By an OGJ correspondent
BANGKOK, Dec. 23 -- About 1,000 baton-wielding Thai riot police charged some 2,000 opponents of the proposed Thai-Malay gas pipeline project Friday night to prevent the protestors from approaching a Haad Yai hotel where members of the Thai and Malaysian cabinets were meeting.
Twelve of the protest leaders were arrested in the melee that injured 38 protesters and 15 police officers. Some criticized authorities for the use of force in breaking up the pipeline protest, but Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he fully supported police actions.
Protesters insisted that they wanted only to deliver a letter to Thaksin and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad expressing their opposition to the project. Alisa Manla, a protest leader, said the project would benefit only Malaysia and cause great damage to the environment on the southern Thai province of Songkhla.
However, Thaksin said the protesters were armed with weapons, including sticks, catapults, and rotten eggs.
Police claimed the violence erupted after protesters attempted to push through a cordon about 200 m from the hotel. Police said they attempted to push back the protestors. Critics charged the authorities intentionally moved to break up the demonstration in order to clear protesters from the venue of the cabinet meeting. The area in front of the hotel was cleared of all protestors as about 500 pipeline opponents gathered near the Prince of Songkhla University's Hat Yai campus about 15 km from the hotel.
Last May, Thaksin made a landmark decision to proceed with the stalled Thai-Malay gas pipeline and the related gas separation plant project. However, the proposed onshore section through Songkhla would be slightly rerouted to avoid the area where most of the hard-core opponents reside (OGJ Online, May 14, 2002).
Villagers argue that route change makes no difference in terms of environmental and social impact.
Trans Thai-Malaysia (Thailand) Ltd., the project sponsor, said it plans to begin laying pipe early next year. The pipeline is scheduled to be in commercial operation by the end of 2004.