Threat of new industrial park looms over the heritage of an ancient Khon Kaen town

Residents are rallying against a proposed 4,000-rai bioeconomy project in Ban Phai district of Khon Kaen. The major concern is that the project might turn the area into a new pollution hotspot as in Rayong’s industrial estate Map Ta Phut. The project and its potential effects have aroused concerns that the environment might be damaged and the historical heritage of the ancient town, Mueang Phia, might suffer destruction.

Photos and story by Adithep Chanthet

“…Our home is an ancient town. There are many antiquities buried underground. I don’t want them to build a sugar factory [here]. I’m worried it would disturb the environment of the old town…”

“…Why has only Isaan been picked? If you say the Isaan region is good, why don’t you promote the culture here?…”

“….The locals who disagree with having a big factory here banded together to oppose it. But they’ve been depicted as social antagonists…”

These are some of the sentiments expressed by community members in Mueang Phia about the prospect of the establishment there of a 133-billion-baht industrial zone ($4.1 billion), covering over 4,000 rai of land (1,581 acres).

The project, as part of a policy of the Prayuth government promoting bioeconomy, is one of ten proposed “S-curve” industrial bioeconomy development zones. The policy encourages the private sector to increase value in agriculture products in the northeastern region with local innovation or research. It is part of the National Industrial Development Plan (2018-2027) that is currently due to be proposed to the cabinet by the Ministry of Industry.

Although it has not been greenlighted by the cabinet, the mere proposal of such a project has been enough to raise concern among locals in this area of Ban Phai district in Khon Kaen. They are worried their historical heritage could be ruined by a sugar factory and a gigantic industrial estate that might turn their hometown into “Isaan’s Map Ta Phut.”

Map Ta Phut is a district in Rayong province where the country’s largest industrial estate stands. Home to 151 factories and covering 166 square kilometers, local communities have faced a string of environmental disasters, including two major oil spills in 2013 and January last year.

Winds of change 

Mueang Phia locals joined a group of environmental activists to participate in the project’s first public hearing session in 2019, but they were barred from attending.

Being prevented from expressing their opinions was disturbing to residents who now feel they’ve been excluded from the decision making process of a project for which they and their homeland may bear the brunt.

Boonthin Tetnoi, 77, says she went to two meetings about the construction, but the only thing that the sugar factory developers did was hand out sugar and promote sugarcane farming.

“I asked them where they would farm it in Mueang Phia, because it’s a holiday spot. It’s an old town. How can they build a factory?” she says. “Sugarcane is itchy. It causes irritation. You know, it’s so itchy!”

Boonthin Tetnoi, 77-year-old resident of Mueang Phia, Khon Kaen province.

Becoming Map Ta Phut? 

Boonthin is not the only one casting doubt over this development project that pushes ahead without local consultations. As the developers failed to include the public into the decision making process, Sudarat Sirichai, another local resident, started actively voicing her opposition to the bioeconomy development zone. She has questions. Lots of questions. 

“Why has Isaan been picked? What’s so good about Isaan? If you say Isaan is good, why don’t you promote the culture here? Why do you bring in industrial factories that would spoil the culture of Isaan?” she says. “If you think of Isaan as an area rich with nature, why don’t you promote tourism in Isaan to create sustainable income from nature for people here?”

Sudarat is motivated by her direct experience working in the Map Ta Phut industrial estate, where she saw rising pollution from heavy traffic, including noise, smoke and smog from the factories.

“Some oil reserves have now been set up near the community. If an industrial zone is founded, how much damage might it cause?” she asks. “It will inevitably impact the livelihood of people in the community for sure.”

Sudarat Sirichai, one of Mueang Phia locals campaigning against the industrial zone.

She tried to attend the first public hearing on the construction of a sugar factory in 2019, but she was blocked by both factory’s representatives and police.

“That day, we couldn’t even get into the venue. The factory people used vehicles to block our way. Then, hundreds of police arrived,” she says with anger. “The residents only wanted to express their concerns and to get answers about environmental impacts. Instead, they [the company] recruited people who live more than ten kilometers away and brought them into the hearing. Meanwhile, those of use nearby who would have to live near the construction were barred from entering.”

Artifacts unearthed by construction 

A Mueang Phia local opposition campaign began shortly after the infrastructure for the industrial zone was laid out. As the ground in front of Boonthin’s home was being drilled for an oil pipeline, near an entrance of Wat Phra Chao Yai, a number of artifacts were unearthed. It led to an archeological excavation that discovered the ruins of an ancient town, along with pottery and other artifacts of an ancient Mueang Phia.

Following the discovery was a debate on whether it was worth trading the area’s archeological heritage for the economic development that would come with the industrial zone.

