GUEST CONTRIBUTION by Kelsey Magill and Nancy Chong
KHON KAEN – On Wednesday morning, representatives of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning met with local community leaders in Khon Kaen to discuss the development of the new high speed rail system.
The public forum was held as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which requires project planners to consult with potentially affected communities before moving forward.
The Governor of Khon Kaen Province, Kamtorn Tawornsatit, and the Deputy Director-General of the Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, Chaiwat Tongkamkoon, welcomed members of the public, including representatives of the thirteen communities of the Khon Kaen Slum Network.
In his opening speech, Governor Kamtorn voiced his support for the project, saying it will improve the quality of life for local residents and reduce pollution. He expects economic integration with neighboring countries to increase since the train line will serve as a connection between China, Laos, and major transportation and tourism hubs in Thailand.
The plan to construct a high speed rail began in 2010, and includes five routes radiating from Bangkok. Khon Kaen will serve as one stop on the Bangkok-Nong Khai route, which also include stations in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai. Construction is expected to begin in December 2015 and completed in early 2018.
During the open meeting, representatives from local slum communities handed a letter to government officials in which they called for fair treatment, transparent communication, and involvement in the planning process as development moves forward.
In the letter, the Khon Kaen Slum Network proposes that “the project should consider the impact on the communities along the train track” and that “the people need to be involved in every part of the process.” The letter also advocates that the high speed rail project should use only 20 meters beyond the track, rather than the proposed 40 meters, allowing slum villagers to remain living on the rest of the land.
Jitti Cherdchoo, an adviser to the Four Regions Slum Network, said within the current plan an estimated 600 households will be displaced in Khon Kaen alone.
When asked about the necessity of 40 meters of land in areas where community members reside, Deputy-Director Chaiwat said that they “will use as little land as possible.” However, he added, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has the right of way to the land and in some areas settlements “are illegal.”
Members of the Khon Kaen Slum Network argue that the high speed rail system does not need the full 40 meters on both sides because the track gauge is only 1.43 meters wide, while the government insists that it serves as safety measure in case of train derailment.
Eli Elinoff, a postdoctoral fellow in Asian Urbanisms at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, says that the space around the track deemed necessary for a high speed rail system has varied under different government administrations. Designs drawn up first by the Yingluck administration stipulated the project would only use 20 meters on each side of the tracks. The military government’s plan encompasses 40 meters of land on each side.
Villagers are worried about facing eviction if the high speed rail system project moves forward. Yom Aedaeng, a resident of the Theparak 5 community, expressed concern as her home is located within 40 meters of the existing track. “I’m not sure where to move,” she said, “I just want a place to stay.”
As the timetable for the project’s completion and possible eviction of surrounding communities remains unclear, Mr. Jitti said, “it feels like we’re being pressured. It’s not fair because when the government wants to do something, they should ask the people first, not the other way around.” He plans to travel to Bangkok to voice his concern to higher authorities at the Ministry of Transportation.
Kelsey Magill studies at George Washington University and Nancy Chong studies International Relations at American University. They are student journalists studying in Khon Kaen for a semester.