Divided over development: Mukdahan discusses Special Economic Zone

MUKDAHAN – Hopes are high among business people and state officials in Mukdahan Province for the launch of a Special Economic Zone. But locals in the border province are divided over whether the government’s new development policy will do more harm than good.

The Foundation of Reclaiming Rural Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Action (RRAFA) and Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University organized a public forum including various stakeholders to discuss the future of Mukdahan Province under the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) model.

Last month at a public forum in Mukdahan City, divisions became apparent as local citizens, academics, state, and business representatives discussed the social and environmental impact of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) model on the province.

Mukdahan is one of ten provinces across the country targeted to set up SEZs in line with the military government’s development policy adopted in 2014. The junta places high hopes on the model’s ability to stimulate Thailand’s struggling economy and advance its regional integration.

In order to accelerate the establishment of the SEZs, Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha invoked Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which provides him with unchecked, sweeping powers. In Mukdahan, about 1,080 rai (about 427 acres), consisting of “degraded forests” and royally-owned land, will be transformed into an industrial estate.

In Pran On Village in Muang district, one of the communities potentially affected by the SEZ, representatives say people were not properly informed about the government’s plan.

Bunna Chathipa, a resident of the village, claims that community members only heard of the project from a single broadcast. “There was an announcement through the village loud speaker system that a SEZ will be launched close to our homes,” he says. “We are left to imagining what the SEZ will be, like blind people who can only hear but can’t see anything.”

As their main incomes depend on farming, Pran On villagers are concerned that the SEZ will bring factories close to their homes threatening the environment and their livelihoods with water and air pollution. Mr. Bunna also says that many are worried that they might be evicted from the land they live and work on as most do not hold official land titles.

“I want our local way of life to continue, and our people to remain generous and to care for each other,” Mr. Bunna says. “But I’m worried that the SEZ will change everything.”

Mr. Bunna adds that the villagers need the government to ensure the security of their land and their right to farm the land in the SEZ area.

A study by Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University on people’s attitudes towards the SEZ in Mukdahan confirms the concerns expressed by the residents in Pran On village. But the same study also found that some people in the province hope that the development policy will improve their lives.

Respondents expressed hopes that the SEZ will open new opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship and improve the local infrastructure, explains Kitima Khunthong, a researcher from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University.

The researcher found that many people in Mukdahan are not ready to embrace the development policy, but the government and private sector have brushed concerns aside and are already preparing strategies to take advantage of the SEZ and accommodate investors.

“Everybody is panicking, imagining that it will be like Pak Nam district in Samut Prakan Province where countless factories were built and brought about problems of trash, wastewater, and crime,” says Thanachot Chotbunyasak, Vice President of Administration and Commerce Department at the Mukdahan Chamber of Commerce.

“This is a misunderstanding, which causes people to oppose the project,” Mr. Thanachot says, claiming that the SEZ is not meant to establish a large industrial zones but rather improve the infrastructure for the import and export of goods in the province.

Mukdahan’s Vice Governor Noppadon Phaitun believes that the SEZ will improve people’s quality of life as it will attract both Thai and foreign investors and increase border trade.

In Nong Khai province, another of the three SEZ areas in the Northeast, the establishment of the SEZ boosted the border trade with Laos. But the local private business sector complained that development has remained relatively slow as the government was prioritizing trade in other regions, according to a report by the Bangkok Post.

Responding to the villager concerns expressed at the public forum last month, the vice governor vowed that the government would do everything to protect local ways of life and prevent any negative environmental impact.

But researcher Mr. Kitimat says that government and business sector should pay more attention to local people’s concerns and offer channels for participation in the implementation of development policy.

“Villagers should not be told that they have to sacrifice themselves for the greater good,” Mr Kitiman said.