EARTH Thailand

Border trade plans leave locals in flux

Bangkok Post 26 October 2015 | Paritta Wangkiat

Residents ponder their fate as the state forges ahead with SEZ.

Walk through any farmland in Mae Sot district's Tha Sai Luat at the end of the rainy season this year, you're unlikely to step on ripening produce. You're more likely to encounter muddy, empty land.

"Most land owners are hesitant to plant crops at the moment so their farmland is lying empty for a while," said farmer Sombat Ngamdee, 53.

Farmland at this time of the year -- the beginning of harvesting season -- was once filled with produce waiting to be harvested.

But since the government announced the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Tak earlier this year, Mr Sombat said farmers such as himself have been afraid to invest in farming as they have no idea if they will have to leave their land.

Mr Sombat backs the SEZ in Tak, first proposed in 2004, as he believes it will bring opportunities to local people.

However, the decision by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government last year to set up SEZs across the country, and use Section 44 of the interim charter to implement the project on May 15 this year, came unexpectedly.

Locals fear the SEZ in Tak will not only take away their farmland, but also affect the trans-boundary environment. The government said a total of 2,182 rai of forest land and public areas in tambon Tha Sai Luat would go into the SEZ.

About 800 rai will be managed by the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand and the rest by the Treasury Department. The government also announced it would use the land for an industrial estate and invite companies to join.

A total of 97 families who have occupied land which the government intends to allocate to the SEZ -- only a few of whom have land documents -- will have to relocate, with the state accusing them of encroachment. "We've pushed forward with the SEZ in Tak for a decade in the hopes of improving local opportunities," said Chaiwat Wititthammawong, president of the Federation of Industries in Tak.

While a supporter of the SEZ, Mr Chaiwat criticises the choice of industries for the zone in Tak -- including ceramics, textiles, leather, furniture, gems and jewellery, engines and vehicle parts, electronics and electrical appliances and tourism--which he says they are not "connected" with the local industry which relies heavily on agriculture.

"It seems the government is focusing on industry and giving privileges to emerging private investors despite the original purpose of SEZ being to boost border trade," he said.

The locals won't benefit much from the proposed businesses, except as labourers, along with migrants working for these labour-intensive industries.

There have been several attempts by previous governments to develop an SEZ in Tak as the province is a hub of border trade with Myanmar, which also connects to the Indian market. Mae Sot contributed 64 billion baht in export value in the 2015 fiscal year -- a 14.8% increase from 2014.

The government has seen the potential and has pushed forward with economic zones in Tak and the provinces of Mukdahan, Sa Kaeo, Songkhla and Trat. The second phase is expected to begin next year in five more provinces -- Chiang Rai, Kanchanaburi, Narathiwat, Nakhon Phanom and Nong Khai. The government says it expects the zones to boost the economy by up to 800 billion baht a year.

Mr Chaiwat also expressed concerns over the environmental impacts on the Moei River shared by people in Mae Sot and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, activists said rushing into setting up the SEZs in Thailand has led to trans-boundary impacts on the environment and people.

The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network reported fights between Myanmar soldiers and Karen armed groups are still breaking out near the proposed site of the Hat Gyi dam on the Salween River. Many Karen people were moved from the land to make way for the dam, which will serve as the main source of power for the SEZ in Tak with about 1,500 megawatts to be sold to Thailand.

The Karen Human Rights Group says other projects, including the Asia Highway 1, a super highway linking the SEZ in Tak with northeast India via the Thai-Myanmar Relationship Bridge II, Myanmar's Myawaddy, Hpa-an, and Rangoon, have also affected local Karen. Many received little compensation when they were forcibly moved.

Farmers in Mae Sot who have occupied land in the future SEZ area are likely to be paid about 7,000-12,000 baht per rai in compensation. Locals say the figure is too low, as the market price of land has increased by least 12 million baht per rai since the launch of the SEZ.

Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd insisted the SEZ in Tak will give priority to both the agricultural and industrial sectors. The SEZ will take in degraded forest without the need to expropriate land, he said, adding the state will also pay compensation to resettle villagers who may have encroached on the forest.