Thai sea power and the Kra Isthmus canal project
Will the 329-year-old dream, dating back to the time of King Narai the Great, of connecting the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea become a reality in the not-so-distant future?
The answer is probably yes, it seems, especially with the price of oil rising the way it has in the past months. The economic imperative of opening the route has suddenly sidelined the centuries-old security concerns, but there are still lots of hurdles to be overcome. As with Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which has taken over four decades to complete, the not-so-distant future for the canal project could mean 20-40 years.
When the issue was debated recently in two separate seminars involving the Navy, Army, Air Force, Chief of Staff, politicians, businessmen and academics, the tone was definitely new: there was much less dissent. The participants, even those in uniform, agreed that the time had come for Thailand to dig a canal in the South, but it would have to be far away from the originally identified strip of the Kra Isthmus at Ranong. A feasibility study should, they said, be carried out, even though it would cost a staggering Bt50 million. This project has been labelled the Thai Canal Project.
Canals have long been a part of the daily life of Thailand. The Thailand of yesteryear was sometimes called the "Venice of the East" with good reason. In the old days, Thais travelled via the canals, big and small, that snaked through the capital, linking small villages or market-places that were inaccessible by land. Digging canals was a sign of civilisation favoured by private citizens and government bureaucrats alike. These canals also supported the country's wide network of irrigation, fundamental to an agrarian society.
The three-year preparatory feasibility report by the Senate Ad-hoc Committee on the Kra Canal Project that was finished and approved last year by the Cabinet recommended that a complete feasibility study be carried out as soon as possible. Yet somehow there has not been any follow-up. This inertia prompted the Royal Naval Academy to take up the issue and brought all concerned authorities together to discuss the pros and cons of the Thai Canal Project. Captain Soonpuen Sommaphi, the spokesman of the Naval Academy, pointed out that it would be a huge project that needed to be thoroughly debated by think-tanks and public forums.
Kamnuan Chalopatham, chairman of the ad-hoc committee, has said outright that the future of Thailand and its economic development depend on the digging of canals in the South. He said he believed that canals would alleviate the lingering effects of the economic crisis and turn Thailand into a regional commercial and financial hub.
He and his committee chose the A9 route out, one of 10 under review. To those in the know, the 120-kilometre A9 route is the most feasible path, cutting through the provinces of Krabi, Phatthalung, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Songkhla and Trang.
According to Kamnuan, this route poses few security problems because it cuts through a sparsely populated area far from the Burmese and Malaysian borders. The difference between sea levels is less than that at the Panama Canal.
What is interesting is that many of the previous discussions of the possibility of linking the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea were tainted by the ulterior motives of politicians and their business cronies. Many proposals were shot down through a lack of understanding of the broader implications. Of course, security concerns along the Burmese and Malaysian borders were high priorities from the 1950s to the 1970s. Likewise, although the conflict in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat raises concerns among security officials, many now believe that with sufficient economic development the separatist threat could be effectively dealt with.
Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, more than 20 studies have been commissioned on the canal project. None of the ideas in them has been implemented. The latest study, a 1998 effort by a parliamentary subcommittee, concluded that the canal would be feasible from both an engineering and an economic standpoint, but the Asian economic crisis froze the whole enterprise.
Now, with the thirst for energy high everywhere in the world, transportation costs have become an important issue for the energy sector. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks the threat of new attacks and piracy in the Malacca Strait have jacked up insurance premiums. Maritime security in the strategic straits of Malacca, Lombok, Makassar and Torres will require more cooperation, both bilaterally and regionally.
Soonpuen reiterated that this time around, the Royal Thai Navy would be spearheading the discussion. "The Thai Navy must take the lead, because Thailand is on both the Indian and Pacific oceans, and we have to realise our sea power and exercise it," he said. This is a far-cry from the naval officers of the past. Judging from the views expressed, the Thai Navy will play a pivotal role in providing maritime security both in the Gulf and in the Andaman Sea. At the moment, the navy has a small contingent of battleships, frigates and patrol boats. Decades of neglect, due to budgetary emphasis on land threats, have also marginalised the Navy's modernisation programmes.
The Thai Canal is one of the word's largest projects. It is expected to take 10 years to finish and cost around Bt750 billion, according to the report. Although the financial benefits have been meticulously studied by experts, with support from both private and government organisations, nobody really knows what the impact will be on the environment, not to mention the social cost of relocating residents. A transparent and thorough process of evaluation that includes public forums and debate on the environmental impact will reduce anxieties and dissent on the part of the public and civil-society organisations.