Protest violence cuts short Thai-Malay pipeline hearings

In Hat Yai, a southern Thai city, hundreds of angry protesters clashed with police and then stormed a public hearing on the Thai-Malay gas pipeline and separation projects. Proceedings of the hearing, which was supposed to last two full days, were hastily concluded barely 30 minutes after it started, but not before the hearing had been wrapped up quickly in support of the schemes.

HAT YAI, THAILAND�History repeated itself Saturday in Hat Yai, a southern Thai city, when hundreds of angry protesters clashed with police and then stormed a public hearing on the Thai-Malay gas pipeline and separation projects.

More than 30 people were reportedly injured. The hearing, which was supposed to last two full days, was hastily concluded barely 30 minutes after it started, but not before participants hurriedly expressed support of the proposed projects.

Wielding sticks and throwing stones, the protesters eventually took control of the meeting hall. But Gen. Charan Kullavanijaya, who chaired the hearing, and other members including Prasert Bunsumpun, president of PTT Gas, a unit of the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT), were whisked away through the back door unharmed.

The scene was similar to that of July 29, when opponents to the multi-million-dollar schemes resorted to violence to close down the session, which they had boycotted.

Protest organizers threatened even more violent action unless the Thai government heeds their demand to abort the projects, which would tap rich gas deposits on the Thai-Malay continental shelves in the South China Sea.

Protesting villagers and environmental activists claim the gas projects would damage the ecosystem, the tourism industry, and the lives of local people.

Charan later came out to condemn the protest organizers for the violence. He also criticized some media for being sympathetic to the project's opponents.

Deputy Prime Minister Trirong Suwankhiri accused an unnamed political party of organizing the anti-Thai-Malay gas movement.

In spite of the abrupt end to the hearing, Charan said he considered his mission completed in view that most of the 400 hearing participants raised their hands in support of the project.

Charan ruled out another hearing on the controversial projects. "This is the best I can do," the general said.

He said he would report to the cabinet on the outcome of the hearing in 45 days. That report would be based primarily on the opinions of the participating villagers given to the committee only minutes before they were forced out of the building.

However, Charan said others who wish to express their views should write to his panel within 15 days.

Activists said Charan was rubber-stamping the development schemes, which they said would only worsen the conflicts in the south.

Alternative route a possibility
Opposition and the resultant delays caused to the projects may lead the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) and Malaysian state oil firm Petronas, the project sponsors, to come up with a contingency plan that includes rerouting the pipeline and changing the location of the related gas separation plant.

PTT Gas president Prasert indicated this possible move that would aim at meeting the project schedule that envisions the gas from the Cakerawala field coming on stream in July 2002.

Cakerawala is the first among 15 gas fields discovered in the 7,250-sq-km Joint Development Area, where petroleum resources lying underneath are to be shared equally between Thailand and Malaysia.

As currently planned, the 34-in., 270-km pipeline would run offshore from block A-18, one of the three gas-prone tracts lying in the JDA. From Songkhla, it is connected with a 36-in., 90-km onshore line stretching from Songkhla to Kedah in northern Malaysia.

The plan, to be carried out by Trans Thai-Malaysia Ltd., a 50:50 joint venture of PTT and Petronas, also includes the installation of two natural gas separation units, each capable of processing 425 MMcfd of gas, in Songkhla.

Prasert said construction of the pipeline cannot be delayed beyond early next year in order to meet the delivery date of gas to Malaysia.

Under a gas sales contract signed in October 1999, the Thai and Malay state oil firms are committed to buy the Cakerawala gas at an initial contractual rate of 390 MMcfd for a period of 20 years starting from mid-2002.

It was agreed that the entire initial gas volume to be produced from the Thai-Malay waters will go to Peninsular Malaysia, as Thailand has deferred taking its half-share of the gas because of limited domestic demand.

The PTT executive declined to discuss in detail what the contingency plan is. But PTT officials have said the worst case would be to have the pipeline come ashore in Malaysia and the separation plants built on its soil near the Thai border.

Thai authorities said they had spent considerable effort to win a mandate to have the pipeline come ashore in Thailand and the plant to be located in Songkhla for the economic advantage of the kingdom.

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