Kra phoenix rises again

There are obvious advantages to a canal across the South from the Andaman Sea to the Gulf (red line), just as there also are real and potential drawbacks.

The government has brought the Kra Canal proposal back to life. To be precise, it has ordered a study on a project it has officially renamed as Klong Thai. The new name is presumably a minor celebration of the new eternal Thai-ness campaign, Thai Niyom Yangyuen. A study may be in order, but all it can do is update the literally hundreds of studies, papers, recommendations and proposals of the past 341 years.

The reality is that the Kra Canal by any name is Thailand's phoenix for modern times. The old legend of the phoenix stipulated that the bird burnt itself to ashes and then re-emerged, but only once every 500 years. The Thai phoenix of Kra is a far superior model of the Arabian fowl. It burns out and then re-arises after only a few years. In some cases, the Kra phoenix has arisen two or even three times in a single year.

The first study of a canal from Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand across the narrowest part of the South is said to have taken place by the order of King Narai the Great. In 1677, this king wondered if "a ditch from Songkhla to Burma" was feasible, because the prospect seemed quite positive. The monarch dispatched to the South the court's official engineer, a Frenchman. Monsieur de Lamar went South, observed, discussed and reported back to the king in Ayutthaya that it was impossible.

It is certain that in 1793, the younger brother of King Taksin, Maha Sura Singhanat, theorised (correctly) that a canal across the Siamese isthmus would greatly simplify defences of the western coast. And 104 years later, the British squeezed an agreement from King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) never to dig such a canal. In the 21st century, there are still nations quite strongly opposed to such a Klong Thai.

Singapore, for one, fears the economic consequences that would result from ships sailing directly from the Middle East to East Asia. A glance at the map seems to justify the Lion City's anxiety. In truth, however, most recent studies of the fallout of a functioning Kra Canal see little consequence for Singapore.

According to government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the current status is a pending order to "review the Kra Canal project". This is a rational stance. In the main, such a review will reveal that new technology could make construction of such a canal simpler, faster and possibly cheaper -- or possibly, given the cost of technology, more expensive than the serious studies of recent decades.

Over the years various proposals have been put forward but the Thai government of the day have always turned every proposal put on the table down. For example, in the 1970s, one extremely serious construction proposal came from both the US Atomic Energy Commission and the then-Soviet Union's USSR Academy of Sciences. But their proposal to use atomic weapons to create new canals ended up being rejected by the then government.

Lt Gen Sansern put exactly the correct, two-part spin on this age-old proposal for a cross-Thailand canal. The first is that there never has been any public push for such a project. The manufactured claims of urgency for studies and start of construction are entirely by involved interests, chiefly businesses who see great profits from everything, including construction, maintenance and, of course, buying and selling land.

Finally, as the spokesman says, the real need for Thai infrastructure necessarily pushes the proposal for a Kra Canal by any name far down the list. The risk again this time around is that the government will not go far enough to push the project through even though it stands to benefit the country more than the much bigger budget rail projects that it is undertaking.


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