Guest contribution by Sam Rickman and Cameron Todd. Photos by Priya Vaikuntapathi

KHON KAEN – Yesterday, about 200 people protested against a sugarcane factory and power plant to be built in the province’s Ban Phai District by Mitr Phol Group, Asia’s largest sugar producer. The protesters marched to the provincial hall in Khon Kaen and presented a letter of concern to the governor.

Protesters are concerned about potential negative effects of the projects, such as air pollution, increased traffic, and water contamination of the nearby lake. Many people in the area depend on this lake for their livelihoods.

In front of Khon Kaen’s provincial hall, protesters chanted “We haven’t been surviving on sugar; we’ve been surviving on rice. So no factory!”, “We don’t want to wear masks like this all of our lives, so keep the factory away!”, and “The people should decide their future, not the government!”

Locals say they have received no information from the government about the proposed projects. What little information they did receive from the company was plans to build a sugarcane factory and a 1,800 megawatt power plant on a proposed government-established industrial estate.

The activist group’s long-term goals include stopping any development projects that might violate human and community rights and to protect the environment around their homes in Muang Phia Village.

After two hours of negotiations and threats from military officers to arrest protesters, Khon Kaen provincial governor, Somsak Jantrakul, agreed to meet the protesters in a provincial hall meeting room.

Protesters demanded that provincial authorities review the projects and establish a joint villager-government committee to research the factory’s environmental and health impacts.

The activists called on the government to provide information about the impact of sugarcane factories and power plants in other areas They also demanded a properly conducted impact report before holding any public hearings on the matter.

Phajongporn Phiewpuan, 62, felt intimidated by the security officials at first, but said she felt encouraged from seeing her fellow villagers around her.

A public hearing on the proposed projects is scheduled for April 1.

The governor agreed to have a committee set up, but stressed that it would have no decision-making power.

He argued that he didn’t have the authority to change the time of the public hearing, and told protesters to refer the issue to the central government.

Throughout the exchange, the governor said he had no information on the project and warned protesters to show more respect respect for his office. At one point he said, “You’re speaking with your emotion, not your brain.”

Governor Somsak Jangtrakul (right) and provincial industry head, Saksit Singsunee, talk with protesters before opening a meeting room in the provincial hall to discuss the group’s concerns.

Muang Phia Village in Muang Phia Subdistrict, Ban Phai District in Khon Kaen Province is located near a protected wetlands. Villagers say it was the one of the earliest settlements in the province and ancient pottery and religious artifacts have been found in the area.

Local concerns were sparked a few years ago when Mitr Phol began buying up land in the area. Villagers say the company had bought several thousand rai and that it encircled their community forest.

In January of this year, villagers organized a protest group named “Love My Hometown” to gain more information about the company’s plans.

“The villagers only get their information from T.V. or rumors, and they let their imaginations run wild,” the governor said after the meeting. He said protests like these are “normal”, and his goal is to make sure he present the facts and bring together both sides.

He argued that expanding the industrial sector in Thailand is the best way to improve the general welfare of its people.

After two hours of negotiations, Khon Kaen provincial governor, Somsak Jantrakul, agreed to open the provincial hall meeting room to hear the protesters’ concerns.

Sam Rickman studies Environmental Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Cameron Todd studies political science at the George Washington University. Priya Vaikuntapathi studies Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All three are studying about development and human rights issues in Khon Kaen this semester.