Locals pay the price as junta pushes for Songkhla SEZ

In a bid to lure investors, Thailand’s junta plans to evict some 300 citizens from their homes to construct a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in the southern province of Songkhla. While the military’s development plans could boost a stalled economy, the country’s poor are paying the price.

<--break->The junta is attempting to make Thailand a business hub of mainland Southeast Asia, approving billions of baht in new infrastructure in the process. In May 2015, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued NCPO Order No. 17/2015, turning large areas along the country’s borders into SEZs where industry deregulation and tax cuts are offered to lure investors.

Located at the Thai-Malaysian border, 1,207 rai of land in Samnakkham Subdistrict, Sadao District has been reclaimed by the Treasury Department in preparation for SEZ construction. But authorities will evict hundreds of people from the plot before the land is handed over to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT).
 
A busy customhouse close to the Thai-Malaysian border in Sadao District of Songkhla
 
Move out or be charged
 
It’s the end of the monsoon season. Grey clouds descend above a quiet amusement park. 300 metres away, Sitifatimoh Abdunloh, a 48-year-old Muslim woman, is sitting in front her petrol stall staring passively at trucks passing by.
 
“Business is not as good as it usually is. And since they cut off electricity to our house, we now have to generate our own electricity with petrol,” says Sitifatimoh.
 
Living in one of four houses spared from the recent demolition, Sitifatimoh and hundreds of her neighbours do not know how much longer they can resist eviction by state authorities.
 
 
Sitifatimoh, an occupant of one of the four houses left on the land plot required for the first phase of the construction of Sadao SEZ
 
Most families living on the land plot reclaimed for SEZ construction in Sadao have been living in the area since 2004. The land initially belonged to Surin Limvarakorn, a rubber plantation owner. However, he was charged with money laundering and the land was confiscated by the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO). The AMLO then rented out the land plot at the cost of 1,000 baht per square meter.
 
After the court case against Surin ended in July 2015, the AMLO handed the land plot over to the Treasury Department. It was subsequently proposed as an area suitable for SEZ construction. Overnight, people who had been peacefully living on the plot for a decade were deemed land encroachers.   
 
600 rai of land has already been paved during the first phase of SEZ construction after the authorities evicted about 39 people from the plot. There are only four houses left undemolished in this area, one of which is Sitifatimoh’s. The second phase of construction, however, will involve a further 400 rai on which there are some 259 people still living. Most remain adamant not to move.
 

“They [the authorities] say that we have trespassed onto the public land plot but we legally occupied the land and had been paying rent every month since we settled here,” said Arun Kamnerdphon, 48, the leader of the community of around 300 people now battling the eviction order.

 
 
Arun Kamnerdphon with the villagers who are now facing an eviction order from authorities  
 
Arun told Prachatai that people who have settled in the area came from across the country. Most initially came to work in restaurants or on construction sites in Malaysia, but stayed in Sadao. When they were informed that the AMLO was renting out cheap land a decade ago, they then moved from Sadao city to settle down on the plot and planted bananas, passion fruit and vegetables for extra income.  
 
Arun added that since the announcement of the SEZ plan, public officers — along with armed soldiers — have been visiting villagers’ houses repeatedly to order them to leave the area. Villagers feel intimidated by such visits.
 
“Soldiers and officials have visited our house many times after they put up an announcement that we have to leave the area. We felt really scared whenever they came carrying arms,” Sitifatimoh said. “The last time they came they cut off the electricity wire leading to our house, so now we have to pay 60-80 baht a day generating it on our own.”
 
Opposite Sitifatimoh’s house, Kongkam Jaiya, 57, a construction worker who plants vegetables in the backyard of his simple house to sell to a Malaysian middle man, also faces the same eviction order.
 

“I moved here more than 10 years ago and spent a lot of money building up a small dwelling here. We don’t want to move of course because most of us don’t have much money. I don’t know where to move to because land plots in Sadao are very expensive,” said Kongkam.

 
A simple house with a small banana plantation, occupied by a Sadao villager about to be evicted by the authorities
 
According to Kecha Benchakarn, the Mayor of Sumnakkham, most of the settlers have illegally occupied the area. As such, they will be evicted without compensation or the provision of land for resettlement.
 
“Most have rented out the land illegally through people who claimed to have authorisation from the AMLO to act as rental agents. The only legal renter of the plot was the owner of the construction equipment shop who rented the plot of his shop directly from the AMLO,” said Kecha.
 
“Only 39 people whom we have proven have been living in the area for more than 10 years and who have low income will be entitled to residences in a new resettlement area close to the new municipality office. Each of them will be given about 50 square metres or a room if we decide the build row houses for them instead,” said the Mayor. “As for the rest, if they don’t want to move we will have no choice but to file charges against them.”
 
Development for who?
 
