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Economy

Thailand pushes dream of 'land bridge' to boost economy

Backers say it would cut shipping time by 2 days, but project faces backlash

Ranong Province is a candidate site for the proposed Thai land bridge. (Photo courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand)

BANGKOK -- The dream of a Thai land bridge, a transport route that would cross the Malay Peninsula to connect ports on either side, has surfaced again in Thailand. If it becomes a reality, a land bridge could cut shipping times by about two days, compared with the current shipping route through the Malacca Strait.

The idea of a trade route cutting across the peninsula dates back to the 17th century. Thailand's current government is looking to large public works projects to rejuvenate the economy. The proposed land bridge certainly qualifies, but the project has attracted criticism over huge cost and potential environmental damage.

Squint a bit and the map of Thailand looks like an elephant, with the Malay Peninsula that stretches to the south forming the nose. The narrowest part, the Kra Isthmus," is just 44 km across, with the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west.

Building a transport route from east to west across the isthmus would shorten the distance that cargo ships have to travel to carry goods between East Asia and the Middle East and Europe by about 1,200 km. At present, they must sail far to the south, to the Malacca Strait.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in October 2020 ordered a feasibility study on the construction of a land bridge across the Kra Isthmus. The plan is to build ports for large cargo ships in the southern provinces of Ranong and Chumphon, linking the two ports, about 130 km apart, with railways, highways and oil pipelines.

Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob stressed the importance of building a land bridge at a business seminar in June. "We will pave the way so that Thailand can become Southeast Asia's 'economic tiger cub' again," the minister said. He believes a land bridge would not only make the route through the Malacca Strait obsolete, but would also attract investment from foreign companies if a special economic zone is set up in the area.

The idea of digging a canal across the Malay Peninsula is an old one. One Thai king asked France to conduct a survey for a canal in 1677. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat famous for making Egypt's Suez Canal a reality, also visited the Kra Isthmus in 1882. At the turn of this century, too, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government conducted a feasibility study on a canal, but the project fell apart following the 2006 coup.

A canal would be hugely expensive, with the cost estimated at around $30 billion Connecting the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea would also be technically difficult: The two bodies of water differ by several meters in elevation.

A further complication is the Thai government's simmering conflict with Islamist militants along the border with Malaysia. There are concerns that a canal would cut Thailand in two, intensifying separatist sentiment among Thailand's mostly Muslim ethnic Malays.

For these reasons, the government is leaning toward a land bridge, which would be easier and cheaper to build than a canal. A senior member of the government's economic policy team said in October 2020 that building a canal is unrealistic and the focus should be on a land bridge.

As Thailand's fiscal condition worsens due to ballooning COVID-19 expenditures, the government hopes to attract investment from foreign governments and companies through the public-private partnerships.

In a report published in January, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank, said building a Thai land bridge would cost 60 billion baht ($1.85 billion), according to Thai government estimates, significantly less than a canal across the Kra Isthmus.

Yet the dream of a canal refuses to die. The Thai Canal Association, which is composed of military veterans and politicians, has lobbied the government for a canal, arguing that it would prop up the economy of southern Thailand.

"The land bridge has few advantages, as there is a need to transfer cargo to railways and trucks at the port," said Pradit Boonkerd, secretary-general of the association.

China is thought to be taking an interest in a Kra canal, as the country promotes its Belt and Road Initiative. If a canal is built, China would no longer have to send ships through the Straits of Malacca, where the U.S. has a strong presence, when importing crude oil from the Middle East. It would also make it easier for Chinese warships operating in the South China Sea to sail into the Indian Ocean.

Residents protest the Thai land bridge in Bangkok in December 2020. (Photo courtesy of the People's Network for Natural Resources and Environment Protection in Songkhla and Satun)

In 2015, it was reported that China and Thailand signed a memorandum regarding the building of a Kra canal, but both governments denied the report. The Thai Canal Association, which is conducting research with Chinese companies, is said to have close ties to Beijing.

Whether it is a land bridge or a canal, the scale of the project would be huge and impose environmental costs. The land bridge project has drawn protests from residents near the planned construction site. In December 2020, the People's Network for Natural Resources and Environment Protection in Songkhla and Satun, a citizens group, staged a sleep-in demonstration in Bangkok.

Somboon Khamheng, a coordinator of the group, says environmentally destructive economic stimulus measures are unnecessary, adding that residents depend on the area's natural resources to make their living.

Will Thailand's long-cherished dream come true? A Japanese government official is skeptical, saying he is not sure the project is worth the cost. Movement on the issue is expected by 2023, when the government's latest feasibility study is scheduled for completion.

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