Junta set to evict Isan villagers for Special Economic Zone

As the Thai military government starts opening up new Special Economic Zones along the border to provide cheap labour and a deregulated business environment for investors, villagers in the quiet northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom by the Mekong River are to be evicted from their homes.

It is early October and the lively sound of bamboo poles hitting each other could be heard clearly on the bank of the Mekong in a small Nakhon Phanom town as if it was being invaded by woodpeckers. Along the river bank, hundreds of people were climbing makeshift structures made of hundreds of thousands of bamboo poles, some of which are taller than ten-storey-buildings, against the backdrop of the limestone mountains of Laos on the other side. People were in a celebratory mood as the province prepared for the ‘Fire Boat Festival’ where each district of the province competes to create the most magnificent light displays on bamboo structures floating along the Mekong at the end of Buddhist Lent. Not far from the river, however, the usually jubilant environment of this year’s festival was clouded over as hundreds of villagers face eviction orders from the authorities.

Workers standing perilously on a bamboo makeshift structure, rushing their works as the ‘Fire Boat’ Festival the province is famous for is approaching  

In a move to shake up a lethargic Thai economy, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, head of the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and Prime Minister, in May 2015 invoked his authority under Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which gives the junta absolute power in maintaining national security, to announce NCPO Order No. 17/2015. The order mandates turning large areas in Tak, Mukdahan, Nong Khai, Sa Kaeo and Trat provinces, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, into Special Economic Zones (SEZs), where deregulation of industry and tax cuts are offered to lure investors. In addition to the pilot SEZ projects in these five provinces, more land in five other provinces, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Phanom, Kanchanaburi, Songkhla, and Narathiwat, are to be expropriated and cleared for SEZs.

Promoting his vision for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in January 2015, Gen Prayut said on one of his Friday ‘Returning Happiness to the People’ TV programmes that the SEZ project, which in its initial stage would require about 10.2 billion baht investment, would promote regional economic integration and development on a ‘sustainable basis’, adding that investment and trade in 13 major border regions in Thailand currently adds up to 80 billion baht. For local communities, however, especially those which are to be evicted from the areas which will be turned into SEZs, the economic benefits promised by the government might not make up for their losses if they are rendered homeless by the plan.

The threat of eviction

 

Located in the northeastern province of Nakhon Phanom and separated from Laos only by the copper-coloured stream of the Mekong River, Khok Phu Kratae and Phai Lom villages in At Samat Subdistrict of Mueang District are such embattled communities, where as many as 400 families are to be evicted in the name of the SEZ project.

Living with her sister’s family and five others sharing the same plot of about five rai (0.8 hectare), Kritiya Hongsamanud’s family are now living with uncertainty, not knowing when her family and those of her sister and neighbours will lose their houses as the SEZ construction plan forges ahead. Shortly after the 2014 coup d’état, she, together with 33 villagers, were indicted for encroaching onto public land. Nearly all of the accused possess Land Utilisation Certificates (NS2 and NS3) and the Land Claim Certificates (SK1) for plots of less than 10 rai on average (1.6 hectare), which they share with about 5-15 other families.

The simple house of Hongsamanud family roofed with corrugated metal, where the defunct noodle stall still stands in front of the house       

“According to our house registration certificate, we have been living here since 1993, but in reality, we have been living in this area for at least three generations,” said Kritiya while keeping a constant watch on her grandchild sleeping on a bamboo stool under the midday heat in the luxury of his carefree innocence. “If we are really going to be evicted we don’t really know where we’d go.” She said that on 29 July 2014 many police and military officers came to her house to inform her that she had been accused of land encroachment and took her to the Mueang District police station for interrogation. Shortly after learning that she might be evicted, Kritiya closed a small noodle stall that she had opened in front of her house with her sister and is now living off her meagre savings while her husband is a freelance wage-earner, hired for farm work or any other hard labour.

Recounting the deposition hearing in the case on 24 August 2015, Simmara Hongsamanud, Kritiya’s sister, said “the Governor [of Nakhon Phanom] wrote a letter to the court that day, saying that we just have to move elsewhere and find work, but who would want to hire us? We are uneducated and don’t have the knowledge.” According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), when at the deposition hearing, some of the 33 embattled villagers were waiting for the provincial administrators, acting as the plaintiff, to come to the Provincial Court to negotiate, the administrators contacted court staff during the hearing to say that they would not come to court and would not negotiate with the villagers.

