In the late 1980s Thailand embarked on an ambitious project to transform a popular stretch of coastline east of Bangkok into the country’s largest industrial estate. Ten years later however health experts found that Rayong province, home to the 25 sq. kilometre Maptaphut complex, had Thailand’s highest cancer rates. Residents there had long been complaining that the development of the site, which includes petrochemcial and gas separation plants, a deep sea port and plastics factories, had brought with it a toxic burden – parents lost their children to cancer, and the fallout of job losses and illnesses ruptured the social fabric of the town, which began to experience high HIV and suicide rates. Years of popular resistance eventually forced 76 companies their to halt operations.
But the lead company in the project, Ital-Thai, is now embarking on an even more ambitious venture, that of the Tavoy megaproject in southern Burma, which upon completion will be 10 times larger than Maptaphut. The company candidly announced that 10,000 people would be displaced, while lessons from Thailand suggest that its impact on Burma’s delicate society and environment could be catastrophic.