Development vs. environment

Proposed pipeline project unleashes protests in southern Thailand

Posted: Monday, August 06, 2001

TALINGCHAN, Thailand -- From the sandy coast of this sun-kissed fishing village, Heme Ja-U gazes grimly at the azure waters.

The sea is calm today, but Heme says an enemy lies buried in its bowels, waiting to disrupt the life it has sustained for centuries.

A pipeline project to extract natural gas from the Gulf of Thailand and transport it to neighboring Malaysia has unleashed a storm of protest in southern Thailand. It pits two sides in the kind of battles increasingly being fought around the world: development against traditional livelihoods; development against environment; state authority against people's power.

''God provides us the sea to make a living. We will protect it with our lives,'' said Heme, a 55-year-old spiritual leader in the 5,000-strong Muslim community of Talingchan.

The 215-mile pipeline would pass through Talingchan and four other villages on the palm-ringed Thai coast where fishers now moor wooden boats.

The pipeline would rise from offshore gas deposits and snake its way overland to the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. The $1.5 billion project is a joint venture of the state Petroleum Authority of Thailand and Malaysia's Petroliam Nasional Bhd.

The project also includes a gas separation plant in Talingchan and a 50,000-acre industrial zone next to it. The area is 590 miles south of the Thai capital, Bangkok.

''If it goes ahead we will lose not just our land but our future,'' said the bare-chested Heme, adjusting his checkered sarong.

Talingchan villagers say they want the pipeline scrapped or redirected so that it goes straight to Malaysia, bypassing Thailand.

Penchom Sae Tung of the Campaign for Alternative Industry Network, a voluntary group, says water that will be used to cool the gas separation plant will be released into the sea. This water will be slightly hotter than the sea, and the resulting change in the Songkhla Gulf's temperature would harm its ecology, she said in an interview.

She said extraction of gas will also release high amounts of mercury, which will harm the marine life, possibly kill the fish.

''Besides, villagers are afraid that waste (from the industrial zone) might be dumped in the area and pollute their water and land,'' she said.

After conducting a mandatory environmental impact study, the Songkhla University rejected these concerns in April. But the government, apparently hoping to appease its opponents, declared the investigation inadequate and ordered a fresh report.

Thai people have reason to be wary of mega projects.

In the rush toward industrial development during the past three decades, Thailand has built big factories, power plants and dams with little concern for the environment and without consulting rural communities.

Developers of the pipeline project say it would save Thailand $470 million a year in fuel imports and promote industrialization. They say it will provide jobs for the local people, who mostly come from Thailand's Islamic minority. Ninety-five percent of Thais are Buddhists.

The villagers, however, would rather stick to fishing, which brings them decent earnings of up to $700 per catch in a country where the minimum wage is $3.60 a day. Depending on the weather, fishers go out to sea once a week or once a month.

''We don't want the project. We would just become plant workers who depend on a monthly salary,'' said 30-year-old Malee Kayah from Sakom village near Talingchan.

''When we grow old they'll just fire us to hire younger workers,'' she said.

But the developers point out that the prosperity from fishing is limited to a few communities, and most parts of southern Thailand not blessed by tourism revenues remain largely underdeveloped.

''Fuel is the basis for development. It will create thousands of jobs for poor Thais in the south,'' said Apisit Rujikeatkamjorn, chief executive officer of Trans Thai-Malaysia, the Thai company leading the project.

The project is the result of an October 1999 agreement between Malaysia and Thailand, which envisaged that the cheap fuel would enable the development of several industrial zones.

At the time, the agreement was hailed as a historic example of cross-border cooperation between the two Southeast Asian neighbors, as it followed years of dispute with both countries claiming the gas deposits.

But the project made slow progress because of the protests, some of them violent. Opponents accuse the government of rushing through legal formalities such as a mandatory public hearing held last October.

According to the Thai Constitution, large infrastructure projects require approval of a public hearing attended by local leaders and experts. Pro-government experts and locals had just declared the project should go ahead as there was no opposition and had wrapped up the hearing after 38 minutes when hundreds of protesters stormed the venue using a six-wheeled truck.

They were led by Heme, the spiritual leader, and they called the hearing a sham.

General elections in January and a change in the government further slowed the project, which was originally scheduled to start construction early this year.

However, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose Thai Rak Thai party had promised during election campaigning to abandon the project, has assured Malaysia that it will honor the country's commitments.

That infuriates Talingchan residents.

''If they don't listen to us,'' Heme said, ''they will face heavier protests from us because we will consider them liars.''

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