Simmara Hongsamanud (center) shows the Land Utilisation Certificate (NS3) her family possesses. She claims that her family has been living in the area for at least three generations.

About 300 meters from Kritiya’s house, Son Samonrit, a 78-year-old Khok Phu Kratae villager, is also to be evicted along with her extended family for the construction of the SEZ. The oldest of the 33 villagers charged, Son possesses a Land Claim Certificate (SK1) for a plot slightly bigger than two football fields, which she has held since 1948. As the matriarch of her extended family, she has been sharing the plot with 14 other families of relatives. “I was born here like my parents and grandparents” said Son. Asked where she and her large family could move to, she said with worried eyes “We have been talking about it, but we don’t really know where to go to. We don’t have farmland and all my grandchildren are working on construction sites Bangkok.”

Son Samonrit, a 78-year-old Khok Phu Kratae villager, who is to be evicted along with her extended family for the construction of the SEZ

A struggle for land rights

 

Although most villagers of Khok Phu Kratae and Phai Lom villages of Nakhon Phanom have lived in the area for at least three generations, less than a handful of them possess title deeds while the rest only hold Land Claim and Land Utilisation Certificates, which can be revoked by the state.

According to Jirawit Chimmanukul, a local activist from the Dao Din Group, a group based at Khon Kaen University, the root cause of land problems in the area can be traced back to 1940. The young activist, who has been documenting the land encroachment case of the villagers, said that in 1940 the Thai authorities declared about 6000 rai (960 hectares) of land in At Samat Subdistrict as public land despite the presence of many families who had already settled in the area. He added that the state officials, however, did not inform the locals that the land was declared public land until 1978.

Sorn Samonrit walks along the small alley where the houses of the members of her extended family are located.

When the extent of the public land was announced in 1978, however, its size was reduced from 6000 to 2834 rai (about 453 hectares) because the officials who surveyed the area in 1978 found that many villagers had already built houses in the area. Moreover, between 1940 and 1978, local administration officials issued Land Claim and Land Utilisation documents to the villagers. Currently, the total area of public land has been reduced from 450 to 380 hectares because part of the land has been given to a local psychiatric hospital and the Royal Thai Police. “With the current military government, it is more difficult to talk about this land issue. Small people are getting smaller and their voices are reduced to whispers,” said Jirawit.  

 

For Navin Sophaphum, a researcher of the Healthy Public Policy Foundation of the Ministry of Public Health, the ongoing eviction of villagers for SEZ construction reflects a larger protracted problem of rights to land and resources in the country. Speaking in a public forum about the Special Economic Zones, development, and community rights at Kasetsart University, Bangkok, on 11 October 2015, he said that the state tends to assume ownership over degraded forest areas where many families have already lived for the last 70-80 years.

The researcher added that the state authorities tend to refuse and delay the process of issuing land title deeds to settlers regardless of the fact that many communities have existed there for generations. “The villagers are now worried that it will lead to an old problem in Thai society, where land is taken away from them and given to investors. Are the villagers not local? To answer the development needs of the locals, it has to be discussed how the area can be utilised to yield the most benefit,” said Navin at the forum.

Back in the embattled community of Khok Phu Kratae, Phiromphon Kamyot, a member of the Tambon (Subdistrict) Administrative Organisation (TAO) of At Samat now facing the threat eviction and a court case along with the 33 villagers, said that her family has been living on the same land where her house currently stands for at least three generations. Speaking of the SEZ plan while drying her hair on the front porch of her old wooden house, she said “It’s not that we don’t want development, we do. But, if we really have to move elsewhere, we should get enough compensation to be able to get by or land where we can relocate to.”

Representing local people, Phiromphon stated that last year 14 villagers were tricked by state officials into signing an agreement, stating that they would move with no conditions. “There was a public forum about the SEZ organised by state officials last year. I attended it a bit late and by the time I got there 14 villagers had been tricked into signing a document without knowing that it was an agreement, stating that they have agreed to move.” She added that in December 2014 when she discussed the villagers’ problems with the authorities, the Deputy Governor of the province the told her that they just have to move out without compensation because the government has not prepared any budget to pay for the villagers. “The officer said it’s a public estate and if you hit your hand against a wall, you would only get hurt,” said Phiromphon.

A creek that flows through Khon Phu Kratae and Phai Lom Villages in parallel with the main road           

According to Parittan Kamdee, the village head of Khok Phu Kratae, when the Third Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, which now stands right between Khok Phu Kratae and Phai Lom Community, was constructed in 2009, the villagers who had to relocate their houses were given reasonable compensation. “Many villagers have no problem with the SEZ project if they are given just compensation. I don’t know why the authorities haven’t set aside some money for the villagers this time.” said Parittan. “Most families have been here even before I was born and they don’t really have any place to go.”