Besides eviction, the people living on the plot planned for the SEZ are fighting the establishment of heavy industry in the area. “We don’t want heavy industries to locate here. Sadao is a popular tourist destination for Malaysians since it is right at the border. So I don’t know why they want to build more factories here,” said Arun.
 
The leader of the embattled community said villagers have just submitted a joint statement requesting that authorities divide the remaining 400 rai of land and allow them to have 274 rai where they will live and establish an agricultural cooperative to grow food for the district.
 

“We told the authorities that we would like to meet halfway. The authorities can open the SEZ and build factories while still allowing us to live in the area,” Arun told Prachatai. “We hope that they will listen to us and reconsider the plan. So far, we have not received any response.”

 
 
A large land plot next to an estate required for the construction of Sadao SEZ. The plot has been paved for the construction of Sadao’s new customhouse   
 
From the perspective of the Sumnakkham mayor however, authorities cannot concede to such demands as the land belonged to the Treasury Department and is about to be handed over to the the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT). However, one thing that Kecha and the villagers of the embattled community are in agreement over is that heavy industries should not be located in Sadao.
 

“According to the IEAT, Sadao SEZ will be constructed to facilitate logistic industries, mostly to increase Thai-Malaysian trade potential. Factories set up in the SEZ will be for processing goods not for producing them,” said Kecha. “However, I’m afraid that later on when the SEZ is fully constructed, the IEAT will also allow heavy industries to locate in it.”

 
 
Kecha Benchakarn, the current Mayor of Sumnakkham
 
The Sumnakkham mayor said that Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, now serves as the chairman of the nation’s SEZ policy committee. He urges relevant authorities to reconsider the SEZ plan, adding that Sadao should be developed into a transportation hub for Songkhla as many Malaysians have to travel through the district before going elsewhere. Optimistically, he concluded that the SEZ will diversify Sadao’s economic base and create more jobs for people in the region.
 
Yet for Sadao’s business community, it remains unclear how the SEZ plan will benefit them because they never hear any details about the policy. Chairat Ruangvarunwattana, the owner of Thavorn Para Rubber Industry, told Prachatai, “businessmen in the area are still unsure about the SEZ plan. As for our businesses, things go on as usual.”
 
Another mega project
 
About 50 kilometers from Sadao District, the residents of the quiet Haad Son Village of Thaling Chan Subdistrict, Jana District are now also restless. The Thai junta has reintroduced its plan to build the Second Deep Sea Port of Songkhla in the area as a part of its mega development projects in the region.
 

According to Somboon Phrueksanusak, former deputy chairman of Songkhla Industrial Council, the port project will serve as an extra incentive to draw in more investors into Songkhla’s SEZ — similar to the ways in which the sea port of Laem Chabang in the eastern province of Chonburi attracted regional investment.

 
 
The beach of Haad Son Village of Thaling Chan Subdistrict, Jana District of Songkhla where most villagers engage in sustainable fishery
 
But for villagers in Jana, most of whom are fishermen, the 11 billion baht port project will be the death of the local fishing community.
 
Rungrueng Ramanya, 44, a community leader and president of the Jana Sea Conservation Group, told Prachatai, “In the past, the fish stock in Jana sea was depleted because of overfishing. We spent 20 years fighting against large trawlers and unregulated fishing, so that the sea could recover. Now that we have succeeded, it is going to be taken away from us again.”
 
He added that about 675 rai will be reclaimed for the port’s construction under the current proposal from Thailand’s Marine Department. About 400 Haad Son villagers will be evicted from the area.
 
“They just conducted the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project, but the locals didn’t know anything about it,” said Rungrueng. “Authorities have called for the junta leader to enact Section 44 [of the Interim Constitution] to quickly approve the project. I don’t know why they have to rush it. Why do they always try to use such laws with poor people?”
 
 
Rungrueng Ramanya, a 44-year-old community leader and president of the Jana Sea Conservation Group
 
Speaking on behalf of her neighbours, Sainub Yamanya, 45, a local fisherman of Haad Son, said that villagers do not want the sea port because most are already satisfied with the livelihood provided by the sea of Jana.
 
“Living like this, we are not rich, but we are not poor either. We get at least a thousand baht a day working for only a couple hours because we have been conserving the sea well and she repays us with fish,” said Sainub. “Now those people who want to build the port say that we should lay down our fishing nets and go work in factories or sell souvenirs once the port is constructed. It is rather funny.”
 
Despite opposition from locals, the junta’s absolute power under Section 44 [of the Interim Charter] would make it much easier for authorities to go ahead with their development projects. The villagers now fear their nightmare will become reality.
 
“Authorities claim these projects might be beneficial for national security and the economy. But what about us? What about our security?” concluded Rungrueng.
 

Sainub Yamanya, a 45-year-old local fisherman of Haad Son, who opposes the construction of Jana Deep Sea Port