Thai giant closing in on Burma port deal

Burma’s looming elections will not affect a push by Thailand’s largest construction company to sign a $US13 billion contract to develop a deep-sea port on the west coast of Burma this year.

The deal, expected to be finalised by the end of November, represents a boon for Thailand as it seeks quicker access to markets to the west. The Dawei (Tavoy) port lies on the isthmus shared by Burma and Thailand and separating the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand.

Nijaporn Charanachitta, senior executive of Italian-Thai Development Pcl, said he expected to sign the contract with the Myanmar Port Authority “later this month or the next”, according to Reuters. The controversial 7 November elections would not affect the signing of the project, he added.

Completion of the port would allow Thai exports to bypass the congested Straits of Malacca, south of Singapore. Key to the project is construction of a 160-kilometre highway and rail link between Kanchanburi and Dawei. The route is a major component of the Southern Economic Corridor, which will link Dawei with Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

The development would also include a major industrial estate on 320 square-kilometres of land for heavy industry and chemical plants.

The decision to invest in the Burmese port comes as Thailand looks to diversify from heavy industry on its own soil. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said the country needs to focus on its strengths in the farm and tourism sectors. “As for heavy industry, I don’t think the people want it in their backyard,” he recently told the Bangkok Post.

Abhisit’s stance will have been heavily influenced by the ongoing impasse over the Map Ta Phut industrial estate in Rayong, where environmental protesters forced a court-ordered suspension of 76 industrial projects worth around $US10 billion. Additionally, Thailand’s interest in Dawei has come at the expense of the Pak Bara port in Satun, which has also faced opposition by community groups.

By contrast, large-scale developments rarely face visible opposition inside military-ruled Burma. India’s state-owned National Hydro Power Company Limited (NHPC) is building the $US3 billion Tamanthi Dam on the Chindwin river in Burma’s northern Sagaing division. The project will provide 1200 megawatts of electricity, 80 percent of which is believed will go straight to India.

The Burma Rivers Network, a coalition of dam-affected communities in Burma, believes the project will result in the displacement of some 30,000 people in 35 different Kuki ethnic villages. In India itself, environmental concerns and issues over the displacement of people have stalled progress in hydropower developments.

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