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Yadana gas pipeline row simmers on

The Nation (29 November 1997)
Yadana gas pipeline row simmers on

The Thai-Burmese gas pipeline has been mishandled from the beginning,
senior officials of the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT) confess.
But this awakening does nothing to resolve the conflict over the
controversial project. Kamol Sukin reports. 

Controversy has surrounded the Yadana gas pipeline since it first began,
and with construction of the first half complete -- 140 kilometres of the
260-km route is now in place -- the conflict is nowhere near a

If anything, the second half is proving more contentious than ever as it
enters protected forest land -- and its progress is being closely
monitored by opposition groups. 

''It is true that we are worried about opposition to the building of the
rest of the pipeline because it will pass through about 50 km of the
forest conservation area,'' admitted Songkiat Thansamrit, PTT director of
public relations. 

Songkiat last year expressed the opinion that all opposition to the
pipeline was political or insincere, but he now admits that there is
something wrong with the way the project has been run -- mistakes he
explains that are outside the PTT's authority to correct. 

There was no public participation in the project, from its inception to
its construction, Songkiat said. And there are many people who believe it
is the wrong direction to go for energy sector development. 

''If there was a second similar pipeline project I'm sure that we would
not run it this way, but would allow more public participation from the
very beginning,'' he said. 

PTT's PR team, headed by Songkiat, is now trying to convince the media
that things have changed for the better. Their well-prepared presentation
contains a lot of promises about minimising the environmental impact of
pushing the pipeline through the forest. 

New and more expensive technology is being employed. The company is also
promising to answer the many questions raised by the opposition groups.
It intends to send a team of eight conservationists to advise those
building the pipeline about the best ways to avoid disrupting the

PTT is also suggesting that villagers be prohibited from hunting. 

''We have been asked frequently how many of these promises we can really
deliver,'' Songkiat said, but he did not explain much except to make a
further promise that PTT would try to do its best. 

But all promises are dismissed as ''cosmetic'' by the pipeline's
opponents who argue that the project has been on the wrong track from the

The most interesting development, however, is that the attitude of the
pipeline management towards the opposition groups, which include
Kanchanaburi villagers, environmental activists and academics, seems to
have changed during the past year. 

''We accept that we have learned many things from the pipeline's
opponents. Some we had never thought about before, like the pipeline will
divide the forest into two parts,'' Songkiat said. 

''Many points raised by the groups are reasonable and should be listened

But a simple change of attitude does not mean that things will
automatically be better. 

Songkiat said the demands that construction of the pipeline cease while
the project is reviewed and answers are sought to problems raised puts
the PTT in an awkward position. 

The PTT's role in the project did not begin until all agreements had been
put in place and the contracts concluded. 

''We were caught between the gas producer [the Burmese government] and
the consumer [the Electricity Authority of Thailand (Egat)]. Both sides
have contracts with the PTT for construction of the pipeline, including a
deadline,'' he said. 

''If there have been mistakes made, then the review needs to go back to
the very start of the project, when we committed to buy the natural gas
from Burma, and this is not within the full authority of PTT.'' 

Songkiat said the way the project was handled from the start caused

The public was not informed until after the pipeline had been approved by
the Cabinet, a decision which was hardly likely to be reviewed, and no
funds were made available for impact studies until after it had been
given the green light. 

The decision-making process on whether the project was viable was known
only to the authorities and whenever problems occurred there was no
mechanism to make changes, he explained. 

In light of the economic crisis, the project's viability was no longer a
matter even for debate because with the collapse of the baht the cost had
risen way beyond the original estimate of Bt16.5 billion. 

PTT needs to raise about 70 per cent of the money through foreign loans
and the issuing of domestic bonds. Songkiat declined to even attempt an
estimate of the final cost of the project. 

So neither the economic viability nor the social and environmental impact
of the gas pipeline are likely to be reconsidered by either PTT or the

No one wants to take a fresh look into these issues because they still
believe that the project is necessary, according to officials. 

The new government has shown no interest in taking up the matter, even
though Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai was at the head of the former cabinet
which started negotiations for the project two years ago. 

Opponents of the pipeline plan a public gathering very soon to demand the
government make its position clear. Previous attempts to begin talks
failed. Last month the Chavalit government declined to send a minister
with full authority to negotiate. 

The same questions about the project are still being raised by the same
groups of people. And despite the talk of good intentions and lessons
learned there is no clear sign of a change in the making. 

By Kamol Suking