Another native of Khok Phu Kratae, Thongsuk Plengsap, who has been active in fighting a long struggle for land rights, said “The authorities didn’t consult with the villagers about the SEZ project first. They said that was announced back in 1978 that the land belongs to the public, but many villagers have been here for much longer than that” Although he is not among the 33 villagers charged with eviction, the 74-year-old native added that Khok Phu Kratae villagers have been trying to obtain legal documents to safeguard their homes since early 1970. “Under (former Prime Minister) Thaksin we submitted a letter to the government in order to try to obtain the title deeds. The hope then was high, but it came crashing down with the 2006 coup d’état. Under the last civilian administration of Yingluck Shinawatra, we submitted the same petition, but then everything came to a halt again after the 2014 coup.”

Prachatai requested an interview with public officials of At Samat Subdistrict about the eviction process and the SEZ, but the officials declined to be interviewed, saying that a formal letter has to be submitted to the authorities for an interview and since it is about a “sensitive issue” they said that it might be difficult to get permission.   

Junta’s neoliberal policy doomed to fail?

 

Despite promises from the junta leader and the Board of Investment of Thailand, an agency which drew up the economic incentives for the Special Economic Zones, that the SEZ will serve as an open door for ASEAN economic integration, many experts pointed out that the junta’s SEZ plan is likely to fail.

Chainarong Sretthachau, a lecturer of the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of Mahasarakham University, at the public forum about the SEZ on 11 October 2015, referred to the SEZ policy as a new ‘neoliberal economic policy’ that was introduced in early 2000s under Thaksin’s government and was resurrected under the junta. “Under this government, it is even worse because [they] invoked Section 44 of the Interim Charter to push the SEZ policy,” said Chainarong. He added that the current SEZ policy will negatively affect local communities because it will lead to environmental degradation and the plunder of the natural resources of the country.

The gate of the planned Special Economic Zone of Nakhon Phanom next to the custom center at the base of the Third Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge

In addition, the lecturer warned that the junta’s SEZ policy, which aims at “exploiting cheap labour” from neighbouring countries, might increase what he called “economic nationalism” in Thai society. “Just have a look at it, it’s a policy that aims at tapping a migrant labour resource,” said Chainarong. “This means that for the economic growth of the country, it is just to exploit the labour from neighbouring countries, such as Laos, Cambodia, Burma, or Vietnam.”

According to Decharat Sukkumnoed, a lecturer at the Economics Faculty of Kasetsart University, who is an expert on rural development and agricultural economics, the junta’s version of SEZs is not suitable to the economic development of Thailand if its primary aim is to provide investors with cheap labour and industrial deregulation. “Thailand has already moved away from labour intensive industries. Therefore, Gen Prayut’s version of SEZs would not yield much benefit for the national economy.” He added that from the junta’s SEZ blueprint it is not clear how the local economy would benefit from the SEZ sustainably. Nonetheless, the rural development expert said that the “cluster SEZ model” which was recently coined by Somkid Jatusripitak, the Deputy Prime Minister and the junta’s chief economic strategist, to make the SEZ in each region a hub where local produce can be processed and transported might be able boost national and regional economic growth on a sustainable basis. He added that it is, however, not yet clear which SEZ model will prevail.

A Chinese logistic company which has already established a cargo storage next to the SEZ construction site

Regardless of which SEZ policy is implemented in the end, Jirawit, the Dao Din activist who is a Nakhon Phanom native, concluded “nobody wants to reject development and economic progress, but we have to ask who will really get the benefits from these projects.”

On 21 October 2015, Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesperson of the Prime Minister’s Office, announced that the government’s Special Economic Zone plan was formulated to bring about “maximum economic benefits to the nation”. Speaking of the eviction of villagers of Mae Sot District in the northern province of Tak prior to the construction of the SEZ, he promised that the villagers would be given compensation packages and urged that people should not be “selfish” and think of the nation before themselves. For the time being, the statement from the PM’s spokesman might put the minds of some families of Khok Phu Kratae at ease; for many others, however, their unknown fate is still as murky as the copper-coloured stream of the Mekong River.

The Third Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge connecting Nakhon Phanom to Tha Khaek Town of Laos across the Mekong River adjacent to the upcoming Special Economic Zone