CSOs say junta’s Special Economic Zones violate human rights

A network of people from marginalised communities countrywide has urged the military government to halt plans to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZs), claiming that the plans violate the rights of the poor.

A network of seven organisations from different regions including the Love Mae Sod Group, the Sa Kaew Environmental Protection Network, the Northern Development Foundation, the Citizen Council of Chonburi Province, and the Community Leaders Network on Monday, 30 November 2015, submitted a petition addressed to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister.

Most of the seven organisations are based in Thailand’s border provinces where land is to be paved over for the construction of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) under the economic policy of the junta introduced earlier this year.

In their petition, the groups have called on the military government to halt the SEZ plan and other initiatives to attract domestic and foreign investors, reasoning that the plans will negatively affect the quality of life especially of the poor and cause environmental degradation.

The group stressed that the junta should not use the authority of Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which gives the regime absolute power to maintain national security, to evict communities which stand in the way of SEZ construction.

They stated that the junta's measures to evict people from SEZ areas are a 'violation of human rights'.

At least 100 villagers in Mae Sot District of the northern province of Tak and in Khok Phu Kratae village in Nakhon Phanom are now facing eviction orders from the local authorities as the SEZ plans forge ahead.

In Nakhon Phanom alone, 400 families are to be evicted in the name of the SEZ while 33 people in Khok Phu Kratae are currently facing a court case for encroachment onto public land. Nearly all of the accused possess Land Utilisation Certificates (NS2 and NS3) and 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 gate of the planned Special Economic Zone of Nakhon Phanom next to the Customs Centre at the base of the Third Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge

In addition to the evictions, local environment and cultures could be affected by the industries which will operate in the SEZs. Therefore, the state should make sure that the effects would be minimal and would not exceed the gains of the SEZ policy.   

The group concluded that the government should allow the participation in decision making of local people living around areas where SEZs are to be constructed in order to minimize the effects and formulate policies which would best suit public and local interests.

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 for 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 sustainably from an SEZ. Nonetheless, the rural development expert said that the “cluster SEZ model”, which was recently developed 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.

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 in Mae Sot District in 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.

To stimulate a dismal Thai economy, the military government in November 2015 has also initiated a plan to amend the 1975 Town and City Planning Act to be more ‘flexible’ in order to facilitate industries in urban areas.

Last month, the junta’s chief economic advisor also proposed a plan to cut short the process of conducting Environmental Assessment Impacts (EIA) on PPP (Public and Private Partnership) mega projects.

The proposal is aimed to reduce the time for conducting EIAs for mega infrastructure projects from about 22 months currently to only nine months. Somkid said that the plan will increase the speed and efficiency of the process of giving public concessions to private companies.

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