EEC: Hear the voice of the local people when the state-capital 'legally' grabs land

Over 30 years ago, [then Prime Minister] Gen Prem Tinsulanonda pushed the Eastern Seaboard Development programme to success, putting Thailand into the limelight amongst Southeast Asian nations. 32 new industrial estates were established, with almost 5,000 factories and over 50 billion dollars’ worth of investment.

This project came with many costs, because at that time, community rights, the environment, and the scramble for resources were not yet big issues.
Three decades later came the Eastern Seaboard Part 2, or the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project. This time, a military government concentrated its power and handed responsibility to the Eastern Economic Corridor Policy Committee (read the first part here) We will take you to hear the voices of some villagers in the areas targeted by the EEC project.

Land grabs

Yothaka villagers received a notice from the Chachoengsao Treasury Department Office in July 2014 that they had to turn the land back over to the Royal Thai Navy

"Here it affected about 3,200 rai (5.12 sq.km.) or four villages. The entire Village 11 disappeared from the population census. Our parents were here before. We are the third and fourth generation, currently 166 households of 635 people," Saithong Kengkana, of Village 11, Yothaka Subdistrict, Bang Nam Priao District, Chachoengsao Province told us about the situation he is experiencing.

The villagers received a notice from the Chachoengsao Treasury Department Office on 31 July 2014 that their land lease agreements had to be cancelled to turn the land back over to the Royal Thai Navy. The Navy claimed it would use the land for military purposes, but the villagers stayed and farmed. In September 2017, they received another notice from the Navy to hand the land over within seven days, otherwise, they will be prosecuted. They filed complaints to various organisations.

At the beginning of 2018, the Director-General of the Treasury Department gave an interview that the Department had procured over 11,000 rai (17.6 sq.km.) of state land for the EEC project in Chonburi, Chachoengsao, and Rayong. In Chachoengsao, the Royal Thai Navy handed back about 4,000 rai of land in Yothaka Subdistrict, Bang Nam Priao District, Chachoengsao to the Treasury Department, and the Treasury Department has already transferred it to the EEC programme.

Mid-September 2018, there was news that the Treasury Department had leased this 4,000 rai to the Charoen Pokphand Group or CP. This unsettled the Office of the EEC Policy Committee into issuing an explanation, that the Office had no plan to utilise the land and had never requested the transfer of the land from the Treasury Department. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department clarified that the 4,000 rai plot in question had not been declared as a Special Economic Zone, but if the Office thought that it must use this land to establish a new town under the EEC project, it had to obtain the consent of the Navy and propose it to the EEC committee for approval.

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When the NCPO used its power to manage urban planning

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), under Section 44, issued Order No. 72/2557 on 19 June 2014 appointing a Special Economic Zone Policy Committee. Over a month later, the Yothaka villagers received the notice to hand the land back to the Navy. This shows that the EEC project began since 2014.

In 2016, the NCPO issued Order No. 3/2559 on exempting Special Economic Zones from enforcement of laws on urban planning and building control, and Order No. 4/2559 on exempting certain kinds of activities from urban planning laws.

On 17 January 2017, the NCPO issued Oder No. 2/2560 on the development of Eastern Economic Corridor. This Order later transitioned into the permanent 2018 Eastern Economic Corridor Act. But before the Act came into force, the NCPO issued Order No. 47/2560 on Land Use Regulations in the Eastern Economic Corridor. As a result, EEC plans are exempt from the use of urban planning, and new land use plans are allowed which do not have to follow urban planning laws.

Land management powers concentrated in the EEC Committee

"The first time we heard of the ICD (Inland Container Depot) was on 24 November 2018. The OTP (Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Ministry of Transport) and its representative called the first meeting on 26 November 2018. They explained they were going to hold a public hearing, but it appeared in the third round; they claimed the first and second rounds were already approved. None of us had any idea about it. We attended the meeting at the health station completely unprepared. We did not even know what an ICD was. Once we learned that they would bring containers and stack them up in the area, we raised our hands against it. In the end, they informed the EEC Office that 80% of the people agreed, with photos and signatures," Naengnoi Rueangkoed, a villager of Nong Tin Nok Subdistrict, Ban Pho District, Chachoengsao Province, recalled.

The villagers filed a complaint with the Damrongtham Centre of Ban Pho District in December 2018. They called for a meeting with the OTP officials to talk before the next public hearing, because that land serves as a water storage zone during a crisis, holding water before it flows onto the Bang Pakong River. If the project is carried out, all canals would be filled in.

