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Thailand’s Dreams of Kra

It may well be called Thailand’s recurring dream – a canal cutting across the narrow neck of the Isthmus of Kra, allowing big ships to reduce travelling time and fuel costs compared to the current route – the busy and increasingly congested Straits of Malacca.

The dream began hundreds of years ago, and is enjoying a brief flicker of revival.

Businessman Pakdee Tanapura, a deputy director at the Thai-Chinese Cultural and Economic Association, is a member of a Kra Canal Committee set up years ago – which in late February made a presentation on the canal to a logistics subcommittee of the military’s National Legislative Assembly.

Mr Pakdee has championed the cause of the canal off and on for years, but no headway was possible, he told The Straits Times. The difference this time, he said, is China.

‘’We couldn’t get it done because China was not powerful’’ he said. But now, the Kra canal is on China’s Maritime Silk Route.

China’s Maritime Silk Route coupled with a Maritime Silk Road across central Asia are diplomatic initiatives designed to capitalise on the inherent advantages of ancient trade routes linking Europe to East and South East Asia.

The Kra canal itself is not on the Maritime Silk Route – because the canal does not exist yet. It would take eight years and US$ 20 billion (S$27 billion) to build, Mr Pakdee said.

China had the financial and heavy engineering clout to undertake such a project, he added. 

Of the half dozen or so routes suggested in various studies over the years, his committee has settled on “route 5A’’ that would connect Songkhla in the east to Satun in the west – a distance of 102 km across varied terrain.  

“The Straits of Malacca is going to be congested in 10-15 years. It’s capacity is 122,000 ships a year, but by year 2025, that will reach 140,000 ships per year,’’ he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Ships that used the Kra canal would save up to 72 hours of sailing.

Mr Pakdee, 67, owns a small printing press. At one time, he used to print the magazine of the “Red Shirt’’ movement, until the army seized power in May 2014 and quelled the movement.

The committee’s efforts have generated some media reports, but possibly more raised eyebrows.

The Panama and Suez canals transformed international trade. Both are undergoing major expansions – at a price tag of US$ 5 billion for the Panama programme, and US$ 8.4 billion for the second Suez canal. The two canals save shipping thousands of kilometres and days of sailing and fuel.

But the US$ 20 billion price for a canal across the Isthmus of Kra, saving shipping only up to 72 hours, makes it economically unviable, many analysts said, not forgetting the environmental and social consequences, as well as the security considerations.

Many in the Thai establishment would not be happy with a canal that appears to separate the country’s southernmost provinces from the rest of the country.

The provinces have historically resisted Bangkok’s rule, and are currently torn by a separatist insurgency which has in the last 11 years taken several thousand lives. The inadvertent symbolism of a dividing line, even of water, would be a lot to stomach for the Thai state.

“It’s a non starter’’ said Dr Ruth Banomyong, a logistics expert at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “It does not make sense from an economic return, logistics operation, environmental and social perspective.’’

“The Kra canal is like an odyssey, a never-ending story,’’ he wrote on a Line chat.

Mr Pakdee said the subcommittee on logistics’ response had been positive when he presented the proposal for the canal.

But when I asked exactly who in the government supported the idea, he said “Nobody.’’

He saw me off to the gate of his compound, which features a large garden, lily pond and big house.

“Remember,’’ he said, “Napoleon thought of the Eurotunnel two hundred years ago.’’

nirmal@sph.com.sg