Khairiyah wrote letters to PM Prayut and young climate activist Greta Thunberg. Credit: Khairiyah’s FB

SPECIAL REPORT: Khairiyah’s letters: Chana’s story between the lines

Three tambons in Chana district in Songkhla province have been designated as the new “Special Development Zone” of the southernmost areas, paving the way for the “Progressive Industry for the Future” model city eager by policy makers, but local residents do not want it. Their reasons and stories lie between the lines of the letters written by a yongster in the area, Khairiyah Ramanyah

17-year-old Chana-born Khairiyah Rahmanyah wrote a few letters to PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha over five months ago, asking him to help put on hold the Progressive Industry for the Future model city of Chana initiated by the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) under his supervision.

The youngster who has turned herself into an activist now would not have stepped onto the stage or travelled to Bangkok to protest the project once again if the letters had been well-read and understood.

In the first letter she wrote in May, Khairiyah had described how beautiful her hometown as well as the local livelihoods there were, and what they meant to the young generation like her.

Khairiyah told PM Prayut that since she was a kid, one of the common scenes in her life is her father riding out a boat into the sea in front of her house to fish. And as he rides it back, tens of kilos of fish would then be brought along. They would then be sold in the market, generating income for her family, which would then be turned into their daily expenses, her school tuition fees, school uniforms, a bicycle, and various toys.

Fishing livelihood at Had Suan Kong beach in Tambon Nathap, one of the designated areas for the Chana model city.
Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat
Fishing livelihood at Had Suan Kong beach in Tambon Nathap, one of the designated areas for the Chana model city.
Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat

When he is free from fishing, Khairiyah’s father would take her to stroll or sit by the sea, telling her the stories about the sea. Her father has also taught her to take care of the sea and the fish. He has taught her to build artificial reefs for them, which provide them with nursery grounds and safe places.

With such care, the sea in front of her house is much rich in marine animals. Big animals like turtles and dolphins often come and visit the residents there, a common scene of Chana’s sea that has groomed and nurtured Khairiyah in return for years. 

“My happiness, my memories, and the stories of my whole life… are all from the sea,” said Khairiyah to PM Prayut in the letter, to whom she called as a grandfather (Khun Poo Prayut).

Her story, however, is apparently not impressive enough for the policymakers. After the public hearing scheduled in May was suspended briefly following Khairiyah’s protest in front of the Songkhla Provincial Hall, the project was then resumed afterwards, with the public hearing being forced to take place in mid-July, and the Cabinet resolution being issued in August to guide a city planning review to pave the way for land development of the project.

Khairiyah and Chana residents have since had no choice, but staged a protest again, the move which has heightened the opposition against the project to another level, while exposing flaws of the state’s authority in pushing ahead this kind of an industrial development project.

The peaceful view at Had Suan Kong beach.
Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat

The Progressive Industry for the Future model city of Chana

As explained by the SBPAC in the documents accompanying the discarded public hearing in May, the Progressive Industry for the Future model city of Chana is an extension of the “Triangle of Security, Prosperity, and Sustainability” model city project first proposed to the Cabinet by the Office of National Social and Economic Development Board in 2016.

The project, as reported in the Cabinet resolution database, was first at “developing some areas in Southern provinces to become “special economic areas” with prime investments from private sector. This was ultimately aimed at “creating jobs, raising income, and lifting up the quality of life of the local residents in the areas and nearby”. 

The project was set to run from 2017 to 2020. It picked Pattani’s Nong Jik district, Narathiwat’s Su-ngai Kolok district, and Yala’s Betong district for the pilot projects.

In mid last year, however, the SBPAC proposed the Cabinet to “agree in principle” the extension of the project to Songkhla’s Chana district with the idea to develop it into the “Progressive Industry for the Future” model city, being the fourth model city under the project.

And on January 21 this year, the Cabinet resolved to acknowledge the resolution by the Southern Border Provinces Development Strategic Committee issued on October 31 last year, which had endorsed the designation of Chana district as the “Special Development Zone”, paving the way for the development of the model city.

