Somnuk Krodsua still remembers the layer of black dust that used to cover his garden every morning two decades ago. His house, located in the Thai southern province of Krabi, sat only a couple of kilometres from a coal plant that produced energy day and night.

“There was a lot of pollution. Often we couldn’t see more than 20 metres ahead because there was a thick smoke,” said the lawyer. The plant closed 20 years ago, but when Somnuck heard in 2014 that the government was planning a new coal facility, bigger than the old one, he decided he would try to stop it.

Krabi’s 870-megawatt coal-fired plant is one of the first big development projects linked to China investment that the current Thai military junta is pushing to reverse years of slow economic growth. “The Thai economy hasn’t performed as [the military] wanted,” said Pavida Pananond, an associate professor of international business at Thammasat University. “We are the slowest growing economy in Southeast Asia.”

The Thai economy grew by only 0.8 per cent in 2014, 2.8 per cent in 2015 and 3.2 per cent in 2016. In the years to come, the economy will keep the same pace, according to the World Bank’s forecast, and will only grow around 3.3 per cent from 2017 to 2019, a much weaker growth than most of its Southeast Asian neighbours. For instance, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have expanded above 6.5 per cent over the past three years, and Malaysia, a country with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Thailand, grew between 4.2 per cent and 6 per cent.

But scholars and activists have raised concerns about the projects that are being approved to keep the engine ticking, often invoking the controversial Section 44, a constitutional provision that allows the military to pass any measure “for the sake of the reforms in any field” and overriding some of the main laws protecting the rights of communities and the environment. “Since the junta came in power, there has not been any protection for the environment. Almost every step they are taking is for GDP [growth]”, said Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an academic and a member of Community Rights and Natural Resources Sub-Commission, under the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.

For the junta, though, it is a matter of survival in a sensitive period for Thailand following the death of the venerated King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “The military needs a boost in the economy in order to justify their existence”, said Kan Yuengyong, executive director at Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank specialising in Thai politics. The army staged a coup in May 2014 after months of political unrest under the promise of launching a programme of reforms to overcome the political divide in which Thailand has been immersed since the ousting of the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

It’s taking longer than thought and the government is trying to reinforce its position by pushing economic growth. “The Thai junta is very worried about legitimacy,” said Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military at Naresuan University. “It’s important for the junta to show good economic results. If there are results, the Thai people will probably accept the ‘achievement’ legitimacy.”

It is against the backdrop of this urgency that the Thai government has grabbed the opportunity presented by the promise of Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR) with both arms. “It is the perfect scheme to bolster the economy,” said Chambers, adding that the previous civilian government would have done the same had it not been deposed. “It is just too lucrative.”

The Chinese scheme aims at increasing connectivity and the economic and political ties of China with more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East through infrastructure projects. The policy was announced in 2013 and propelled in a forum in May in Beijing with representatives from more than 130 countries, including 29 heads of state and government. At the forum, President Xi Jinping (習近平) said China was pledging more than US$100 billion to finance projects under the scheme.

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Since then, the Thai government has sped up the approval of projects. Earlier this month, they allocated US$5.2 billion to build one of the key pieces for the Belt and Road Initiative: the first stage of a high-speed train that will link Bangkok and the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, and that should eventually reach Nong Khai on the border with Laos. The project had been delayed for two years due to some legal obstacles that were cleared in June using Section 44. According to the project, China will choose the company that will develop the enterprise.

Thai law states that foreign engineers need to pass an examination to get a licence to work in the country, but in this case Chinese engineers will be exempt from the requirement. Moreover, the use of Section 44 will save the project from being scrutinised by a procurement committee, as required by law for all projects worth more than 5 billion baht (US$150 million).

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha also invoked Section 44 in May, shortly after the Belt and Road Forum, to speed up the controversial Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), one of the government’s main development projects that aims to expand the industrial areas in the eastern provinces of Chonburi, Rayong and Chachoengsao, which are currently focused in the petrochemical, electronics and automotive sectors. These new industrial zones will include value-added industries such as aviation, robotics or medical tourism.

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Chinese representatives have already shown their interest and will meet with senior officials from the Thai Ministry of Industry next month to discuss a link between the EEC and Kunming’s special economic zone, according to the Bangkok Post.

The EEC, which will cost 1.5 trillion baht (US$43 billion) in the first five years, is also one of the key projects of the so-called Thailand 4.0 economic policy announced last year that aims to modernise the economy through innovation, improving the overall standard of living.

