, and the EEC committee has yet to come up with neither health nor environment impact assessment policies.
EEC Watch: sending voices from people to the EEC authority
During the drafting of the EEC act, groups of civil society and public sectors came together to monitor the process. They later formed a network, called EEC Watch, who have since then been working together to push for public participation in the EEC project. Kann Tattiyakul, a coordinator of EEC Watch said that information about impacts of the project should have been declared to people in the community in the first place. He added that whoever in charge should take the concerned opinions from the locals to both government and public to reconsider or sort out the problem together.
Kann pointed out further that when the government sector did not openly provide public forums for community discussion, people did not have much chance to express their opinions. So EEC watch feels it must serve as a mouthpiece for the community.
Even though EEC Watch plays role as a channel in which the government and the locals can communicate about the project, Kann said that during the drafting of the EEC act, people could not access to the information from the government sector due to information being blocked. EEC Watch had to use the Official Information Act, B.E. 2540 request to gain access to the information of involved government sectors. However, before the appeal was completed, the EEC law had been enacted.
Kann further stated that since technology has played a vital role in communication, the government can communicate with the community easily. The government also has its own media outlets and budget; therefore, the key to EEC’s success is to take not only the opinions from community, but also academics and private sectors.
Kann added that the government sector still stick to the old concept that large investment is necessary to boost the GDP growth, and that industrial sector is the main part that moves the country’s economy forward. In fact, he pointed out that the country has many other problems that are more troubling than the economic ones. The solution is to look for development for every dimension, including people’s well-being, environment, and sustainability.
“Urban planning of a new city should not overlook the importance of existing communities. Or from an industrial perspective, it should be industries which enhance local potentials or outputs. We already have agricultural products that can be expanded further without requiring large spaces or huge investment, while improving existing outputs and elevating our farming sector. However, responsible agencies have yet to consider these factors. As such, participation from people is needed to fulfil the gap and make the development achieve equilibrium,” Kann said
Democratic society: a rightful way to safeguard participation rights
Now that the EEC act has been enforced, Supaporn, the EnLawmanager, said that it would be difficult to revoke the project. She anticipated a general election to take place soon, so that the next government will reconsider and, hopefully, revise the EEC law. She also hoped for development policies where human rights, community rights, natural resources and community-oriented plans will be valued.
“Every development plan has to use natural resources. But industrial sectors require a lot more, take up more spaces, and have greater effects. We need to consider that these types of development may affect labour and agriculture units. If everyone gets a job and good welfare, our country would be strong. But if these factors are ignored, despite high GDP growth, it cannot be called ‘stability’ if we still see an increasing number of unemployed people, those who lack their own property, and the poors,” Supaporn said.
What Supaporn believed is that election can bring back bargaining power. People’s voices can be a counterbalance to the unelected government that already stays longer than the usual four-year term.
“Everything takes time. We don’t have an absolute power and rapidity is not the answer for a long-term solution. If a few people came up with the idea that was seemingly good but had affected others’ livelihood, those who were affected might not understand. As such, the plan could be protested or opposed.
So if you are strongly believe that idea is good, just talk to the affected people to create a mutual understanding. It may take time, but it will go well in the end,” the EnLaw manager stated.