The lawful announcement then followed. It was issued by the SBPAC on December 9, which enforced the announcement through the authority under the Southern Border Provinces Administration Act B.E.2553, Article 10. The announcement was signed by the SBPAC Secretary General Rear Admiral Somkiat Pholprayoon.

It was not until the first public hearing which was scheduled in mid-May that the local residents, who had learned about the Chana model city project late last year, decided to express their opposition widely, partly due to the untimely schedule against the Emergency Decree, which limited their participation, and partly due to a scant bit of information provided to them.

According to the project’s feasibility study, reasons are given to support the development of the project. The study notes that Songkhla’s industrial activities largely involve value-added farming for export such as rubber processing and seafood processing, which account for around 44% of the province’s GDP, and 19.5%, respectively.

The province has two prime industrial estates. The first was built over 30 years ago in the area around 2,200 rai to support a conglomerate of factories. The second is the Rubber City developed in the area around 1,200 rai to support rubber processing.

However, there have not been any large industrial projects in Chana to take a large number of labours in the area, the study points. The district also connects to the other three southernmost provinces and has a coastal landscape suitable for deep-sea port development, suggesting its industrial development potential, it further points.

So, the study suggests the development of Chana into the new “industrial estate” in the privately owned plot of land sized no less than 13,000 rai (in three Tambons of Nathap, Sakom, and Taling Chan). It is set to serve five prime industries; be they farm produce and seafood processing, full-fledged logistics, tourism and services, renewable-based electricity generation, and the so-called “Technology for the Future” development; from biotechnological products to modern transportation and telecommunication products and parts. It is expected to create no less than 100,000 jobs.

A fisherman goes fishing in the sea at Tambon Na Thap.
Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat

The local residents, however, are not convinced.

Since their first protest in May, the local residents have reasoned that the project would jeopardize their self-reliant livelihoods, which are largely based on the marine fishery. 

Pollutions from industrial activities, they said, would also damage their marine resources. 

More critically, the development of the project is not based on the area’s true potential (fishery and seafood processing), and lacks public participation in the first place. This is not to mention that a number of procedures have breached environmental laws as well as the Constitution itself, they said.

During the revived public hearing, which was forced to happen in mid-July, SBPAC Deputy Secretary-General Dr. Chonthan Saengphum said the SBPAC had no will to jeopardize any bits of people’s happiness. It had to consider unemployment in the area as well as farm produce development as priorities in order to raise income as well as lifting the quality of life of people in the area.

“The fourth model city would be the largest “babysitter” for the three southernmost provinces. The critical jigsaw for agriculture in the South is industrial agriculture,” said Dr. Chonthan.

Fish products from Chana’s sea.
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Breaches of environmental laws and governance

In the eyes of industrial development watch groups and environmental lawyers like EEC Watch and ENLAW, the rush to develop the fourth model city at Chana would repeat the same mistakes of existing industrial estates, as well as breaching environmental laws.

Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an advisor to the EEC Watch, and a member of the House’s Standing Committee on Land and Natural Resources, which has examined complaints from the residents, has made some observations in regard to the project’s adverse impacts on the environment and local livelihoods, which would likely repeat those of other existing industrial estates.

Considering the size and the components of the industries planned in the new “Special Development Zone” at Jana, Mr. Somnuck said it is the same “industrial estate” commonly perceived.

Mr. Somnuck said the largest industrial estate in the country so far is Amta, which occupies an area of around 22,000 rai. The new estate at Jana as proposed is almost half of it and is equivalent to Map Ta Phut in Rayong, which occupies over 10,000 rai.

Some industrial components as proposed, he added, are similar to what operating at Map Ta Phut, and it’s hard to be unconvinced that there would not be petrochemical production as claimed.

The size of the plot of land set for industrial agriculture, he said, is questionable whether it fits the prime purpose as claimed, as it would be far smaller than other industrial activities proposed, being set at around 4,000 rai.

