Guest contribution by Pinwadee Srisupan

Under the government of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, there has been a rush to develop special economic zones (SEZ) with the help of Article 44 of the 2014 interim constitution to reorganize city plans and expropriate land for the private sector to lease.

This policy is based on the anticipation that SEZs will boost trade and investments as well as raise local living standards. Many Asian countries, like China, had positive experiences with the model and successfully stimulated the economy and improved the quality of living in border areas.

Thailand’s border areas thus have become a target for development to stimulate economic growth, especially because of their perceived potential to attract trade and investment. The liberalization of trade is seen as a way to increase the exchange of goods across borders. At the same time, border areas are still seen as lacking in modernity when compared to other areas, especially in regard to delayed economic development.

In the case of Mukdahan province, the state opened three rounds of tender to attract developers for the special economic zone (SEZ). But as it turned out, the private sector did not show much interest because of several factors: the location was not seen as suitable, the area was not ready in terms of labor requirements, and the incentives granted to investors did not measure up in comparison to neighboring countries. This was in spite of the fact that a transportation network to support trade is in the making, for example the construction of a railway connection.

The green area shows the special economic development zone. Graphic by the Thailand Board of Investment

A recent study of Mukdahan’s SEZ project by the author and Surasom Krisanajutha from Ubon Ratchathani University found that local people’s demands for development are rather at odds with the management of the SEZ. While locals favor the creation of jobs and income opportunities, they are opposed to the construction of factories out of fear of pollution.

The creation of special zones for economic development has focused on allocating land for lease to the private sector to build large factories. But such large areas of land might not be needed if it is not for the development of big industries. And one-fits-all model of land allocation to private companies might not address the real demand and the needs of the local people.

Looking at areas like Don Tan, which is a small district in Mukdahan bordering the Mekong River, the SEZ project caused land prices to shoot up. However, it might not be the only reason for the price hike since the area is located at the bank of the Mekong with potential for tourism development.

As the SEZ requires a large area, the district is seen as unsuitable in the eyes of the private sector as most of it is divided into parcels owned by small-scale farmers. Purchasing land from several different owners might prove to be a difficult task.

In addition, many farmers in the district have livelihoods problems and are either landless or do not have any land titles. For these farmers who don’t hold any official ownership to the land they cultivate, the SEZ raises the fear of being deprived of their rights to livelihood and land.

Therefore, the farmers have called on the government to survey the area and provide land titles that clearly separate their land from public land and provide them with livelihood security. It would also protect the area from further land grabbing by investors who often wield extralegal powers that enable them to snatch land from local farmers.

In regard to land use and management of the SEZ, the locals see potential in tapping into the district’s human and natural resources. The SEZ project should therefore consider local resources and capital. People in Don Tan are mainly farmers growing rice, chillies, cassava, sugarcane as well as crops along the banks of the Mekong such as bananas. Tamarind growing used to be popular among many families in Don Tan but has mostly disappeared today. The locals would like the SEZ to be connected to their successful agricultural ventures and they call on the government to provide more support for modern farming.

In addition, cross-border activities are a factor for the local economy as the foundation of Don Tan’s economy is not linked to any big city in the country. Instead the area is linked to towns in Laos because of its location at the border to Laos, opposite of the border town Xayphouthong in Savannakhet province. The border night market and the opening of checkpoints for border trade could be another way to stimulate the economy. However, the locals believe that closing the border checkpoints , or what the villagers call a “natural border path” (in Thai: dan prapheni), during the implementation of the SEZ, stands against efforts for economic development.

Mukdahan is one of three provinces designated for special economic zone development in the Northeast (Nakhon Phanom, Nong Khai) and one of ten across Thailand (Chiang Rai, Kanchanburi, Narathiwat, Sa Kaeo, Songkhla and Trat). Photo by the author.

“Special but not special,” one villager said in response to the question if the SEZ will provide anything special for the area.

Even as the SEZ project is currently not attracting any investors to move to Don Tan district, the locals clearly hold the views that industrial development in nearby areas have negatively impacted public health and that the potential for more job opportunities does not justify bringing factories to the area. Therefore, the state should not create the illusion that the SEZ will be a guarantee for improved quality of living for the people in the area.

Don Tan is neither a large district nor is it connected to any logistic network. But by creating a clear profile of the area, it is possible to develop it as a tourism spot and a venue for community-based tourism, especially areas along the Mekong River.

For this, local government officials need to understand the identity of the district and provide locals with opportunities to participate.

An interesting approach is the “Green City” policy pushed by local leaders which should receive support and promotion in order to be realized. This is the right time because the area has not yet been affected by industrial development and it could be a good starting point for sustainable community management.

Pinwadee Srisupan is a lecturer at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Ubon Ratchathani University.

Read our previous coverage

Divided over development: Mukdahan discusses Special Economic Zone

Nakhon Phanom community demands justice from SEZ development