Tambon Mai Rut, a sub-district in Thailand’s easternmost province of Trat once housed some 100,000 Cambodians who escaped atrocities at home during the Khmer Rouge era.
The refugee camp, which opened in 1975 following the American troops’ pullout of Cambodia, closed down 11 years later.
Now Mai Rut and two other tambons (sub-districts) are poised to be turned into a camp of a different kind.
In 2015, the Government of Thailand launched a plan that designates 10 border provinces as “Special Economic Zones (SEZs)”. Trat, situated adjacent to Cambodia, is one of the 10. Specifically, Mairut together with Khlong Yai and Hat Lek sub-districts have been earmarked as the eastern SEZ.
Trat is more than just a border town of neighboring Cambodia. With 165 km of coastline along the Gulf of Thailand, and a vast expanse of mangrove forests, fisheries is one of its residents’ most important occupations.
The province is also endowed with fruit orchards because of its favorable climate and geography.
Each year a great number of tourists from far and wide are drawn to its beautiful beaches and islands. Many of its 52 islands feature still-pristine coral reefs. Tourism has increasingly become a mainstay of the local economy.
But all this could soon change. Because of its well-endowed natural resources, the government has earmarked Trat as a “Golden Gateway” under its SEZ plan. It will serve regional tourism, regional food supply and international trade, supplemented by the establishment of an import-export support and service center, a logistic system development center, and a regional tourism service center.
A representative of Property Perfect Plc., an SEZ developer, has revealed that the industrial estate will be divided into four zones: (1) Commercial Zone consisting a border trade market, a community market, and a duty free zone; (2) Recreation Zone consisting of hotels and an amusement park; (3) Eco-industrial Zone for agro-industry; and, (4) Green Zone consisting of mangrove forest reservation center, a museum, a public park and a community service center.
Construction is set to begin in 2019 at an estimated cost of 3-5 billion baht (US$91-242 million).
A mega-project such as this requires large tracts of land. After the SEZ plan was announced, land prices skyrocketed to an extent that the government deemed it unaffordable.
So to acquire necessary land for construction, the government revoked the status of many public lands including forest reserves, land for agricultural reform, and conservation forests. The Treasury Department was then empowered to manage the land.
Public land privatized?
On Nov. 23, 2016, Property Perfect entered into an agreement to lease the land from the Treasury Department. The lease would last 50 years but the company has an option to extend it for another 49 years for a total of 99 years.
Included in the contract is a 127-hectare plot in Tambon Mai Rut that was once the site of a Cambodian refugee camp.
After its closure in 1986, the site reverted to its original status of public land. Since then, local people have been using it to raise cattle, grow eucalyptus trees, and collect mushrooms.
Villagers also depend on mangrove forests in the area to catch fish, crabs and other marine animals to supplement their income.
While the government insists that the SEZ plan is good for the economy, local and business people are not so certain they would benefit from the project.
Business people complain that the SEZ has not created opportunities for local businesses. Instead, the project has mainly benefited major business concerns from outside the area.
They say the role of local businesses is also diminished because the SEZ policy is implemented in a top-down fashion with the central government giving orders and leaving no room for public participation.
“In the case of the SEZ in Khlong Yai district, the only benefit that local people will have is to supply raw materials for production process. Local businesses will not gain any of the main benefits,” said Pipat Rueksahakul, president of the Federation of Thai Industries Trat Chapter.
Local administration officials have also expressed concerns.
Speaking at a seminar in August 2016, Arpakorn Charoenpol, president of Tambon Khlong Yai Administration Organization, said local villagers would gain little from the scheme and he was worried about the impacts it would bring.
“The most important thing,” he said, “is to listen to the local people.” He added that most local people were still in the dark about the project.
Environmental impacts top locals’ concerns
The lack of information and clear direction from the government raises serious doubts among villagers, said one village chief, Prawing Nimmak.
She said most villagers didn’t believe the project would improve their livelihoods.
“They are happy with the way things are, to have the forest where they can collect mushrooms and raise cattle. A villager wanted to know if they’d be allowed to sell their produce in the SEZ. I couldn’t answer her question,” Mrs. Prawing said.
Most villagers are more concerned about environmental impacts which would directly affect their livelihoods.
“Our livelihoods depend on natural resources. But how can we manage the resources sustainably after this project?,” asked a villager.
He cited as an example the planned construction of a multipurpose port which, he said, not only would create conflicts between local fishermen and commercial fishers but also pollution from oil leaks.
Others pointed to several environmental problems arising from industrial development in the neighboring provinces of Chonburi and Rayong.
They said oil leaks from heavy commercial shipping traffic had led to a precipitous drop in marine animal population to such an extent that many fishermen had to give up fishing and take up new occupations.
In the end, however, some villagers feel that since they are powerless to stop the SEZ development, so they might as well adapt and try to get the most out of it.
Some suggest that villagers produce uniquely local products for sale, and that villagers be trained to be tour guides.
“Let’s turn the crisis into an opportunity,” said Mrs. Prawing. “If we have to accept the SEZ project, we should try to protect ourselves and gain from it.”