“This has raised much a question what the purpose of this new industrial estate is,” said Mr. Somnuck.

Mr. Somnuck said with or without petrochemical development in the area, the project would likely cause adverse impacts to the environment from the start, citing the land reclamation and the deep-sea port development, which would affect the marine environment and animals there, given their proposed scale.

This is not yet to mention other pollutants generated by the proposed activities there although the developers would claim there would be preventive measures in place, said Mr. Somnuck, citing past environmental damage experiences in other industrial estates.

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“GDP would grow, but what would be the point if the local residents (you wish to help) would be at the loss, while only a handful of investors take almost the entire chunk (of benefits)?

“The development that you should do is the one that does not hurt people and their environment, the one that allows them to live with a quality of life. Here (Chana) is food processing which can be developed further from their farming and fishery, and this needs no such a large scale development,” said Mr. Somnuck.

He suggested the review of the project with the idea of a community-based economy be explored in order to fit the circumstances better as well as provide more room for participatory and meaningful decisions and development.

Supaporn Malailoy, ENLAW’s manager, said the Chana model city is special in the way that it has reflected some flaws in the state’s authority in pushing ahead this kind of a development project against environmental regulations.

Unlike other development projects, which are commonly proposed by other development-related agencies and therefore abide by common environmental laws, the Chana model city project is bypassing the laws through the SBPAC’s authority, and particularly, it has misstepped such the precautionary measures as the environmental impact assessment and overridden the city planning seen as the people’s constitution and safeguard.

The protest against the revived public hearing in mid-July.
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“It’s reflected the new mindset and policy of a large-scale development project by the state in recent years, which has opted to utilize special laws and authority to bypass environmental regulations. The development of the Eastern Economic Zone is among the first cases in point, under which a new law was promulgated along with a new authorized body to push the project forward.

“Chana’s case is worse as it is being pushed ahead by the SBPAC, which has enforcing authority for security. This is dangerous because it closes the doors against people’s participation in the first place,” said Ms. Supaporn.

All these, Ms. Supaporn pointed, have reflected “the culture of dictating of power” over decision-making by the ruling government, which she viewed as being a successor of the military government. 

The Constitution, she added, has presently no sufficient legal mechanisms to deal with the rise of this kind of use of power as it has not addressed the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which would provide a wider room for public participation and consideration of development paths that fit the areas and ways of life of the people in the first place.

Khairiyah travelled to Bangkok to protest against the revived public hearing in mid-July.
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“That’s the reason why we are pushing for the constitutional amendment as well as we view that it gives too much power to the state, which is still much centralized in policymaking.

“The development policy this way is dangerous as it would only widen our inequality gap. You decide and you make an order, while in fact you should listen to people the most.

“The government needs to adjust its mindset about security. Development is not about GDP to help secure people’s livelihoods, but their self-reliance and the richness of resources. With these, their livelihoods would be sustainable and secured, the approach that the government should help strengthen, not weaken it,” said Ms. Supaporn.

Several religious teachers in the province joined the fresh protest following the review of the city planning.
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City planning review: the next step

Despite environmental advocates’ cautions, the government and the SBPAC have instead pushed ahead of the development of the project. In mid-August, the Cabinet resolved to assign the City Planning Department and the Songkhla province to review the province’s city planning on the part of the three Tambons designated for the new model city.

The area is at present designated as a green zone for agriculture. The City Planning Advisory Committee in late September held a meeting following the Cabinet resolution and resolved to turn it into the purple zone, paving the way for industrial development.

The move has prompted the fresh protest by the residents and Khairiyah again, who have now leveraged their protest to another level. They vowed to stage the protest in front of the provincial hall and Government House until their calls are heard.

Their simple calls; scarping the past Cabinet resolutions about the project and the city planning review, and turning the government’s idea from development in the present form to the true participatory one that is at the same time responsive to their potentials.

Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat
Photo by Warasiri Kotcharat