The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project has the status of a Special Economic Zone. It was begun in 2017 under the government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha with an investment goal over the first 5 years of 1.5 trillion baht divided into 2 types of projects: 5 infrastructure projects; and projects to develop 12 target industries using a Public-Private Partnership system.
This project comes under the Thailand 4.0 strategy and is an extension of the Eastern Seaboard project started during the premiership of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda covering the 3 provinces of Rayong, Chonburi and Chachoengsao. But the Policy Committee of the EEC can use its authority under the EEC Act to issue Royal Decrees to increase the area, and almost all of the committee members are ministers in the Prayut government,
The EEC Board has a great deal of authority to make decisions on the fate of the eastern region. Apart from the authority to propose to the cabinet amendments to laws or orders that obstruct project operations, the committee can also take over the authority to give approval or permission from other agencies. The EEC Act also gives exemptions from 19 laws which protect the rights of the people.
This report tries to show concerns about things that were beginning to occur in the eastern region when the project was started under the dictatorship.
After the 2014 coup d’état, the NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order] relied on Section 44 of the Interim Constitution to issue 3 NCPO Orders in 2017 to initiate the EEC project. These are NCPO Order 2/2560, NCPO Order 28/2560 and NCPO Order 47/2560. In 2018, the NLA [National Legislative Assembly] (appointed by the NCPO) approved the Eastern Economic Corridor Act. A transitional provision (Section 71) states that those operations that rely on NCPO Orders remain enforceable until such time as the EEC Project Policy Committee makes a resolution to repeal or otherwise restrict them.
Panuwat Panduprasert of the University of Chiang Mai wrote in a Kyoto Review article that since the NCPO government was unelected and came to power through a coup, it has to create legitimacy in 3 ways: 1. performance legitimacy; 2. royal legitimacy; and 3. national reform. The EEC Project shows attempts to create all 3 forms of legitimacy for the NCPO. The EEC website shows a programme on the ‘Royal Science for Sustainable Development’ which includes the EEC in its content.
However, it cannot be denied that this project runs counter to the process of learning lessons from the environmental impact on the eastern region that occurred after the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate was built and runs counter to global environmental knowledge that has been developed over the last 60 years.
Amata Phase 2: ‘If there was no dictatorship, it could not be done”
The EIA of the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate was approved in 1989 but in 2007, 27 representatives of the people sued the National Environment Board in the Administrative Court for dereliction of duty for not announcing a Pollution Control Area in April 2009 as the law specifies. This complaint lead to the suspension of 76 projects in Map Ta Phut because the evidence clearly showed that there were carcinogenic heavy metals and volatile organic compounds in the environment.
“For years, everyone has been learning about the negative effects of the Eastern Seaboard. Many systems have been adjusted. There have been more conversations with communities. People have turned towards looking for common solutions,” says Dr Somnuck Jongmeewasin, technical advisor to the EEC Watch group
“In 2000, Thaksin Shinawatra thought of having Special Economic Zones which many countries were beginning to set up together because of a regional agreement among the Mekhong countries to have Special Economic Zones. Thaksin pushed this, but there was a heavy opposition to the wording that foreigners could lease land for 99 years. Eventually the bill was dropped,” said Somnuck, talking of what happened in an atmosphere of democracy.
“Special Economic Zones reappeared after the 2014 coup d’état. In 2016, Special Economic Zones were announced in 10 provinces through NCPO Order No. 3/2559. If there was no NCPO Order, or to put it more simply, if there was no dictatorial government, it could not have been done,” Somnuck is certain.
The process of interpreting the lessons from the impact of the Eastern Seaboard project unfortunately collapsed. One of the important examples was the case of Amata City Company 2, which people long opposed, but which was approved and declared an Industrial Promotion Zone under the authority of the NCPO Order.
