By Morten Rønning
The Thai-Malaysia Gas Pipeline Project is a joint venture between the two national oil companies, Petroleum Authority of Thailand and Malaysian Petronas. The project involves piping natural gas from offshore fields ashore in the very south of Thailand for further distribution in Thailand and also to Malaysia. The agreement between the two countries was signed by their respective prime ministers in April 1998. The gas will be transported by a submerged pipeline from the Cakerawala field, which is operated by the Carigali Triton Operating Company.
Kvaerner was contracted in November 1999 as Project Management Contractor for the construction of the onshore gas separation plant. Kvaerner has carried out the basic engineering works, and has received offers from subcontractors for building the plant. The project is implemented by Kvaerner's subsidiaries in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and is to be completed by October 2002. The total project cost is estimated at USD 250 million. Full-scale construction will start in six months.
"We are aware that there are protests against the plant, but in other parts of the community, there is also support for building the plant, because it will create jobs."
Vice president (group communications) Marit Ytreeide, Kvaerner, 24 October 2000
The gas separation plant is being built in the Chana district near the town of Songkhla in the south of Thailand. Two separation plants are planned, one to be completed in 2002 and the other between 2006 and 2009. The gas will be led in a pipeline across the border to Malaysia.
Local fishermen in Songkhla, mainly Muslims, are very concerned about the plant's impact on the fisheries. Thousands of households are based on fishing. The area also consists of sand dune forest, a rare type of vegetation rich in birdlife. This is the country's only sand dune forest.
The locals have received broad support from Thai environmental organisations and in academic circles for their demands for a halt to the project. The opponents claim that the plant will lead to a severe increase in emissions to air and water, including emissions of mercury.
Natural gas is meant to be a pillar in the development of Thailand's third large industrial area. According to the opponents, such a development will threaten the culture of the local people, and families who make their living from fishing and rubber tapping will be forced to find another livelihood.
The project has not been cleared with the local people, as paragraph 59 of the Thai constitution requires of large infrastructure projects before they are dealt with by the government.
Two open hearings on the project have been attempted, but these have been more like pure government information meetings, rather than processes where the local people get to take part in a dialogue. Besides, the first hearing was attempted several months after the Thai cabinet had approved the pipeline, investments and contracts, according to the Bangkok Post.
The first hearing, in July this year, had to be cancelled because hundreds of angry demonstrators were blocking the meeting in Songkhla. The demonstrators demanded an open, democratic debate about the social and environmental impacts of the project.
The second hearing was held on October 21-22 this year in Hat Yai. Even before the hearing, a number of groups, including the national security council, asked for the hearing to be postponed, citing fears of violent clashes in the tense situation. The building where the hearing was held was surrounded by 2,000 policemen armed with batons and hidden behind barbed wire.
Before the hearing, seventeen organisations working on social and environmental issues published a joint resolution. They demanded that the hearing be cancelled, because of the lack of transparency in the debate, the violation of the constitution's paragraph 59 on consultation with the local people, and the fact that the social and ecological studies on the project still have not been approved by the government body for environment and planning, which is placed under the Ministry of Research, Technology and Environment.
The opponents mobilised 5,000 people in Hat Yai before the hearing. The police closed the venue of the hearing, and local shop-owners, fearing riots, closed their shops and covered them up.
Thai energy authorities and the companies involved met 300 representatives of the local people, who, according to Sama-ae Chemad, a member of the municipal board in the Chana district, , were paid 1,000 baht to "support" the project.
One group of protesters managed to prevent the participants from entering the building, but were later removed by the police. Many protesters were hurt during the riots.
On October 21, a car with 40 protesters was shot at by six unknown persons, one of whom was later arrested by the police. According to the protesters, the perpetrators fled into the building of the Thai petroleum authority, the PTT.
When the protesters came to the police station the next day, they discovered that the man had been transferred to the Songkhla court. They demanded that PTT director Ya Palele be investigated in connection with the shooting, and that the other five who had shot at the car be arrested. The protesters threatened to burn the police station down, but police commissioner Thaworn Phumisingkaraj managed to convince them not to, by promising to remove the chief inspector at the Hat Yai police station, and to personally pursue the case against the one arrested. The commissioner also promised the angry crowd that they would not be held responsible for damage that had been done to the police station during the protest. The crowd gave the commissioner seven days to clean up, or they would come back and burn down the station, according to the Bangkok Post.
"There will be more violence, because the authorities do not wish to listen to the people."
Akechai Isarata, leader of the protesters who attacked the hearing in Hat Yai, Bangkok Post, 23 October 2000
Police sporting shields and batons cleared the way for participants in the hearing on Sunday, October 22, when they arrived at the school where the hearing was to be held. No sooner had the meeting been opened, however, before protesters made their way through the police block, headed by a six-wheel truck. Wielding sticks and stones, protesters took control of the meeting, which was hastily concluded with a resolution in favour of the project, before the participants were led out through the back door.
According to the Bangkok Post, 14 policemen and 19 demonstrators from the Songkhla villages were treated for injuries at the Hat Yai hospital.
Kreng Suwannawong, the mayor of Hat Yai, pledged that some of the protest leaders would be held responsible for damage to public property and attacks on public officials.
A representative of the country's petroleum authorities stated that the hearing had been carried out according to the constitution, that the public had been given access to information about the project, and that people could now make up their minds about whether the project should be started. The opponents of the project, however, by no means accept the outcome of the hearing, and will continue their struggle against the building of the pipeline and the gas separation plant, says the Bangkok Post.
Two Senate committees are to hold hearings on the project. One hearing will deal with the contracts awarded, the environmental assessment and the result of the open hearings. The other will deal with the riots in Hat Yai. Elections are looming close in Thailand, and this could become a hot election issue, says the Bangkok Post.
Marit Ytreeide, Kvaerner's vice president (group communications), says to NorWatch that the company is aware of protests against the plant, but says that other parts of the community support construction of the plant because it will create jobs. Before construction can start, Thai authorities have to consider the environmental impacts of the project. Kvaerner's subcontractor, who will build the plant, will be a Thai firm with Thai employees who know the situation well, the information officer points out.
Kvaerner has contributed technical comments to the environment report done by the University of Sonkhla last year. Ytreeide says the gas plant will have significant impacts on the environment in the construction phase, but that such impacts will be minimal in the operating phase. The area is vulnerable and PTT/Petronas has been charged with implementing a number of measures to mitigate the negative impacts of the plant, Ytreeide says.
"If the project is to be carried out, an onshore plant as to be built, but it does not necessarily have to be in this area. It could e.g. be located further to the north. Where such a plant should be, is a political decision that must be made by the Thai government," Ytreeide concludes her remarks to NorWatch.
Kvaerner in Thailand
In November 1999, Kvaerner was contracted as Project Management Contractor for the construction of the onshore gas separation plant of the Thai-Malaysia Gas Pipeline Project. Full-scale construction will start in six months, and the date of completion is October 2002. The total project cost is estimated at USD 250 million. The natural gas project is a co-operation between the two national oil companies, Petroleum Authority of Thailand and the Malaysian Petronas. The plan is to bring gas from offshore fields onshore in the south of Thailand for further distribution in Thailand and Malaysia.
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