The Kra canal project is one of the controversial and sensitive projects in the southern Thailand during the past three centuries. The project has been proposed, abandoned and resurfaced many times due to the high cost, complexities of building, security and environmental repercussions. Recently, the Thai Canal Association (TCA) raises the project to public attention and advocates the government to reconsider the construction of the Kra canal again. TCA speculated that the construction of Kra canal would create jobs and improve economy of the southern Thailand, including overall country economy. However, the project has both positive and negative effects to the country. Therefore, the Thai government is in dilemma to balance between opportunities and threats of the project towards the best interests of the country.
The Isthmus of Kra is the narrowest land of Malay Peninsula, located in Kra Buri district, Ranong province in the southern Thailand. The construction project of 135km shipping canal across Thailand’s narrow Isthmus of Kra will link the Pacific and Indian oceans and shorten east-west shipping route at least 1,200 kilometres or approximately two to three days sailing time bypassing Malacca strait. The canal will be 450 metres wide and 26 metres deep, capable of carrying the world’s biggest oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers, cutting across the Malay Peninsula about 200 kilometres north of Thailand’s border with Malaysia and 800 kilometres away from Bangkok. According to a study by the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA), the maximum capacity of Malacca Strait is approximately 122,000 ships. In 2016, there were around 84,000 ships passed through the Malacca Strait. With the current trend estimated by the World Bank, the Malacca Strait will reach an estimated 122,640 ships by 2020 and 140,000 by 2025. It is expected that the canal would deprive Singapore of an estimated 30 percent of its shipping trade, challenging the regional dominance of the city-state’s harbour once the project is completed. There are many proposed routes of the canal construction studied in the past, but the route 9A seems to be the potential option. The routes 9A will start from the Koh Lanta and Khlong Thom districts of Krabi on the Andaman coast to Wang Wiset district of Trang. Then, it stretches to Bang Khan, Thung Song, Cha-uat and Hua Sai districts of Nakhon Si Thammarat before reaching Ranot district of Songkha on the Gulf of Thailand. The construction budget of the Kra Canal is estimated at US$28 billion.
According to the Mr. Pakdee Tanapura, head of the Thai Canal study team at the Thai-Chinese Culture and Economy Association, he speculated that the Thai Canal project would create more than 3 million jobs within 10 years. Moreover, the canal would decrease dependency of the southern people on the fluctuating prices of rubber products, palm oil, and other commodities, balancing equitable distribution of income and promoting wealth among the population. In addition, at an international conference on the Kra Canal project held at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang in September 2017, both Thai and foreign academics at the event made the calculation that the 135km canal project could create up to 5 million jobs. It is also expected that an estimated of 150 ships will pass through the canal daily during the first five years of its operation, generating approximately Bt3 billion per day based on ship charges only. It is also envisaged that after the first five years, the number of ship passing through the canal will reach 300 ships a day, generating income at approximately Bt2 trillion per year. In the conference, the supporters of the canal also mentioned that the latest poll taken among 2,500 villages in 14 provinces conducted by the Songkhla University shows that there are overwhelming of majority about 74 percent who are in favour of the construction of the canal.
On the other hand, an opponent of the canal project has raised their concerns about security and environmental impacts of the project. According to Admiral Jumpol Loompikanon, deputy permanent secretary at the Defence Ministry, the country needed to balance geo-politics and geo-economics, judging from the past the disputes arising between super powers and neighbouring countries was his concern. He added that from the security agencies point of view, it was difficult to decide whether to pursue the project because more information is still needed. Moreover, some security concerns about the canal’s location in the restive south was raised to attention due to the conflict between government forces and Muslim insurgents during the past two decades. It was worried that the construction might create an opportunity for separatists in the South to exploit the project by growing the insurgency beyond the region. In term of tourist and environmental concerns, Mr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, the Deputy Dean of the Fisheries Faculty at Kasetsart University, raised his concerns over the impacts on tourism and environment if a canal was approved as proposed. Mr. Thon said that the proposed route would pass some tourist attractions in the South, including Phuket and Krabi and might cause some negative impacts to the tourism industry. He added that the Thai tourist industry generates around Bt3 trillion for the country annually. The proposed canal route would run past tourist areas in the Andaman Sea and might lead to the change of ecosystem, endanger coral reefs and aquatic animals, and turn the beach into mud beach.