By Pratch Rujivanarom
Participants at an academic forum yesterday at Rangsit University said that the current processes of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Environmental and Health Impact Assessments (EHIAs) did not ensure proper public participation.
The processes generated conflict so there should be reform before public input is sought on projects such as the proposed Pak Bara seaport or the Krabi coal-fired power plant, they said.
Dr Suphat Hasuwankit, Chana Hospital director and a prominent opponent of the Thepa coal-fired power plant, said the EIA and EHIA processes were only rituals that project owners had to go through while proper public involvement was ignored.
“As we can see from the development projects across the country, there are always problems with the EIA/EHIA process, as the project owners will do everything to get the EIA/EHIA of their projects to pass, so there is the strong opposition to these projects across the country,” Suphat said.
He said typical public participation in Thailand often excluded opposition groups from attending public hearing forums and project owners also frequently enlisted supporters to attend forums, so the result was not the real voice of the people.
Meanwhile, Sonthi Kotchawat, assistant of the Thai Environmental Health Association, said the problem was rooted in the National Environmental Quality Act, which was issued in 1992.
“The act lets the consultant company hired by the project owner conduct the EIA/EHIA and [control] public participation, so the EIA/EHIA is a procedure exclusive to the project owners and the authorities, while the people only have a chance to raise their voices in the public hearing,” Sonthi said.
Natpakorn Nammuang from the Internet Law Reform Dialogue, or iLaw, said that according to the official terms, public participation meant cooperative action by a group of people towards a common goal on economic, political or social matters in order to create bargaining power for the public.
However, Natpakorn said that under the administration of the military junta, public participation had been limited, as there are four absolute legal tools that the government can use against activist citizens.
“Our rights to engage in public participation at an individual level, such as a public gatherings, have been strictly controlled by the government, as the government is equipped with martial law, the National Council for Peace and Order [NCPO] order 3/2558, NCPO order 13/2558 and the Public Assembly Act,” he said.
He said the government frequently used the laws to limit people’s rights of expression and public participation. As an example, he cited the latest case of opposition leaders of the Krabi plant who were arrested on charges they violated the Public Assembly Act and were detained under the NCPO orders.
Suphat added that public participation needed to be reformed to allow the people’s voices to be heard.
“We cannot count on the authorities anymore to guarantee our rights in public participation. People have to come out and express their demands to reform the public participation process,” he said.
Somboon Khamhang, secretary-general of the Non-Government Organisation Committee on Rural Development in the South, said the first public hearing for the Pak Bara seaport in Satun next Thursday should be postponed until a proper participation process is assured.
“We do not resist the development, but we need genuine public participation and a good EIA/EHIA process. Our big challenge now is how to make our EIA/EHIA system acceptable for all sides and make the system a conflict-solving and prevention tool, as it is intended to be,” Somboon said.