A gradual strategy

Kanokwan Saeaiaw didn’t know the government was planning to build a new coal plant close to the Leam Hin fishing community where she lives until she saw it on TV. A few days earlier, she attended an event at a public school where people were given T-shirts and were asked for their ID numbers and a signature in return. Later, she was told the event was supposed to be part of the public consultations to inform local communities about the project, which includes a pier close to her house that will be used to unload coal being shipped from Indonesia and Australia. The signatures were collected as proof that the project had been explained to the villagers. “They didn’t mention anything about any coal plant or a new pier,” the mother-of-three recalls.

Like many of the projects now being pushed by the military, the coal plant in Krabi had been proposed by previous governments, but its construction had been stalled due to local opposition. The high-speed train and the EEC have also been on the government’s table for years, but neither managed to get cabinet approval.

“People are increasingly dissatisfied with the economic performance of the government,” said Pananond, the professor from Thammasat University. “These projects have been in the pipeline for years but three years after the junta came to power, there hasn’t been much improvement in the infrastructure projects,” the scholar said.

The government started to pave the way last year, when they issued several orders to override the existing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and urban planning laws. “The junta is not complying with what the normal environmental laws require ...This unlawful action lacks of good governance for environmental management of the country,” said the academic Somnuck Jongmeewasin. He said the new laws allow the government to award projects to companies before the Environmental Impact Assessment report is finished, even though the contract cannot be signed before. Nevertheless, this “locks up the project” for a specific contractor, which might sue the government if the project is dropped.

A few months later, the construction of the coal plant was awarded to a consortium formed by the Power Construction Corporation of China and the local company Italian-Thai Development, even though villagers like Somnuk Krodsua and Kanokwan Saeaiaw were contesting the two EIA reports, one for the coal plant and a another for the pier, approved by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat). In February this year, the Ministry of Energy backed the project and ordered the construction to begin. About 200 villagers from the region, Kanokwan among them, travelled to Bangkok to protest the decision. “Egat says that the environmental damage will be minimal. But we already have a small pier here and since it was built there is much less fish,” complained Kanokwan.“The only solution here is that there is no coal plant.” About 200 families from six villages live near the planned pier.

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Laws approved last year are not enough to ensure a smooth approval of the bigger projects linked to the OBOR, so the government issued new special orders. In the case of the EEC, the government recently ruled that projects related to the new industrial areas should begin one year after the EIA report is submitted. “If a project has a negative EIA report, the committee [in charge of approving the EIA] will probably pass it anyway because they will not take a risk to rule against this order,” Somnuck Jongmeewasin explained.

The government has also used its absolute powers to allow the conversion of designated farmland to build infrastructures. “Thailand is much in need of better infrastructure, whether OBOR is involved or not ... but the OBOR project is something that the government wants to rush in without a serious consideration of the consequences,” said Pananond of Thammasat University.

In the long term, the use of absolute powers to override existing laws can be counterproductive and may harm foreign investment in the future, said Pananond. “Using Article 44 with business transactions is very dangerous because what a foreign investor wants is certainty, transparency and predictability and Article 44 is anything but that.”

However, last month Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak promised at an investor forum held at the Stock Exchange of Thailand that the government will speed up more development projects, mainly railway projects and port facilities, that will be approved before the end of the year with construction beginning in 2018. The government has also recently passed a 20-year national strategic plan that outlines the economic guidelines of the country for the next two decades, and it will establish a oversight commission to limit the capacity of a future governments to develop its own economy strategy.

Giving too much to China?

Ties between China and Thailand have a long history. Successive Thai kings have paid tribute to the emperors of the “Middle Kingdom” for centuries, while Chinese have traditionally migrated to the region and Thai-Chinese make up 10-15 per cent of the nation’s population today. Chinese quickly assimilated into Thai society, and ethnic-Chinese families have thrived in the country, controlling a big part of the economy. Most of the 10 wealthiest men in the country, according to Forbes, are of Chinese descent, including the richest one, the head of conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, Dhanin Chearavanont. Another of the big tycoons with Chinese roots in the country is the former prime minister Thaksin, who still plays a significant role in Thai politics and its economy despite being in exile since 2006.

After the second world war, Thailand pivoted to the United States first, and to Japan later, the main economic powers during the second half of the last century. “Thailand has never had its own economic development strategy,” said analyst Kan Yuengyong from the Siam Intelligence Unit. “We just follow [others’] guidelines.”