A provision in the 2018 Eastern Economic Corridor Act also empowers the EEC Policy Committee to propose to the cabinet amendments of laws, rules, regulations, announcements, or orders that create inconvenience or delay, or the enactment of new laws. Ownership of land by foreigners is allowed in a Special Economic Zone, as well as the use of land in land reform areas without having to revoke the land reform status. Moreover, state property can be utilised for leasing and subleasing, with the authority of the Treasury Department passing to the EEC Office. But if the state property is in the possession of another state agency, that agency's prior consent is needed. The income derived from the use of that land must be shared with the agency or the Treasury Department, and it is not necessary to apply the criteria, procedures or conditions as prescribed by the laws on state property.

It is apparent that the EEC committee has the authority to suspend many laws and manage urban planning and land use in the three provinces by itself.

Former urban plans cancelled

Proposed Laem Chabang Port Phase 3 at Bang Lamung Bay 

"Once the state decided there would be the EEC, the Navy adopted a Navy Strategy in 2017. It consists of 13 issues, one of which is Samae San land management. It saw that this island is situated between U-Tapao Airport and Juk Samed Pier, as if blocking the way. If you look at the law, you find it gives them the advantage to take the land back with no repercussion, no compensation required at all, no loss of opportunity. They used the method of putting pressure onto each group," recalled Nophadon Phonboribun, a Samae San villager of Sattahip District, Chonburi Province.

"We moved away when they constructed phase 1 of the pier. We shared the land between the state and the people. In 1997, phase 2 was constructed, this time taking half of Bang Lamung Bay. We could still accept that. We had the remaining half of the bay, but we had to restore the marine life that had disappeared. When phase 3 construction started in 2009, I did not accept any more. It took more than five years and no little investment before we could revive the sea. Phase 3 will completely close off the bay. I do not understand why the EEC must help investors, both local and international, to the point that development oppresses the local people too much," said Rangsan Sombun, Head of the Bang Lamung Model Fishery Group, and Vice-President of the Fisher Folk Association of Chonburi.

NCPO Head Order No. 47/2560 and the 2018 Eastern Economic Corridor Act stipulate that overall land use planning must comply with EEC policy. As a result, the previous plan, which underwent a public participation process, was cancelled. The new EEC plan was drafted by the Department of Public Works and Town & Country Planning. The EEC Policy Committee Office claimed that over 40 public hearings were held.

Meanwhile, the people’s sector countered that they had not participated in the urban planning process in any way. Even worse, there was a change in the colour of the agricultural zone for capitalist groups to establish industrial estates and mega infrastructure projects, by ignoring the principles of urban planning.

The EEC Watch group came out to call on the EEC Committee to halt the announcement of the EEC urban plan, and on the government to order a review of the urban planning process from the start by letting people who will be affected by the project have a meaningful participation.

However, the EEC Policy Committee approved the draft EEC land use plan and infrastructure and public utility development plan as a 20-year development plan from 2017-2037, covering 8,291,250 rai [13,266 sq.km.] in three provinces.

Industrial Estates ready to skim profits from the EEC

Orapin Sermpraphasilp, President of the Federation of Thai Industries EAST, has told the media that the EEC urban plan should increase the industrial zone, especially in Chachoengsao Province which is almost all green. Of the 11 districts of Chachoengsao, 3-4 of them should be industrial zones.

Looking back to the period between October 2018 and March 2019, 1,339 rai [2.14 sq.km.] of industrial estates were sold or rented, with an investment amounting to 8,593 million baht. Of this area, 1,328 rai [2.12 sq.km.] are industrial estates in the EEC zone. In the meantime, three more industrial estates in the EEC zone are under development: the 843-rai [1.35 sq.km.] Rojana Industrial Park in Laem Chabang, Chonburi, the 3,068-rai [4.91 sq.km.] CPGC Industrial Estate, Rayong, and the 1,524-rai [2.44 sq.km.] Cosmic Industrial Estate, Rayong.

The existing industrial estates also benefit from the EEC. The Amata City Phase 2 Industrial Estate in Rayong, for instance, was 6,000 rai [9.6 sq.km.] shifted from agriculture green to industry purple. The EEC Policy Committee Office claimed that it was reinstating a former right, as before the previous urban plan was specified, Amata had been granted permission to establish an industrial estate, but due to 'an error', the area was declared green.

Analysts of SCB Securities Co., Ltd. predict that the profits of the industrial estate sector in 2019 will go up by 37% compared to the previous year as a result of a 33% increase in property transfers.

