CHIANG RAI – Thawatchai Phucharoenyod , Chiang Khong’s deputy district chief told a seminar focusing on economic and social sustainable development that Chiang Khong risks “losing its identity and soul” when the district is established as a special economic zone in 2016.
Chiang Khong is positioning itself as a culture hub of Chiang Rai province and its natural beauty attracts a large number of visitors.
There has been no lack of development money available for the Chiang Khong area, including this three-nation project under the last two pre-coup governments. But some in the northern town say that’s the problem, because too much development can be destructive.
Under the government’s economic plan, 12 border areas nationwide will be set up as special economic zones in 2016.
In the first phase, Mae Sot district of Tak province, Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province, Khlong Yai district of Trat province, Muang district of Mukdahan province and Muang district of Songkhla will be developed as free trading zones.
Seven others under the second phase are Mae Sai, Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong districts of Chiang Rai, Sangkhla Buri district of Kanchanaburi, Muang district of Nakhon Phanom, Muang district of Nong Khai and Sungai Kolok district of Narathiwat. The plan does not say when the second phase will be completed.
The government says the free-trade zone will help boost economic development as it would attract foreign investors through customs duty exemptions.
Mr Thawatchai said the district is turning into a place for the economic elite. Growing numbers of Chinese investors were coming to the district to buy land and property.
Land prices were likely to go up which could hurt local firms and residents, he said. A one-rai land plot could soon end up costing about six million baht, Mr Thawatchai said.
Concerns also have been raised over the city losing its identity. Mr Thawatchai said the rate of international crime, illegal drugs, money laundering and human trafficking was also likely to increase as visitors flocked to Chiang Khong.
On the plus side, the zone will spread the benefits of the entrepreneurial spirit, provide job opportunities and make more money for locals, he said.
Mr Thawatchai said he is also worried about environmental issues and whether industrial factories will be developed in the district. A landmark should be developed in the area to grab the attention of visitors and enhance the beauty of its landscape, he said.
He said the country’s leading artist, Chalermchai Kositphipat, is designing a statue of Pla Buk − the Mekong giant catfish − as the district’s landmark. “The government needs to ensure the free trading zone won’t cause Chiang Khong to lose its soul,” he said.
Niwat Roikaew, president of “Rak Chiang Khong” club that works to promote the conservation of cultural heritage said he believes many locals back the idea of a special economic zone. “We must proceed with economic development for the sake of local people,” he said.
He said Chiang Khong is not ideal for setting up industrial factories due to its landscape. He called on the government to promote international trading instead as the district is located on the Thai-Lao border. Mr Niwat said he shared Mr Thawatchai’s concerns about international crimes when the zone is created.
By Manop Thip-Osod