As plans to build a megaproject in Dawei gather pace, the future of Pak Bara deep-sea port in Satun is heading in the opposite direction.
Once labelled ‘the port for the future of the country” by advocates, the need for Pak Bara in Langu district looks increasingly unnecessary given that Dawei will have a deep-sea port as well as heavy industries such as a petrochemical complex.
The goals behind the construction of the two ports are the same. They will shorten travelling times of cargo ships from Southeast Asia and beyond to the emerging market of India and other export destinations in the Middle East and Europe. For Thailand, cargo transportation to and from Europe can be cut by up to five days from the existing time it takes to traverse the present route via Singapore and the Malacca Strait.
The blueprint for Pak Bara envisages it to be the largest Thai port on the Indian Ocean, which could serve ships with a capacity of up to 50,000 deadweight tonnes. This potential could draw interest from China which is looking for a shorter route for its own exports to Europe from its landlocked provinces.
But the commencement of project has been on-and-off since the idea was mooted about a decade ago and has courted controversy from the beginning. The plan to build in the Petra Marine National Park pit the project backers against activists and locals who say construction of the port will severely damage the environment and destroy the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen.
Pak Bara, a short distance from Langu district town, is already important without the port. It is the main transit point on the mainland for tourists visiting Satun’s Tarutao National Marine Park, one of the most popular destinations in the southern province. And it should stay as it is and not have a huge port with big ships ruining the environment.
Construction of the port would also involve investment in infrastructure, such as a rail link to the southern line in Trang or Songkhla provinces. However a southern track extension to Satun does not figure highly in the State Railway of Thailand’s plans.
The fate of Pak Bara has been shaky since the launch of the Dawei project in 2010. The port to be built in the Myanmar town is bigger and a road connecting it with Thailand is being developed.
The Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning (OTTP), an agency under the Transport Ministry, tried to defend the merits of Pak Bara on the grounds that Thailand should have a port of its own as a guarantee for the future instead of relying solely on a port in a neighbouring country.
Despite the OTTP’s efforts _ the latest in April this year _ the Pak Bara port project has stalled especially since it is not looked on favourably by the government. That was reflected in remarks of Charupong Ruangsuwan when he was transport minister. “I ask myself whether China is really interested in Pak Bara. My answer is no,” he said before moving to the Interior Ministry.
Pak Bara’s future could be determined once the project in Dawei takes clearer shape, as it would be unreasonable for Thailand to support two ports serving the same function.
Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD), which won the contract from Myanmar to develop the Dawei project, is desperately looking for partners to get it off the ground. This has prompted the Pheu Thai-led government to throw its support behind the deal.
Thai support for the Dawei project is necessary as it meets Thailand’s need to find a port as a new gateway to the West, in addition to moving labour-intensive and environmentally sensitive industries out of the country.
But the government has moved cautiously to avoid claims of carrying ITD on its shoulders by deciding not to inject state money into the project.
An official at the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) said it is only a matter of time when the Dawei project will be built due to interest from Thailand and other Asian economic powerhouses, including China and Japan. The economic benefits are too numerous for other countries to ignore, not to mention Thailand, noted the NESDB official, who requested anonymity.
What will make the Dawei port move forward is this backing from other countries which Pak Bara does not have, the official said.
The only way Thailand will revive the port plan in Satun is if the Dawei deal collapses. This seems impossible since the government has committed itself to helping Myanmar make sure this megaproject really goes ahead.