KHON KAEN – The construction of a new high-speed railway to connect Thailand, Laos, and China has pushed almost 200 families in Khon Kaen City out of their homes.
The city administration paid compensation to affected families of a railroad community since the construction began in August 2015, but residents say that the amount is far from enough.
On average, each family received about 17,000 baht (about $500 US) for relocation and new housing, about one fifth of what residents say they originally invested to build and maintain their homes.
“I actually have a house number but I don’t have a home [anymore],” says 67-year-old Niphon Prasoetchit, who has lived in the area for over 40 years. “I was told by the state that I’m an illegal resident – a squatter.”
Currently, the city administration considers as squatters about 90% of the residents living illegally on the land owned by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT).
Most of the residents are employed in the informal sector, working as day laborers, street cleaners, scavengers, and sex workers whose daily incomes are not stable.
From squatters to permanent settlers
In the 1960s, railroad workers were the first to move into the area along the railway in downtown Khon Kaen, after they received a temporary permit to settle from the railway authorities.
During Thailand’s economic boom years in the 1980s, large numbers of rural migrants moved into the city center to seek work. They settled in temporary shelters along the railroads which later became permanent residential areas for the urban poor.
Until last year, the Theparak railroad community consisted of about 700 families. But authorities evicted 179 families whose houses were located within forty meters of the railway tracks to make space for the construction of the high-speed railway project.
“We were promised that once the railway project comes, they would find us new land not further than five kilometers away, and pay us a compensation and relocation costs,” says 51-year-old Sombun Warangsi, who has lived in the community for over 20 years. “But when the construction was about to begin, no one came to help us.”
Mrs. Sombun said that despite having received some compensation, it does not compare to what she has spent on the house she has lived in for over 20 years.
People left behind by housing policy
In 2015, the city administration promoted a housing project for low income families under the name “Ban Mankong” [Secure Housing]. In the Theparak community, about 100 families registered for the project.
But a co-payment system has barred most of the low-income residents from receiving a new home through the project.
“You have to pay 40,000 baht (about $1,150 US) to get into the project,” Mrs. Somboon says. “With all the rules and so much money, who can afford to live there really?”
Without adequate support, the 40 or so people evicted from the railroad community might end up homeless, according to Natthawut Krompakdi, the coordinator of the Center for Homeless People in Khon Kaen.
“Those people have uncertain incomes that ranges from 100-200 baht a day,” says Mr. Natthawut. “Even though the rent for the houses of the Ban Mankong project is only about 1,000-2,000 baht per month, this is very high for them.”
Apart from the Ban Mankong housing project, the city administration is considering a plan to relocate the railway residents to a new area, located about about 40 kilometers from the city center. Mr Nattawut warns that most residents won’t be able to make a living outside of the urban area.
“I believe that the state is not willing to invest in anything for these people. The city’s keeping the land y for rich investors,” says Mr. Natthawut.
The former residents of the railroad community in Theparak are disappointed that the city administration did not keep its word and now seems to show little interest in people’s situation after they were evicted.
“I’m not asking for much,” says Mr. Niphon “I wouldn’t ask for a new house. I wouldn’t ask for money. I just want those responsible [for the railway project] to come see our situation. Ever since we got evicted, they don’t seem to care about us anymore.”