Land Hoarding

The EEC has not just changed urban planning and land utilisation. Another important impact is the increase in land prices in the three provinces. Data from to Colliers International Thailand, show land prices in the EEC were adjusted upwards by an average of 30-50%. In Chonburi, the land price was adjusted even before the announcement of the EEC. Roadside land in Sriracha District went up to 80-100 million baht per rai. Seaside land averaged 100 million baht per rai. Non-roadside properties near Sriracha Tiger Zoo increased from 2-3 million per rai to 5 million in the past 2-3 years. Land prices in Sattahip District also increased , a result of the development of U-Tapao Airport into the third commercial airport. In Chachoengsao, the price of plots of less than ten rai along the Bang Pakong-Chachoengsao Road rose to 13-15 million baht per rai from less than 10 million baht. In Rayong, the price of land on Highway 36 jumped from 5 million baht per rai before the announcement of the EEC to 20 million baht. Whenever the High-Speed Train linking the 3 airports is finished, it will open up many areas around the train stations, and the trend of land prices will rise much higher than today.

On the other hand, people who rent property have to live with uncertainty about when the landowners will raise the rent or sell the land. Some households have already faced many rent increases.

December 2019: EEC urban plan goes into force

On 9 December 2019, the EEC Policy Committee announced the land use plan and infrastructure and public utility development plan in the Eastern Economic Corridor. The plan is in line with the 20-year National Strategy, as it lays down overall land use until 2037 covering over 8.291 million rai or 13,266 sq.km., consisting of 5,331 sq.km. in Chachoengsao, 4,363 sq.km. in Chonburi, and 3,552 sq.km. in Rayong. The plan determines four groups and 11 types of land use as follows:

1. Urban Development Zones: special economic promotional zones to support the development of new and existing cities in the river basin and along the coast. Red are commercial zones. Orange are residential communities. Light orange with white dots is for urban development. Brown are the special economic promotional zones for special businesses.

2. Agricultural Development Zones: areas with suitable capacity for agriculture. Most of these areas are in Chachoengsao, extending from the east side of Chonburi and the coast in lower Rayong. Light yellow areas are rural communities, light green are agricultural promotional zones, and yellow-green diagonal strips are land reform areas.

3. Industrial Development Zones: extending throughout Chonburi and Rayong. Purple areas are special economic promotional zones for industrial activity; purple with white dots are industrial development zones.

4. Natural Resource and Environment Conservation Zones: green and light blue diagonal stripes are open areas for environmental conservation, and light green and white diagonal stripes are forest conservation zones.

EEC plan covers wide area; provincial and district plans to follow

Sophon Pornchokchai, a real estate expert, criticised the EEC land use plan because its three main objectives are to increase industrial zones by 2%, expand residential zones by 3%, and reduce agricultural zones by 8% or 70,000,000 rai [112,000 sq.km.]. An increase of the industrial zones of 2% may seem small, but the fact is that the area of the three provinces is 8.29 million rai [13,264 sq.km.], and 2% equals ,1,600,000 rai [2,560 sq.km.], and when we combine that number with the 2,600,000 rai [4,160 sq.km.] of the existing industrial zones, the three provinces will have altogether 4,200,000 rai [6,720 sq.km.]. or an increase from the previous urban plan of 64%.

Sophon added that the announced plan is more regional than urban. Such extensive coverage naturally cannot go into detail, and errors and gaps may possibly be numerous. He also was not sure that this urban plan has really gone undergone public hearings.

Somnuek Jongmeewasin, an independent researcher and environmentalist who closely monitors EEC issues, said that this plan is a very rough regional plan, and this zoning is dangerous to various areas.

"They will grant authority to the provincial administration to create provincial and district plans, but the provincial and district plans cannot depart from the EEC framework because the EEC plan is compulsory. The state effectively ignored the principles of urban planning processes by promoting the ECC planning process," Somnuek expressed his concern.

Neo-colony?

'Good governance on Land in the Border Special Economic Zones and the Eastern Economic Corridor,' a report by Land Watch Thai, concluded that the exercise of special power by the NCPO and the EEC committee has resulted in a large amount of land changing hands. This led to large-scale inappropriate changes in land use in the Eastern region, such as in the fertile agricultural land of the Bang Pakong River watershed.

The EEC Act allows the state to access land for different projects of the EEC , be it state property or land under Agricultural Land Reform Office, since the laws concerning both kinds of land have been suspended. The Act has also caused land prices to skyrocket. Industrial estates which hoarded a lot of land are the beneficiaries of selling and leasing out lands to foreign investors. They had bought lots of plots previously, but could not expand the estates due to the agricultural zoning The EEC has unlocked this. In conclusion, EEC development in the NCPO era can be compared to a systematic and legal land grab between the state and capital. It is changing land use in the three provinces without any public participation. Through the power accumulated in the hands of the EEC Committee, a Dual State has emerged and created a neo-colony where foreign investors can lease land for up to 99 years.