A former military man-turned-local historian, Sarayut Srisarakam, says he is concerned that if a new industrial estate is built in Baan Phai, including the construction of a sugar factory and biomass power plant, it would irreparably destroy all remaining ruins of the old town.

“Mueang Phia is an ancient village. If a large industrial park is established around the community, it would of course disturb the environment,” he says. “I’m worried it would affect the ecosystem and water resources for agriculture or fishing, including old moats dug by the ancestors of the people here.”

Traditional wooden houses remain common in Mueang Phia. 

As old as Ban Chiang 

Sarayut says the original settlers in this area lived near Kaeng Lawa Lake. He says it is believed the ancestors of Mueang Phia can be dated as far back as the prehistoric settlements of Udon Thani’s Ban Chiang, a people called the Don Kra Yom. After this civilization collapsed, the area was taken over by different rulers from era to era, according to archeological evidence.

“The old folks told me that our ancestors had lived here since the Don Kra Yom Age. They didn’t come from far away,” he says.

Sarayut Srisarakam, a local historian of Mueang Phia.

In 1973, officials from the Department of Fine Arts came to Mueang Phia for research and uncovered a number of ancient Buddha statues and other artifacts, which were later confirmed to be from the early Dvaravati era, around the seventh century A.D. “Luang Pho Than” at Wat Mongkol Luang is one of such statue that has been worshiped by local people. Some of them are preserved at Khon Kaen’s branch of the National Museum.

“Our home is an ancient town,” Sarayut says. “There are many antiquities buried underground. Almost anywhere that you dig, you’d find something.”

The proposed project has implications for both archeology and the environment. “I don’t want them to build a sugar factory,” he says. “I’m worried it would disturb the environment of the old town.”

Sema marker stones from the 7th century A.D. of the Dvaravati era are on  display at the Mueang Phia Art Center.

A rock salt deposit as evidence of civilization

Besides its long history, Mueang Phia is also one of the country’s largest producers of rock salt. Dusit Nonpia, former teacher and leader of a local environmental activist group, says the rock salt deposit at Bo Krathin, located around four kilometers from Mueang Phia, holds evidence of settlements that can be dated as far back as the Dvaravati era. 

Currently, there are only a few residents who still make a living by mining rock salt. Most produce just enough for household consumption.

Mining rock salt now is a side job done after the rice farming season is over, and no longer a primary trade product as in the past. Dusit believes that the rock salt deposit is very much an important part of Mueang Phia’s local history. Human skeletons were discovered not far from the deposit, suggesting they were buried in an ancient “secondary funeral” ceremony.

“There’s a story that Khmer noblemen were sent to rule this area, therefore, the locals had to mine salt to send to Cambodia as levy,” he says. “They called noblemen ‘Pria’ or ‘Phya/Phraya.’ In modern language, it’s Phraya Mueang Pan.”

“The name ‘Ban Mueang Phia’ is more likely to mean ‘a nobleman’s town’ than ‘Lord Phia Mueang Pan’,” he goes on before speculating, “There is a possibility that the history here didn’t just begin in the early Rattanakosin Era. The local history of the community, and of the early settlers, can be dated back for thousands of years.”

Dusit Nonpia, former teacher and leader of a Mueang Phia environmental activist group.

Who is Lord Phia Mueang Pan?

Sarayut on the contrary believes Lord Phia Mueang Pan was a member of the Lao royal family from Vientiane who first went to what is now Suvarnabhumi district in Roi Ut, Lord Phia Mueang Pan then moved to settle in Ban Don Kra Yom around 1789, which then was an abandoned town. He was later named the ruler of the town.

Mueang Phia’s historical record also mentions stories about a ruler of Khon Kaen. Following the reign of Lord Phia Mueang Pan, nothing is known about who succeeded him. There’s no further mention of the settlement until 1905 when a record shows another group of settlers in Mueang Phia.

A monument to Lord Phia Mueang Pan 

There is a tale that has been passed down through the generations about the old water resource of Mueang Phia. It tells the story of a people who dug moats to block enemy attacks as well as for agriculture and to prevent entrance of venomous animals that could harm people in the community.

Now, several large nong, or ponds, covering thousands of rai, still surround the community. They include Nong Sa Mon, Nong Waeng, Nong Sue Tai, and Nong Sa Bua which is a large rectangular pond located west of the community. In the past, Nong Sa Bua was called Nong Sa Sim because there was an old sim, or a chapel, standing at its edge (but has since disappeared).

If a new bioeconomy development zone and a sugar factory project in Isaan are not allowed to move ahead, Mueang Phia residents believe — and pray with hope — that their old town’s history can continue to be preserved and inherited by future generations in perpetuity.

Published in Thai on Jan 17, 2022 

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