However, the pressure from the US and European countries on the military government to return to democracy, says Kan, has pushed Thailand to pivot to China, the emerging superpower. “Thailand has moved conspicuously closer to China as opposed to the US, which is a treaty ally, because of domestic politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies. “The military regime needs [a] superpower support to confer a measure of international legitimacy and recognition.”

The balance between Thai and Chinese interests is a main concern among scholars and critics, especially after Thailand showed a willingness to reinforce its military ties with Beijing by agreeing to buy three submarines worth US$393 million each. “If we would have been in a democratic regime, I think we would have a better position to negotiate with China than [now],” said Kan Yuengyong.

Some of the terms of the projects recently approved have been seen as too favourable to China. “The Eastern Economic Corridor seems designed for Chinese companies,” said Chambers. Prime Minister Prayuth himself linked the EEC to the Belt and Road Initiative in one of his national addresses even as he also invited Japanese investors. “Thailand is ready to be a link for the One Belt, One Road strategy as it attaches great importance to regional connectivity,” said a press release after his address.

The EEC is designed to attract foreign investment through tax incentives such as exemptions on corporate income taxes for up to 15 years, or import duties on specific raw materials or machinery, and also non-tax benefits, such as special visas for skilled workers.

In the case of high-speed rail, one of the main concerns has been the transfer of technology and know-how from China to Thailand. The council of Engineering Deans of Thailand has asked the government to set up a facility to test the trains in Thailand so that Thai engineers can learn from the process. But the government says the project is in the interest of both countries and that the Council of Architects and Engineers will have to approve measures to ensure the transfer of technology, a requirement that will be included “as an integral part of the contracts,” explained in an email from Chirute Vis, spokesperson of the Ministry of Transport. “The benefits will come not only for the domestic transportation, but also the international freight from China. So this project will benefit [both] China and Thailand,” he said.

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For China, Thailand is a key player in the regional development of their interests in Southeast Asia due to its strategic position in the middle of the region and the good relationships between both countries, explained Sakkarin Niyomsilpa, a demographic expert at Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social Research who has researched on the recent migration wave of Chinese in Southeast Asia. “Thailand has been designated as a bridge with Asean {Association of Southeast Asian Nations}”, said the scholar. Sakkarin stresses the fact that Thailand does not have claims in the South China Sea dispute and has long historical ties with China. “Chinese and Thai cultures are similar. They understand each other well,” he said.

Thailand is hardly the only country in the region that has tilted towards China. “Most countries in the region have gravitated towards a rising China, especially during the Obama years when his pivot [to an Asia] strategy proved shallow,” said Thitinan of the Institute of Security and International Studies. The ascent of Donald Trump to power might change the scenario, as the new US president has shown less concern for human rights or political freedom. “If Trump’s US can come back in, the region would be more in balance even through tensions will remain,” Thitinan said.

Facing resistance

Krabi is no longer the rural provincial city of two decades ago, surrounded by rubber and palm oil plantations, when the coal plant was running close to Somnuck Krodsua’s house. Even though the plantations are still an important factor in the economy of the region, the trucks transporting palm fruits have been overtaken by the pick-ups carrying tourists to idyllic beaches.

“All these attractions will be gone if Krabi is polluted by toxic substances from coal,” Greenpeace said. According to the international environmental organisation, the plant will also consume 104,330 cubic meters of water per day and will release 4.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air yearly, and it will also spread mercury particles. And just as it used to damage Somnuck’s garden, the dust from the coal will once again affect the region’s agriculture productivity.

“Most business owners do not want the coal power plant,” said Teerapoch Kasirawat, president of the Tourism Association of Koh Lanta, a nearby island that will also be impacted by boats transporting the coal to the power plant. “If they open the plant, tourists won’t come to Krabi anymore because everything will be polluted,” complained Amarit Siripornjutagon, owner of a restaurant in Krabi.

In Krabi, the strong opposition to the coal plant and the political importance of the area as one of the main support bases for the government have given the town a stronger negotiating position. Protests held in Bangkok in February forced the government to freeze the project and to ask for a new EIA to be conducted.

“Maybe the government will concede in the case of Krabi because they don’t want to lose their support,” said Sor Rattanamanee Polkla, a lawyer and coordinator of the Community Resources Centre, an NGO monitoring rights of communities in Thailand. “But I don’t think the same will happen in other areas affected by the new development projects.”

Nevertheless, villagers in Krabi don’t feel that they have won the war yet, since Egat is already planning the new EIA. “If they are still going ahead with the EIA, it means that they still want to push the plant,” said Somnuck Krodsua. “But the only thing that most of the people here will accept is that there is no coal in Krabi.”

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