“This area was a good quality agricultural area according to the data from the Department of Public Works and is an area that receives and discharges water. Once Amata City was sited there, the villagers protested. Just as the process of making an urban plan started 2-3 years ago, a lot of people went to participate. The result came out that it was a green zone. So the urban planning rules do not allow an industrial plant. The NCPO then used Section 44 [of the Interim 2014 Constitution], which we had heard was for suppressing corruption and controlling the mafias. So there was a dispute about using EEC project land. They applied the planning rules to make all of Chonburi, Rayong and Chachoengsao exempt from the planning process,” according to Sarayuth Sonraksa, a member of the public from the area.
Amata City Company 2 industrial project is one of 24 projects approved as Industrial Promotion Zones. All these projects are within the new urban plan which the Cabinet approved on 6 November 2019. Earlier, the people had complained that there were people in at least 7 places in the area who had been affected by the new plan which had changed the category of land from agriculture or conservation to industrial promotion, such as in Khao Din Subdistrict and Khao Hin Son Subdistrict, Chachoengsao Province, and Khao Mai Kaeo Subdistrict, Chonburi Province.
Ignoring all measurements of environmental impact
The body of knowledge on environmental protection has developed over many decades from EIA (Environmental Impact Assessments) to EHIA (Environmental Health Impact Assessments) and to SEA (Strategic Environmental Assessments). The essence is to take an area-based look at how much pollution can be tolerated. Thailand requires an SEA for development projects in the 10th, 11th and 12th (2017-2022) National Economic and Social Development Plans and in the National Reform Plan and the 20-Year National Strategic Plan. Somnuck confirms that the first draft EEC law specified SEAs, but this was cut out in the final bill. What criteria does the EEC project use to measure environmental impact?
Information on the EEC website specifies that there has been an announcement of a 2018-2021 environmental plan costing 13,500 million baht for the implementation of all 86 projects. Most deal with waste management and wastewater treatment from the industrial sector. These measures are far removed from SEA.
Supaporn Malailoy, manager of the EnLaw Foundation, found that many industries in the EEC project are pre-existing industries so they do not require to do an EIA again, which is worrisome because the data is not up-to-date. Also, the EEC law still specifies that that an expert committee can be appointed specifically to check their own EIA report and this must be read completely within 120 days, no matter how big the project may be.
Decharut Sukkumnoed says the impact that may occur in the EEC if there is no counterbalancing inspection system, no participation and no satisfactory environmental and health regulations can be divided into 3 kinds. 1. Air pollution. A study from 1997 found that the Map Ta Phut area was already at the limit. The EEC project is even more in need of an overall carrying capacity study. At the moment he doesn’t see any figures on carrying capacity but there are special economic zones which the private sector had already bought on speculation. 2. The concept of carrying capacity must be applied to water, land and waste management, but it appears that there are no studies. The problem that will necessarily follow is that there will not be enough water. 3. Hazardous waste. Current measures are not good enough. In the past, factories that were at the standard level and those in well-known industrial estates still smuggled waste for disposal outside. 4. Urban planning. During 2017, with the announcement that special economic zones were not required to follow the planning laws, it turned out that capitalists bought up land before anyone said that the area was suitable.
What is the solution?
After the 2019 election, the fact that 7 opposition parties raised a question about the EEC project is a good sign. Even though this did not succeed is setting up a parliamentary committee to study the impact of the EEC project, the more open political atmosphere will create hope to a certain degree. But this is far from a satisfactory solution to the problem.
In the view of Decharut, who has conducted research on the impact of not declaring the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate a Pollution Control Area and the future of the eastern region, he sees that from 2007 to 2013:
“In concrete terms, the EEC Act must be amended as well as the consequences of the related NCPO Orders and possibly Section 279 of the Constitution which specifies that all NCPO Orders are lawful. The government should also promote systematic estimates of the capacity of the area to support industry by using SEA and should open genuine opportunities for the people’s participation.
“During the time of Gen Prem, it was bad that we did not negotiate with him at all because we still did not know anything. But now it is the case that we know, but they don’t let us negotiate. What makes it worse is that when we have learned the lessons, why do we go back to the old situation when we knew nothing?” Decharut concluded.