Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, being a seaside province with extensive resources, is an ideal location for the transportation of goods. Therefore the province has been eyed by large projects such as electricity plant or industrial factories.
However, for the local villagers who reject these projects, this situation causes them distress. They have to struggle ceaselessly against the state and transnational corporations. Whether it is because of this distress or not, the people's movement in this province has become the strongest in the country.
The latest development is opposition to a smelting plant of Sahaviriya Company. It is a large project planned for the Mae Ramphung area in Bang Saphan District, extending from the existing Steel Compression Factory.
Two days ago, there was a casualty in a clash between the ‘red shirt' supporters of the project and ‘green shirt' opposition. The victim, one of the ‘red shirt' teenagers, was hit by a bullet. Many are questioning the ‘green shirt' although they have confirmed that they did not carry any firearms during the clash, but said that it was the ‘red shirts' that carried them and had been behind the gunshots fired.
No matter what shirt the victim is wearing, his death needs to be investigated thoroughly and impartially without any discrimination.
This incident should never have happened. This was not an assassination, but was a death resulting from a confrontation between two sides of villagers. It is like a riot...in an area where martial law is declared! The police and military ‘could not respond' to the situation. There were rumours that they could not come on time, they came in small numbers, or some of them left before the incident happened. This is not the first example of violence since there have been signs and smaller scale violence before. It has become more evident than in the past when the conflict has changed from one between the conservation group and the company, to one between the conservation group and those that have benefited directly from the project, such as a group of politicians, community leaders, or project coordinators.
Either way, the police and military are not the only ones to be blamed on this....
The conflict between Bang Saphan villagers and Sahaviriya Company has been going on for as long as 2 years and has become more and more intense. The situation has not been presented to the larger public. There has been little media coverage. The concerned government departments also failed to respond effectively to the problem.
Many factors have contributed to making the situation more intense. The planned-project is huge, while at the same time the conservation group here is very strong. There is no compromise. They have been had experiences opposing many different projects in the past. Apart from that, Prachuap Khiri Khan is regarded as a city of dark power. In past struggles, there have been assassinations of community leaders. The best-known, and as yet unresolved case is the assassination of Charoen Wat-aksorn, a key community leader campaigning against the Bo Nok-Hin Krut power plants. To date, the case is going nowhere.
The Mae Ramphueng Forest Conservation Group started to come together to oppose this billion baht project since they are concerned that the steel project will create tremendous pollution. Another issue that has been raised is that the project is sited in thousands of rai of peat swamp forest. The area is a reserved forest which plays an ecological role in holding water from Prachuap Khiri Khan Province before it drains to the ocean. The area is also being proposed as an international wetlands conservation site. The construction could lead to more severe flooding problems as water catchment area will be non-existent.
Apart from that, the project also covers a cemetery on public land which has led to many quarrels. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has been investigated many land title documents. This led to the revocation of some rights and the demand that the company withdraw the original Economic Impact Assessment (EIA).
Later the company declared that they will move the project northward so it would not cover the peat swamp forest and public cemetery, but the Conservation Group insisted on the effects that the project will have in terms of flooding, while the peat swamp forest will be degraded.
In the context of this tense conflict, when the report of EIA has not been passed, there have been attempts to continue project construction amidst massive opposition from the people. A Forest Area Watch Centre is being set up. The Conservation Group started sleeping in the forest night after night. Although the villagers want the EIA to be completed, there has been another attempt to start construction of the mill.
The NHRC appears to be the only agency to try to solve the problem and come up with a solution. The commission has tried to establish a committee comprised of different groups, but it has not been successful as the company dislikes the proposed structure and has declared that it will not be involved in the process. With signs of violence in the community, many groups have attempted to find a definite interpretation of law relating to EIAs, but the conditions remain unresolved. The NHRC has been trying to call a halt to construction until the EIA has been cleared, but this appears to have failed.
Although the EIA appears to be the final answer to this problem, the EIA process has been subject to many criticisms. It is not clear that it can serve as a mechanism of hope that the investment will be made transparent and legitimate, and will not place an environmental and other financial burden that society and the villagers will have to shoulder.
All in all, this is a problem of the conflict between development and conservation, community rights and business. It appears that this will continue because we cannot find the balance or a clear line between the two.
What is difficult as well is the shooting occurred during a confrontation among the ‘villagers' where we cannot draw a clear and visible line between us and them. Whether the other side is bought or hired by the investors to support the project or not, ‘we' can never be sure that ‘they' are not also victims.
On the other side, where could we place those in need who lack opportunity but still have hope in industry and conservation?
If the state and its fractured mechanisms continue to fail to create a remedy for the voiceless people, the benefits from using the community's environment and resources will continue to accrue to a small section of society, and will never benefit the people equally.
The violence that recently occurred may be the starting point to make society to look and think more seriously about this issue to find solutions at different levels. It appears that there is the likelihood that the problem will get bigger and wider.