TO dig or not to dig? That has been the question in Thailand for three centuries now. The Kra Canal must surely hold the record for being the oldest proposed mega project in the world.
Last week, it looked like the canal, costing a colossal US$35bil, was finally coming through. Now, it's off again.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared on Friday that the government would have nothing to do with it. Incidentally, the chief proponent of the Kra Canal project is his deputy, Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who has signed a US$50mil deal with a Hong Kong-registered firm Phuket Pass Project Ltd to conduct the study.
The retired general and ex-Prime Minister has even collected US$1mil on behalf of the government the rest of the money to be paid by June to a yet-to-be-formed foundation that is supposed to manage the comprehensive study.
Critics of the canal, including prominent economists, environmentalists and even members of Thaksin's Cabinet, say the agreement lacks transparency.
Most Thais, however, are disinterested. To them, the canal is a just a recurring pipe dream that has been talked about through many generations.
The ambitious plan to carve out a bypass across the Isthmus of Kra to connect the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Siam has been mulled by the country's rulers since the era of King Narai the Great in 1677.
Four other kings Rama I, Rama III, Rama V and Rama VI also tried to launch the project between 1793 and 1917 but they, too, shelved the plans because of security considerations.
Over the next 50 years, the plan was kept alive by the various administrations before Thailand's then military dictators decided to implement the project to boost the sagging economy in 1972.
They brought in American engineers to conduct the first real study. The generals' plans were stymied in less than a year by a student uprising that eventually overthrew the regime.
Politicians and tycoons attempted to resuscitate the idea throughout the 70s but the governments of the period steered away from it.
In the mid-80s, the Japan-initiated Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF) promoted the canal as one of the world's potential growth inducers. However, by then Thailand had already become one of the Asian tiger economies and did not have the need to bisect the country in order to spur more development.
The Crash of 1997 made the Kra Canal attractive again and its lobbyists grew in numbers. Two years ago, when the country was mired in debt to the tune of US$80bil, the government gave the go-ahead for a feasibility study.
Expectedly, the pro-canal business people welcomed the study, eyeing huge economic gains for Thailand.
Way down south of the peninsula in Singapore, however, it created jitters that its days as the regions leading port were numbered.
Agencies managing Malaysia's ports feared losing out, too, but Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir said the Government had no objections to the plan.
Interest was stoked again last week when Gen Chavalit confirmed receiving a cheque for US$1mil from Phuket Pass Project. He disclosed that a local firm, Chanoknant International Co, had offered to conduct the study under the same terms.
Stressing that the money given by the company was clean, Gen Chavalit said the government was not bound to give the project to Phuket Pass Project, even after receiving the US$50mil for the study.
The company wrote the agreement together with the Office of the Attorney-General, he declared on Wednesday.
Thaksin, however, has clearly distanced himself from the deal and the project.
Whoever wants to conduct a feasibility study can do so, but the government won't get involved or give financial support. The government has never said it will embark on such a project, he said on Friday.
If such a study is made and the result submitted to us, all the government will do is to say thank you. The government may take it as a database for possible future use. For the time being, the government has no intention to implement the project.
A day earlier, Defence Minister Thammarak Isarangkura na Ayudhaya was among the first within the Cabinet to throw a spanner into the works.
I don't support the digging. It will be more practical to push through a southern seaboard project.
Pipes could deliver oil from the shore of the Andaman Sea to the eastern corridor, he said, reflecting the views of those opposed to the idea.
CM Charoon Wutikarn, secretary of a high-powered committee studying the project, said 10 working groups comprising senators, MPs, community leaders and a provincial governor would be set up. The study would include public feedback because there were 101 possible routes, from Ranong to Songkhla.
Within the panel, however, many members are upset by the secretive manner in which the contract was signed and puzzled that money was given even before the foundation to manage the funds was formed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one panel member told The Star: Chavalit's actions has only confused the process and further trivialised the project.
He said everything about the project should be transparent. It should not be seen as merely a Thai project but a geo-political one that will open up the Gulf of Siam and bring quick access to Vietnam, Cambodia, China and the rest of the region.
o M. Veera Pandiyan is Editor, Asia News Portal, based in Bangkok (e-mail: veera @nationgroup.com)
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