Lockdown buys protesters time to stall Songkhla mega project

Teen activist Kaireeya Ramanyah, 17, protesting outside the provincial hall in Songkhla. (Prachatai pic)

BANGKOK: Public hearings on an industrial mega project in southern Thailand have been postponed after locals and activists – led by a 17-year-old – warned that a nationwide coronavirus lockdown could see the plans approved with little scrutiny.

The hearings for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in coastal Songkhla province, which aims to build a deep-sea port, a power plant and several factories, were scheduled for May 14-20.

A nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic is in place until May 31, with several restrictions on movement.

“Few people would be able to attend and fewer still are aware of the forum,” Kaireeyah Ramanyah, 17, wrote in a letter addressed to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, which was published in several local publications last week.

“The timing of the public forum raises doubts about the state’s sincerity in involving the public in the process,” she said, adding that residents in the Muslim-majority area were also fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

A picture alongside the letter in one newspaper showed the teenager sitting outside the provincial hall in Songkhla with dozens of other protesters, wearing a face mask and shield.

The Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre, in a notice a day later, said it would postpone the hearings because of concerns of the people and restrictions during the lockdown.

It did not set a date for the rearranged hearings.

Protests have erupted in Thailand in recent years as evictions from forests and farmland have risen to make way for mines and power plants that villagers say are hurting the environment and their livelihoods.

The Thai government has vowed to review conflicting land claims and resolve such cases.

Authorities have said the Songkhla SEZ, expected to cost about 19 billion baht (US$595 million), will generate about 100,000 jobs and boost the economy in the restive south.

But the project will damage the coastal ecology, as well as livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk, according to EnLaw Foundation, a rights group of environmental lawyers.

“The short window of the public hearings violates the people’s rights to participate in maintaining and managing their natural resources sustainably,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Lockdowns to contain the novel coronavirus in Asia have made farmers and indigenous people more vulnerable to losing their land, according to land rights activists, who have also warned of greater intimidation by authorities.

“The struggle to save communities, their land and the sea continues despite Covid-19,” said Pranom Somwong, the Thai representative for human rights group Protection International.

“Affected communities have a right to determine their own future,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kaireeyah, who calls herself a “daughter of the sea”, has been involved in conservation efforts for about five years.

“Almost 100% of my family’s income comes from fishing. All the happiness in my life comes from the sea,” she wrote in her letter. “I ask grandpa Prayuth to rethink the project.”